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James C. Scott

Seeing Like a State



This is a book of incredible depth and it may be up there with one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s a profound study of centuries past and details why many schemes by the state or state-like figures end up failing. Through engineering our environment and society we’ve been able to achieve so much, however this has not come without its costs and failures.

Scott’s critique of top-down planning flows through recent history and highlights some of those figures who have been at the centre. Many of the central themes of the book surround the beliefs and ideas which underlay these schemes including something which Scott terms high-modernism and the idea of legibility.

High-modernism is a way of making the world and society more legible. The focus centres upon the idea that it tends to be beneficial for the state but can be detrimental to those upon whom it applies. The premodern state was rather blind in the way it operated. It knew little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings, their location and especially their identity.

Historically, the state wanted to arrange the population in a way that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. However, as time has gone on this philosophy has permeated our society through social reform, urban planning, agriculture and many other domains.

Our understanding of the world stems greatly from trying to control every aspect of it. This has failed in many ways and is where the biggest theme of the book, legibility, is introduced. The big issue is that when attempting to control things, we vastly underestimate the complexity of the thing we’re trying to control. Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society requires the invention of units that are visible. Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organised in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated and monitored.

‘The great slogan of the day is uniformity.’




I. Maps and forests


One of the first examples introduced is the forest. The forest as a habitat has largely disappeared and has been replaced as an economic resource to be managed efficiently and profitably. The state typically ignored the vast, complex and negotiated social uses of the forest for hunting and gathering, pasturage, fishing, charcoal making, trapping and collecting food, as well as its significance for magic, worship and refuge. Monocropped forests, which are the result of growing a single crop year after year on the same land, was initially a disaster for peasants. They were now deprived of all the grazing, food, raw materials and medicines that the earlier forest ecology had afforded.

Though we have created measures that have become somewhat useful, modern abstract measures of land by surface area (hectares or acres) are singularly uninformative figures to a family that proposes to make a living from those acres. Telling a farmer that he is leasing twenty acres of land is about as helpful as telling a scholar that he has bought six kilograms of books. Customary maps were often used and developed by locals who understood the nature of the land. They would construct the landscape according to units of work and yield, type of soil, accessibility and ability to provide sustenance, none of which would necessarily accord with surface area.

Cadastral maps were made by the state to show the bounds of the areas owned by individuals, however for purely local purposes the map was redundant. In this case the scientific forester and cadastral official are like the hedgehog, and the naturalist and farmer are like the fox. The hedgehog knows one big thing. The fox knows many great things about the forest and cultivable land. Although the hedgehog has a range of knowledge that is far narrower, it is systematic and synoptic, allowing them to understand things the fox would not grasp.

Mapping also came in the form of military mapping where state authorities endeavoured to map complex, old cities in a way that would facilitate policing and control. Most of the major cities of France were subject to careful military mapping, particularly after the Revolution. This became a starting point for ideas of ‘utopian’ cities which would be reduced to measure and order. A birds eye view of central Chicago is an example of this. From an administrator's vantage point, the ground plan is nearly utopian. The knowledge of local citizens is not especially privileged than that of outsiders. This kind of city planning is lauded but is it justified if it neglects the social needs of a city?

The critique of ‘utopian’ city planning is that the ensemble has no necessary relationship to the order of life as it is experienced by its residents. The apparent advantages of state services being more easily provided may be negated by such perceived disadvantages such as the absence of dense street life, the intrusion of hostile authorities, the loss of spatial irregularities that foster cosiness, gathering spaces for informal recreation and the neighbourhood feeling. When building top-down it dismisses the needs of those who live there, and spaces are best built naturally around residents' needs and adaptations. This builds on Jane Jacobs critique from The Death and Life of Great American Cities.



II. Surnames


One interesting example of the state’s attempts to make its society legible is the history of surnames. Customary naming practices throughout much of the world are enormously rich. Among some peoples, it is not uncommon for individuals to have different names during different stages of their life. Permanent surnames were a state project, designed to allow officials to identify, unambiguously, the majority of its citizens. Tax and tithe rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses and property deeds recognised in law were inconceivable without some sort of fixing an individual's identity and linking them to a kin group. Until the 14th century the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronymics. The increasing intensity of interaction with which the state and statelike structures (large manors and the church) exactly parallels the development of permanent, heritable patronyms.

The surname was a first and crucial step toward making individual citizens officially legible, and along with the photograph, it is still the first fact on documents of identity. A lot of things have superseded surnames such as birth and death certificates, specific addresses, passports, social security numbers, fingerprints and DNA profiles.

The techniques to enhance legibility of a society to its rulers have become vastly more sophisticated, but the political motives driving them have changed little. Appropriation, control and manipulation remain the most prominent. A society that is relatively opaque to the state is thereby insulated from some forms of finely tuned state interventions, both welcome (universal vaccinations) and resented (personal income taxes).



III. High-modernism


Scott views many of the failures of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which arise through similar actions to those discussed in the first few examples, as a result of the work of many high-modernist figures. High-modernism, according to Scott, is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level. It is best conceived as a strong version of the beliefs in the scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialisation in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 onwards.

At its centre was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of the social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and not least, an increasing control over nature. He lists off a hall of fame of high-modernist figures who all envisioned a sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life in order to improve the human condition:

  • Henri Comte de Saint-Simon
  • Le Corbusier
  • Walther Rathenau
  • Robert McNamara
  • Robert Moses
  • Jean Monnet
  • Shah of Iran
  • David Lilienthal
  • Vladimir I. Lenin
  • Leon Trotsky
  • Julius Nyerere

Much of the massive, state enforced social engineering of the 20th century has been the work of progressive, often revolutionary elites. It is typically progressives who have come to power with a comprehensive critique of existing society and a popular mandate to transform it. Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights, and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievements.

The experience of modernity and the twentieth century in literature, art, industry, transportation and popular culture was above all the experience of disorienting speed, movement and change. Most self-proclaimed modernists found it exhilarating and liberating and rather than arresting social change, they hoped to design a shape to social life that would minimise the friction of progress. The difficulty with this is that state social engineering was inherently authoritarian.

If a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow:

  1. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age.
  2. Those through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside.

Scott believes that strong versions of high modernism, such as those held by Le Corbusier and Lenin cultivated a ruthlessness towards the subjects of their interventions.



IV. Le Corbusier


Scott’s criticism of Le Corbusier builds upon that of Jane Jacobs. It centres around the idea that none of Le Corbusier’s plans make any reference to the urban history, traditions or aesthetic tastes in which it is to be located. He had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created.

‘He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century.’


Le Corbusier was so concerned with efficiency that he treated things like shopping and meal preparation as nuisances that would be discharged by central services like those offered by well-run hotels. Although floor space was provided for social activities, he said almost nothing about the actual social and cultural needs of the citizens. The logic of Le Corbusier’s doctrine was to carefully delineate urban space by use and function so that single-purpose planning and standardisation were possible. Scott describes Le Corbusier’s plans for Moscow as a city of nowhere.

Le Corbusier was a typical example of high-modernism. He implied a rejection of the past as a model to improve upon and a desire to make a completely fresh start. The more utopian the high-modernism, the more thorough its implied critique of the existing society.

Brasilia is a key example of Le Corbusier’s philosophy in action as it was built more or less along the lines set out by him. The city was designed from the ground up from housing, work, recreation, traffic and public administration. It was decided that these were all to be spatially segregated. Brasilia was itself a single-function, strictly administrative capital. It made no reference to the habits, traditions and practices of Brazil’s past or of its great cities.

The plan did eliminate traffic jams; it also eliminated the welcome and familiar pedestrian jams that informants called ‘the point of social conviviality’. The daily round in bland, repetitive, austere Brasilia must have resembled life in a sensory deprivation tank. Rather than having planned a city, they actually planned to prevent a city.

‘While it may have created formal order and functional segregation it did so at the cost of a sensorily impoverished and monotonous environment.’


A fundamental mistake that urban planners made was to infer functional order from the duplication and regimentation of building forms; that is, from purely visual order. To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding. The leaves dropping from a tree in autumn, the interior of a plane engine, the entrails of a rabbit or the city desk of a newspaper. These all appear as chaos if they are seen without comprehension.

The historic diversity of a city comes from an unplanned creation of many hands and long historical practice, this is the source of its value and magnetism. Most cities are the outcome of innumerable small acts bearing no discernible overall intention.

‘Modern city planning has been burdened from its beginnings with the unsuitable aim of converting cities into disciplined works of art.’




V. Lenin


Lenin shares a broadly comparable level of high-modernism with Le Corbusier. In terms of working class history the impression is of a huge, formless, milling crowd without any cohesion - without a history, without ideas, without a plan of action. Lenin was aware of the working class having its own history and values but this history and these values will lead the working class in the wrong direction unless they are replaced by historical analysis and an advanced revolutionary theory of socialism.

Just as Le Corbusier imagines that the public will acquiesce to the knowledge and calculations of the master architect, Lenin is confident that a sensible worker will want to place himself under the authority of professional revolutionists. Lenin's ‘What Is to be Done?’ is strongly reminiscent of Marx’s famous depiction of the smallholding French peasantry as a ‘sack of potatoes’, just so many homologous units lacking any overall structure or cohesion.

The vanguard’s party relation to the working class is not much different from a capitalist entrepreneur’s relation to the working class. The working class is necessary to production; its members must be trained and instructed, and the efficient organisation of their work must be left to professional specialists. The problem of means that confronts each is similar and similarly resolved.

Lenin and Le Corbusier share some basic elements of the high modernist outlook. They both believed in the existence of a master science that served as the claim to authority of a small planning elite. Both were convinced that their scientific knowledge provided correct, unitary answers to how cities should be designed and how revolutions might be brought to fruition.

Each looked forward to refashioning the human material that came into their purview. The improvement of the human condition as their ultimate goal, and both attempted to attain it with methods that were profoundly hierarchical and authoritarian. The assumption is that the social life of the working class will be organised either by the bourgeoisie or by the vanguard party but never by the members of the working class themselves.



VI. Metis


The last few chapters conclude with Scott’s philosophy on the matters in question. He states that what high-modernists tend to ignore, and often suppress, are precisely the practical skills that underwrite any complex activity. He leads this onto introducing the concept of metis which comes from the ancient Greeks and is typically translated in English as ‘cunning’ or ‘cunning intelligence’.

Broadly understood metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. It relates to Odysseus's ability to adapt successfully to constantly shifting situations and on his capability to understand, and hence outwit, his human and divine adversaries.

All human activities require a considerable degree of metis, but some activities require much more. For instance, how to sail, fly a kite, fish, drive a car or ride a bike and so much more. One powerful indication that they all require metis is that they are exceptionally difficult to teach apart from engaging in the activity itself.

The skills of metis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Metis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply.

Metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote. Knowing when and how to apply the rules of thumb in a concrete situation is the essence of metis. Even in the absence of remedies, people often knew what measures would lessen their chances of contracting a dreaded contagious disease. Another example would be driving. At first when you’re learning, you just learn the rules about driving. As you get to know how to drive however, you get a feel for the car you’re driving. You know things like how it feels at different speeds, how well the brakes work, when it’s going to overheat and how to start when it’s cold.



VII. Conclusion


High-modernism has a natural appeal for an intelligentsia and people who may have ample reason to hold the past in contempt. Late colonial modernisers sometimes wielded their power ruthlessly in transforming a population that they took to be backward and greatly in need of instruction. Revolutionaries have had every reason to despise the feudal, poverty-stricken inegalitarian past that they hoped to banish forever.

Common law and language personify the way something can thrive contrary to the methods of high-modernism. Common law as an institution owes its longevity to the fact that it is not a final codification of legal rules, but rather a set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances. Finally, the most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.

Take small steps. Favour reversibility. Plan on surprises. Plan on human inventiveness.

‘The architect of social change can never have a reliable blueprint.’