Seeing Like a State (James C Scott)

American (Yale) political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott (b. 1936) has spent most of his academic career examining agrarian societies and the way in which these both resist and survive. His early studies of Vietnamese and South East Asian peasants were gradually extended to other parts of the world and, reading between the lines, these studies gave him an enduring appreciation of the importance of local know-how, typically evolved over many centuries. Scott’s 1998 monograph, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, is a magisterial and highly enjoyable, if meandering, attempt to extrapolate from his observations to produce both a critique of what he terms ‘high modernism’ and a plea for a more measured approach that he terms ‘metis’. At times, Seeing Like a State reads like a polemic and, like most polemics, at times its case is exaggerated. But Seeing Like a State is nevertheless an absorbing and illuminating read for anybody involved in management, whether in the private or the public sector, and particularly for those involved in change management and the enhancement of an organisation’s overall ‘performance’, for Scott’s work is about far more than the subtitle would imply.

He begins with the invention of scientific forestry in late eighteenth-century Prussia and Saxony. The imposition of scientifically managed monoculture (rows of same-age pine trees) must, at the time, have seemed like a ‘no-brainer’. Legibility was a prime incentive. One tree was just like another; likewise, one forest and another. The values and yields would be the same or very similar. The fiscal state clearly benefitted from such simplification while economies of scale and comparative advantage should have led to increased productivity and profits for all, as indeed was the case initially. By the time the disadvantages of monoculture began to manifest themselves – the rapid spread of opportunistic disease and the leaching of soils being the most disastrous – it was too late to return to the old model of temperate forest with part-managed, part-natural regeneration and the vast know-how of those who lived around and from those forests (all lost forever!). The reduction of the variables of such a complex organic phenomenon as a temperate forest to only those relating to yield, as narrowly-defined, seemed at first to have created an economic success but ultimately required massive outside intervention (pest control, for example). Yet, still, such a model could be preferable to the emerging state, because it was simple and legible.

Scott goes on to give numerous examples of the way in which the requirements of the state (particularly for revenue generation) came to be more important, even though less efficient, than the complex local life that had gone before, from complex, though organic, city layouts through lengthy local surnames, through local dialects and languages, to the urge to centralise transport networks (through the revenue-raising capital city). Scott concludes that:

‘Officials of the modern state are, of necessity, at least one step – and often several steps – removed from the society they are charged with governing. They assess the life of their society by a series of typifications that are always some distance from the full reality these abstractions are meant to capture. … These typifications are indispensable to statecraft. State simplifications such as maps, censuses, cadastral lists, and standard units of measurement represent techniques for grasping a large and complex reality; in order for officials to be able to comprehend aspects of the ensemble, that complex reality must be reduced to schematic categories. The only way to accomplish this is to reduce an infinite array of detail to a set of categories that will facilitate summary descriptions, comparisons and aggregations.’ (pp. 76-77)

In other words, now the state could see, even if its version was an idealised, simplified version of reality. And if the state could now see, it followed that the state could know. The next step, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was for the state to start to think that it knew better (or even best) than those it governed. Scott then embarks on a critical analysis, with a number of flagrant examples, of this increasingly authoritarian high modernism. He quotes Oscar Wilde approvingly: ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’ Nevertheless, he starkly declares that ‘many of the great state-sponsored calamities of the twentieth century have been the work of rulers with grandiose and utopian plans for their society.’ (p. 89) Scott first considers the example of the high-modernist city – apportioning particular opprobrium to Le Corbusier (Chandigarh) and Niemeyer (Brasilia) – projects that only work because they don’t work (in the sense that they are necessarily accompanied and buttressed by ‘real’ and unplanned developments around them). He then moves on to Lenin’s vision of the Revolutionary Party and then Soviet collectivisation (easily the most chilling passage in the book, describing Stalin’s war on the kulaks, at a cost of up to 20 million dead), and villagization in Tanzania and Ethiopia. The slide thus portrayed is from ‘the state knows best’ to ‘the state must know best’ and the even more autocratic ‘the state will know best.’

The next, concluding, section of Scott’s analysis is the one that has generated the most debate. Having identified a malady, Scott sets out to propose a solution. In a sense, he has already acknowledged that Humanity has got wise to the failings of high modernism, particularly authoritarian high modernism, when he writes that today ‘we are far more sober about the limits and costs of technological progress and have acquired a postmodern scepticism about any totalizing discourse.’ (p. 90) Some of his recommendations seem like common sense; take small steps, favour reversibility (‘irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences’), plan on surprises, and plan on human inventiveness (all p. 345). But he argues further for a concept he dubs ‘metis’, declaring that; ‘Without denying the incontestable benefits either of the division of labour or of hierarchical coordination for some tasks, I want to make a case for institutions that are instead multifunctional, plastic, diverse and adaptable – in other words, institutions that are powerfully shaped by metis…’ (p. 353)

What Scott is essentially arguing for is a more reflective approach. Why do managers have constant preferences for the quantitative over the qualitative, for order over perceived ‘mess’, for change over continuity, for ‘improvement’ over the same, for the rational over the organic? At the least, Scott seems to be saying, before a manager takes any significant step, s/he should be asking; is it really best for the organisation or is it, more likely, better for me, the organiser (which is almost certainly not the same thing)? In that sense, Scott’s analysis is a not-so-distant cousin of the analysis of Russell Ackoff and the systems theorists (see previous post).

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