Throughout much of history, there have been grand schemes that attempt to improve the human condition. From East to West, ancient day to modern progressions, bold experiments have been initiated since the dawn of time. One question spawns from these endeavors, why do these schemes of grandeur appear to fail? Additionally, what lessons can we learn from these shortcomings? Seeing like a State, written by James C Scott, seeks to answer these questions and explores the dichotomy of local social order and knowledge, adjacent to high modernist ideologies.
Scott argues that institutions of power have a narrow scope when trying to improve the condition of society, whether it be through the land, taxation, or revenue gain. Their efforts in trying to improve this society fail based on their inability to balance abstract thinking with logical and bureaucratic knowledge. Several points of evidence are used in his study, spanning from forest ecology, land taxation and plotting, and other instrumental government institutions that wished to better society.
Scott carefully orchestrates his argument further with the basis that ideas and urges of the state, are enacted through organizational strategies, technological coercions, and agricultural modernization. It is this social engineering that reveals the commitment to a high modernist ideology and socioeconomic transformation. High modernism, in Scott’s view, is the desire to design a society strictly by scientific law. In other words, the best way to meet human needs is to grow in industry and revenue through scientific knowledge. It is this self-defined ideology, tied with James Scott’s abundant examples, that give extreme credibility and validity to his argument.
Out of Scott’s large conglomerate of work, two points will be inspected closer. The first is early European forest ecology, which lays the foundation for James Scott’s argument, and illustrates the overlying metaphor for seeing like a state. The second, Tanzanian villagization, relates closely to Scott’s introduction, but in contrast relates to a moving group of people, which further supports Scott’s created argument and applies the metaphor to a social structure. James C Scott highlights four main elements that must merge to constitute a failed institution. These elements are as follows. “Administrative ordering of nature and society”, “High modernist ideology”, “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use its coercive power to bring these ideas into being”, and “a prostrate civil society that cannot resist these plans”. (Scott 4) Scott’s historical scope is rather large, reaching from practically the beginning of ordered civilizations to the outer reaches of our modern times. Scott’s main hypothesis is rather broad but indisputably proven true by the end of his study. Through the exploitation of the four elements listed above, States will attempt to make a society legible by arranging the population in orientations that demand simplification.
These simplifications can then lead to a state that can function better as an obedient, taxable, and profitable society. Scott elaborates that the failure stems from one major issue. Whoever attempted to initiate an institution failed to represent “the actual activity of the society they depicted” and frankly never intended to. They merely represent only the portion that is interested in what Scott calls the “official observer”. (Scott 3) The observer’s designed or formulated social order is “necessarily schematic” (Scott 5), persistently ignoring essential features of any real social order, that lack abstraction, and are oversaturated with blind faith in scientific reasoning. This overarching theme is complex at first glance, how can we connect this hypothesis to history and real societies. Scott ever so carefully creates a connective bridge to his argument with an example and metaphor involving forest ecology. Scott, for his opening statements, brings his attention to examples of radically simplified designs of natural environments. Scott approaches forest ecology from a critical position, evaluating how European societies used the forest for their benefit, and how their attempts failed.
Through the manipulation of nature and space, the state could easily “read” the forest for its revenue. Portions of the forest that were valued or could be utilized to create fiscal receipts were called crops, and any other naturally occurring areas of the forest that could not directly pull a profit were stigmatized as weeds. This ideology encompassed livestock and vermin as well. Scott presses that to see the lucrative aspects of the forest there needed to be a narrowing of vision, and the Utilitarianism society did just that, confining themselves to the direct needs of the state. The state officials’ main goal was to deliver the greatest possible volume of revenue out of the forests they resided in, and for that, they would need a synoptic view of the forest. The synoptic view made the forest easy to count, manipulate, measure, and asses. To achieve this synoptic view, the state rearranged the forest into an organized grid, consisting of profitable plants aligned in straight rows, ridding any underbrush, species, or substance that did not provide a lucrative future. The forest was transformed into a “one commodity machine” (Scott 19). This had negative consequences as Scott points out. It was a disaster for peasants as they lost resources that provided medicine, raw materials, and food. Additionally, the forest began to die because the beurcartic logic of the state was ignorant to the idea that “monocultures” (Scott 21) are more susceptible to the stresses of disease and weather.
The utopian dream of this scientific forestry fell well short of its goal. The state fell into panic as they tried to restore the forest with artificially made environments but could not erase the damage. Through the testimony of these disastrous events, Scott intends to reveal the “synonymous relationship between commercial logic and beurcartic logic” (Scott 22). This centralized management of the forest was a disaster because the state failed to understand the abstract forms of the forest, and how the forest properly functioned as a living, breathing ecosystem. This is where the connection lies. Scott relates the managed forest to a managed civilization of people, and just as the forest failed to fulfill its purpose as a healthy and full environment, a community of people who are not properly understood and subject to manipulative schemes will fail as a society and bear no benefit to the state. This leads to James Scott’s second point of focus for his argument, Villagization in Tanzania, in which in contrast to the 1600 to 1700s forest ecology leads us later to the 1900s. The Ujamaa village campaign in Tanzania from 1973 to 1976 was a massive attempt to permanently settle a majority of the country’s population is dispersed villages. The layouts for housing design, roads, and economic structure were, for the most part, planned by officials of the central government and the plan was undertaken largely as a developmental welfare project. Several other examples in history following Scott’s research involved “punitive appropriation, ethnic cleansing, or military security” (Scott 225). For Tanzania however, this was a softer version of authoritarian high modernism. It was simply “social engineering by a weak and benign state” (Scott 226).
For the sake of the argument, however, this does not compromise Scott’s credibility, as the Tanzanian government is still seeking centralized management of its people just as European officials desired centralized control and documentation of their forests. Just like the logic of the unimproved forest, the current patterns of the settlements and social lives of Tanzania at the time were “illegible and resistant to the narrow purposes of the state” (Scott 237). The only means by which the central government could attain control is by radically simplifying the settlements to efficiently deliver developmental amenities like schools, clinics, and clean water. On the surface, the intentions of the state for Tanzania would differ from European councils “cash grab” from the forests. Scott cleverly unveils however that the villagization of Tanzania had an alarming subtext. This subtext was to reorganize communities to make them better subjects of “political control and to facilitate the new forms of communal farming favored by state policy” (Scott 239). A strong aesthetic aspect of how a community should be presented gripped Tanzania’s government. The Africans were thought to not have the training, skills, or resources to produce effectively for the state, and Scott explains this is where officials felt their justification came from. The officials embedded themselves within society, implementing high modernist plans involving resettlement and mechanization, relocating citizens into formulated villages primed for efficient farming based on their scientific narrative. Quite redundantly, however, the designers of this new society had paid virtually no attention to the “local knowledge and practices of cultivators and pastoralists” (Scott 241).
The integral parts of their schemes directly contradicted the Tanzanian’s way of life, and there was widespread popular resentment against the agricultural policy. Each region and family had its unique mixture of methods and resources, and so one static, frozen answer on how to delegate farming methods failed when dealing with a dynamic and “variegated valley environment” (Scott 242). As strain increased, between government and citizens, violence was inevitable, and the society declined into a sporadic, chaotic mix of struggles for power, inefficient farming, and inefficient systems. Scott reminds the reader that the efficiency of an institution depends on the response and cooperation of real human subjects, and therefore the people of a community can make it inefficient.