Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book: Seeing Like a State

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, James C. Scott.,  1998, 445 pages.

Seeing Like a State explains how large scale organizations like states operate and points out typical failures of planning. Most of the examples are from the agricultural sector because of its highly complex nature which in turn makes planning from above prone to disaster. James also reminds us that one of the main goals of standardization is making taxation easier.

It is a warning against being sure of how to correct social wrongs. The main lesson is that any plan should make use of local knowledge, be carried out in small steps and be corrected with actual results. But that requires a culture that values truth, especially when it is not what you want to hear, and that, in my opinion, is the main problem of humanity. As one wise man has said:
It's not that people sit down quietly and determine what is true, and then decide to act on it. Rather, quite typically, they decide what they want to do for the purpose at hand, and devise a belief system that explains that it is only right and just, which they then believe passionately.

[p.6] Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order... To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well... I am emphatically not making a blanket case against either bureaucratic planning or high-modernist ideology. I am, however, making a case against an imperial or hegemonic planning mentality that excludes the necessary role of local knowledge and know-how. Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability.

[p.7] Once you have crafted lenses that change your perspective, it is a great temptation to look at everything through the same spectacles.

[p.8] ...the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.

[p.19] The monocropped forest was a disaster for peasants who were now deprived of all the grazing, food, raw materials, and medicines that the earlier forest ecology had afforded.

[p.24] A reliable format for taxation of subjects thus depended not just on discovering what their economic conditions were but also on trying to judge what exactions they would vigorously resist.

[p.25] In the part of Malaysia with which I am most familiar, if one were to ask "How far is it to the next village?" a likely response would be "Three rice-cookings." The answer assumes that the questioner is interested in how much time it will take to get there, not how many miles away it is. In varied terrain, of course, distance in miles is an utterly unreliable guide to travel time, especially when the traveler is on foot or riding a bicycle.

[p.30] No effective central monitoring or controlled comparisons were possible without standard, fixed units of measurement... Large-scale commercial exchange and long-distance trade tend to promote common standards of measurement.

[p.34] Customs are better understood as a living, negotiated tissue of practices which are continually being adapted to new ecological and social circumstances—including, of course, power relations. Customary systems of tenure should not be romanticized; they are usually riven with inequalities based on gender, status, and lineage.

[p.46] The farmer rarely experiences an average crop, an average rainfall, or an average price for his crops.

[p.47] The most significant instance of myopia, of course, was that the cadastral map and assessment system considered only the dimensions of the land and its value as a productive asset or as a commodity for sale. Any value that the land might have for subsistence purposes or for the local ecology was bracketed as aesthetic, ritual, or sentimental values.

[p.49] We must keep in mind not only the capacity of state simplifications to transform the world but also the capacity of the society to modify, subvert, block, and even overturn the categories imposed upon it.

[p.55] Whatever the political and administrative conveniences of a geometric cityscape, the Enlightenment fostered a strong aesthetic that looked with enthusiasm on straight lines and visible order.

[p.72] ...a unique language represents a formidable obstacle to state knowledge, let alone colonization, control, manipulation, instruction, or propaganda.

[p.76] 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.

[p.77] Indirect rule required only a minimal state apparatus but rested on local elites and communities who had an interest in withholding resources and knowledge from the center. Direct rule sparked widespread resistance and necessitated negotiations that often limited the center's power, but for the first time, it allowed state officials direct knowledge of and access to a previously opaque society.

[p.81] To call such elaborate artifacts of knowledge "state simplifications" risks being misleading. They are anything but simple-minded, and they are often wielded with great sophistication by officials.

[p.82] The aspiration to such uniformity and order alerts us to the fact that modern statecraft is largely a project of internal colonization, often glossed, as it is in imperial rhetoric, as a "civilizing mission." The builders of the modern nation-state do not merely describe, observe, and map; they strive to shape a people and landscape that will fit their techniques of observation.

[p.89] 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 achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such utopian experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.

[p.110] When several or many purposes must be considered, the variables that the planner must juggle begin to boggle the mind.

[p.113] Technocracy... is the belief that the human problem of urban design has a unique solution, which an expert can discover and execute. Deciding such technical matters by politics and bargaining would lead to the wrong solution. As there is a single, true answer to the problem of planning the modern city, no compromises are possible.

[p.114] Any architect, I imagine, supposes that the dwellings she designs will contribute to her clients' happiness rather than to their misery. The difference lies in how the architect understands happiness.

[p.115] High modernism implies, as we have seen, a rejection of the past as a model to improve upon and a desire to make a completely fresh start.

[p.120] The square or the busy street attracts a crowd precisely because it provides an animated scene—a scene in which thousands of unplanned, informal, improvised encounters can take place simultaneously. The street was the spatial focus for public life outside the usually cramped family dwelling.

[p.125] The dispersal and functional segregation meant that meeting someone virtually required a plan.

[p.133] A formative insight in Jacobs argument is that there is no necessary correspondence between the tidy look of geometric order on one hand and systems that effectively meet daily needs on the other.

[p.136] An urban space where the police are the sole agents of order is a very dangerous place. Jacobs admits that each of the small exchanges of informal public life—nodding hello, admiring a newborn baby, asking where someone's nice pears come from—can be seen as trivial. "But the sum is not trivial at all," she insists.

[p.137]  Understanding the magnetic effect of the busy street over more specialized settings is no more difficult than understanding why the kitchen is typically the  busiest room in a house. It is the most versatile setting - a place of food and drink, of cooking and eating, and hence of socialization and exchange.

[p.145]  In fact, the political logic of Jacobs's case is that while the planner cannot create a functioning community, a functioning community can, within limits, improve its own condition. Standing the planning logic on its head, she explains how a reasonably strong neighborhood can, in a democratic setting, fight to create and maintain good schools, useful parks, vital urban services, and decent housing.

[p.152] The role of the workers is to follow that part of the blueprint allotted to them in the confidence that the architects of revolution know what they are doing.

[p.158] The most discordant fact about the Russian Revolution was that it was not to any significant degree brought about by the vanguard party, the Bolsheviks. What Lenin did succeed brilliantly in doing was in capturing the revolution once it was an accomplished fact... Most of the peasants had not even heard of the Bolsheviks, let alone presumed to act on their orders.

[p.160] After seizing state power, the victors have a powerful interest in moving the revolution out of the streets and into the museums and schoolbooks as quickly as possible, lest the people decide to repeat the experience.

[p.171] In her refutation of "What Is to Be Done?" Luxemburg made clear that the cost of centralized hierarchy lay in the loss of creativity and initiative from below... She argues elsewhere, in fact, that the German Social Democrats, by their constant efforts at close control and discipline, have demoralized the German working class.

[p.174] Only an active public life could remedy the shortcomings of representative bodies.

[p.176] The Workers' Opposition sees in the unions the managers and creators of the communist economy, whereas Bukharin, together with Lenin and Trotsky, leave to them only the role of schools of communism and no more.

[p.177]  In their frustration at the specialists and officials, "the workers became cynical and said, 'let [the] officials themselves take care of us.'" The end result was an arbitrary, myopic layer of officials presiding over a dispirited workforce putting in a "bad-faith" day on the factory floor.

[p.179] ...a creative, conscious, competent, and empowered working class—that is the precondition of its achieving any of its other goals. Put positively, the way the trip is made matters at least as much as the destination. Put negatively, a vanguard party can achieve its revolutionary results in ways that defeat its central purpose.

[p.183] Most states, to speak broadly, are "younger" than the societies that they purport to administer.

[p.184] Precolonial wars were more often about rounding up captives and settling them near the central court than asserting a territorial claim. A growing, productive population settled in the ambit of a monarch's capital was a more reliable indicator of a kingdom's power than its physical extent.

[p.189] For almost any crop one can name, with the possible exception of sugarcane, smallholders have been able historically to out-compete larger units of production. Time and time again, the colonial states found, small producers, owing to their low fixed costs and flexible use of family labor, could consistently undersell state-managed or private-sector plantations.

[p.191] A new community is thus, also by definition, a community demobilized, and hence a community more amenable to control from above and outside.

[p.193] A combination of defeat in war, economic collapse, and a revolution had provided the closest thing to a bulldozed site that a state builder ever gets. The result was a kind of ultrahigh modernism that in its audacity recalled the Utopian aspects of its precursor, the French Revolution.

[p.197] ...the industrial model was applicable to some, but not all, of agriculture. It was nonetheless applied indiscriminately as a creed rather than a scientific hypothesis to be examined skeptically.

[p.198] The advantages industrial farms did have over smaller producers were of another kind. Their very size gave them an edge in access to credit, political influence (relevant to taxes, support payments, and the avoidance of foreclosure), and marketing muscle. What they gave away in agility and quality labor they often made up for in their considerable political and economic clout.

[p.203] For the next half-century, the yields per hectare of many crops were stagnant or actually inferior to the levels recorded in the 1920s or the levels reached before the Revolution...  The system thus devised served for nearly sixty years as a mechanism for procurement and control at a massive cost in stagnation, waste, demoralization, and ecological failure.

[p.204] The new Bolshevik state faced a rural society that was more opaque, resistant, autonomous, and hostile than the one encountered by the czarist bureaucracy.

[p.207]  A tax system based on income or wealth was possible only with a valid cadastral map and an up-to-date census, neither of which existed. Farm income, moreover, varied greatly with regard to yields and prices from year to year, so any income tax would have had to have been exceptionally sensitive to these conditions in local harvests... The local commune had a long history of underreporting its arable land and overreporting its population in order to appear as poor and untaxable as possible.

[p.213] An internal passport system was reintroduced to clear the cities of "undesirable and unproductive residents" and to make sure that the peasantry did not flee.

[p.219]  The most legible educational system would resemble Hippolyte Taine's description of French education in the nineteenth century, when "the Minister of Education could pride himself, just by looking at his watch, which page of Virgil all schoolboys of the Empire were annotating at that exact moment.

[p.225]  They had also forgotten the most important fact about social engineering: its efficiency depends on the response and cooperation of real human subjects. If people find the new arrangement, however efficient in principle, to be hostile to their dignity, their plans, and their tastes, they can make it an inefficient arrangement.

[p.227] Ridging on sandy soil was unstable, tending to create larger erosion gullies in the rainy season, and ridging caused the soil to dry out quickly during the dry season, encouraging white ants to attack the roots of crops.

[p.237] Far from achieving this populist legitimacy, the villagization campaign created only alienated, skeptical, demoralized, and uncooperative peasantry for which Tanzania would pay a huge price, both financially and politically.

[p.244] I am purposely ignoring here the more obvious inhumanities that are inevitable whenever great power is placed in the hands of largely unaccountable state authorities who are under pressure from above to produce results despite popular resistance.

[p.245] ...the administrators and party officials (themselves competitors) effectively evaded all those policies that would have diminished their privileges and power while exaggerating those that reinforced their corporate sway.

[p.246] What a neutral observer might have taken as a new form of servitude, however benevolent, was largely unquestioned by the elites, for the policy sailed under the banner of "development."

[p.247] ...their insistence that they had a monopoly on useful knowledge and that they impose this knowledge set the stage for disaster.

[p.251] ...when a farmer from the highlands is transported to settlement camps in areas like Gambella, he is instantly transformed from an agricultural expert to an unskilled, ignorant laborer, completely dependent for his survival on the central government.

[p.252] Although the drought that coincided with forced migration in Ethiopia was real enough, much of the famine to which international aid agencies responded was a product of the massive resettlement.

[p.253] The conflict between the officials and specialists actively planning the future on one hand and the peasantry on the other has been billed by the first group as a struggle between progress and obscurantism, rationality and superstition, science and religion. Yet it is apparent from the high-modernist schemes we have examined that the "rational" plans they imposed were often spectacular failures.

[p.257] A national language is a dialect with an army.

[p.264] Whereas farmers, as we shall see, seem pragmatically alert to knowledge coming from any quarter should it serve their purposes, modern agricultural planners are far less receptive to other ways of knowing.

[p.269] ...diversity is the enemy of epidemics. In a field with many species of plants, only a few individuals are likely to be susceptible to a given pathogen, and they are likely to be widely scattered. The mathematical logic of the epidemic is broken... Any agricultural practice that increases diversity over time and space, such as crop rotation or mixed cropping on a farm or in a region, acts as a barrier to the spread of epidemics... hybrids [which are uniform] are analogous to a human patient with a compromised immune system who must be kept in a sterile field lest an opportunistic infection take hold. The sterile field, in this case, has been established by the blanket use of pesticides.

[p.293] In practice the economic and political power that accompanies large scale provides constant temptation to the large firm to take the benefits and pass on the costs.

[p.305] From a narrow scientific view, nothing is known until and unless it is proven in a tightly controlled experiment. Knowledge that arrives in any form other than through the techniques and instruments of formal scientific procedure does not deserve to be taken seriously.

[p.306] ...the farmers have discovered and refined practices that work, without knowing the precise chemical or physical reasons why they work. In agriculture, as in many other fields, "practice has long preceded theory." And indeed some of these practically successful techniques, which involve a large number of simultaneously interacting variables, may never be fully understood by the techniques of science.

[p.311] ...working strictly by the book is necessarily less productive than working with initiative... The relation between scientific knowledge and practical knowledge is, as we shall see, part of a political struggle for institutional hegemony by experts and their institutions. Taylorism and scientific agriculture are, on this reading, not just strategies of production, but also strategies of control and appropriation.

[p.313] Broadly understood, metis represents a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment.

[p.314]  If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experience to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel... Although there are rules of thumb that can be and are taught, each fire or accident is unique, and half the battle is knowing which rules of thumb to apply in which order and when to throw the book away and improvise.

[p.340] As Pascal wrote, the great failure of rationalism is "not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other."

[p.345] In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move.

[p.348] ...just as the monocropped, same-age forest represents an impoverished and unsustainable ecosystem, so the high-modernist urban complex represents an impoverished and unsustainable social system.

[p.349] The point is simply that high-modernist designs for life and production tend to diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries... the state, with its positive law and central institutions, undermines individuals' capacities for autonomous self-governance

[p.353] Other things being equal, however, the less diverse the cultivated natural capital, the more vulnerable and nonsustainable it becomes. The problem is that in most economic systems, the external costs (in water or air pollution, for example, or the exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, including a reduction in biodiversity) accumulate long before the activity becomes unprofitable in a narrow profit-and-loss sense.

[p.357] One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the metis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land. 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.

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