Compulsory ujamaa villages in Tanzania, collectivization in Russia, Le Corbusier’s urban planning theory realized in Brasilia, the Great Leap Forward in China, agricultural “modernization” in the Tropics – the twentieth century has been racked by grand utopian schemes that have inadvertently brought death and disruption to millions. Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry?
In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not – and cannot – be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge. The author builds a persuasive case against “development theory” and imperialistic state planning that disregards the values, desires, and objections of its subjects. He identifies and discusses four conditions common to all planning disasters: administrative ordering of nature and society by the state; a “high-modernist ideology” that places confidence in the ability of science to improve every aspect of human life; a willingness to use authoritarian state power to effect large-scale interventions; and a prostrate civil society that cannot effectively resist such plans.
This is a sober, carefully written, and accurate blurb. I say this based on what I have read of the book. Among several posts at my website about the author, I am pleased to being attention to one entitled:
James C. Scott is himself not an archaist nor is he a follower of libertarian ideologies and the like. He is, instead, a sober, careful academic, whose ideas about topics such as legibility are of much interest.
In speaking of what he perceives as a particular form of state-friendly simplification and legibility, the author takes care to underline that some of the people who read drafts of his Seeing Like a State manuscript didn’t agree with what he was saying. He also takes care (p. 6) to note:
I am 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.
He also makes a point of underlining that he’s not making a case in favour of giving primacy solely to knowledge that is local, either, because, as he notes, sometimes what happens at the local level is no more savoury than what happens at any other level of society. This is a very careful writer. The blurb reflects this fact. I am pleased this author is quite widely cited, in the kinds of authoritative, solid history texts that I like to read.
I have outlined Scott’s thesis at greater length at a recent post entitled:
Because his work is cited by a number of historians whose studies I have been reading closely in recent years, I have made it a point to purchase my own copy of Seeing Like a State (1998). I seldom buy books, as I prefer to borrow from libraries, but this book is an exception.