In Seeing Like a State (1998), James C. Scott outlines a faith-based, uncritical, high-modernist ideology which gave rise to historic twentieth-century disasters

The disasters under review in Scott’s classic study Seeing Like a State (1998) are not the subject of the current post. Instead, the focus is on the “pernicious combination of four elements” (p. 4) which Scott concludes were required in order for certain devastating, country-wide, twentieth-century disasters to occur namely:

  1. development of a form of state-level legibility, that is, a characteristic state-level way of seeing
  2. a high-modernist ideology
  3. an authoritarian state
  4. a civil society incapable of resistance given the circumstances, related to space and time, at particular historical junctures

Below, I summarize (in my own words with my own vocabulary) the contents of pages 4 and 5 of the Introduction to the above-noted study. To learn more about Scott’s analysis, I strongly recommend that you read the original text.

1. State-level legibility

A form of state simplification involves the administrative ordering of nature and society with a focus on legibility. The legibility to which Scott refers involves the desire of state officials to “read” the state by noting those aspects of the life of citizens and the wider society which the officials need in particular to know, in order to perform their functions as state officials.

As a result of the process of simplification, whatever is subjected to the administrative gaze itself undergoes changes aimed at meeting the legibility requirements of state officials. In the process, knowledge, skills, experiences, and ways of seeing associated with a local level of life, which is where people actually go about their days and nights, may be brushed aside.

Such a form of simplification, Scott notes (p. 4), can be used to advance the concept of citizenship; on a positive note, we can say it can be useful for the provision of social welfare. However, state-level simplification can also be useful for nefarious purposes such as the rounding up of particular citizens. The tools required for the simplification of state functions can be used for democratic purposes or they can be used to advance the designs of despotic state actors.

2. High-modernist ideology, a belief system not to be confused with scientific practice

The ideology which Scott (1998) describes is an expression of a strong belief in scientific and technical progress; a strong emphasis on the expansion of production; and a strong desire to achieve mastery of nature (including of human nature).

This ideology is based upon a belief that it is possible to engage in a rational, science-based design of the social order. Scott notes the ideology originated in “the West,” a product of “unprecedented progress in science and industry” (p. 4).

The study cautions that high modernism is not to be confused with what is understood to be scientific practice. It was, instead a belief system which borrowed the legitimacy of science and technology. Unlike science, however, the ideology was uncritical, unskeptical, and “unscientifically optimistic.” This uncritical optimism was with regard to the possibilities of comprehensive, state-level planning of human settlement and production.

A feature of this ideology, Scott comments, is a tendency to see rational order in “visual aesthetic terms.” That is, an efficient, rationally organized city, village, or farm would be looked at, by adherents of the ideology, as orderly in a geometric sense. In the event that plans were miscarried or thwarted, furthermore, there was a tendency toward a “miniaturization” manifested through creation of a more easily controlled “micro-order” in the form of model cities, model villages, or model farms.

The ideology was also about the “interests” of high-level state officials or heads of state. As well, the “carriers” of the ideology, such as capitalist entrepreneurs, for example, often were in need of state action in order to proceed with their high-modernist schemes. Certain forms of planning and social organization fit into this form of ideology including

  • huge dams
  • centralized communication and transportation hubs
  • large factories
  • large farms
  • grid cities

The state-level projects driven by this ideology had a temporal and a social context. The high tide in the ideology, according to Scott, appeared to be the national economic mobilization by the belligerents in the First World War.

The professions that appeared especially taken by the ideology included

  • planners
  • engineers
  • architects
  • scientists
  • technicians

The ideology appealed to the left and the right, and especially to those who wanted to use state power to bring about “utopian changes.” Among the things that were focused upon were citizens’

  • work habits
  • living patterns
  • worldviews

Scott adds (p. 5) that the “utopian vision” at play was not dangerous “in and of itself.” Where such a vision was introduced in liberal parliamentary societies, the planners would have to negotiate with organized citizens, and thereby “could spur reform.”

3. Authoritarian state, willing and able to use coercive power

The study deals with state-level planning situations in the twentieth century that proved lethal. People got killed. Lives were destroyed. The potential for lethality arose when state simplifications and high modernity was combined with an authoritarian state. In the cases in the study, a state was willing and able to use coercive power to bring large-scale, high-modernist designs into being.

The optimal times for such a move included wartime, revolution, and the struggle for post-colonial liberation. Under such conditions, emergency power can be seized, and previous regimes can be delegitimized. Often elites arise under such conditions who “repudiate the past.”

4. Civil society incapable of resistance, in the circumstances

The fourth prerequisite outlined in the study is a weakened civil society unable to resist state-initiated, authoritarian, high-modernist designs. A civil society may, under such circumstances be weakened, for example, by war, revolution, or economic collapse. Under such conditions, populations may be more receptive to “a new dispensation.” Scott remarks, in this context (p. 5), that “Late colonial rule, with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.”

Additional remarks

Scott (1998) notes that state-socialist and free-market economic systems are equally capable of bringing together the four elements of state-initiated disasters outlined in this interesting and pertinent study.

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