Seeing Like a Society Interview with James C. Scott

Scott is one of the most profound critics of high-modernist human development planning. He believes that the process of state-building, leading to what he calls the legibility and standardization of society, fosters control and domination rather than enlightenment and freedom. Scott started his academic career studying small village communities in the forests of Malaysia. When he left the rain forest he took with him a number of vital observations on how nation states organize their society. His monumental book, Seeing Like A State (1998)[1], became the basis for a fundamental and elaborate critique of how governmental planning for the advancement of society can go utterly wrong: compulsory villages in Tanzania, scientific forestry in Prussia, high-modernist Brasilia, industrial agricultural planning in the USSR and its modern day variant the Millennium Development Goals. According to Scott, these are all examples of rational-utopian blueprint thinking that proved fatal.

Erik Gerritsen: How did you reach the conclusion that society cannot be engineered?
James C. Scott:
During my research in South East Asia I was confronted with the dramatic failures of development projects. I found that successful rural communities were all but destroyed in the wake of well- intended development aid and I tried to understand the deeper causes of these failures. It occurred to me that in order to have ambitious plans for a society, to change it and intervene in any way at all, the state had to create a certain kind of society that could then be manipulated. It had to create citizens with identities. It had to create citizens with names that could be recorded, with matching addresses, put down in cadastral surveys. I found myself mesmerized by the fact that part of the struggle of state-making in early modern Europe was to create a legible society that could be understood before it was possible to intervene. And it also occurred to me that in the process of making society legible it changed it radically. They way early-modern states changed the society they governed is very much comparable to the way the World Bank is changing the Third World nowadays.
The example I give in the book is that of scientific forestry. This was a form of transforming the forest so it would produce a single product, neglecting everything else about the forest. It ended up creating a forest that violated the natural processes of forest regeneration. It was an abject failure, but not before becoming the world standard of scientific forestry. I was intrigued by that insight and tried to apply it to the well-intended planning fiasco of Brasilia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania in which seven million people were moved into villages that didn’t work. Finally, I looked into the industrialization and collectivization policies of Soviet agriculture.
I worked out a critique of what I call high- modernist planning. That is, the nineteenth century ideology grounded in the believe that a scientific- technical trained elite could take responsibility for the social planning. The high-modernists claimed to know how parents should bathe their children, how they prepare their food and the design of their houses. The hubris of the high-modernist led them to believe in unitary and singular answers to all social problems and that solutions to them could be either imposed on the public or a public could be persuaded that these schemes were in their own interest.
EG: Since you published Seeing Like a State in 1998, the world seems to have profoundly changed. Making society ‘legible’ through standardization has now been implemented on a global scale. Are we witnessing the building of another, higher level of state? A world state?
: In a way. The World Bank tries to control devel – opment processes in the Third World and by doing so is fundamentally changing those societies. This is comparable to what we saw in early modern Europe. The World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank try to implant the institutions of North Atlantic liberal capitalism and liberal democracy throughout the rest of the world. Just look at the massive emphasis on the development of central banks, the creation of private property, the protection of intellectual property, the repatriation of profits, and also what I call ‘cadasterization’ and the collection of statistics according to UN-standards. The wonderfully accurate word they use for this development is harmonization.
It is all a magnificent piece of propaganda. Of course it means making sure that the institutions match one another and comply. What’s interesting to me is that these institutions are the peculiar, odd, vernacular institutions of North Atlantic capitalism around the turn of the century. They are now traveling back to the Third World as a universal standard, being imposed by these large multinational institutions. The logic of their projects is that a businessman from, let’s say, the Netherlands, can get off of a plane in Assuncion or Kinshasa and find a perfectly familiar world of institutions and structures. They are familiar because they are the institutions from the world which this businessman came from in the first place. We must never forget that these are vernacular institutions which represent themselves as universal, but they carry all the cultural baggage of their particular history.
These tendencies may point to an irreversible path towards the global village, very much along the lines I described in my book. Luckily, reality is more complex. For example, a World Bank program of rural development ends up being colonized by the counter- planning of thousands local farmers who find that the scheme doesn’t quite serve their needs. They start deforming it and twist the grand scheme to suit them. Although there’s no way they can resist this conditionality, the actual projects in the Third World often have very little resemblance to their original design. The sad part is that most of the deviation is a con sequence of a particular government’s effort to increase its own power and project it into the countryside.
Another relevant development in this respect is the enormous increase in financial capital and the volume and pace of communication. These techniques make a kind of detailed control possible that was not possible earlier. But it also makes collective failures both instantaneous and widespread; we have just witnessed how the American sub-prime mortgage crisis was instantaneously ramified throughout the world. It seems that the speed and volume of things which can spin out of control is just as fast as the speed with which they are the subject of new forms of control.
EG: From the state to the world to the city. What is your take on big city engineering and the extent to which planners and people can actually bring change to the city?
: It happens that I teach in a city, New Haven, Connecticut, which has the highest per capita government grants for urban renewal in the entire United States. It implemented those plans to the point that they actually destroyed the city. In twenty years of urban planning they’ve moved people two and three times. New Haven is almost a test case of urban government planning gone bad. There was a saying in Victorian times ‘three moves equal a death’. Once you pick people up from a neighborhood where they have roots and friends and routines, even if it’s not the best neighborhood in the world, such a move comes at great social costs. If you move people several times, some react by not putting down roots at all because it’s too painful to pull them up again.
Jane Jacobs wrote a brilliant book on this subject in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She tried to work out the principles of a successful community: not a community created by urban planners, but a community that over time had created a successful neighborhood that was safe, prosperous and in which people wanted to stay. Jacobs introduced the concept ‘un-slumming’. Rather than ‘slum clearance’ the way high-modernist would just bull – doze an area and rebuild it from the ground up, she saw the ‘un-slumming’ capacity of neighborhoods. She argued that if people were permitted to stay in an area where they wanted to stay and made sure there was a stable job environment and credits to improve their homes, this neighborhood would ‘un-slum’ itself. Unfortunately, most communities don’t have the time for slow regeneration.
No city planner has ever created a successful neighborhood. Ever. The best a city planner can hope for is to identify the workings of successful neighborhoods and to preserve them, rather than destroy them by getting in their way.
EG: Your critique on the engineering of society has
been judged as a plea for the free market. Yet you
are a self-acclaimed anarchist. Could you explain?
:Some consider Seeing Like a State a right-wing book because I had an occasional good word to say about people like Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. My answer to that charge is that I’d like to write a book about the ways in which large capitalist firms rely on standardization in exactly the same way as do nation states. Take a look at McDonalds and their tools of management and control. The only difference with a nation state is that they have to make the standardization pay in terms of profit.
On the other hand, there are people who would like to pin me down on anarchism. I’m the kind of anarchist who is very impressed with the anarchist point about mutuality without hierarchy, about the accomplishments of very complex collective coordination over time without any state involvement. Take for example the creation of agricultural terraces all around South-East Asia. Personally, I live by what I once described to students as ‘Scott’s law of anarchist callisthenics’. The idea is that at some point in your life you’re going to be called upon to break a big law and everything will depend on it. In order to be ready for that moment, you have to stay in shape. So I dedicate myself to breaking a law every day or two.
EG: You are currently researching why the state has always been hostile towards non-sedentary people. To what extent can this be seen as a new chapter in research into the limits of social engineering?
: States seem to be completely unequipped to deal with people who’ve chosen alternative lives. Whether the people in question were Berbers, Bedouins, gypsies or homeless, they interfered with the oldest state project sedentarization.
I had a student not so long ago who had broken his leg and decided he would use the time to live as a homeless person in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For two weeks he followed an elderly homeless person who collected things from dumpsters. My student was greatly impressed with life as an urban hunter-gatherer. The homeless man was not just a sad alcoholic living on the streets, but a man with unbelievable survival skills from whom you can learn a tremendous amount about the city.
If you’re interested in successful social engineering, I guess you want to take this approach seriously. If you’re in charge of urban services for the poor and homeless of a city, you ought to do something like this. Live on the street for a few weeks. And have everyone who works at your department do it as well.
EG: You research, you write…and you farm sheep. What do they teach you?
: Sheep are used as a metaphor for mindlessness and obedience. We talk about people being sheep if they do what they’re told, behave in crowds and don’t have any individuality. But anyone who has ever seen a wild sheep in action knows they are unbelievably individualistic by nature. We’ve been breeding sheep for 8000 years and selecting for docility. Now, having accomplished that, we have the nerve to insult sheep for becoming what we turned them into! We get the sheep we deserve!

NOTE:This interview is part of the current Volume issue 16 on ‘Social Engineering’

[1] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven
(Yale University Press), 1998.

James C. Scott on Wikipedia

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