Gavin (selfishgene) wrote,

Seeing Like A State

Seeing Like A State
by James C Scott
This is probably the most important anarchist work of the decade. Even though Scott is not an anarchist and defends some level of state action he nevertheless provides anarchists with vast quantities of intellectual ammunition. His central idea is that, a particular world-view which he calls 'high modernist' is responsible for many atrocities of the 20th century.

This world-view takes many specific forms and covers many conflicting ideologies but has a theme of pushing modernism onto the masses whether they want it or not. The wishes of the common people are regarded by high modernists as delusions and outmoded traditions. The modernists know better and can justly use any method to impose their viewpoint. Modernism is always 'scientific' even if no actual scientific investigation was done. In order to facilitate this 'scientific' approach, measures of relevant quantities are essential. The real world being too tricky to measure, it must be forced into a pattern that can easily be measured by the elite carrying out the modernisation. Forcing a neat pattern may do enormous damage but as long as that damage is not the thing being measured the modernists don't care.
The first discussion deals with Prussian forestry. In order to maximise timber revenues for state owned forests it was deemed necessary to organise forests into straight rows of one type of tree. This allowed easy measurement and calculation. The various uses that a forest had besides bulk timber were totally neglected. Peasants used the forests for firewood, hunting, medicinal herbs and many other purposes. This was swept away by the central planners as irrelevant. For the first 70 years this scheme was very profitable. It was copied by French, British and American forestry officials. When the second generation of trees proved to be sickly and unprofitable it was realised that orderly monoculture was very unhealthy for trees. Soil nutrients were not replenished and pests were uncontrolled.
The planned cities of Le Corbusier and others are discussed at length. Brasilia was planned as the new capital of Brazil and placed on a vast plain of uninhabited land. Everything a city dweller needed was centrally provided for. The failure of this scheme and others is described in detail. An unplanned city built nearby for construction workers proved to be essential in sustaining the planned city.
The idea that the meticulously planned environment is actually dependant on the unplanned chaotic environment nearby is a familiar one to anarchists. It struck me while reading this that the very regulated environment of the whole United States is dependant on the chaos of Mexico and China. The puritan/progressive 'shining city on a hill' America is actually a parasite on the rest of the world. Those free market activities taxed/regulated out of existence in America are performed elsewhere to supply the needs of Americans.
Scott goes on to discuss the collectivised farming regimes in Russia and Tanzania. The use of force on a massive scale to create idealised villages was required since the peasants were not convinced by the propaganda of the modernists. The famine and brutality caused by these schemes is shown as an inevitable consequence of the plans. Ideas of 'scientific' farming were often imported from America. Many of these schemes were somewhat successful in the American prairie when combined with vast highway and railroad systems and a semi-free market. These ideas did not translate well to the different climates and economies of Russia and Tanzania.
Scott shows that primitive traditional farmers were in fact very willing to adopt new ideas when they were sensible. What they refused to do voluntarily was level huge areas for mechanised monoculture farming. The polycropping methods used by peasants turned out to have many advantages invisible to the modernists. Pests can easily spread in a field composed of only one plant variety. Polycropping also allowed peasants to grow various types of food for their own consumption rather than selling only one type and having to buy everything else. Using different varieties even of the same species allowed the ripening date to differ. This allowed peasants to pick each crop in a staggered manner rather than having one huge pile of food once a year.
The failure of centralised statist planning in many fields is carefully documented in this book. I have only scratched the surface. Many more interesting ideas lurk in this book. Every intellectual anarchist or libertarian will find this book worthwhile. I am in the rare situation (for me) of being unable to find a single useful criticism of this work. Truly an excellent piece of scholarship.
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Step 1: Cherry-pick data-points from history
Step 2: Lump them into a category with a provocative name
Step 3: Emphasize the costs of things in category, and the benefits of things outside the category
Step 4: Ignore counterexamples
Step 5: Use as evidence for a political idea you believed already
Step 6: Profit
Unfortunately all study of history involves cherry picking data. On July 20th 1944 Hitler was nearly killed. That same day an obscure man in Patagonia had a really good morning shit which he noted in his diary. Which fact is more relevant to historical investigation? Short of disregarding all history, there is no solution to each historian picking the data he deems relevant.
Yes, but there is an art to picking especially representative data, rather than data that supports a specific point. For example, on June 3 1920, Hitler smiled at a little child. On August 19 1931, Hitler pet a kitten. On January 5 1942, Hitler gave money to a beggar. One could write a book including *just* these three data points and use it to prove Hitler was a nice guy, but because these data points have been cherry-picked poorly and with malice, one could rightly accuse that book of being inaccurate because it cherry-picked data.
Right, so on what factual basis are you accusing the author in question here of cherry-picking?
The conceit of "high modernism" was that organic, local economies could not possibly be more efficient that central planning. It does not follow that there is no role for central planning where there are market failures, and thus I don't see how this supports anarchism.

However, it may *explain* the historical motivation of anarchists in Europe, which found itself transitioning directly from monarchism to totalitarianism with no republic in between.
It isn't necessary to invoke a need for central planning to reject anarchism. The basic problem is the "watching the watchmen" issue, with regard to the minimum of force which is necessary in a free society. Anarchists argue that the right of defensive force can't be restricted to just those who are deemed the government, but they've never provided a satisfactory answer to how force without oversight can be kept from becoming a tyranny of its own.
'how force without oversight can be kept from becoming a tyranny of its own' - exactly who has oversight of the government? Has your watchful oversight prevented torture at Abu Ghraib?
In an anarchy use of force can be met with force. As long as the population have any weapons they wish and can afford they will always outmatch any smaller coercive group. And since any population can only support a minority of parasites/predators it follows that the coercive group will always be a lot smaller.
In fact Scott does not argue that his book supports anarchism, that is my interpretation. Scott shows that central planners not only map a simplification of the real world (map is not the territory idea) but they soon start forcing the real world to be like their map. Village houses are destroyed for being out of the straight line of houses. This is not more efficient for farming, even in the central planners' view, but it is easier for them to count the houses. Of course destroying a family home is a fairly small atrocity but it is also done for a trivial reason. If central planning inexorably leads to atrocities, even when not done for personal enrichment of the planners, then mere market failure doesn't seem that bad. Every description of market failure I have ever heard turns out to be one of two things.
First, the result of extensive government meddling in a market where the tiny portion which is really free-market is blamed for the failure. The banking crisis was market failure in some eyes yet Title 12 of the CFR has 1899 sections, most with multiple sub-sections. These regulations were enforced by fines and court proceedings. The regulators may have been incompetent but they were not powerless.
Second, genuine market failures are always fairly trivial. E.g. blind people can't use e-readers because the market fails them. Until 10 years ago nobody on the planet had an e-reader but now it is a travesty that blind people can't use them yet.
You don't consider external costs, or the necessity of public goods, to be market failures?
External costs are valid if a party is being harmed by the actions of another party. In such cases a dispute system of some kind may be required. Such a system may even require enforcement by violence. Obviously this enforcement is not what we would normally call a market mechanism. Hence it could be regarded as a market failure. Even here however a market solution is better than each aggrieved party simply opening fire on the other party. Referring such incidents to a protection/insurance agency allows for a professional approach to dispute resolution.
Some goods are public, such as oxygen. If the supply was ever scarce enough there would be some market process to deal with it.
Thank you for your reply. A question, and a comment:

1) How would your insurance scheme work? E.g., an alleged polluter has a class-action suit brought against it, and then their insurance company pays? Does the law require some parties to be insured?

2) Goods not only have to be scarce (i.e., rivalrous), but also able to be parceled and controlled (i.e., excludable) in order to be marketed. So, in principle oxygen, if scarce enough, could be sold in gas cylinders. However, given the ubiquity of air, it is recognized to be more globally efficient to make sure it is clean and environmentally sustainable. A similar argument applies to fisheries, clean water, public safety, etc.

Perhaps the most perfect public good is the state itself, as the final arbiter of disputes.
The law does not require insurance but a polluter will make a lot of enemies, all of whom are armed. Polluters will find it cheaper to pay for damage than to pay for a small army to defend their property.
Localised pollution is easy to detect and prevent. Global pollution is more difficult but a global insurance corporation can buy from individuals the right to represent their interests against global polluters. Polluters will find it cheaper to reduce pollution than to defend against attacks. Of course such a global insurer poses some risk of abuse but there will always be parties willing to point out its crimes.
The state is the 'final arbiter of disputes' but what possible incentive does it have to be honest and fair? A non-state arbiter can never be final but disputes have costs for all parties. As long as incentives are not perverted (as government law often does) parties will usually settle a dispute after a few rounds of sue and counter-sue.
* Your global insurer sounds like a non-territorial state. I don't see any theoretical problems with it if the parties are rational. However, they are often not in real life. I think the situation will be like gangs with overlapping turf.

* I think traditional states have some incentive to be fair and honest if they are transparent and representative, i.e. democratic.
My idea is radical but simple : balance of firepower is the only thing that keeps people honest and respectful of each other's rights. When one group, howsoever formed, has almost all the weapons and another group is comparatively disarmed; then the first group will loot and enslave the other. This is the prime lesson of all recorded history as far as I can tell. Ethical barriers are either totally neglected or the strong group finds some sophistical reason why the weaker group 'deserves' to be looted. This theory applies whether the stronger group is an official 'legitimate' government or a barbarian horde or a street gang.
I agree that this has been the story of most of human history. But I also think that things have been changing since the jet and information ages. With enhanced mobility and ease of information group identity is more fluid than ever. The sectarian violence we see now in the world is not the same old ethnic/religious clash, but a reaction to modernity.

In some sense, the United States was ahead of its time.
So the Hatfields and the McCoy's were honest and respectful of each other's rights? How about the Bloods and the Crips?

Human beings demonstrably do not respond to a variety of incentives in the way your model suggests they ought.

Medieval Iceland was a functioning and fairly peaceful semi-anarchy for a while, although it proved to be massively unstable against statist encroachments, which makes it a very poor poster-child for anarchy. Modern Somalia is more representative of how human beings respond to "failed states", and the reason why they are considered failures is because they do not provide the basic security and stability that states do, and human beings overwhelmingly value those over all other things.

Furthermore, nothing like a corporation could exist outside of the rule of law, which would strip anarchy of the vast productive benefits that the corporate form of organization has given to stated communities.

Incentives are modulated by technology. In medieval times weapons required strength and long training to be effective in combat. Killing with a rifle or RPG can be taught in a single afternoon. The best trained and equipped army in history was challenged in Iraq for years by an enemy only 20% the size in manpower and probably 0.01% of the budget.