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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