Book Review of James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State”

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The twentieth century has witnessed many large-scale projects by the state, which although inspired by good intentions, have ultimately resulted in tragic failure. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State is a compelling tour de force seeking to explain how and why such visionary and seemingly benign attempts at social engineering by the state have gone awry.

How social engineering fails

Scott’s hypothesis as to how the many twentieth-century grand tragedies came about is put forward in the introduction where he argues that “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements” (Scott 1998, p. 4). The first element is the “administrative ordering of nature and society”. This refers to the simplification of facts in order for the state to see more clearly. A central problem in statecraft, argues Scott, is illegibility, or the inability to see and understand. The premodern state was “partially blind” (p. 2) and knew little about its subjects. Modern statecraft, on the other hand, consisted of disparate processes ranging from the creation of permanent last names to the meticulous design of cities – processes aimed at making complex and illegible social practices more standardized, understandable and legible. Part one of the book (chapters one and two) addresses this aspect in relation to both nature and people. Eighteenth-century Prussian scientific forestry and its desire to tame nature and make it more legible resulted in the more systematic, efficient and profitable monocropped forest. However, in eliminating the chaotic diversity of the natural processes, these scientifically invented forests became more vulnerable to pests and diseases, which ultimately had a disastrous effect on both the environment and the peasants. The legibility of cities and people were also sought as this enabled the easier administration of them. The aesthetic of straight lines transformed the visual order of the city while language standardization and permanent last names were imposed upon citizens. Such legibility enabled the greater control of people by the state, making policing and collecting tax much easier.

The second element is what Scott calls “high-modernist ideology”, which is about having a strong faith in scientific, technological and human progress. Carriers of such faith often saw progress in visually aesthetic terms. And Scott importantly notes that as an ideology, such confidence is often unscientific and masks the political interests of state officials. The third element is an authoritarian nature of the state. That is, a strong state willing to use all its power to implement and impose its high modernist plans on society. And closely linked with this is the final element of a weak civil society unable to oppose the utopian plans of the state. These last three elements are elaborated in parts two and three (chapters three to eight). Here we encounter the authoritarian high-modernist ideas of people such as the French architect Le Corbusier who inspired the creation of a high-modernist city (Brasília), Lenin who designed the high-modernist revolutionary party, Stalin who was responsible for the high-modernist collectivization of Russian agriculture and Julius Nyerere who started the ujamaa village campaign in Tanzania. We’re also treated to critiques of the ideas of Le Corbusier by Jane Jacob and that of Lenin by Rosa Luxemburg and Aleksandra Kollontay. Through all of this we see how authoritarian high-modernism has failed, and failed tragically.

Why social engineering fails

The above four elements, however, do not explain why such grand plans ultimately failed. Scott focuses on what’s missing in all our grand schemes in the final part of his book. What ultimately proved detrimental is the lack of importance given to practical knowledge, or metis, in such schemes. Without considering such local and experiential knowledge, Scott argues, all social reforms are bound to fail. Why this is so is perhaps best illustrated through a scenario mentioned several times throughout the book: the work-to-rule strike. The work-to-rule strike is a job action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by the rules of a workplace in order to cause a slowdown. The important point to note here is that doing the minimum required by the work rules would still lead to a slowdown of work because “actual work processes depend more heavily on informal understandings and improvisations than upon formal work rules” (p. 310). Such a strike thus demonstrates in a powerful manner how formal planning based on simplified understandings of complex procedures will always be inadequate in producing a functioning social order. What is overlooked in the creation of any social order is the informal processes and knowledge (metis) that assure its success. Scott describes metis as “a wide array of practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment” (p. 313). Indeed, because the environment we live in is not static but changing, social reforms need to allow for dynamic interactions and responses that take into account what happens at the grassroots level. Visions of transformation through top-down imposition and control based on “thin simplifications” of complex systems are bound to ultimately fail.

The developmental state: successful authoritarian high modernism

Scott’s book, like all books, is written with an agenda in mind. His agenda was to show “how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed”. The grand schemes he studies in his book include the villagization of Tanzania, the planning of the high-modernist city of Brasília and the collectivization of Russian agriculture. One could say that his selection of schemes and countries fits his purposes well and he gets his point across perfectly: visionary projects taking an authoritarian high-modernist outlook that ignore local knowledge are bound to end in tragic failure. No one can fault Scott for wanting to focus on the negative outcome of an authoritarian high-modernist state. After all, he doesn’t intend his book to be a comprehensive theory of the state. However, his analysis would surely have been improved had it included also the successes of authoritarian high-modernist states, comparing them with his list of failures and exploring the reasons for the very different outcomes.

Surprisingly, Scott seems to be ignorant of the existence of what scholars term the “developmental state”. The “developmental state” is the term used to describe a state which plays an important role in bringing about great economic development. The term was initially associated closely with Japan’s post-war reindustrialization, but is also widely used to describe three of the Asian Tigers (Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan). Common to all developmental states is the interventionist nature of the state. State intervention was directed by a highly competent bureaucracy to follow a rational plan of economic development. Furthermore, developmental states often had an authoritarian nature as they had to counter opposition to their plans. Such a description of the developmental state fits very well with Scott’s description of the authoritarian high-modernist state. And yet unlike the tragic outcome of the authoritarian high-modernist projects in Scott’s survey, the authoritarian high-modernism of the developmental states resulted in remarkable economic and social success. Acknowledging the success of the developmental states would no doubt make Scott’s thesis slightly more complex as it eschews the simple cause-effect relationship of statism leading to failure. Yet perhaps that is what we should have expected from a political scientist of Scott’s stature.

Inconsistent postmodernism

Scott’s failure to note the complexity of outcomes of authoritarian high-modernism is troubling on another level. Yet before mentioning why this is so, one ought to praise the critical and postmodern mindset that guides his thesis. It is clear that Scott’s epistemology leans towards the postmodern. This can be seen through his argument against the arrogance and sureness of planners and their universalist and absolute claims to truth, as well as through his admiration for local knowledge and for the need for contextualization. In such a time as this, which has seen failure after failure of development projects (and theories) in the last 50 years, the message that we don’t always get it right needs to be clearly heard, and we hear it loud and clear throughout Scott’s book. For all of this, Scott ought to be congratulated. The disappointment sets in when the postmodern and critical spirit is lost in the making of his “strong, paradigmatic” conclusion – which, to his credit, he acknowledges (p. 7). What instead occurs is that he ends up making a modern and absolute claim that authoritarian high-modernism always fails – a claim which not only fails to recognize the success of the developmental states but also overlooks the nuances and complexities of life and which therefore seems more akin to the “thin simplifications” he is so opposed to. One would thus have expected a less contradictory and more humble conclusion in keeping with the anti-totalizing critique displayed throughout the book.

Science vs. the scientific mindset

A further contradiction seems to surface in Scott’s description of what the problem is in authoritarian high modernism. At some places, we read of his skepticism towards science and technology through his criticism of scientific forestry (chapter one) and agricultural science (chapter eight). Yet in other areas he is clear that it is not science, but rather the aesthetic, ideological and unscientific that is at the root of the problem: “If the plans for villagization were so rational and scientific, why did they bring about such general ruin? The answer, I believe, is that such plans were not scientific or rational in any meaningful sense of those terms” (p. 253). Thus, though affirming that science was not in the wrong, Scott however eventually pits “practical knowledge” against “scientific explanation”, extolling the former against the latter. In chapter nine, he gives examples of how science often excluded practical knowledge or metis, and juxtaposes one against the other. He places “observations”, “experiments” and “trial and error” in the category of practical knowledge and writes that “the litmus test for metis is practical success” (p. 323-325). The trouble with all this is that science and the scientific method ought to take into account such inductive grassroots research and findings. If science is somehow seen to overlook “observations” and “practical success”, one could not truly call that science, or at least good science. In reality, good science includes much of what Scott incorporates under the separate category of practical knowledge.

Scott’s poor definition of science thus lends itself to confusion as to whether science or the lack of science is the problem. To clear up the confusion, this reviewer proposes a distinction be made between science and the scientific mindset. Science in itself is not as lacking as Scott makes it up to be and more often than not is a practical success. Furthermore, good science incorporates local knowledge and observations. However, one also needs to recognize its limitations as Scott correctly does, in quoting Pascal, that the great failure of science is “not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other” (p. 340). The scientific mindset, on the other hand, is akin to what Scott calls high modernism. In its overconfidence in the prospects of science, it often becomes an ideological, uncritical and unscientific faith. It is the scientific mindset or high modernism which leads people to believe that science is perfect in its claims and such a faith in science is precisely what Scott wants us to renounce. Making such a distinction, and being clear about it, would help readers better understand that Scott’s concern lies with the often unscientific and uncritical nature of the scientific mindset (high modernism) as opposed to science per se.

Global free-market capitalism as the alternative?

Most readers would see in Scott’s negative analysis of authoritarian high modernism an argument for the workings of the free-market and global capitalism. Scott recognizes this, yet spends just a few paragraphs throughout the book rejecting such an interpretation (p. 8, 351). Taking into account the domination of global capitalism and free-marketism in this age, together with the fact that his argument against high-modernist state planning could easily be misconstrued as a case for the free market, one would have wished that Scott had spent a bit more time elaborating on how the belief in the free market to solve all our problems is just another form of high modernism. Yet he misses the opportunity to provide a powerful argument against a phenomenon extremely relevant to readers today. This would seem especially necessary since his arguments against authoritarian high modernism and its neglect of local knowledge are very similar to those produced by F.A. Hayek and the Austrian School of Economics in their critique of central planning. And Hayek and the Austrian economists are known for their faith in the free-market as the alternative to state planning. Thus, having used similar arguments as the Austrian economists in dismantling our faith in state planning, Scott should have gone on and spent more time differentiating his view on the free markets from that of the Austrian economists, and also explaining how faith in the free markets is similarly a high modernist project bound to fail.

Conclusion: relevance of Seeing Like a State to development

Though Seeing Like a State is written in an extremely lucid manner, the length and repetition make it a long read. This aspect of the book may unfortunately prevent readers from taking up the challenge of going through a very profound and insightful study. The important thesis put forward is especially relevant to the study of development. The thesis cautions against the enthusiastic adoption of any high modernist projects of social change – that is, large-scale projects whose designers play down the complexity of problem at hand, preferring instead to confidently claim to be able to achieve the rational and comprehensive changes they plan for. The relevance of this caution to development is clearly seen once we realize how much money and effort have been put into developmental projects in the past half a century, and the little that all that has accomplished.

Since the beginning of the development project at the end of the Second World War, panaceas after panaceas to poverty and lack of development in the Third World have been proposed and implemented by development experts and technocrats. William Easterly’s excellent book The Elusive Quest for Growth (2002) recounts for us how all these development solutions failed. Starting from the 1950s, economists believed financial aid was needed to fill the investment gap that existed in poor countries. When aid for investment in physical capital did not seem to work, the next panacea promoted was investment in education. This was followed by the solution of population control, then adjustment loans and finally debt forgiveness. All this has resulted in over $1 trillion in aid yet poverty still persists in the world today. Why has such a tremendous failure occurred?

This is where Seeing Like a State comes in. Scott’s book helps us to understand that the reason for the failure of all such high modernist panaceas boils down to one word: hubris. Though “animated by a genuine desire to improve human condition”, the “visionary intellectuals and planners behind them were guilty of hubris, of forgetting that they were mere mortals and acting as if they were gods” (p. 342). This pretense to knowing everything leads the development technocrat to plan for large-scale comprehensive changes in the developing country. From investment in physical capital to neo-liberal macroeconomic changes and right on to the current fad concerning the importance of good governance, development experts have placed far too much confidence in their grand theories and have left far too little room for the unexpected to happen. The result has been the failure of all their grand schemes.

If arrogant high modernist thinking is the problem, what is the solution? Scott has less to say in his book about solutions and no doubt this is so because he knows the danger of falling prey to the very same hubris that has led to the downfall of the high modernist way of thinking. Yet two important points should be taken away from his work. The first relates to the participants of development. Scott has shown throughout his book the importance of local knowledge (metis). Development planners see the world from afar and plan accordingly, but without also taking into account how things are at the grassroots level, their plans have a higher chance of failing. Taking into account local knowledge would mean giving the local people more freedom and say in the development process. This means top-down approaches to development giving way to a more interactive and compromising form of decision-making. The objects of development ought also to have a voice in how development occurs and they ought to be active participants of the development process – as much as they are beneficiaries. Increasing participation means a variety of changes need to occur such as increasing the political rights of all citizens in the third world, increasing the democratic nature of governments and international organizations involved in development and increasing the strength of civil society and non-government organizations that take into the account the voice on the ground.

The second point involves the approach development planners ought to take in the development process. The alternative to the high-modernist faith in large-scale comprehensive schemes is what might be called a “muddling through” (p. 327), “piecemeal” (p. 328) or incrementalist (p. 328) approach to development. That is, rather than trusting in big giant steps that ought to change whole societies instantly, development planners should “take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move” (p. 345). Such an approach is consistent with a retreat from hubris. It acknowledges the complexities involved in social reform and embraces the call for humility in our understanding of how the world works. Most importantly, development history supports such an analysis. Sweeping macroeconomic structural adjustment reforms, instant “shock therapies” and large-scale dam projects have all shown little success. On the other hand, the gradual incrementalist market reforms in China and India over the past two decades have resulted in remarkable growth. It was argued above that high modernism has succeeded in the developmental states. It would certainly be helpful to know why this was so yet this is not the place to delve into such a subject. Suffice to say, such success of high modernism has been the exception rather than the norm. Therefore, the call for a more incrementalist approach to development still stands. The above two points alone are revolutionary enough and if development planners were to heed them, perfect success wouldn’t be guaranteed but at least improvements in the success rate of our development plans would be expected.


Easterly, W. 2001, The Elusive Quest for Growth, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Scott, J. 1998, Seeing Like a State, Yale University Press, New Haven.

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