Seeing Like a State

Scott’s book Seeing Like a State proposes a theory of the state and its consequences for society, picking it up where The Moral Economy of the Peasant left off. The state expansion, by threatening the moral economy of peasants, could trigger rebellion and a fight against the expansion of the state.

In Seeing Like a State, Scott makes several main arguments. Perhaps the most general is that states by their nature want to make everything “legible” — in order to control society. To establish such control, states have to have an understanding of it and information about society and the territory they occupy, and this launches many projects that Scott illustrates as follows:

“the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation” (p. 2).

But this process of creating a legible territory to be controlled naturally created gross simplifications and obscured the complex heterogeneity of society. Significantly, for the purposes of the book, this attempt by the state to make society legible, in conjunction with some other features, created some of the worst human disasters of the 20th century, such as the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union which led to the starvation of millions of people. These other features which interact in such a pernicious way with legibility are what Scott class a

“high modernist ideology … best conceived as a strong … version of the self-confidence about scientific and technological progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature) and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.” (p. 4)

But even legibility and high modernism are not enough to create a real disaster. For that in addition you need “an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs to being” (p. 5) and relatedly “a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans” (p. 5).

Summarizing it in Scott’s words:

“In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” (p. 5)

Legibility is key because having created such a simplified vision of what constitutes society, any plan based on it is quite likely to suffer from unintended consequences and perhaps go wildly wrong. The book then brilliantly illustrates these forces in action in a number of contexts.

There are many things to like about this book and many things to argue about as the next few blogs will show, but let’s start with something to like.

Scott’s emphasis that the creation of a modern state in the context of authoritarianism and a prostrate civil society runs against the grain of those who advocate the “Beijing Consensus” that China currently has a viable and generalizable model of economic growth. In Why Nations Fail we argued that the combination of important areas of inclusion in economic institutions along with extractive political institutions is intrinsically unstable. Dictatorship cannot support economic inclusion except in transitory and unusual circumstances. Scott’s book adds something very interesting to this. If you are looking for the big man-made disasters of the future, China would be a good place to start.

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