Prelude to Seeing Like a State

A recurring theme in this blog — and in our recent work — is the nature of the state, why vary so much in different parts of the world and how this matters for economic development.

If you want to think about this question, you will sooner or later have to study the body of work produced by the Yale anthropologist/political scientist James Scott since the 1970s. In the next few posts, we will discuss some of this work and its implications for the nature and development of the state in modern societies.

In his early work, such as the book The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Scott argued that revolutions occurred in Southeast Asia when the expansion of the state threatened the “moral economy” of peasants.

The idea of a “moral economy” came from the work of the English historian E.P. Thompson’s whose work features heavily in Why Nations Fail. Indeed, our argument about how a broad coalition is critical for leading to a transition from extractive to inclusive institutions was originally inspired by Thompson’s great book Whigs and Hunters, which is about the emergence of the rule of law in England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution.

Thompson introduced the idea of the moral economy in his paper “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”. His aim was to critique the existing historical literature about riots in 18th century England. This literature saw them as short-run violent responses to price fluctuations and hard economic times. Thompson argued that they were part of a much more systematic social equilibrium in English society. Even if this was the same society that generated the Industrial Revolution, Thompson suggested that the economy was embedded in a set of social norms about fair and just prices and poor people acted collectively to enforce these social norms. This did not rule out an important role for economic fluctuations. Such collective action was particularly necessary in periods of dearth when there were large market pressures to increase prices, but he showed it operated all the time. Moreover, these social norms were accepted by elites as part of the social contract of 18th century England. Thompson’s argument is obviously influenced by the substantivist school of anthropology and the research of Karl Polanyi that we discussed in a previous post.

What Scott did in The Moral Economy of the Peasant was to extend this argument from rioting to revolution arguing that revolutions happen when “modernization” threatens to undermine the moral economy of the peasant, particularly his subsistence.

Modernization is conceived of here very broadly to include the impact of colonialism and the commercialization of agriculture and the spread of the market. But it also includes the introduction of modern tax systems that are insensitive to the needs and problems of the peasant. At least part of these transformations then constitutes the expansion of the state into rural areas. As the state expands and tries to exert control over rural territories it naturally tends to be insensitive to and violate the nature of the moral economy, hence leading to rebellion (why the state needs to behave this way is an interesting question we will return to).

This behavior of the state is picked up much more systematically in Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which we discuss in our next post.

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