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The Art of Not Being Governed

Scott followed up Seeing Like a State with another important book on the state, The Art of Not Being Governed. The thesis of this book is simple but provocative. Focusing on South East Asia, Scott points out that historically (roughly up until the middle of the 20th century) many countries like Burma, Thailand and Vietnam were divided into core areas controlled by the state, and peripheries that are largely outside the state’s control. These peripheries are typically more ethnically diverse, culturally distinct, poorer and often in conflict with the state in the core. On way of viewing these is that they are backward places, which are simply waiting for the state to integrate them into “civilization,” or to use Scott’s terminology, they were waiting to be made legible.  

But this view is wrong, Scott argues. Instead, he suggests that they are places of refuge from the state. His view is that states are coercive entities taxing, regulating and conscripting people and that the normal situation is that people oppose the state. The margins/periphery are not then backward static places waiting to be integrated into the state, they are rather places where people have gone to actively oppose the state and indeed many of the institutions and cultural features of these areas are deliberately designed to stop the state integrating them.

Like all Scott’s books, this one is full of immensely creative ideas and historical and ethnographic examples that make you think hard. Maybe the most provocative chapter is Chapter 7 where he argues that the social institutions of the periphery are an adaption to the goal of fending off the state.

The idea that people may not want the political centralization that a state brings is a familiar one in political anthropology. Scott refers to the work of anthropologist Pierre Clastres whose book Society Against the State argued this in the case of many indigenous societies in Latin America, but actually the idea was common far before this, as we will show in some posts coming up. Many stateless societies or chiefdom had elaborate social and political institutions that made it very difficult for anyone to accumulate too much power and thus in effect stop in its tracks the process that could have cumulated in state formation. Though Scott’s focus is more on innovations in institutions that stop state’s spreading, rather than what archaeologists call “pristine state formation,” the ideas are closely related.

Nevertheless, Scott put this idea on the table and argued that it explained big patterns in the world in a way that nobody had done before. In a way it is related to our argument in Why Nations Fail about the “dual economy”.

Development economists from the 1950s right up to today conceptualize poor countries as consisting of a developed (maybe urban and industrial) modern sector and a backward (rural and agrarian) sector. The problem of development is to transform the backward sector and make it more modern. What we showed, building on seminal historical work, particularly on Southern Africa by Colin Bundy, Robin Palmer and Neil Parsons, is in fact that dual economies were not at all natural; they were typically created in the process of colonization.

Moreover, just as Scott argues it is incorrect to think of peripheries as traditional places waiting to be modernized, in dual economies the typical situation was that modern and backward were in symbiotic relationships. For example, in Apartheid South Africa, the backward areas, mostly the black Bantustans, were part of an elaborate set of institutions designed to provide cheap labor to white owned farms and mines.


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.


Images of the State

The state — what it is, how it behaves, and what it means — varies greatly across societies. We have seen, for example, that there are parts of the world, like the Berber society of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, which historically did not have a state. We also showed, drawing on the work of the great anthropologist Ernest Gellner, that the structure of the Berber polity inverted standard definitions of the state. The state did not have a “legitimate monopoly of violence,” but society did. We also asked why people in sub-Saharan Africa tended to live far less frequently under the authorities of states than people in Eurasia, relating this, albeit speculatively, to particular social institutions such as age sets. We have also discussed some of the most important hypotheses about state formation in Eurasia, for example that of the sociologist Charles Tilly who linked it to inter-state political competition and warfare.

But there are difficulties in interpreting many of these facts and the rich patterns about the state. Why didn’t the Berbers have a state? It could have been that really they wanted a state but couldn’t figure out how to construct it, or perhaps just didn’t have a model of what a state looked like. Many scholars working in development economics, for example, argue that if a society lacks institutions or policies which would promote development then this must be because they don’t really understand how to make the policies or institutions work in their own specific context.

James Scott, on the other hand, would argue that the most plausible explanation for the absence of a Berber state was that the Berbers did not want a state (because the disruptions that the state would inevitably create in their lives) and had managed to create mechanisms to stop it forming. Scott’s general arguments about the state, which we review in the next two posts, are powerful and provocative images of what the state is and does and how people react to it. After we develop his arguments, we will discuss a whole series of empirical examples to interrogate his ideas.


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.


Why Nations Fail in China

We have been in negotiations with a publishing house, Hunan Science and Technology Press, for the Chinese translation of Why Nations Fail. Perhaps not surprisingly, they said many parts of the book could not be published. More surprising was that this not only included our discussion of extractive institutions in China, but also: Gary Becker’s praise for the book, our discussion of South and North Korea, our discussion of the current state of North Korea, our discussion of Uzbekistan as well as any mention of China in the book.

After negotiations, we were able to save much of this material, but not our discussion of Chinese economic growth and institutions, which were deemed to be unacceptable by “higher authorities”.

After much hesitation, we decided to go ahead with this censored version rather than refuse publication entirely.

We are now hoping that they will accept to print at the beginning of the book that this is a censored version of the book and direct Chinese readers to this website for further information.

For interested readers, we would also like to point to the Taiwanese edition of our book, which could be found here.

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