All Commentary
Friday, October 1, 1999

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

A Brilliant Work of Remarkable Scope

Amazing progress has been made in the twentieth century. The Western world has grown tremendously rich, and many developing countries around the world have “emerged.” Today, most people enjoy living conditions that their ancestors could have only dreamed about.

But the twentieth century has also witnessed horrific brutality. Millions have been killed in wars. And an even greater number, perhaps, have been killed by their own governments in the name of “progress.” What has been the source of such inhumanity?

In Seeing Like a State, Yale political scientist James C. Scott examines “the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.” He argues that “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements.”

First, Scott argues, are “transformative state simplifications,” that enable the state to easily track and classify its citizens. This includes the creation of permanent last names, population registers, and the standardization of language.

Second is what Scott calls “high-modernist” ideology. “It is best conceived,” he writes, “as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical 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.” National economic planning during World War I excited high-modernist theorists and led them to believe that society actually could be run by enlightened technocrats.

The third element is an “authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.” Such regimes often gain power during times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation.

The last element is a “prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.”

“In sum,” Scott writes, “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.” When those four elements are present, the stage is set for the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot—and for the forced villagization of 5 million Tanzanians in the 1970s, a lesser-known tragedy that Scott recounts in a fascinating chapter.

High-modernist ideology, Scott points out, manifests itself in less disastrous ways, too. Consider centrally planned cities. Traditionally, cities have grown naturally to fit the desires and needs of their citizens. The streets of many European and Middle Eastern cities don’t fit a grid-like pattern: they sprang up as the population grew and moved. To a resident, everything makes sense. But to a government official who thinks he knows best, it appears chaotic. Surely, a planned city would be much better than one developed seemingly by chance.

Such was the mindset of architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. He wished to redesign Paris, Buenos Aires, Algiers, and Moscow according to his own plans. He argued, “We must refuse to afford even the slightest concession to what is; to the mess we are in now. There is no solution to be found there.” He envisioned a world, Scott writes, in which “door frames, windows, bricks, roof tiles, and even screws would all conform to a uniform code. [Le Corbusier] called for the new standards to be legislated by the League of Nations, which would develop a universal technical language to be compulsorily taught throughout the world.”

In the end, Le Corbusier built only one city, a provincial capital in India. Scott notes, however, that he influenced many people, including Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek. Kubitschek created the city of Brasilia from scratch and made it the country’s capital. Originally, there was one huge public square, but few informal gathering places such as parks, and all its residents were supposed to live in uniform housing projects called “superquadra,” which had their own nurseries, schools, stores, and clubs.

The planned city quickly failed; people found life in it undesirable and stifling. Now, most of the population lives in settlements that were never anticipated by Brasilia’s planners. High-modernist ideology didn’t result in mass slaughter in the case of Brasilia, but it did produce great unhappiness. People didn’t want what the planners tried to force on them. The planners weren’t able to acquire the “practical knowledge,” as Scott calls it, to pull off such a grand scheme. They were ignorant of “the limits . . . of what we are likely to know about complex, functioning order.”

This is excellent analysis, but unfortunately, Scott thinks “large-scale capitalism” suffers from similar defects. It “is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is . . . . [I]n markets, money talks, not people,” he argues. But when I decide to eat breakfast at McDonald’s, who is making the decision? I am. I’m using money to buy the meal, but I’m the one doing the talking. In the market, producers cater to the consumers’ desires—not the other way around. Scott fails to grasp that point. Nevertheless, Seeing Like a State is a brilliant work of remarkable scope.

Aaron Steelman is a graduate student in the social sciences at the University of Chicago.