In a State's Eye


Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott, New Haven: Yale University Press, 445 pages, $37.50

Brasilia wasn't the first city to be designed by a small cadre of planners and built from scratch. But of all such efforts, it was the most absurd: a new capital in inland Brazil, constructed without regard for the country's present or past; a crowdless, cultureless monument not to the nation that built it but to an abstract idea of what a great city should be. It was conceived by Juscelino Kubitschek, Brazil's president from 1956 to 1961, whose home in the new city was dubbed the Dawn Palace. "What else will Brasilia be," he explained, "if not the dawn of the new day of Brazil?"

Brasilia lacks the public squares and corridor streets that dominate the nation's other cities. It has none of the flexible spaces that allow for a vibrant civic life, for barrio loyalties and neighborhood chauvinism, for street festivals and—ahem—spontaneous street demonstrations. Instead it contains huge concrete apartment buildings and gigantic, lifeless squares. It is a city with lots of open space and no crowds to fill it; a city, to quote James Scott's excellent Seeing Like a State, of "architectural repetition and uniformity. Here is a case where what seems like rationality and legibility to those working in administration and urban services seems like mystifying disorder for the ordinary residents who must navigate the city. Brasilia has no landmarks."

But it still exists, and people still live there; it does not rot in the jungle like an ancient ruin. It persists because it takes more to build a city than a few self-styled geniuses with a plan. You need construction workers, and they need places to live. The workers "soon squatted on additional land," notes Scott, "on which they built makeshift houses….By 1980, 75 percent of the population of Brasilia lived in settlements that had never been anticipated, while the planned city had reached less than half of its projected population of 557,000."

The Brasilia of the planners' dreams is an imaginary city, an abstraction poorly realized by the actual and imperfect urban landscape. Its concrete blocks and behemoth squares still stand, but they could not exist without a secret city to sustain them: the squatters' and ex-squatters' more anarchic settlements, the capital's shadowy double.

For Scott, a Yale professor of political science and anthropology, Brasilia symbolizes the hubris of "high modernism," the belief that experts can rationally design an optimal social order without regard for tradition or accident. The "simplifying fiction" of high modernism, Scott writes, "is that, for any activity or process that comes under its scrutiny, there is only one thing going on. In the scientific forest there is only commercial wood being grown; in the planned city there is only the efficient movement of goods and people; in the housing estate there is only the efficient delivery of shelter, heat, sewage, and water; in the planned hospital there is only the swift provision of professional medical services." The advantages of such simplifications are obvious. Indeed, planning of any kind would be impossible without them. The trouble begins when you mistake your simplification for the reality that you're simplifying—when, as the trendies used to say, you confuse the map with the territory, ignoring the much more complex order that your charts obscure.

Brasilia's unplanned shadow city represents something else, something Scott calls "metis." Metis is rooted in local knowledge and practical experience; it rarely turns up on the high modernists' maps and graphs. It is empirical, open-ended, and more interested in specific objects and events than in abstract categories. Metis is concerned with this oak, not all trees; that patch of soil, not all potential farmland. It is not anti-scientific, and it will adopt the fruits of scientific research when they are appropriate. When colonists introduced crops from the New World to Africa, indigenous farmers quickly began growing those that fit local conditions. But they steadfastly resisted the colonists' efforts to wipe out the natives' time-tested agricultural techniques in favor of "scientific" models more appropriate for the plains of Kansas.

High modernism, unlike metis, has a hard time incorporating knowledge discovered in other ways—especially knowledge that, in practical application, rejects the modernists' aesthetic preference for visual order. Few planners would care to admit that they might have something to learn from the Brazilian barrios or African tribes they rule. Or, to pick an example that's closer to home, the businesses they regulate. Or the workers they manage.

This is particularly true, Scott argues, if their high modernist plans and administrative order are buttressed by two other factors: an authoritarian state able to impose the plans and a supine civil society unable to resist them. It is such circumstances that allow such terrors as the Soviet and Nazi holocausts.

Metis, by contrast, flourishes—well, everywhere, but especially in what Scott calls "nonstate spaces," areas outside the government's effective control, set off by geographic or cultural barriers. "A major objective of would-be rulers," he writes, "was to create and then expand state spaces by building irrigation works, capturing subjects in wars, forcing settlement, codifying religion, and so on." And, more deeply, by rendering those nonstate spaces and the people who live there legible to their bureaucratic overseers. Nomadic bands do not fit on high modernist maps, or even those of less hubristic administrators. Therefore, they must be settled. Rooted communities can also pose problems, with their inscrutable customs, mysterious languages, and opaque forms of property ownership. So they must be invaded, homogenized, and, if necessary, resettled.

Scott describes several examples of this process; one is the enclosure of common lands. Most "common" lands were, in fact, extremely complex property arrangements, in which different families' use rights were based on a multitude of local factors. (Such complicated interactions exist in the First World today as well, though we don't recognize them as such. It's not unusual, for example, to own the mineral rights to a piece of land without owning the surface rights. The common law allows all sorts of easements and rights-of-way that would not exist in a world of pure fee-simple ownership. A modern business can be owned by a large group of people with different levels of control over how the enterprise is managed, while those who run it from day to day—the managers and employees—have a set of contractual rights over the enterprise without exercising actual ownership. You can sell a single share but you can't exert much authority with it; you can't sell your job, but you can use it to exercise a lot of control.)

The people within the common lands understand local property tenure well. Outsiders have more trouble making sense of it, especially outsiders whom the locals would have a good reason to deceive. One of the biggest forces behind the compulsory enclosures, Scott argues, was the tax collectors, who wanted a more detailed and accurate map of who owned and owed what.

So before enclosure, people had a carefully specific, constantly evolving bundle of rights to the land. Enclosure meant the expropriation of those rights and the imposition of a system that was far more efficient from the tax collector's point of view than from the producer's. The new system was no less complex: It's just that the burden of the complexity fell on a different group's shoulders. The old system favored local knowledge. The new favored professional knowledge. Power shifted from those who knew the land to those who knew the law.

Now consider the Soviet collectivization of agriculture, a disastrous high modernist project that killed millions. Brilliantly, Scott casts this as another conquest of nonstate spaces—in this case, Russian peasant communities. The tillers had already thrown out their old overlords, seizing the land of the church and gentry and redistributing it within the pre-existing framework of the peasant commune. In other words, they had largely solved the old problem of feudal inequality without making themselves legible to outside authority. This may have been in line with the Bolsheviks' revolutionary rhetoric, but it didn't sit well with their revolutionary practice, which was committed to central planning, state building, and administrative order. (Scott devotes an interesting chapter to Lenin's theory of the vanguard party, comparing the revolutionary's high-modernist assumptions to some less authoritarian views of revolt.) Lenin legalized the peasants' land seizures but "had no doubt that peasant smallholdings must eventually be abolished in favor of large, socialized farms."

So Stalin launched what amounted to a war, replacing old villages with new collective farms designed along high modernist lines—a series of mini-Brasilias. The state assaulted the peasant way of life, confiscating harvests, eradicating old folkways, and killing its foes with impunity. The result was serfdom and starvation, a system devastating for the peasants but profitable for the Soviet elite, whose control of the countryside was now assured. (Of course, they didn't completely annihilate the peasants' informal institutions. Otherwise, all of Russia would have starved to death long ago.)

Lest readers assume that this had more to do with the moral deficiencies of Stalin than with the innate flaws of high modernism, Scott also discusses Julius Nyerere's efforts to "villagize" the population of Tanzania. Unlike Stalin, Nyerere was an undeniably well-meaning leader; he even hoped, initially, that his people would move into his so-called ujamaa villages of their own free will. But most Tanzanian tribesmen refused, for perfectly good reasons, to be settled. The voluntary program soon became compulsory: People were forced into the villages, the villages themselves lost their early autonomy, and thousands died.

None of this is to glorify traditional society, which contains many gross injustices of its own. But—and Scott does not explore this as much as he could have—the state is not necessarily the best means for redressing those injustices. Statism substitutes one form of inequality for another, leaving future generations to determine which poison was worse. But change can come from within the traditional community as well, by evolution or by revolution; or from the interaction of that community with the outside world, through trade and cultural exchange.

Traditional cultures, contrary to stereotype, are remarkably flexible and dynamic. They are constantly evolving, constantly examining, adopting, and discarding the tools and practices of other peoples. And they contain their own contentious divisions, sometimes leading to uprisings. Such revolts are capable of eliminating local injustices without also destroying the folkways that make the community resilient and strong. (The Russian peasants' revolution is a case in point.)

Scott is ambivalent about markets, noting that they can standardize cultural diversity as surely as the state can. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is a difference between institutions that evolve as communities trade with one another—the Law Merchant, standardized weights and measures, etc.—and institutions imposed by force from above. The latter are coercive and homogenizing. The former are more plural, more syncretic; they represent not the obliteration of local cultures but the evolution of those cultures over time.

Of course, "the market" can mean different things. Business interests often use the state to standardize things that the population would otherwise let be. The most obvious example of this is, again, compulsory enclosure. Enclosures continue to be imposed to this day in the Third World, where they are sometimes promoted as a "market reform." They have less to do with free action or free enterprise than with granting favored companies access to indigenous peoples' lands and the natural resources they contain; or to the natives' labor, as they are forced from their small plots or nomadic paths and compelled to eke out a living in a factory or on a plantation.

The difference is those simplifying fictions. A mercantile state can get in the habit of seeing things through a market lens, eliminating informal institutions that can't be expressed in cash. Commerce itself need not do this: The point of trade is for people to satisfy their subjective needs through exchange, not to substitute exchange for those subjective needs.

That distinction sometimes seems lost on Scott, who at one point criticizes F.A. Hayek for treating markets as though they were "natural." I'm sure this book will find an audience among those opposed to virtually any international trade; John Gray, the conservative philosopher, has already endorsed it warmly, though with the proviso that he wishes it were harder on the global marketplace. To judge from a few off-the-cuff remarks in the book, Scott might be glad to oblige him next time.

No matter. Once one has distinguished high modernism from metis, one can bend that distinction to any number of ideological ends. Seeing Like a State remains a tremendous achievement, easily one of the most impressive and important books of recent years.