James Scott, Ph.D., Yale University, is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, has held grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and has been a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Science, Science, Technology and Society Program at M.I.T., and the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism.
This book is a “case against the imperialism of high-modernist, planned social order” (6). Scott advocates that local knowledge (metis, knowledge that comes only through practical experience) is necessary for any plan’s success. In studying sedentarization, Scott found the state tries “to make a society legible” (2) for taxing, conscription, and against rebellion. Modern European statecraft’s dedication to rationalization has had major impacts on society and the environment. In some cases, these reason-led planning schemes have been major disasters, including China’s Great Leap Forward, Russian collectivization, compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique, and Ethiopia are “among the great human tragedies of the 20th century” (3). Less dramatic are the agricultural schemes and the new cities of Brasília and Chandigarh.
“Legibility is a condition of manipulation” (183).
However, when there are disasters, they require this “pernicious combination of four elements” (4):
- “administrative ordering of nature and society” (4)
- “high modernist ideology” at the state level, namely, an overweening belief in modernity, science, reason. This view is wholly uncritical of modernism and when challenged, retreats into projects of “miniaturization”
- an authoritarian state that uses its total power for the scheme’s implementation
- a “prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these [the authoritarian state’s] plans” (5)
Ironically, the tragedies of high-modernism were so in two ways. First, the modernists were profoundly arrogant and hubristic. And yet, second, their motivations were well-intentioned; they wanted to make the human condition better. Modernist experts thought they were much more informed than they really were, as well as much smarter than their truly knowledgeable and competent subjects. They consistently sought aesthetic order, and this dimension consistently wound up substituting, per Jacobs (1961) visual order for the real, social thing.
Scott hails Jacobs for her thoughts on diversity and local social knowledge. Evoking her and metis, he makes the following recommendations (345):
- “take small steps” – move, observe, act advisedly
- “favor reversibility” – if you can’t reverse the intervention, you can’t reverse its effects
- “plan on surprises” – design in flexibility
- “plan on human inventiveness” – assume people can improve on things with eventual knowledge gained