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Customer Review

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An inspiring critique of 'high-modernist' ideology, 15 Dec. 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale Agrarian Studies) (Hardcover)
This is one of the most brilliant and inspiring books that I've read in a long time. James C. Scott's thesis is that states, driven by both the need to make the societies they govern legible for tax and control purposes, and by an ideology and aesthetic that equates functional order and progress with real order, systematically transform social realities. Moreover, they often do this to the detriment of their peoples and bring about long-term damage to the environment. One important human loss in this process is the erosion of practical skills and local knowledge in the fact of a hegemony of scientific knowledge and educated technical expertise. It would be hard to do justice to Scott's work in a few lines. He illustrates his thesis with a variety of case studies: Enlightenment scientific forestry, modernist town planning inspired by Le Corbusier, the disagreement between Lenin and Luxemburg on revolutionary agency, Soviet collectivisation of agriculture, compulsory villagisation in Tanzania and agriculture in the Third World. The whole amounts to a pretty devastating critique of a whole way of looking at the world, a top-down modernist perspective that ignores the lived experience and judgement of those whose interests are supposedly being furthered. Some might think that Scott's message is old news, a rehash of Hayekian critiques of central planning. Whilst there are many points in common, Scott is addressing a wider syndrome. The practical judgement, skill and local knowledge of peasants, educators, workers and those in many other walks of life , is at risk not only from state bureaucrats but also from the global capitalist market. Buyers for supermarkets, for instance, ride roughshod over the expertise of local farmers by perhaps requiring that they grow crops unsuited for their region. The only way of doing this successfully is to make extensive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Whilst bureaucrats and visionaries armed with scientific knowledge seek to construct and ordered and clean world, we can at least take some comfort in Scott's documenting of the fact that these plans never really work. The ceteris paribus conditions that hold in the lab, fail to hold in the world where ceteris is never paribus. The needs that city planners plan for are always far to simply understood by them - real city life being a far more complex order than planners comprehend (Scott draws on Jane Jacobs here). In reality these utopian schemes always foster a 'dark twin' a parallel to the constitutional order in which cunning, barter, improvisation and compromise are reintroduced to compensate for the defects in the model. Read this book: the next time a manager with a clipboard talks to you about the need for 'total quality assurance' (or some similar phrase) and dismisses your years of practical experience and judgement, you'll understand a little better where they're coming from and how to fight them.
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