Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Seeing Like A State

I recently finished reading cover to cover one of the most excellent books written in the last 25 years, James Scott's Seeing Like A State. The basic point of this book is to discuss how what Scott calls "High Modernism" has failed the people it was meant to help. Using such widespread examples as scientific forestry in Germany, the architecture of Le Corbusier, and Soviet collectivation, Scott argues that high modernism has failed because it attempts to simplify society in order that it can be controlled by a top-down bureaucracy.

I don't necessarily agree with everything in this book but I think it is extremely important for everyone concerned with social change to read. For it has great meaning for us who are interested in this. How are we to change the world if not from the top. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have lost the oppositional model to capitalism. Of course in a lot of ways it's good that the Soviets fell--it's not like that was any kind of ideal state. But at least they supported people like Castro and the Sandinistas in their efforts for social change. Since 1991, we have been searching for some kind of model to fight with against unbridled capitalism. And while we've been doing this, the right has been pushing supply-side economics around the world and beating our asses all across the world. Many social activists have moved from the big to the small over the last decade, that is from promoting widespread social change around the world, perhaps through state socialism or communism to focusing on changing individual communities through small projects. Organic farming and community organizing are important, don't get me wrong. But they ain't going to stop W and the Boys from turning the world into a giant supply-side quagmire.

If we're not going to organize on a grand scale and press for changes on the level of the nation, will anything ever get done?

As for the book itself, it's really difficult to argue with Scott. I mean it's pretty clear that collectivation was bad and that part of the purpose of it was for Stalin to control the peasants. And its clear to many of us today that monoculture agriculture is a complete disaster, though that doesn't stop agribusiness from pushing it. But on the other hand, by not embracing the positives of modernism, Scott doesn't really leave us with a lot to work with I think. Now Scott does mention several times how modernist projects have helped society, etc. etc. But he never goes into what the alternatives are to high modernism. How is a state really supposed to organize agricultural production to feed its cities? How are we to produce the wood we need to wipe our asses with? How are we to organize cities where we can concentrate people in a functioning urban area without incredible sprawl? These issues are really important. Are governments really able to leave food production up to traditional local practices without any direction from the top? That seems as great of a recipe for starvation as forcing people off their land and making them farm monocrop new land.

Basically, this is a brillant and wonderful book but it comes up short in proposing what we use to build an alternative to either top-down high modernism or unregulated capitalism. Saying that we should take local knowledge into account is fine and good but how exactly are we do that? I don't know and I don't really think Scott does either.

One other point--this book is actually pretty dangerous because it could give the right ammo in their fight to destroy every shread of human decency in this world because they could use this book to say that schemes to help people inevitably fail and therefore we shouldn't do anything and let the market take care of anything. Of course this is unlikely because Republicans usually aren't smart enough to read and understand a book such as this. Also, one could point out that Iraq is nothing but not an exercise in high modernism, with the United States going in and imposing a type of government and economic system on the Iraqis without any concern for local practices or customs. And not surprisingly, like other high modernist projects Scott discusses, it's a complete failure.

In any case, I can't recommend this book enough because while it has some shortcomings, it at least gets us started thinking about real alternatives for fighting against the right.