Scott, James C.. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (The Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
I will offer instead some of my highlights and notes I took while reading it. This is a book with a somewhat narrow focus on “authoritarian high-modernism” (a wonderful phrase) in the context of states, but just a little bit of contemplation goes a long way to form an expansive reconsideration of authority in almost any social organization.
The extensive notes section occupies nearly one-third of the book and is filled with hundreds of references to other works and research as well as many more candid thoughts from the author.
If I can provide crucial context or an insight I gained, I will give a brief preface to a particular passage. All emphasis in quotations is original.
Overall, Seeing Like a State pairs well with some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas about antifragility, skin in the game, and the precautionary principle in relation to fat-tail events (“black swans”). Scott, however, is a refined, disciplined scholar and writes clear, powerful prose to communicate his keen, synthetic insights.
Scott is also a master storyteller and saves the theory and philosophy for last. By then, they have subtle and satisfying flavors—delicious notes at the end of an intriguing intellectual feast. Please enjoy.
Scott explains the origins of the central ideas of the book. One prominent theme is the simplification needed by authoritarian state actors in order to make complex realities “legible”.
The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.
These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, rather like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. They were, moreover, not just maps. Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade.
Authoritarian high-modernism is another central theme. p. 4:
The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived 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. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.
High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term “ideology” implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production.
Scott uses the terms schematic and synoptic often in the first half of the book when identifying the characteristics of states and their necessarily summary outlook. p. 6:
Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.
Part 1: State Projects of Legibility and Simplification
This part examines so-called “scientific forestry”, its origins and its effects in several contexts, but especially late 19th century Germany. The forestry becomes a metaphor for many other forms of rationalization and simplification of otherwise complex natural and emergent phenomena. p. 21:
The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.
The book is peppered with powerful and succinct commentary from others who have studied second-order effects of high modernist ideology. p. 45:
“Administrative man recognizes that the world he perceives is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. He is content with the gross simplification because he believes that the real world is mostly empty—that most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any particular situation he is facing and that most significant chains of causes and consequences are short and simple.” —Herbert Simon
What and how an authority measures is what and how it will be transformed. p. 47:
The shorthand formulas through which tax officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they frequently have the power to transform the facts they take note of.
Scott contrasts early state functions with modern state functions. p. 51:
Where the premodern state was content with a level of intelligence sufficient to allow it to keep order, extract taxes, and raise armies, the modern state increasingly aspired to “take in charge” the physical and human resources of the nation and make them more productive.
An abbreviated history of surnames and their role in helping a state “know” about its subjects through census, taxation, and cadastral mapping. p. 65:
The invention of permanent, inherited patronyms was, after the administrative simplification of nature (for example, the forest) and space (for example, land tenure), the last step in establishing the necessary preconditions of modern statecraft. In almost every case it was a state project, designed to allow officials to identify, unambiguously, the majority of its citizens. When successful, it went far to create a legible people.
Reductionism, summaries, and statistics are necessary parts of modern statecraft, but these tools do not measure the things that matter to the people of the state, instead, they measure what is measurable (sometimes corresponding to what the state actually wants to measure, but often a proxy) to the administrators of the state. p. 76–77:
The functionary of any large organization “sees” the human activity that is of interest to him largely through the simplified approximations of documents and statistics…
These typifications are indispensable to statecraft. State simplifications such as maps, censuses, cadastral lists, and standard units of measurement represent techniques for grasping a large and complex reality; in order for officials to be able to comprehend aspects of the ensemble, that complex reality must be reduced to schematic categories. The only way to accomplish this is to reduce an infinite array of detail to a set of categories that will facilitate summary descriptions, comparisons, and aggregation.
The modern state, through its officials, attempts with varying success to create a terrain and a population with precisely those standardized characteristics that will be easiest to monitor, count, assess, and manage. The utopian, immanent, and continually frustrated goal of the modern state is to reduce the chaotic, disorderly, constantly changing social reality beneath it to something more closely resembling the administrative grid of its observations.
Scott makes a compelling case throughout the book that a state that succeeds in bending society to fit its synoptic metrics usually does so by breaking society away from a more desirable reality.
Part 2: Transforming Visions
This part examines the effect of planned cities, taking from several notable examples from Le Corbusier’s designs. It also examines the soviet revolution and dictatorship of Lenin.
An illustration of the necessarily summary effect of mapping, and a hint at the law of unintended consequences of mapping. p. 87:
A city map that aspired to represent every traffic light, every pothole, every building, and every bush and tree in every park would threaten to become as large and as complex as the city that it depicted. And it certainly would defeat the purpose of mapping, which is to abstract and summarize. A map is an instrument designed for a purpose. We may judge that purpose noble or morally offensive, but the map itself either serves or fails to serve its intended use.
In case after case, however, we have remarked on the apparent power of maps to transform as well as merely to summarize the facts that they portray. This transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.
Scott is careful with the generalizations he makes. In fact, he’s often frustratingly restrained when it comes to making inferences. Sometimes his inferences do show. Here we have perhaps the clearest definition of high modernism in the book. p. 89–90:
Utopian aspirations per se are not dangerous. As Oscar Wilde remarked, “A map of the world which does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” Where the utopian vision goes wrong is when it is held by ruling elites with no commitment to democracy or civil rights and who are therefore likely to use unbridled state power for its achievement. Where it goes brutally wrong is when the society subjected to such utopian experiments lacks the capacity to mount a determined resistance.
What is high modernism, then? It is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws.
High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity. If, as we have seen, the simplified, utilitarian descriptions of state officials had a tendency, through the exercise of state power, to bring the facts into line with their representations, then one might say that the high-modern state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.
With such a synoptic view of society, those in power face a huge temptation to remake the institutions of the people to fit their simplified models. p. 92:
The scope of intervention was potentially endless. Society became an object that the state might manage and transform with a view toward perfecting it. A progressive nation-state would set about engineering its society according to the most advanced technical standards of the new moral sciences. The existing social order, which had been more or less taken by earlier states as a given, reproducing itself under the watchful eye of the state, was for the first time the subject of active management. It was possible to conceive of an artificial, engineered society designed, not by custom and historical accident, but according to conscious, rational, scientific criteria.
Another borrowed phrase: “streamline”. p. 93
One of the great paradoxes of social engineering is that it seems at odds with the experience of modernity generally. Trying to jell a social world, the most striking characteristic of which appears to be flux, seems rather like trying to manage a whirlwind. Marx was hardly alone in claiming that the “constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social relations, everlasting uncertainty and agitation, distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier times.” The experience of modernity (in literature, art, industry, transportation, and popular culture) was, above all, the experience of disorienting speed, movement, and change, which self-proclaimed modernists found exhilarating and liberating. Perhaps the most charitable way of resolving this paradox is to imagine that what these designers of society had in mind was roughly what designers of locomotives had in mind with “streamlining.” Rather than arresting social change, they hoped to design a shape to social life that would minimize the friction of progress. The difficulty with this resolution is that state social engineering was inherently authoritarian. In place of multiple sources of invention and change, there was a single planning authority; in place of the plasticity and autonomy of existing social life, there was a fixed social order in which positions were designated. The tendency toward various forms of “social taxidermy” was unavoidable.
A central theme of the book: high modernist (authoritarian, scientific, centralized) beliefs tend to discount local “traditional” knowledge gained through long experience.
These passages are among the most powerful critiques of the high modernist philosophy. p. 93–94:
The troubling features of high modernism derive, for the most part, from its claim to speak about the improvement of the human condition with the authority of scientific knowledge and its tendency to disallow other competing sources of judgment.
First and foremost, high modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition. Insofar as rational thought and scientific laws could provide a single answer to every empirical question, nothing ought to be taken for granted. All human habits and practices that were inherited and hence not based on scientific reasoning—from the structure of the family and patterns of residence to moral values and forms of production—would have to be reexamined and redesigned. The structures of the past were typically the products of myth, superstition, and religious prejudice. It followed that scientifically designed schemes for production and social life would be superior to received tradition.
The sources of this view are deeply authoritarian. If a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside. Strong versions of high modernism, such as those held by Lenin and Le Corbusier, cultivated an Olympian ruthlessness toward the subjects of their interventions. At its most radical, high modernism imagined wiping the slate utterly clean and beginning from zero.
High-modernist ideology thus tends to devalue or banish politics. Political interests can only frustrate the social solutions devised by specialists with scientific tools adequate to their analysis. As individuals, high modernists might well hold democratic views about popular sovereignty or classical liberal views about the inviolability of a private sphere that restrained them, but such convictions are external to, and often at war with, their high-modernist convictions.
Scott uses many examples of how high modernism takes over functional, flexible, organic systems and makes them dysfunctional, rigid, and authoritarian. This section studies urban planning, particularly the later work of Le Corbusier.
Urban planners (of high-modernist views) design “rational” and legible cities, easy to understand from a bird’s-eye view, but which fail to create what people love about cities. The rich diversity and complex interactions that form when humans try to solve their own problems at small scale often have interesting and beneficial second and third order effects that could not have been predicted. Likewise, the inverse frequently has the opposite effect, also at second and third orders. p. 133:
A fundamental mistake that urban planners made, Jacobs claims, was to infer functional order from the duplication and regimentation of building forms: that is, from purely visual order. Most complex systems, on the contrary, do not display a surface regularity; their order must be sought at a deeper level. “To see complex systems of functional order as order, and not as chaos, takes understanding. The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a rabbit, the city desk of a newspaper, all appear to be chaos if they are seen without comprehension. Once they are seen as systems of order, they actually look different.”
Like the diverse old-growth forest, a richly differentiated neighborhood with many kinds of shops, entertainment centers, services, housing options, and public spaces is, virtually by definition, a more resilient and durable neighborhood. Economically, the diversity of its commercial “bets” (everything from funeral parlors and public services to grocery stores and bars) makes it less vulnerable to economic downturns. At the same time its diversity provides many opportunities for economic growth in upturns. Like monocropped forests, single-purpose districts, although they may initially catch a boom, are especially susceptible to stress. The diverse neighborhood is more sustainable.
p. 139, 140:
For Jacobs, the city as a social organism is a living structure that is constantly changing and springing surprises. Its interconnections are so complex and dimly understood that planning always risks unknowingly cutting into its living tissue, thereby damaging or killing vital social processes. …
The core of Jacobs’s case against modern city planning was that it placed a static grid over this profusion of unknowable possibilities. …
The magisterial assumption behind the doctrines of many urban planners—that they know what people want and how people should spend their time—seems to Jacobs shortsighted and arrogant.
These urban planners backed by state power are rather like tailors who are not only free to invent whatever suit of clothes they wish but also free to trim the customer so that he fits the measure.
We now turn to Lenin’s communist revolution. Other revolutionaries did not agree with Lenin’s authoritarian approach to revolution and his synoptic view of not only the bourgeois but also the proletariat. p. 153:
Just as Le Corbusier imagines that the public will acquiesce to the knowledge and calculations of the master architect, so Lenin is confident that a sensible worker will want to place himself under the authority of professional revolutionists.
The relationship depicted is so asymmetrical that one is even tempted to compare it to the relation that a craftsman has to his raw material. A woodworker or a mason must know his inert materials well in order to realize his designs. In Lenin’s case, the relative inertness of the material being shaped is implied by the global imagery of “the masses” or “the proletariat.” Once these flattened terms are used, it becomes difficult to examine the enormous differences in history, political experience, organizational skills, and ideology (not to mention religion, ethnicity, and language) that exist within the working class.
Revolutions may benefit “the people” for a while, but always benefit those who seize power afterward. p. 160:
After seizing state power, the victors have a powerful interest in moving the revolution out of the streets and into the museums and schoolbooks as quickly as possible, lest the people decide to repeat the experience.
In this respect, Lenin joins many of his capitalist contemporaries in his enthusiasm for Fordist and Taylorist production technology. What was rejected by Western trade unions of the time as a “de-skilling” of an artisanal workforce was embraced by Lenin as the key to rational state planning. There is, for Lenin, a single, objectively correct, efficient answer to all questions of how to rationally design production or administration.
Contrasting two revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Vladimir I. Lenin:
For Lenin, the totality was exclusively in the hands of the vanguard party, which had a virtual monopoly of knowledge. He imagined an all-seeing center—an eye in the sky, as it were—which formed the basis for strictly hierarchical operations in which the proletariat became mere foot soldiers or pawns. For Luxemburg, the party might well be more farsighted than the workers, but it would nevertheless be constantly surprised and taught new lessons by those whom it presumed to lead.
This is a critical insight with broad applicability. Scott introduces the term mētis here and begins to contrast it with “imperial” scientific knowledge, which is tightly controlled and can only account for one or two variables. p. 177–178:
Such tasks [i.e., creating revolutions and new forms of production] are voyages in uncharted waters. There may be some rules of thumb, but there can be no blueprints or battle plans drawn up in advance; the numerous unknowns in the equation make a one-step solution inconceivable. In more technical language, such goals can be approached only by a stochastic process of successive approximations, trial and error, experiment, and learning through experience. The kind of knowledge required in such endeavors is not deductive knowledge from first principles but rather what Greeks of the classical period called mētis, a concept to which we shall return. Usually translated, inadequately, as “cunning,” mētis is better understood as the kind of knowledge that can be acquired only by long practice at similar but rarely identical tasks, which requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances. …
Given the uncertainty of the endeavor, a plurality of experiments and initiatives will best reveal which lines of attack are fruitful and which are barren. The revolution and socialism will fare best, as will Jacobs’s city, when they are joint productions between technicians and gifted, experienced amateurs. Above all, there is no strict distinction between means and ends.
Part 3: The Social Engineering of Rural Settlement and Production
This part focuses mainly on land collectivization, with interesting histories from Malaysia, Africa, and Russia. These stories support the theme of “legibility” from another angle. The bulk of my notes and highlights were from this section. p. 183:
Legibility is a condition of manipulation. Any substantial state intervention in society—to vaccinate a population, produce goods, mobilize labor, tax people and their property, conduct literacy campaigns, conscript soldiers, enforce sanitation standards, catch criminals, start universal schooling—requires the invention of units that are visible. The units in question might be citizens, villages, trees, fields, houses, or people grouped according to age, depending on the type of intervention. Whatever the units being manipulated, they must be organized in a manner that permits them to be identified, observed, recorded, counted, aggregated, and monitored. The degree of knowledge required would have to be roughly commensurate with the depth of the intervention. In other words, one might say that the greater the manipulation envisaged, the greater the legibility required to effect it.
It was precisely this phenomenon, which had reached full tide by the middle of the nineteenth century, that Proudhon had in mind when he declared, “To be ruled is to be kept an eye on, inspected, spied on, regulated, indoctrinated, sermonized, listed and checked off, estimated, appraised, censured, ordered about. … To be ruled is at every operation, transaction, movement, to be noted, registered, counted, priced, admonished, prevented, reformed, redressed, corrected.”
On Russia’s long history of authoritarian regimes. p: 194:
This attempt to create a new Russia, in contrast to the disorder, mobility, and flux of a frontier society, quickly succumbed to popular resistance, corruption, and inefficiency. Long before the Bolsheviks took power, in any case, the historical landscape was littered with the wreckage of many miscarried experiments in authoritarian social planning.
A transformation of the physical world was not, however, the only item on the Bolshevik agenda. It was a cultural revolution that they sought, the creation of a new person. Members of the secular intelligentsia were the most devoted partisans of this aspect of the revolution. Campaigns to promote atheism and to suppress Christian rituals were pressed in the villages.
The soviet experiment required major changes from the peasantry—those least likely to benefit and most likely to lose from the new order. p. 197:
As we shall see later, the industrial model was applicable to some, but not all, of agriculture. It was nonetheless applied indiscriminately as a creed rather than a scientific hypothesis to be examined skeptically. The modernist confidence in huge scale, centralization of production, standardized mass commodities, and mechanization was so hegemonic in the leading sector of industry that it became an article of faith that the same principles would work, pari passu, in agriculture.
Collectivization was meant to spell the end of the peasantry and its way of life. The introduction of a socialist economy entailed a cultural revolution as well; the “dark” narod, the peasants who were perhaps the great remaining, intractable threat to the Bolshevik state, were to be replaced by rational, industrious, de-Christianized, progressive-thinking kolkhoz [collective farm] workers.
The initial intent of collectivization was not just to crush the resistance of well-to-do peasants and grab their land; it was also to dismantle the social unit through which that resistance was expressed: the mir [village commune].
On moving peasants into collectives; I’m sure Nassim Nicolas Taleb would point out the fragility created through centralization. p. 217:
In place of a peasantry that was technically independent, it had created a peasantry that was directly dependent on the state for combines and tractors, fertilizer, and seeds.
To the state, the illegibility of the peasantry was an obstacle to its continued growth and power. To the peasantry, the state was an obstacle to their livelihood and way of life. p. 218:
The bitter fact was that the Soviet state faced an exceptionally diverse population of commune-based smallholders whose economic and social affairs were nearly unintelligible to the center. These circumstances offered some strategic advantages to a peasantry waging a quiet guerrilla war (punctuated by open revolt) against state claims. The state, under the existing property regime, could only look forward to a bruising struggle for grain each year, with no assurance of success.
Stalin chose this moment to strike a decisive blow. He imposed a designed and legible rural landscape that would be far more amenable to appropriation, control, and central transformation.
One purpose of collectivization was to destroy these economic and social units, which were hostile to state control, and to force the peasantry into an institutional straitjacket of the state’s devising.
A succinct view of high modernism. p. 220:
High-modernist ideologies embody a doctrinal preference for certain social arrangements. Authoritarian high-modernist states, on the other hand, take the next step. They attempt, and often succeed, in imposing those preferences on their population. Most of the preferences can be deduced from the criteria of legibility, appropriation, and centralization of control.
And legibility at the scale of the state. p. 220:
Legibility, after all, is a prerequisite of appropriation as well as of authoritarian transformation. The difference, and it is a crucial one, lies in the wholly new scale of ambition and intervention entertained by high modernism.
Again, Scott gives even treatment. He says several times throughout the book that—in essence—“it’s not all evil”. But Scott’s view is that because most people only see the benefits to the state and other elites, highlighting the negative effects of such centralization of power and decision-making might prick the conscience just a bit. It’s important to differentiate where centralized, authoritarian decisions can help and where the cause harm. p. 221:
It is apparent that centralized high-modernist solutions can be the most efficient, equitable, and satisfactory for many tasks. Space exploration, the planning of transportation networks, flood control, airplane manufacturing, and other endeavors may require huge organizations minutely coordinated by a few experts. The control of epidemics or of pollution requires a center staffed by experts receiving and digesting standard information from hundreds of reporting units.
On the other hand, these methods seem singularly maladroit at such tasks as putting a really good meal on the table or performing surgery.
As in the “unimproved” forest, the existing patterns of settlement and social life in Tanzania were illegible and resistant to the narrow purposes of the state. Only by radically simplifying the settlement pattern was it possible for the state to efficiently deliver such development services as schools, clinics, and clean water.
Another characteristic of high-modernism is how captive it is to visual order. p. 224–225:
High-modernist plans tend to “travel” as an abbreviated visual image of efficiency that is less a scientific proposition to be tested than a quasi-religious faith in a visual sign or representation of order. As Jacobs suggested, they may substitute an apparent visual order for the real thing. The fact that they look right becomes more important than whether they work; or, better put, the assumption is that if the arrangement looks right, it will also, ipso facto, function well. The importance of such representations is manifested in a tendency to miniaturize, to create such microenvironments of apparent order as model villages, demonstration projects, new capitals, and so on.
Finally, like Soviet collectives, ujamaa villages were economic and ecological failures. For ideological reasons, the designers of the new society had paid virtually no attention to the local knowledge and practices of cultivators and pastoralists. They had also forgotten the most important fact about social engineering: its efficiency depends on the response and cooperation of real human subjects. If people find the new arrangement, however efficient in principle, to be hostile to their dignity, their plans, and their tastes, they can make it an inefficient arrangement.
I love the image of “social taxidermy” here. Scott illustrates the phrase elsewhere in the book, but the gist of it is a non-living thing designed to look just like a living thing, but incapable of doing what living things do. It can be applied to many high-modernist projects. p 227–228:
The lower Shire Valley project miscarried for two larger reasons that are crucial to our understanding of the limits of high-modernist planning. The first is that the planners operated with a model of the agricultural environment that was standardized for the entire valley. It was precisely this assumption that made it possible to specify the generic, and apparently permanent, solution of a particular dryland rotation for all cultivators. The solution was a static, freeze-frame answer to a dynamic and variegated valley environment. In contrast, the peasants possessed a flexible repertoire of strategies depending on the timing and extent of the floods, the microlocal soil compositions, and so on—strategies that were to some degree unique to each farmer, each plot of land, and to each growing season. The second reason behind the failure was that the planners also operated with a standardized model of the cultivators themselves, assuming that all peasants would desire roughly the same crop mix, techniques, and yields. Such an assumption completely ignored key variables, such as family size and composition, sideline occupations, gender divisions of labor, and culturally conditioned needs and tastes. The fact was that each family had its own particular mix of resources and goals that would affect its agricultural strategy year by year in ways that the overall plan did not provide for. As a plan, it was both aesthetically pleasing to its inventors and also precise and consistent within its own strict parameters. As a scheme for development, however, it was the kind of environmental and social taxidermy that doomed it almost from the start.
This may not strike people with modern sentiments as an odd statement. p. 229:
The second fatal premise in the design of the scheme was its “blind faith in machinery and large-scale operation.” The project’s founder, Frank Samuel, had a motto: “No operation will be performed by hand for which mechanical equipment is available.”
These passages relate to the coercion required to effect ujamaa villages in Tanzania in the 70s under Julius Nyerere. p. 231:
“Socialist communities cannot be established by compulsion,” he declared. They “can only be established with willing members; the task of leadership and of Government is not to try and force this kind of development, but to explain, encourage, and participate.” Later on, in 1973, having gauged the general resistance to villagization on government terms, Nyerere would change his mind. By then the seeds of coercion had been sown, by a politicized, authoritarian bureaucracy and also by Nyerere’s underlying conviction that the peasants did not know what was good for them.
If the peasants could not be persuaded to act in their own interest, they might have to be coerced.
Please do what we know is good for you, otherwise we will make you do it. p. 231:
While its authors hoped that “social emulation, cooperation, and the expansion of community development services” would transform attitudes, they warned darkly that “where incentives, emulation and propaganda are ineffective, enforcement or coercive measures of an appropriate sort will be considered.”
Villagization (to move rural people into villages) is one way a central government can “see” (count, number, identify, rationalize) their “resources”. States rarely consider that un-villagized people may live that way for good reasons they don’t understand. p. 235:
“Unless villagization can be coupled with infrastructural inputs to create a novel technology to master the environment, the nucleated settlement pattern may, by itself, be counter-productive in economic terms and destructive of the ecological balance maintained under the traditional settlement pattern. Nucleated settlement will mean over-crowding … with people and domestic animals and the accompanying soil erosion, gully formation, and dust bowls which are common features in situations where the human initiative has suddenly overtaxed the carrying capacity of the land”
Populist legitimacy under an authoritarian regime. p. 236:
Virtually all village meetings were oneway affairs of lectures, explanations, instructions, scoldings, promises, and warnings. The assembled villagers were expected to be what Sally Falk Moore has appropriately called “ratifying bodies public,” giving populist legitimacy to decisions made elsewhere. Far from achieving this populist legitimacy, the villagization campaign created only an alienated, skeptical, demoralized, and uncooperative peasantry for which Tanzania would pay a huge price, both financially and politically.
The co-opting of vocabulary is often used by management to remap a complex problem into a much simpler context, thereby avoiding the endless maze of nuance and subtlety. p. 237:
Thus it is that a term that has a specific, contextual meaning in one field (aerodynamics) comes to be generalized to subjects where its meaning is more visual and aesthetic than scientific.
This is a recurring theme: legibility, reduction, and simplification for the sake of administrations, managers, and supervisors. p. 243:
Monocropping and row planting vastly facilitate the work of administrators and agronomists. Both techniques facilitate inspection and calculations of acreage and yield; they greatly simplify field trials by minimizing the number of variables at play in any one field; they streamline the job of extension recommendations and the supervision of cultivation; and, finally, they simplify control of the harvest.
I love this description of authoritarian social engineering. p. 243–244:
Authoritarian social engineering is apt to display the full range of standard bureaucratic pathologies. The transformations it wishes to effect cannot generally be brought about without applying force or without treating nature and human subjects as if they were functions in a few administrative routines. Far from being regrettable anomalies, these behavioral by-products are inherent in high-modernist campaigns of this kind. I am purposely ignoring here the more obvious inhumanities that are inevitable whenever great power is placed in the hands of largely unaccountable state authorities who are under pressure from above to produce results despite popular resistance.
Scott makes an astute observation about civil servants who are tasked with implementing a social engineering effort. Don’t hit the target: move the target to where we are currently hitting. p. 244:
I stress two key elements of the bureaucratic response typified by the ujamaa village campaign: first, the civil servants’ inclination to reinterpret the campaign so that it called for results that they could more easily deliver, and second, their disposition to reinterpret the campaign in line with what was in their corporate interests.
A reminder that it’s not always about being short on time; sometimes we are simply doing the wrong thing, no matter how long it takes. p. 246:
The inhumanities of compulsory villagization were magnified by the deeply ingrained authoritarian habits of the bureaucracy and by the pell-mell rush of the campaign. To concentrate on such administrative and political shortcomings, however, is to miss the point. Even if the campaign had been granted more time, more technical skill, and a better “bedside manner,” the party-state could not possibly have assembled and digested the information necessary to make a fundamentally schematic plan succeed.
I fixed a minor typo here, but this is the epitome of Taleb’s “skin in the game” p. 247:
The failure of ujamaa villages was almost guaranteed by the high-modernist hubris of planners and specialists who believed that they alone knew how to organize a more satisfactory, rational, and productive life for their citizens. It should be noted that they did have something to contribute to what could have been a more fruitful development of the Tanzanian countryside. But their insistence that they had a monopoly on useful knowledge and that they impose this knowledge set the stage for disaster.
Not all collectivization schemes work out well (snark mine). p. 250:
The new settlements nearly always failed their inhabitants as human communities and as units of food production. The very fact of massive resettlement nullified a precious legacy of local agricultural and pastoral knowledge and, with it, some thirty to forty thousand functioning communities, most of them in regions that had regularly produced food surpluses.
Resettlement is like razing a forest and monocropping: far reaching damage to tiny and hidden ecosystems. p. 251:
It goes without saying that the farmer was familiar with each of several varieties of any crop, when to plant it, how deeply to sow it, how to prepare the soil, and how to tend and harvest it. This knowledge was place specific in the sense that the successful growing of any variety required local knowledge about rainfall and soils, down to and including the peculiarities of each plot the farmer cultivated. It was also place specific in the sense that much of this knowledge was stored in the collective memory of the locality: an oral archive of techniques, seed varieties, and ecological information.
“Thus, when a farmer from the highlands is transported to settlement camps in areas like Gambella, he is instantly transformed from an agricultural expert to an unskilled, ignorant laborer, completely dependent for his survival on the central government”
The destruction of social ties was almost as productive of famine as were the crop failures induced by poor planning and ignorance of the new agricultural environment. Communal ties, relations with kin and affines, networks of reciprocity and cooperation, local charity and dependence had been the principal means by which villagers had managed to survive periods of food shortage in the past. Stripped of these social resources by indiscriminate deportations, often separated from their immediate family and forbidden to leave, the settlers in the camps were far more vulnerable to starvation than they had been in their home regions.
Beware experts with no skin in the game. Skin in the game: pilots, chefs, surgeons, plumbers. No skin in the game: economists, advisers, consultants, policy-makers, politicians, planners. p. 253:
The conflict between the officials and specialists actively planning the future on one hand and the peasantry on the other has been billed by the first group as a struggle between progress and obscurantism, rationality and superstition, science and religion. Yet it is apparent from the high-modernist schemes we have examined that the “rational” plans they imposed were often spectacular failures.
Scott is generous to experts, more so than Taleb would be. p. 253–254:
If the plans for villagization were so rational and scientific, why did they bring about such general ruin? The answer, I believe, is that such plans were not scientific or rational in any meaningful sense of those terms. What these planners carried in their mind’s eye was a certain aesthetic, what one might call a visual codification of modern rural production and community life. Like a religious faith, this visual codification was almost impervious to criticism or discontinuing evidence.
In a given historical and social context—say, wheat growing by farmers breaking new ground on the plains of Kansas—many elements of this faith might have made sense. As a faith, however, it was generalized and applied uncritically in widely divergent settings with disastrous results.
Tanzanian peasants had, for example, been readjusting their settlement patterns and farming practices in accordance with climate changes, new crops, and new markets with notable success in the two decades before villagization. They seemed to have an eminently empirical, albeit cautious, outlook on their own practices. By contrast, specialists and politicians seemed to be in the unshakable grip of a quasi-religious enthusiasm made even more potent in being backed by the state.
Because the bearers of this visual codification saw themselves as self-conscious modernizers of their societies, their vision required a sharp and morally loaded contrast between what looked modern (tidy rectilinear, uniform, concentrated, simplified, mechanized) and what looked primitive (irregular, dispersed, complicated, unmechanized).
Elites love authoritarian high modernism, because they’re at the top, in charge, and suffer no negative consequences of their decisions but make sure they get credit when things go well. p. 254:
The image of a nation that might operate along these lines is enormously flattering to elites at the apex—and, of course, demeaning to a population whose role they thus reduce to that of ciphers.
Why re-orgs are so popular. p. 255–256:
It is far easier for would-be reformers to change the formal structure of an institution than to change its practices. Redesigning the lines and boxes in an organizational chart is simpler than changing how that organization in fact operates. Changing the rules and regulations is simpler than eliciting behavior that conforms to them.
Anyone who has worked in a formal organization—even a small one strictly governed by detailed rules—knows that handbooks and written guidelines fail utterly in explaining how the institution goes successfully about its work. Accounting for its smooth operation are nearly endless and shifting sets of implicit understandings, tacit coordinations, and practical mutualities that could never be successfully captured in a written code.
Another hint at the law of unintended consequences. p. 256:
A village, city, or language is the jointly created, partly unintended product of many, many hands. To the degree that authorities insist on replacing this ineffably complex web of activity with formal rules and regulations, they are certain to disrupt the web in ways that they cannot possibly foresee.
Without absolute control over a citizenry, even the best plans don’t work out as intended. p. 257:
The pretense of authoritarian high-modernist schemes to discipline virtually everything within their ambit is bound to encounter intractable resistance. Social inertia, entrenched privileges, international prices, wars, environmental change, to mention only a few factors, ensure that the results of high-modernist planning will look substantially different from what was originally imagined.
Models. p. 257–258:
Model villages, model cities, military colonies, show projects, and demonstration farms offer politicians, administrators, and specialists an opportunity to create a sharply defined experimental terrain in which the number of rogue variables and unknowns are minimized. If, of course, such experiments make it successfully from the pilot stage to general application, then they are a perfectly rational form of policy planning. There are advantages to miniaturization.
Just as substantive goals, the achievement of which are hard to measure, may be supplanted by thin, notional statistics—the number of villages formed, the number of acres plowed—so may they also be supplanted by microenvironments of modernist order.
Thin vs. thick, fragile vs. robust. p. 261:
The planned city, the planned village, and the planned language (not to mention the command economy) are, we have emphasized, likely to be thin cities, villages, and languages. They are thin in the sense that they cannot reasonably plan for anything more than a few schematic aspects of the inexhaustibly complex activities that characterize “thick” cities and villages. One all-but-guaranteed consequence of such thin planning is that the planned institution generates an unofficial reality—a “dark twin”—that arises to perform many of the various needs that the planned institution fails to fulfill.
The greater the pretense of and insistence on an officially decreed micro-order, the greater the volume of nonconforming practices necessary to sustain that fiction.
Monocropping has so many unintended consequences. p. 263:
In the monocropped field and single-species forest alike, the innumerable other members of the biotic community were ignored unless they had some direct bearing on the health and yield of the species to be harvested.
Scott points out that the narrow focus of the state often does achieve in some contexts what it wanted, but misses so much because of what we can’t see. p. 263:
This potent but narrow perspective is troubled both by certain inevitable blind spots and by phenomena that lie outside its restricted field of vision.
We turn our attention to modern agronomy. p. 264:
Its rigorous attention to productionist goals casts into relative obscurity all the outcomes lying outside the immediate relationship between farm inputs and yields. This means that both long-term outcomes (soil structure, water quality, land-tenure relations) and third-party effects, or what welfare economists call “externalities,” receive little attention until they begin to affect production. Finally, the very strength of scientific agricultural experimentation—its simplifying assumptions and its ability to isolate the impact of a single variable on total production—is incapable of dealing adequately with certain forms of complexity. It tends to ignore, or discount, agricultural practices that are not assimilable to its techniques.
And putting these ideas into context. p. 264:
Lest there be any misunderstanding about my purpose here, I want to emphasize that this is not a general offensive against modern agronomic science, let alone an attack on the culture of scientific research. Modern agronomic science, with its sophisticated plant breeding, plant pathology, analysis of plant nutrition, soil analysis, and technical virtuosity, is responsible for creating a fund of technical knowledge that is by now being used in some form by even the most traditional cultivators. My purpose, rather, is to show how the imperial pretensions of agronomic science—its inability to recognize or incorporate knowledge created outside its paradigm—sharply limited its utility to many cultivators. Whereas farmers, as we shall see, seem pragmatically alert to knowledge coming from any quarter should it serve their purposes, modern agricultural planners are far less receptive to other ways of knowing.
We breed and plant what we can pick with machines. We optimize our cultivars for mechanization. p. 267:
The production of uniformity in the field is best grasped, however, through the logic of mechanization. As factor prices in the West have, since at least 1950, favored the substitution of farm machinery for hired labor, the farmer has sought cultivars that were compatible with mechanization. That is, he selected crops whose architecture did not interfere with tractors or sprayers, which ripened uniformly, and which could be picked in a “once-over” pass of the machine.
Given the techniques of hybridization being developed at roughly the same time, it was but a short step to creating new crop varieties bred explicitly for mechanization. “Genetic variability,” as Jack Ralph Kloppenberg notes, “is the enemy of mechanization.”
Things science knows now, as small holdings farmers have always known. p. 268:
Crop mono-culture and genetic uniformity invite epidemics. All that is needed is the arrival on the scene of a parasite that can take advantage of the vulnerability.
In contrast, diversity is the enemy of epidemics. In a field with many species of plants, only a few individuals are likely to be susceptible to a given pathogen, and they are likely to be widely scattered. The mathematical logic of the epidemic is broken.
And the kicker, perhaps the strongest argument for caution with GMOs and the need for humility in science. Scott is discussing how monocrop failures through modern history have been saved. p. 270:
In this and many other cases, it was only the genetic diversity created by a long history of landrace development by nonspecialists that provided a way out.
A landrace is “a local cultivar or animal breed that has been improved by traditional agricultural methods.” (Apple macOS Sierra Dictionary, 2016).
Regarding the many large-scale, failed agricultural projects. p. 271:
While each failure had its own peculiarities, the level of abstraction at which most projects were conceived was fatal. Imported faith and abstraction prevailed, as we shall see, over close attention to the local context.
Regarding the no-brainer “it works here, it should work there”. p. 274:
Nothing better illustrates the myopic credo of high-modernist agriculture, originating in temperate zones and brought to the tropics, than its nearly unshakable faith in the superiority of monoculture over the practice of polyculture found in much of the Third World.
Western eyes taking in for the first time indigenous farms in West Africa. p. 274:
The visual effect, to Western eyes, was one of sloppiness and disorder. Given their visual codification of modern agricultural practice, most specialists knew, without further empirical investigation, that the apparent disorder of the crops was a symptom of backward techniques; it failed the visual test of scientific agriculture.
Unmasking the high-modernist belief that visual orderliness yields functional order. p. 275:
Here one may recall Jane Jacobs’s important distinction between visual orderliness on one hand and functional working order on the other. The city desk of a newspaper, a rabbit’s intestines, or the interior of an aircraft engine may certainly look messy, but each one reflects, sometimes brilliantly, an order related to the function it performs. In such instances the apparent surface disarray obscures a more profound logic. Polyculture was a floral variant of such order.
One of the rare moments when Scott draws some moral conclusions. p. 275:
This is but one of many examples that might be given that should warn us to be very cautious and thorough before we pass judgement upon native agriculture. The whole method of farming and outlook of the farmer are so entirely new to us that we are strongly tempted to call it foolish from an instinctive conservatism.
Polyculture is the norm in West African farmland. p. 278:
One reason seems to be that optimal planting densities are greater in intercropping than in monocropping, and the resulting crowding appears, for reasons that are poorly understood but may have to do with root fungi interactions, to improve the performance of each cultivar. Crowding at the later stage of cropping also helps to suppress weeds, which are otherwise a major constraint in tropical farming.
A note about the motivations of cultivators. Western cultivation is focused on per-acre yields and profits, while smaller farmers may have many reasons for farming. p. 279:
Finally, and perhaps most important, each of these crops is embedded in a distinctive set of social relations. Different members of the household are likely to have different rights and responsibilities with respect to each crop. The planting regimen, in other words, is a reflection of social relations, ritual needs, and culinary tastes; it is not just a production strategy that a profit-maximizing entrepreneur took straight out of the pages of a text in neoclassical economics.
One reason that high-modernist ideology is so pervasive is that critics and dissenters must already be familiar with this powerful and compelling belief system while maintaining an intellectual distance. This is hard to do when all of the funding, incentives, and prestige is going to the mainstream. p. 279:
The high-modernist aesthetic and ideology of most colonial agronomists and their Western-trained successors foreclosed a dispassionate examination of local cultivation practices, which were regarded as deplorable customs for which modern, scientific farming was the corrective. A critique of such hegemonic ideas comes, if it comes at all, not from within, but typically from the margins, where the intellectual point of departure and operating assumptions, as was the case with Jacobs, are substantially different. Thus the case for the rationality of mixed cropping has largely come from rogue figures outside the establishment.
Scott once again is cautious and temperate in his diagnosis. He reminds us again that he is not against Western agronomy per se but only the hegemonic Western ideology that does not allow that other farming techniques could work or may be superior in other climates and soils. p. 280–281:
There are at least faint indications that some forms of polycropping might be suitable for Western farmers as well as Africans. This is not the place to attempt to demonstrate the superiority of polyculture over monoculture, nor am I qualified to do so. There is no single, context-free answer to this issue, for answers would depend on any number of variables, including the goals sought, the crops sown, and the microsettings in which they were planted. What I have tried to demonstrate, however, is that polyculture, even on the narrow production-oriented grounds favored by Western agronomy, merited empirical examination as one among many agricultural strategies. That it was instead dismissed summarily by all but a handful of rogue agronomists is a tribute to the power both of imperialist ideology and of the visual aesthetic of agricultural high modernism.
The modern reductive farming technique of seed, soil, water, and fertilizer leaves such farms fragile and shifts the pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide arms race into high gear. Modern scientific farming has come back to traditional landrace seeds again and again to bail them out of such delicate and broken situations. p. 284–285:
As Howard and others have painstakingly shown, there are a range of intervening variables—including the physical structure of the soil, aeration, tilth, humus, and the fungus bridge—that greatly influence plant nutrition and soil fertility. Chemical fertilizers can in fact so thoroughly oxidize beneficial organic matter as to destroy its crumb structure and contribute to a progressive alkalization and a loss of fertility. The details are less important than the larger point: an effective soil science must not stop at chemical nutrients; it must encompass elements of physics, bacteriology, entomology, and geology, and that is at a minimum. Ideally, then, a practical approach to fertilizers requires, simultaneously, a general, interdisciplinary knowledge, which a single specialist is unlikely to have, and attention to the particularity of a given field, which only the farmer is likely to have. A procedure that blends a purely chemical nutrient perspective with soil classification grids and that leaves the particular field far behind is a recipe for ineffectiveness or even disaster.
Like the West African farms, any independent farm is going to have practices that are illegible to the state. Reducing variables and normalizing cultivars does the trick. p. 286:
The unspoken logic behind most of the state projects of agricultural modernization was one of consolidating the power of central institutions and diminishing the autonomy of cultivators and their communities vis-a-vis those institutions.
The effects of centralization are far-reaching. This is an important passage because it illustrates the high-modernist attitude toward experts and everyone else. p. 286–287:
For colonialized farmers, the effect of such centralization and expertise was a radical de-skilling of the cultivators themselves. Even in the context of family farms and a liberal economy, this was in fact the utopian prospect held up by Liberty Hyde Bailey, a plant breeder, apostle of agricultural science, and the chairman of the Country Life Commission under Theodore Roosevelt. Bailey declared, “There will be established in the open country plant doctors, plant breeders, soil experts, health experts, pruning and spraying experts, forest experts, recreation experts, market experts, … [and] housekeeping experts, … [all of whom are ] needed for the purpose of giving special advice and direction.” Bailey’s future was one organized almost entirely by a managerial elite: “Yet we are not to think of society as founded wholly on small separate tracts, of ‘family farms,’ occupied by persons who live merely in contentment; this would mean that all landsmen would be essentially laborers. We need to hold on the land many persons who possess large powers of organization, who are managers, who can handle affairs in a bold way: it would be fatal to the best social and spiritual results if such persons could find no adequate opportunities on the land and were forced into other occupations.” In spite of these hopeful pronouncements and intentions, if one examines carefully many of the agricultural innovations of the twentieth century—innovations that seemed purely technical and hence neutral—one cannot but conclude that many of them created commercial and political monopolies that inevitably diminished the autonomy of the farmer.
With centralization often comes simplification, reduction, monocropping. p. 287:
As with hybrids, the lack of biological diversity in the fields meant that each generation of HYVS was likely to succumb to infestations of fungus, rust, or insects, necessitating the purchase of new seeds and new pesticides (as the insects built up resistance). The resulting biological arms race, which plant breeders and chemists believe that they can continue to win, is one that puts the cultivator increasingly in the hands of public and private specialists.
The gap between scientific work and practical adoption of that work: it’s the variables, stupid. p. 288:
The record shows, it seems to me, that a substantial part of the problem lies in the systematic and necessary limitations of scientific work whenever the ultimate purpose of that work is practical adoption by a diverse set of practitioners working in a large variety of conditions. That is, some of the problems lie deeper than the institutional temptations to central control, the pathologies of administration, or the penchant for aesthetically satisfying but uneconomic show projects. Even under the best of circumstances, the laboratory results and the data from the experimental plots of research stations are a long country mile from the human and natural environments where they must ultimately find a home.
Scott explains this variable problem in science. p. 289:
Only by radically simplifying the experimental situation is it possible to guarantee unambiguous, verifiable, impersonal, and universal results. As a pioneer in chaos theory has put it: “There is a fundamental presumption in physics that the way you understand the world is that you keep isolating its ingredients until you understand the stuff you think is truly fundamental. Then you presume that the other things you don’t understand are details. The assumption is that there are a small number of principles that you can discern by looking at things in their pure state—this is the truly analytic notion—and somehow you put these together in some more complicated ways when you want to solve more dirty problems. If you can.”
It is easy to see how monoculture and attention to quantitative yields would fit most comfortably within this paradigm. Monoculture eliminates all other cultivars that might complicate the design, while concern with quantitative yields avoids the thorny measurement problems that would arise if a particular quality or taste were the objective.
Scott explains why this the scientific variable reduction is necessary and remains a Gestalt problem for practical adaptations. p. 290:
To the extent that science is obliged to deal simultaneously with the complex interactions of many variables, it begins to lose the very characteristics that distinguish it as modern science. Nor does the accumulation of many narrow experimental studies add up to the same thing as a single study of such complexity.
Our hope lies in our ability to humbly recognize what aspects of our world can bend under applied science, and what aspects will break, and then stop at that line. This is the precautionary principle. p. 291:
Insofar as its institutional power has permitted, agricultural agencies, like scientific foresters, have tended to simplify their environments in ways that make them more amenable to their system of knowledge. The forms of agriculture that conformed to their modernist aesthetic and their politico-administrative interests also happened to fit securely within the perimeter of their professional scientific vocation. What of the “disorder” outside the realm of the experimental design? Extra-experimental interactions can in fact prove beneficial when they strengthen the desired effect. There is no a priori reason for anticipating what their effects might be; what is significant is that they lie wholly outside the experimental model.
Consider the pesticide DDT, in wide use from 1947 to 1960. This is Taleb’s precautionary principle writ large: do not cause or allow fat-tail events in complex natural systems. Today’s tale of GMO grass seed is another example. p. 291–292:
Within its field of vision, the model was successful; DDT did kill mosquitos and dramatically reduced the incidence of endemic malaria and other diseases. It also had, as we slowly became aware, devastating ecological effects, as residues were absorbed by organisms all along the food chain, of which humans are of course also a part. The consequences of the use of DDT and other pesticides on soil, water, fish, insects, birds, and fauna were so intricate that we have not yet gotten to the bottom of them.
The difference between theory and practice is only slightly greater than the difference between the lab and the field. p. 292:
Another part of the problem was that the effects of pesticides on other species were examined only under experimental conditions. Yet the application of DDT was under field conditions, and as Carson pointed out, scientists had no idea what the interactive effects of pesticides were when they were mixed with water and soil and acted upon by sunlight.
Incentives are also part of the problem of large-scale agriculture. p. 293:
The large agricultural firm is … able to achieve benefits by externalizing certain costs. The disadvantages of large scale operation fall largely outside the decision-making framework of the large farm firm.
We can arrive at good yields and robust seeds through traditional methods that don’t involve violation of the precautionary principle. p. 294:
It is not at all implausible that the process of open pollination and selection by farmers, as opposed to hybridization, might have developed cultivars roughly equal in yield to the best hybrids and superior to them in many other respects, including profitability. The paper profits of scientific, monocropped forests, we now realize, were achieved at considerable cost to the long-term health and productivity of the forest.
The problem: reductionism combined with business-like short-term gain thinking, and the belief that only a few variables—the ones we look at—matter. p. 294:
Nothing in the logic of the scientific method itself seems to require that a short-run perspective prevail; rather, such a perspective seems to be a response to institutional and perhaps commercial pressures. On the other hand, the need to isolate a few variables while assuming everything else constant and the bracketing of interaction effects that lie outside the experimental model are very definitely inscribed in scientific method. They are a condition of the formidable clarity it achieves within its field of vision. Taken together, the parts of the landscape occluded by actual scientific practice—the blind spots, the periphery, and the long view—also constitute a formidable portion of the real world.
An interesting thought about other considerations, other things to optimize for besides per-acre yield. p. 295:
So far, we have considered only the husked grain. What if we broaden our view to take in the rest of the plant? At once we see that there is a great deal more to be harvested from a plant than its seed grains. Thus a Central American peasant may not be interested only in the number and size of the corn kernels she harvested. She may also be interested in using the cobs for fodder and scrub brushes; the husk and leaves for wrappers, thatch, and fodder; and the stalks as trellises for climbing beans, as fodder, and as temporary fencing. The fact that Central American farmers know of many more maize varieties than do their counterparts in the Corn Belt of the United States is partly related to the uses to which different varieties are put.… The same story could, of course, be told about virtually any widely grown cultivar.
A caution about averages. p. 296:
The averages and normalizations of experimental work obscure the fact that an average weather year or a standard soil is a statistical fiction.
A caution against ignoring local knowledge in favor of decontextualized scientific knowledge. p. 298:
Mende farmers on one area of Sierra Leone had, against the textbook advice on the varieties of rice to be preferred, selected a variant of rice with long awns (beard or bristles) and glumes (bracts). The textbook reasoning was probably that such varieties were lower yielding or that the awns and glumes would simply add more chaff that would have to be winnowed after threshing. The farmers’ reasoning was that the long awns and glumes discouraged birds from eating the bulk of their rice before it ever made it to the threshing floor. These details about microirrigation and the damage caused by birds are vital for local cultivators, but such details do not and cannot appear on the high-flying mapping of modern agricultural planning.
Too much faith in context-free laboratory results blinds us to things we already know. p. 298–299:
The narrow, experimental, and exclusively quantitative approach will succeed in completely driving out the other forms of local knowledge and judgment possessed by most cultivators.
Scott adds that there is a large point missed by many critics of scientific agriculture (p. 299):
How can we define how useful this research is until we know the ends to which cultivators will put it? Useful for what? It is at the level of human agency where scientific agriculture constructs its greatest abstraction: the creation of a stock character, the Everyman cultivator, who is interested only in realizing the greatest yields at the least cost.
Caution against the hubris of experts. Beware of anyone who claims to know what’s good for others and is in a position to enforce it. p. 300:
While the farmer’s expertise may occasionally fail him in assessing his own soil, we will not doubt the farmer’s expertise in knowing his own mind and interests.
Local versus context-free scientific cultivation. p. 302:
The logic of beginning with an ideal genotype and then transforming nature to accord with its growing conditions has some predictable consequences. Extension work essentially becomes the attempt to remake the farmer’s field to suit the genotype.
We change how we farm to fit the seed. 302:
Rather than have the facts on the ground muddy a simple, unitary research issue, it was more convenient to try to impose a research abstraction on the fields (and lives) of farmers.
Generalizing. p. 303:
An explicit set of rules will take you further when the situation is cut-and-dried. The more static and one-dimensional the stereotype, the less the need for creative interpretation and adaptation.
This is important. p. 303:
One of the major purposes of state simplifications, collectivization, assembly lines, plantations, and planned communities alike is to strip down reality to the bare bones so that the rules will in fact explain more of the situation and provide a better guide to behavior. To the extent that this simplification can be imposed, those who make the rules can actually supply crucial guidance and instruction. This, at any rate, is what I take to be the inner logic of social, economic, and productive de-skilling. If the environment can be simplified down to the point where the rules do explain a great deal, those who formulate the rules and techniques have also greatly expanded their power. They have, correspondingly, diminished the power of those who do not. To the degree that they do succeed, cultivators with a high degree of autonomy, skills, experience, self-confidence, and adaptability are replaced by cultivators following instructions. Such reduction in diversity, movement, and life, to recall Jacobs’s term, represents a kind of social “taxidermy.”
An interesting metaphor. p. 304:
Farmers, being polytheists when it comes to agricultural practice, are quick to seize whatever seems useful from the epistemic work of formal science. But the researchers, trained as monotheists, seem all but incapable of absorbing the informal experimental results of practice.
Scott’s description of scientism before that was a thing. p. 304:
I believe that this uncritical, and hence unscientific, trust in the artifacts and techniques of what became codified as scientific agriculture was responsible for its failures. The logical companion to a complete faith in a quasi-industrial model of high-modernist agriculture was an often explicit contempt for the practices of actual cultivators and what might be learned from them. Whereas a scientific spirit would have counseled skepticism and dispassionate inquiry into these practices, modern agriculture as a blind faith preached scorn and summary dismissal.
Scott’s takes note of West African farmers with skin in the game. p. 305:
And let us not fail to note what kind of experimenters these are. Their lives and the lives of their families depend directly on the outcomes of their field experiments.
Quoting researcher Albert Howard who worked for more than three decades in India, “an avid observer of forest ecology and indigenous practices” and his take on “skin in the game”. p. 305:
“The approach to the problems of farming must be made from the field, not from the laboratory. The discovery of the things that matter is three quarters of the battle. In this the observant farmer and labourer, who have spent their lives in close contact with nature, can be of greatest help to the investigator. The views of the peasantry in all countries are worthy of respect; there is always good reason for their practices; in matters like the cultivation of mixed crops they themselves are still the pioneers.” Howard credits most of his own findings about soil, humus, and root action to a careful observation of indigenous farming practice. And he is rather disdainful of agricultural specialists who “do not have to take their own advice”—that is, who have never had to see their own crop through from planting to harvest.
Scott considers some possible reasons for “unscientific scorn” by scientists for practical knowledge. Love the phrase “imperial pretense of scientific modernism”. p. 305–306:
The simple reflex of high modernism: namely, a contempt for history and past knowledge.… [and finally] practical knowledge is represented and codified in a form uncongenial to scientific agriculture. From a narrow scientific view, nothing is known until and unless it is proven in a tightly controlled experiment. Knowledge that arrives in any form other than through the techniques and instruments of formal scientific procedure does not deserve to be taken seriously. The imperial pretense of scientific modernism admits knowledge only if it arrives through the aperture that the experimental method has constructed for its admission. Traditional practices, codified as they are in practice and in folk sayings, are seen presumptively as not meriting attention, let alone verification.
Turning again in contrast to how local, practical knowledge is gained and likely not considered scientifically. I have often wondered if there is a heuristic for identifying areas where applied science will unreservedly benefit us. p. 306:
By constantly observing the results of their field experiments and retaining those methods that succeed, the farmers have discovered and refined practices that work, without knowing the precise chemical or physical reasons why they work. In agriculture, as in many other fields, “practice has long preceded theory.” And indeed some of these practically successful techniques, which involve a large number of simultaneously interacting variables, may never be fully understood by the techniques of science.
Part 4. The Missing Link
This section gets a little more philosophical and gives a brief history of mētis and a variety of stories that illustrate its value, especially in a culture that has forgotten its value. Scott states (p. 311):
My aim in this chapter is to conceptualize these practical skills, variously called know-how (savoirfaire or arts de faire), common sense, experience, a knack, or mētis. What are these skills? How are they created, developed, and maintained? What is their relation to formal epistemic knowledge?
We begin with a truism. p. 309:
Any large social process or event will inevitably be far more complex than the schemata we can devise, prospectively or retrospectively, to map it.
The point of this truism is to highlight that states will revert to simplifying whatever it is they are measuring in order to make reality fit the model. p. 310:
At times, the price of an unyielding imposition of state simplifications on agrarian life and production—Stalin’s forced collectivization or China’s Great Leap Forward—was famine.
Valuing the model over the thing we are modeling. p. 310:
These rather extreme instances of massive, state-imposed social engineering illustrate, I think, a larger point about formally organized social action. In each case, the necessarily thin, schematic model of social organization and production animating the planning was inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a successful social order. By themselves, the simplified rules can never generate a functioning community, city, or economy. Formal order, to be more explicit, is always and to some considerable degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognize, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.
An insight into the relationship between formal, centralized processes of authoritarian states and those on whom the processes are imposed. p. 311:
The relation between scientific knowledge and practical knowledge is, as we shall see, part of a political struggle for institutional hegemony by experts and their institutions. Taylorism and scientific agriculture are, on this reading, not just strategies of production, but also strategies of control and appropriation.
Scott teases out some of the aspects that separate mētis from other forms of knowledge. p. 313:
One powerful indication that they all require mētis is that they are exceptionally difficult to teach apart from engaging in the activity itself.
A “skin in the game” observation illustrates mētis. p. 314:
If your life depended on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experience to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural laws of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.
About Red Adair, whose team caps wellhead fires around the world. Each wellhead fire is a unique situation requiring “an inspired mixture of experience and improvisation.” p. 314:
We can imagine, at almost opposite ends of a spectrum, Adair on one hand and a minor clerk performing highly repetitive steps on the other. Adair’s job cannot, by definition, be reduced to a routine. He must begin with the unpredictable—an accident, a fire—and then devise the techniques and equipment (from an existing repertoire, to be sure, but one invented largely by him) required to extinguish that fire and cap that well. The clerk, by contrast, deals with a predictable, routinized environment that can often be ordered in advance and down to the smallest detail. Adair cannot simplify his environment in order to apply a cookie-cutter solution.
Further describing mētis. p. 315-316:
Mētis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practiced adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner. The skills of mētis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Mētis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, mētis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote.
Mētis is not compressible into rules. p. 316:
Knowing a craft’s shorthand rules is a very long way from its accomplished performance: “These rules and principles are mere abridgments of the activity itself; they do not exist in advance of the activity, they cannot properly be said to govern it and they cannot provide the impetus of the activity. A complete mastery of the principles may exist alongside a complete inability to pursue the activity to which they refer, for the pursuit of the activity does not consist in the application of these principles; and even if it did, the knowledge of how to apply them (the knowledge of actually pursuing the activity) is not given in a knowledge of them.”
Knowing how and when to apply the rules of thumb in a concrete situation is the essence of mētis.
Mētis is the ability and experience necessary to influence the outcome—to improve the odds—in a particular instance.
A mechanical application of generic rules that ignores these particularities is an invitation to practical failure, social disillusionment, or most likely both. The generic formula does not and cannot supply the local knowledge that will allow a successful translation of the necessarily crude general understandings to successful, nuanced, local applications. The more general the rules, the more they require in the way of translation if they are to be locally successful.
Contrasting technê, epistêmê, and mētis. p. 320:
The rules of technê are the specification of how knowledge is to be codified, expressed, and verified, once it has been discovered. No rules of technê or epistêmê can explain scientific invention and insight. Discovering a mathematical theorem requires genius and perhaps mētis; the proof of the theorem, however, must follow the tenets of technê. Thus the systematic and impersonal rules of technê facilitate the production of knowledge that can be readily assembled, comprehensively documented, and formally taught, but they cannot by themselves add to that knowledge or explain how it came into being.
Quoting Stephen Marglin, regarding the possible roots of the Western preference for technê and epistêmê over mētis. p. 322:
“The emphasis on self-interest, calculation, and maximization in economics” are classical examples of “self-evident postulates” and reflect “more an ideological commitment to the superiority of epistêmê than a serious attempt to unravel the complexities and mysteries of human motivation and behavior.”
Aristotle (for all his faults) recognized the value of mētis. p. 322:
Certain practical choices cannot, “even in principle, be adequately and completely captured in a system of universal rules.” He singled out navigation and medicine as two activities in which the practical wisdom of long experience is indispensable to superior performance. They were mētis-laden activities in which responsiveness, improvisation, and skillful, successive approximations were required.
On Socrates. p. 323:
Socrates evidently believed that the interaction between teacher and students that we now call the Socratic method, and not the resulting text, is philosophy.
Mētis is hard to codify and takes time to learn. “Hegemonic imperium of scientific knowledge” would make a great band name. Mētis lives outside of the scientific model—it is invisible to it. p. 323:
One major reason why mētis is denigrated, particularly in the hegemonic imperium of scientific knowledge, is that its “findings” are practical, opportune, and contextual rather than integrated into the general conventions of scientific discourse.
Emphasis on the practicality of mētis; we don’t care about the mechanisms unless they help us in our craft. p. 323–324:
Was the farmer’s harvest abundant? If a technique works effectively and repeatedly for the purpose intended, the practitioners of mētis do not pause long to ask why and how it worked, to define the precise mechanism of cause and effect. Their intent is not to contribute to a wider body of knowledge but to solve the concrete problems they face.
The bricolage of practical knowledge has often produced complex techniques—such as polycropping and soil-building strategies—that work admirably but that science has not (yet?) understood.
Another “skin in the game” observation about traditional farmers. p. 324:
These cultivators have a vital, direct stake in the results of close observation. Unlike the research scientist or extension agent who does not have to take her own advice, the peasant is the immediate consumer of his own conclusions.
The poverty or marginal economic status of many of these cultivators is itself, I would argue, a powerful impetus to careful observation and experimentation.
We tout “science”, but science is a refiner, not a generator, of good ideas. p. 325:
Roughly three-quarters of the modern pharmacopoeia are derivatives of traditionally known medicines.
Variolation is a crude way of doing what we call today vaccination. The practitioners did not understand the mechanisms of why it worked (this was before germ theory), but it worked fairly well. p. 327:
The variolators before Jenner were not unlike the polycropping cultivators described by Paul Richards. They had devised, not just stumbled upon, something that worked, without quite knowing exactly why it worked. While this increased their risk of drawing false inferences from what they saw, it did not diminish the practical achievements of their bricolage.
Mētis, with the premium it places on practical knowledge, experience, and stochastic reasoning, is of course not merely the now-superseded precursor of scientific knowledge. It is the mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our (experienced) intuition and feel our way.
Albert Howard observed how water management was done in Japan in the 1930s; the engineer seemed to be playing a game of chess with nature. p. 327:
The engineer in Howard’s account recognizes implicitly that he is dealing with “an art of one valley.” Each prudent, small step, based on prior experience, yields new and not completely predictable effects that become the point of departure for the next step. Virtually any complex task involving many variables whose values and interactions cannot be accurately forecast belongs to this genre: building a house, repairing a car, perfecting a new jet engine, surgically repairing a knee, or farming a plot of land.
I would add, “writing software.”
Charles Lindblom wrote a paper called “The Science of Muddling Through” p. 327-328:
Models of public administration, Lindblom complained, implicitly assumed a synoptic mastery of a policy initiative, when in practice, knowledge was both limited and fragmentary, and means could never be neatly separated from goals.
Regarding those who have gained this “muddling” experience (mētis). p. 328:
Once again, some of their competence could be interpreted and taught, but much of it would remain implicit—a sixth sense that comes with long practice. At the risk of trying to pinpoint the ineffable, I want to suggest how important such knowledge is and how difficult it is to translate it into codified form.
One powerful story (of many in the book) of experience. p. 329:
In the days when a case of diphtheria in town was still an occasion for quarantining the patient at home, a doctor was taking a young medical student along with him on his rounds. When they had been admitted to the front hall of a quarantined house but before they had seen the patient, the older man paused and said, “Stop. Smell the odor! Never forget this smell; this is the smell of a house with diphtheria.”
We risk much by trying to replace mētis with other ways of knowing. p. 330:
The epistemic alternative to mētis is far slower, more laborious, more capital intensive, and not always decisive. When rapid judgments of high (not perfect) accuracy are called for, when it is important to interpret early signs that things are going well or poorly, then there is no substitute for mētis.
Gaining mētis always comes at a price. I read once somewhere that “experience is that thing you get right after you need it”. p. 330:
The boiling down of maple sap into syrup is a tricky business. If one goes too far, the sap will boil over. The stopping point can be determined by a thermometer or by a hydrometer (which indicates specific gravity). But those with experience look for the mass of small bubbles that forms on the surface of the sap just before it begins to boil over—a visual rule of thumb that is far easier to use. Achieving the insight, however, requires that, at least once, the syrup maker make a mistake and go too far. Chinese recipes, it has always amused me, often contain the following instruction: “Heat the oil until it is almost smoking.” The recipes assume that the cook has made enough mistakes to know what oil looks like just before it begins smoking. The rule of thumb for maple syrup and for oil are, by definition, the rules of experience.
Now we get into some meatier insights. We cannot see the old ways of knowing because the new ways of knowing have convinced us that they are the best or only ways worth knowing. p. 331:
A certain understanding of science, modernity, and development has so successfully structured the dominant discourse that all other kinds of knowledge are regarded as backward, static traditions, as old wives’ tales and superstitions. High modernism has needed this “other,” this dark twin, in order to rhetorically present itself as the antidote to backwardness.
In a true revenge of the nerds style, the intelligentsia supplant mētis with technê or epistêmê, where they can call the shots and say what is good and what is true. I know I’m getting a little carried away here… just writing out loud. Ignore please. p. 334–335:
This brings us squarely to two of the great ironies of mētis. The first is that mētis is not democratically distributed. Not only does it depend on a touch or a knack that may not be common, but access to the experience and practice necessary for its acquisition may be restricted. Artisan guilds, gifted craftsmen, certain classes, religious fraternities, entire communities, and men in general often treat some forms of knowledge as a monopoly they are reluctant to share. Better stated, the availability of such knowledge to others depends greatly on the social structure of the society and the advantages that a monopoly in some forms of knowledge can confer. In this respect mētis is not unitary, and we should perhaps speak of mētises, recognizing its non-homogeneity. The second irony is that, however plastic and receptive mētis is, some forms of it seem to depend on key elements of preindustrial life for their elaboration and transmission.
Scott says it also, more delicately: mētis is illegible to those who want simplified, general principles to govern by. p. 335:
The destruction of mētis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center is virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism. As a “project,” it is the object of constant initiatives which are never entirely successful, for no forms of production or social life can be made to work by formulas alone—that is, without mētis.
Keeping it real; the forms of knowledge are not the enemy, but those who hold power with it. p. 340:
Epistemic knowledge, though never separate in its practice from mētis, has provided us with a knowledge of the world that, for all its darker aspects, few of us would want to surrender. What has proved to be truly dangerous to us and to our environment, I think, is the combination of the universalist pretensions of epistemic knowledge and authoritarian social engineering.… When schemes like these come close to achieving their impossible dreams of ignoring or suppressing mētis and local variation, they all but guarantee their own practical failure.
This is beginning to remind me a little of Robert Persig’s notion of Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He who decides the framework decides both the methods of rationality and the possible outcomes of any pursuit therein. p. 340:
Universalist claims seem inherent in the way in which rationalist knowledge is pursued. Although I am no philosopher of knowledge, there seems to be no door in this epistemic edifice through which mētis or practical knowledge could enter on its own terms. It is this imperialism that is troubling. As Pascal wrote, the great failure of rationalism is “not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other”. By contrast, mētis does not put all its eggs in one basket; it makes no claim to universality and in this sense is pluralistic.
And this is along the same lines. We call people who step outside the bounds of dominant paradigms “crazy” or “insane”. p. 340:
Such resistance, however, comes from outside the paradigm of epistemic knowledge itself. When someone like Albert Howard, himself a meticulous scientist, recognizes the “art” of farming and the non-quantifiable ways of knowing, he steps outside the realm of codified, scientific knowledge.
High modernism has a natural appeal for an intelligentsia and a people who may have ample reason to hold the past in contempt.
Further. p. 341:
Understanding the history and logic of their commitment to high-modernist goals, however, does not permit us to overlook the enormous damage that their convictions entailed when combined with authoritarian state power.
Now something that hits a little closer to home. All hail the new leader. p. 342–343:
Order and harmony that once seemed the function of a unitary God had been replaced by a similar faith in the idea of progress vouchsafed by scientists, engineers, and planners. Their power, it is worth remembering, was least contested at those moments when other forms of coordination had failed or seemed utterly inadequate to the great tasks at hand: in times of war, revolution, economic collapse, or newly won independence.
Our technologies for legibility and intrusion into private life have surely increased since Scott was writing about them. p. 343:
What was wholly new, however, was the magnitude of both the plans for the wholesale transformation of society and the instruments of statecraft—censuses, cadastral maps, identity cards, statistical bureaus, schools, mass media, internal security apparatuses—that could take them farther along this road than any seventeenth-century monarch would have dreamed. Thus it has happened that so many of the twentieth century’s political tragedies have flown the banner of progress, emancipation, and reform.
Hubris is a fine word. p. 343:
If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.
Scott comments on a nutrition facts circular making the rounds at Yale where he teaches. What is fascinating is the writers did not fall victim to the “now we finally know everything we need to know” which is a nearly ubiquitous attitude in the modern world. We are less fragile when we plan for unknown unknowns. p. 343–344:
This circular, however, noted that many new, essential elements of proper nutrition had been discovered in the past two decades and that many more elements will presumably be identified by researchers in the decades ahead. Therefore, on the basis of what they did not know, the writers of this piece recommended that one’s diet be as varied as possible, on the prudent assumption that it would contain many of these yet unidentified essentials.
Building hegemonic systems means that you must be able to either predict or control high order effects. To be “right”, we reduce contingencies so that history fits our narrative, then we blame all those whom we squashed when our plans fail. Remember the economic meltdown of 2008? Economists have no skin in the game, and suffer not at all when their advice is poor. p. 344:
Each of these schemes, as might also have been predicted, was largely undone by a host of contingencies beyond the planners’ grasp. The scope and comprehensiveness of their plans were such that they would have had indeterminate outcomes even if their historical laws and the attendant specification of variables and calculations had been correct. Their temporal ambitions meant that although they might, with some confidence, guess the immediate consequences of their moves, no one could specify, let alone calculate, the second- or third-order consequences or their interaction effects.
Planners attempt to adjust to the massive number of variables and contingencies. p. 344:
But the magnitude of their initial intervention was so great that many of their missteps could not be righted. Stephen Marglin has put their problem succinctly: If “the only certainty about the future is that the future is uncertain, if the only sure thing is that we are in for surprises, then no amount of planning, no amount of prescription, can deal with the contingencies that the future will reveal.”
How, then, do we live? What is an authority to do? Scott offers several rules of thumb for making choices in chaotic systems. p. 345:
Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move.
Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.
Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen.
Plan on human inventiveness. Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design.
What are some signs we may be on the wrong track of high-modernism? We “plan for abstract citizens” p. 346:
What is striking, of course, is that such subjects—like the “unmarked citizens” of liberal theory—have, for the purposes of the planning exercise, no gender, no tastes, no history, no values, no opinions or original ideas, no traditions, and no distinctive personalities to contribute to the enterprise. They have none of the particular, situated, and contextual attributes that one would expect of any population and that we, as a matter of course, always attribute to elites.
On economics. p. 346:
The discipline of economics achieves its formidable resolving power by transforming what might otherwise be considered qualitative matters into quantitative issues with a single metric and, as it were, a bottom line: profit or loss. Providing one understands the heroic assumptions required to achieve this precision and the questions that it cannot answer, the single metric is an invaluable tool. Problems arise only when it becomes hegemonic.
This statement has broad applicability, and has shaped how I approach large software projects. Positive law is also (per Bastiat) anathema. p. 349:
The point is simply that high-modernist designs for life and production tend to diminish the skills, agility, initiative, and morale of their intended beneficiaries. They bring about a mild form of this institutional neurosis. Or, to put it in the utilitarian terms that many of their partisans would recognize, these designs tend to reduce the “human capital” of the workforce. …
Narrow, planned environments, by contrast, foster a less skilled, less innovative, less resourceful population. This population, once created, would ironically have been exactly the kind of human material that would in fact have needed close supervision from above. In other words, the logic of social engineering on this scale was to produce the sort of subjects that its plans had assumed at the outset.
That authoritarian social engineering failed to create a world after its own image should not blind us to the fact that it did, at the very least, damage many of the earlier structures of mutuality and practice that were essential to mētis. …
Here, I believe, there is something to the classical anarchist claim—that the state, with its positive law and central institutions, undermines individuals’ capacities for autonomous self-governance—that might apply to the planning grids of high modernism as well.
Some observations about the nature of large engineered systems themselves. p. 351:
All socially engineered systems of formal order are in fact subsystems of a larger system on which they are ultimately dependent, not to say parasitic. The subsystem relies on a variety of processes—frequently informal or antecedent—which alone it cannot create or maintain. The more schematic, thin, and simplified the formal order, the less resilient and the more vulnerable it is to disturbances outside its narrow parameters.
Even markets are engineered systems. p. 351:
The market is itself an instituted, formal system of coordination, despite the elbow room that it provides to its participants, and it is therefore similarly dependent on a larger system of social relations which its own calculus does not acknowledge and which it can neither create nor maintain.
Leaving this here. p.352:
Non-conforming practice is an indispensable condition for formal order.
We recognize the power of specialization, etc. but perhaps we’ve gone too far. p. 353:
Without denying the incontestable benefits either of the division of labor or of hierarchical coordination for some tasks, I want to make a case for institutions that are instead multifunctional, plastic, diverse, and adaptable—in other words, institutions that are powerfully shaped by mētis. The fact that those ensnared in confining systems of formal order seem constantly to be working, in their own interest, to make the systems more versatile is one indication of a common process of “social domestication.”
As long as the task environment of an institution remains repetitive, stable, and predictable, a set of fixed routines may prove exceptionally efficient. In most economies and in human affairs generally, this is seldom the case, and such routines are likely to be counterproductive once the environment changes appreciably.
I have started asking myself this question of every system I design. p. 355:
To any planned, built, or legislated form of social life, one may apply a comparable test: to what degree does it promise to enhance the skills, knowledge, and responsibility of those who are a part of it?
Scott closes his book with these words. p. 358:
One could say that democracy itself is based on the assumption that the mētis of its citizenry should, in mediated form, continually modify the laws and policies of the land. Common law, as an institution, owes its longevity to the fact that it is not a final codification of legal rules, but rather a set of procedures for continually adapting some broad principles to novel circumstances. Finally, that most characteristic of human institutions, language, is the best model: a structure of meaning and continuity that is never still and ever open to the improvisations of all its speakers.
I spent as much time in the notes section as I did in the rest of the book. It is filled not only with fascinating, quality source material, but also brilliant (though tangential) insights from the author.
These notes tie back to the sections in which they were cited; in this form I present below they may seem disjointed. Sorry. They’re still important.
Where several agencies superintending the forest have conflicting utilitarian agendas, the result can be incoherence and room for the local population to maneuver.
“Everyone who has ever tried to fix the forests has ended up making them worse” (Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares, p. 2).
How is a state to associate a name, however unique and unambiguous, with an individual? Like identity cards, social security numbers, and pass systems, names require that the citizenry cooperate by carrying them and producing them on the demand of an official. Cooperation is secured in most modern state systems by making a clear identity a prerequisite for receiving entitlements; in more coercive systems, harsh penalties are exacted for failure to carry identification documents.
“Coders” here are people who summarize and enter national population statistics. p. 375:
The goal of the statistical office is to ensure the maximum reliability among coders, even if the conventions applied to achieve it sacrifice something of the true state of affairs.
I have borrowed the term “high modernism” from David Harvey, The Condition of Post-Modernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Social Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989). Harvey locates the high-water mark of this sort of modernism in the post-World War II period, and his concern is particularly with capitalism and the organization of production. But his description of high modernism also works well here: “The belief ‘in linear progress, absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders’ under standardized conditions of knowledge and production was particularly strong. The modernism that resulted was, as a result, ‘positivistic, technocratic, and rationalistic’ at the same time as it was imposed as the work of an elite avant-garde of planners, artists, architects, critics, and other guardians of high taste. The ‘modernization’ of European economies proceeded apace, while the whole thrust of international politics and trade was justified as bringing a benevolent and progressive ‘modernization process’ to a backward Third World” (p. 35).
Mumford contrasts two orders of thinking: the organic and the mechanical. “The first springs out of the total situation, the other simplifies the facts of life for the sake of an artful system of concepts, more dear to the mind than life itself. One works cooperatively with the ‘materials of others,’ perhaps guiding them, but first acknowledging their existence and understanding their purpose; the other, that of the baroque despot, insisting on his law, his order, his society, is imposed by a single professional authority, working under his command” (The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961], p. 394).
It is exceptionally rare to find any historical account that stresses the contingencies. The very exercise of producing an account of a past event virtually requires an often counterfactual neatness and coherence. Anyone who has ever read a newspaper account of an event in which he or she participated will recognize this phenomenon.
A comment about the necessary fragility that comes with centralization. p. 392:
The centralization that electrification makes possible also sets the stage for large-scale power failures and brownouts.
This inference, we know, is not a distortion of the doctrines of liberalism. J. S. Mill, whose credentials as a liberal son of the Enlightenment are not in doubt, considered backwardness a sufficient justification for placing authoritarian powers in the hands of a modernizer. See Ernest Gellner, “The Struggle to Catch Up,” Times Literary Supplement, December 9, 1994, p. 14. For a more detailed argument along these lines, see also Jan P. Nederveen Pieterse and Bhikhu Parekh, eds., The Decolonization of the Imagination: Culture, Knowledge, and Power (London: Zed Press, 1995).
Regarding the effects of normalization of the craft. p. 398:
This redesigning of work processes wrested the control of production from skilled artisans and laborers and placed it in the hands of management, whose ranks and prerogatives grew as the labor force was “de-skilled.”
The relative solidarity of the Russian repartitional commune is itself a result of a distinct history of relations with overlords. This claim is perfectly compatible with the fact that such solidarity, once in place, can serve other purposes, including resistance.
There is no doubt that a number of bureaucratic “pathologies” amplified the disaster of Soviet collectivization. They include the tendency of administrators to concentrate on specified, quantifiable results (e.g., grain yields, tons of potatoes, tons of pig iron) rather than on quality and the fact that long chains of specialization and command shielded many officials from the larger consequences of their behavior. Also, the difficulty of making officials accountable to their clientele, as opposed to their superiors, meant that the pathology of group “commandism,” on one hand, or individual corruption and self-serving, on the other, were rampant. High-modernist schemes in revolutionary, authoritarian settings like that of the Soviet Union are thus likely to go off the rails more easily and remain off the rails far longer than in a parliamentary setting.
It is worth noting here that the abolition of individual freehold title shortly after independence was one of the legal preconditions for forced villagization, as, in Nyerere’s words, “all land now belong[ed] to the nation” (p. 307). Nyerere justified this move in terms of African traditions of “communal ownership,” thus eliding the difference between communal ownership and state ownership.
In the context of coercion the linguistic fiction of choice is still maintained. Finally, using the phrase “life of death” to describe the lives most Tanzanians are leading elevates Nyerere and the party to the role of saviors raising their people from the dead, as Jesus did with Lazarus.
I was told by a World Bank official that early in the campaign to transplant thousands of Javanese on the outer islands of Indonesia, it was thought better to move them by airplane rather than by boat, which would have been cheaper, because their first experience of flight would suitably disorient them and convey to them the revolutionary and permanent nature of their relocation.
One could argue that it is far easier to impose high-modernist schemes of transformation on a population that is somehow constructed as “the other” than on a group that is part of “us.”
See James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Ferguson concludes that “the ‘development’ apparatus in Lesotho is not a machine for eliminating poverty that is incidentally involved with the state bureaucracy; it is a machine for reinforcing and expanding the exercise of bureaucratic state power, which incidentally takes ‘poverty’ as its point of entry” (pp. 255–56).
Regarding the Hayek view of the laissez-faire, real-time adjusting benefits of a market. It’s not all upside. p. 412:
Proponents of this view forget or ignore, I think, the fact that in order to do its work, the market requires its own vast simplifications in treating land (nature) and labor (people) as factors of production (commodities). This, in turn, can and has been profoundly destructive of human communities and of nature.
Potemkin villages in China. p. 413:
In another example of the exemplum being mistaken for reality, during the disastrous Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao Tse-tung’s subordinates set up elaborate, deceptive tableaux of healthy peasants and bumper crops along the route that his train would follow.
The large gap that thus develops between an inevitably thin authoritarian high-modernist social fiction and the informal, “deviant” practices that cannot be openly avowed but that are its necessary complement is diagnostically characteristic. Although we shall return to this theme, here it is relevant to recall that the hypocrisy, cynicism, and comedy generated by the gulf between the official pieties of a mendacious public sphere and the practices necessary to the reproduction of daily life often become the raw material for such a society’s finest literature, poetry, and song.
Those who investigate the order that lies behind seemingly turbulent natural systems (clouds, water flows, air turbulence, epidemics, etc.) have come to contrast what they call fractal systems with linear systems. The key difference of relevance to us is the flexibility and sturdiness of fractal processes, which can survive perturbations and function over a wide range of frequencies—a quality common to many biological processes. In contrast, linear processes, once they are knocked off the rails, continue to veer off on the new tangent, never to return to the original equilibrium range. Polyculture, in just this sense, has a greater tolerance of disturbances.
There are exceptions, one of which seems to be the ecologically devastated northern part of Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is worth adding that neither does the record of the industrialized world in soil erosion, pollution or exhaustion of groundwater, and global warming represent an edifying example of foresight.
The inherent limitations of science are deliberately elemental. No surprises; the surprises come when we discover (over and over again) that the real world doesn’t often behave like a laboratory. p. 421:
Experimental laboratory science is necessarily carried out using a standardized and purified nature (e.g., purified reagents from catalogues) and man-made instruments of observation. The reliable manipulation of such objects makes for successful experiments and a certain level of self-vindication in laboratory practice. See Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), chap. 1. See also Ian Hacking, “The Self-Vindication of the Laboratory Sciences,” in Andrew Pickering, ed., Science as Practice and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 29– 64.
We choose variables based on their ease of measurement or likelihood of funding, rather than their value to humanity. p. 421:
There is no reason, in principle, why the dependent variable of greatest interest cannot be, say, nutritional value, the timing of tillering, taste, or hardiness. But the research is more manageable when the variable of interest is less subjective and more easily quantifiable.
DDT removed the mosquito vector of malaria transfer. What if the benefits did not outweigh the cost? This is the situation with so many such high-impact experiments in chaotic systems. Just don’t. p. 422:
With hindsight, one could still argue that, in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the reduction in disease was so valuable that it outweighed any harm caused to the environment. But that is not the point. The point is that the costs in this case were outside the experimental model and could not have been assessed in any event.
Regarding the ability of landrace seed to perform nearly as well as hybrids but without all the downsides of hybrids. Scientific GMO proponents point out that we’ve been modifying seeds forever, which is true. The difference is that landraces have a clear, sustainable, and natural pathway backward to previous generations. This is the idea of Taleb’s “precautionary principle”. p. 422:
A selection of barley left in the field as seed stock over a trial of sixty years produced 95 percent of the yield that plant breeders would have been able to achieve and were almost certainly hardier and more disease resistant strains of barley.
A “skin in the game” argument. p. 422:
One of the policy arguments for the stable family farm as an institution is that it is more likely than a capitalist firm to have an intergenerational interest in maintaining or improving the quality of the land and environment.
I have elected to adopt the terminology of the classicist Nussbaum, who convinces me that her usage has a far stronger grounding in the original texts of Plato and Aristotle. Support for Nussbaum’s understanding comes also from Pierre Vidal-Naquet: “As G. Cambiano justly [correctly] observes, in the Platonic view, epistêmê, dynamis, and technê comprise a system of concepts that mutually reinforce one another,” he writes. “The Republic, for example, puts under the control of mathematics a unit composed of technai, dianoiai, and epistemai: skills, intellectual processes, and sciences” (The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World, trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1986], p. 228).
An important critique of social science might well take this observation as a point of departure. Borrowing the prestige of scientific language and methods from the biological sciences, many social scientists have envisioned and tried to effect an objective, precise, and strictly replicable set of techniques—a set of techniques that gives impartial and quantitative answers. Thus most forms of formal policy analysis and cost-benefit analysis manage, through heroic assumptions and an implausible metric for comparing incommensurate variables, to produce a quantitative answer to thorny questions. They achieve impartiality, precision, and replicability at the cost of accuracy. A brief and persuasive case along these lines can be found in Theodore M. Porter, “Objectivity as Standardization: The Rhetoric of Impersonality in Measurement, Statistics, and Cost-Benefit Analysis,” in Allan Megill, ed., Rethinking Objectivity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 197– 237.
On complexity. p. 426:
Warren Weaver long ago distinguished between what he termed “disorganized complexity,” which could be dealt with through statistical techniques that captured average outcomes, and “organized complexity” (including, most notably, organic systems), which could not yield to such techniques because the complexity of their nonrandom, systemic relationships prevents us from fully understanding first-order effects of an intervention, let alone second- or third-order effects (“Science and Complexity,” American Scientist 36 : 536–44).
Friedrich Hayek himself was a skeptic: “The delusion that advancing theoretical knowledge places us everywhere increasingly in a position to reduce complex interconnections to ascertainable particular facts often leads to new scientific errors.… Such errors are largely due to an arrogation of pretended knowledge, which in fact no one possesses and which even the advance of science is not likely to give us” (Studies in Philosophy, Economics, and Politics [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967], p. 197).
For the poor, a gamble often makes sense if their current practices are failing them. Occasionally, when a whole community or a culture experiences an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and its categories no longer make sense of the world, such gambles take on millennial tones, with new prophets arising to proclaim the way forward.
Mētis, it should be quite clear, is ubiquitous in modern and in less modern societies alike, and perhaps the crucial difference is that, compared to preindustrial societies, modern societies are particularly reliant on codified, epistemic knowledge, usually conveyed through formal instruction.
It is in fact impossible for most modern readers to take in the vast complacency with which Oakeshott regards what the past has bequeathed to him in its habits, practices, and morals without wondering if Jews, women, the Irish, and the working class in general might not feel as blessed by the deposit of history as did this Oxford don.
Perhaps we should accept, if not embrace, complexity. p. 431:
Albert O. Hirschman, “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding,” World Politics 22 (April 1970): 239. Elsewhere Hirschman takes social science in general to task in much the same fashion: “But after so many failed prophecies, is it not in the interest of social science to embrace complexity, be it at some sacrifice of its claim to predictive power?” (“ Rival Interpretations of Market Society: Civilizing, Destructive, or Feeble?” Journal of Economic Literature 20 [December 1982]: 1463– 84).
“Everything becomes crystal clear after you have reduced reality to one—one only—of its thousand aspects. You know what to do.… There is at the same time the perfect measuring rod for the degree of success or failure.… The point is that the real strength of the theory of private enterprise lies in its ruthless simplification, which fits so admirably into the mental patterns created by the phenomenal successes of science. The strength of science too derives from its ‘reduction’ of reality to one or another of its many aspects, primarily the reduction of quality to quantity” (E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered [London: Blond and Briggs, 1973], pp. 272– 73).
“In the limit, all other species become cultivated natural capital, bred, managed at the smaller population size to make more room for humans and their furniture. Instrumental values such as redundancy, resiliency, stability, sustainability, would be sacrificed, along with the intrinsic value of life enjoyment by sentient human species, in the interests of ‘efficiency’ defined as anything that increases the human scale”.
I hope my little scratchpad of notes and (probably too extensive) quotes have whetted your appetite for this book. I understand that meaningful knowledge is not compressible and I know that I have not done the book any justice with my attempt. Just read it and you’ll see why this book is in my all-time top 10 list of important books.
Flurkarte by Schorle (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- 23 January 2017: fixed typo (“Nassim Nicholas Taleb”)
Last modified on 2017-01-15