Books - Read and Enjoyed

Seeing Like a State

Yale University Press, 1998

James C. Scott

The book Seeing Like a State is a carefully argued, direct attack on high-modernism and easily convinces that many of high-modernisms schemes have missed the central importance of local, context dependent, fine tuning and adaptive competence of the involved actors in complex organizations, With high modernism James Scott means schemes based on a few simple, aesthetically appealing rules that are imposed on complex organizations often with force and the unyielding conviction to know best.

Historic examples of high-modernism, analyzed in details, are:

The examples are taken from very different areas, and while reading the book one gets the impression that it would be easy to find many, many more examples from all areas of society and from all ages. The invention of modern forestry in Prussia and Saxony can serve as example to illustrate the main features of high-modernism. The early modern European state viewed the forests through the fiscal lens of revenue needs. Between 1760 and 1800 in Prussia and Saxony, driven by the needs of an emerging absolute and centralized state, the forests where first categorized and counted. All trees of potential commercial value were assigned to one of five categories depending on their type and size. After this heroic endeavor the state could predict for the following years how much timber could be extracted annually from each plot and by how much they could be taxed. For the state that was a great advance over the situation before when it was impossible to predict the tax revenue for the coming year and impossible to know if the state’s subjects were withholding taxation that rightfully belonged to the state. Counting and accounting was a first step. The next logical step was to maximize yield and taxation by careful seeding, planting and cutting. The result was a forest that maximized annual yield of timber and revenue of taxes.

However, the result was a forest very different from the original forest that had served many different needs of the local population using the forest and living in it or near it. What went missing in the state’s myopic view were the countless bushes and shrubs, all the trees of lesser commercial value, the myriads fungi, birds, mammals, and insects, the twigs, branches, leaves and roots, its impact on local climate and water balance, and many other aspects relevant for the local population and the long term well being of the forest, but irrelevant to the annual taxation balance. The forests in the eighteens century were used in various ways by the local people as source for firewood, clean water, a diverse diet, for shelter, etc. To illustrate the diverse use, Scott cites an entry of a popular seventeenths century encyclopedia under the term “elm” (page 12):

Elm is a timber of most singular use, especially whereby it may be continually dry, or wet, in extremes; therefore proper for water works, mills, the ladles and soles of the wheel, pumps, aqueducts, ship planks below the water line, … also for wheelwrights, handles for the single handsaw, rails and gates. Elm is not so apt to rive [split] … and is used for chopping blocks, blocks for the hat maker, trunks and boxes to be covered with leather, coffins and dressers and shovelboard tables of great length; also for the carver and those curious workers of fruitage, foliage, shields, statues and most of the ornaments appertaining to the orders of architecture… And finally … the use of the very leaves of the tree, especially the female, is not to be despised … for they will prove of great relieve to cattle in the winter and scorching summers when hay and fodder is dear. … The green leaves of the elms contused heals a green wound or cut, and boiled with the bark, consolidates bone fractures.

If elm wood were considered inferior to other kinds of trees such as the Norway spruce, it would be weeded out and disappear except at the margins; which is exactly what happened.

Encouraged by the scientific spirit of the time and enforced by an exceedingly all-encompassing state with absolute powers the concept of scientific forestry was implemented with few compromises. In Scott’s words (page 15)

The tendency was towards regimentation, in the strict sense of the word. The forest trees were drawn up into serried, uniform ranks, as it were, to be measured, counted off, felled, and replaced by a new rank and file of lookalike conscripts. As an army, it was also designed hierarchically from above to fulfill a unique purpose and to be at the disposition of a single commander. At the limit, the forest itself would not even have to be seen; it could be “read” accurately from the table and maps of the forester’s office.

In tbe short run this experiment in the radical simplification of the forest to a single commodity was a resounding success. The productivity of the forest grew, the wood supply increased, the state’s coffers benefited, and the method was exported to most countries in Europe and North America.

While the state with its absolute power could ignore the collateral damage inflicted on the bio-diversity and local population by prioritizing its own goals over those of other, less powerful stake holders, the method eroded also the conditions for its central objectives in the long run. Since it takes 50-100 years for a tree to mature, it took some time until the long term effects became apparent.

In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted. “It took about one century for them [the negative consequences] to show up clearly. Many of the pure stands grew excellently in the first generation but showed an amazing retrogression in the second generation. … Then the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and was nearly stopped.” … A new term Waldsterben (forest death) entered the German vocabulary to describe the worst case.

(page 20)

The example of scientific forestry illustrates the main features of high-modernism as Scott traces them through history and various realms of society. These are

In all the examples studied in the book this approach of high-modernism failed, and sometimes with disastrous consequences (collectivization in the USSR or villagization in Tanzania) due to the unholy combination of absolute power and absolute conviction.

The book also analyses in great detail why high-modernism failed in these examples, which is perhaps the most interesting part. It failed because the simplistic, abstract view is not adequate and sufficient to understand the subject systems. In fact, the most important aspects for the workings of those systems were excluded from the view. Scientific forestry, as exercised in the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries in Germany and many other countries, ignored the flow of nutrients, the emergence of micro-climates and the interdependence of many species, that are, however, essential for the flourishing of forests.

The book is a comprehensive, detail-rich study of high-modernism and a dire warning to be wary of the combination of power and certitude, in particular of their absolute variant. And when one starts looking for patterns of high-modernism in the contemporary world, it is easy to discover plenty cases worth studying. The rebuilding of Russia’s economy in the 1990’s by the proponents of shock therapy, the war on drug and the war on terror come to mind, and so do the authoritarian regimes in all parts of the world who have in common with each other not more than a simplistic view of their societies, the claim to absolute power and the unwillingness to listen to arguments.

The book is descriptive in the sense that it describes historical cases of high-modernism. Even though it certainly allows to generalize beyond the given examples due to its detailed and careful analysis, it hardly hypothesizes about the reasons and origins of these phenomena, in particular their appearance in combination. Several times Scott alludes to the trend towards strong states and the emergence of absolutism in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which in combination with the mega-trend of science and its engineering applications formed the basis of high-modernism. It is certainly plausible that these developments in the wider European societies often conspired leading to outbursts of high modernism in so different areas such as forestry, agriculture, architecture, city planing, and revolutions. But where does the simplicity come from? Science, as the endeavor to understand phenomena, has no inherent interest to simplify its models if that comes at the cost of diminished predictive power and lost insight. Also, the state has not interest in simplifying its account of the societies and economies of its subjects if that does not serve the maximization of control or tax revenue. Quite on the contrary, simplification, which is a hallmark of high modernism, seems to work against the core interests of both science and the state. Simplification seems also to be a main cause of the grandiose failures discussed by Scott, that eventually weakened the involved authorities and were disservices to science. It seems that grossly simplified models and recipes of high modernism have much more often been realized than complex and sophisticated ones. Have simplistic models tried out so much more often because they are easier to communicate and implement, giving them an advantage in the short term even if their success rate in the long term is meager?

Scott’s book obviously does not answer all question but it does provide very valuable insight in certain schemes of modern history and raises interesting question about the inner workings of our societies.

(AJ March 2021)