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Seeing Like a State

Seeing Like a State

by James C. Scott


902 reads

The premodern state was pretty blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. All that required was a concentrated population, within easy range, producing a steady supply of easily transportabl...

Elements of state-engineered tragedies

Tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originated from:

  1. The administering ordering of nature & society. 
  2. The rise of a modernist ideology, aimed at creating a scientifically utopic future.
  3. The authoritarian instinct of the state to use it...

Modern people started to see rational order as an ideology. Efficiency became a virtue in itself. They committed to a more egalitarian society, to making the amenities of modern society available to all, through:

The rational authority of experts, who can use the scientific...

From "nature" to "natural resource"

A forest, for example, is nothing but a utility for a state: providing timber and tax revenue. Its narrow utilitarian perspective ignores the naturalistic view of the forest as a complex biological system. Or the anthropologic view, looking at all the socially negotiated uses like hunting, fishin...

High modernism's beneficiaries were abstract caricatures, not real people. The advocates of social engineering were planning for generic subjects (who needed so many square feet of housing space, acres of farmland, liters of clean water etc)

Standardized citizens are uniform in the...

Local units of measurement are cultural & practical. In Malaysia, distances are measure in "rice cooks", denoting the time it takes rather than the distance, which could be less useful for varied terrain. In France, a pint meant anything from 0.9l to 3.33l. It depends on the ...

Customs vs Laws

Customs are a living, negociated practices which are constantly being addaped to new circumstances, including power relations. They should not be romanticized being riven with inequality and other biases.

Laws don't have the plasticity and the evolutionary power of customs. Historically spe...

The City as a Utopian Project

Le Corbusier, an influential architect, believed the city was the rational expression of the modern consciousness & that people would embrace it wholeheartedly. His cities were big, straight, with clearly separated areas. A designed macro-order that led in practice to micro-confusions.


Techne & mētis

Greeks separated knowledge into:

  • Techne: Technical knowledge that could be expressed precisely in the form of hard-and-fast rules (not rules of thumb), principles & propositions. Techne is based on logical deduction from self-evident first principles.
  • M...

Complex projects are impossible to successfully plan for. These rules can help: 

Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance.

Favor reversibility. Prefer ...

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

“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, admonish...

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