Seeing Like a State Summary 2023 - Deepstash

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Seeing Like a State Summary

About Seeing Like a State Book

“One of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades.”—John Gray, New York Times Book Review

Hailed as “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning” by the New York Times, this essential work analyzes disasters from Russia to Tanzania to uncover why states so often fail—sometimes catastrophically—in grand efforts to engineer their society or their environment, and uncovers the conditions common to all such planning disasters.

“Beautifully written, this book calls into sharp relief the nature of the world we now inhabit.”—New Yorker

“A tour de force.”— Charles Tilly, Columbia University

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Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott

4.8/5 (2989 reviews)

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The Modern State

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 transportable, storable grain and tribute and providing a surplus of manpower for security, war, and public works.

The modern state, which grew after the Enlightenment, attempted the application of the "scientific method" in the realm of social interaction. It led to the biggest tragedies in human history.


Elements of state-engineered tragedies

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 its coercive power to create the future.
  4. A civil society that lacks the means to resist the state. 

The legibility of society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high modernism provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire & an incapacitated civil society provides social terrain. 


High Modernism Utopia

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 method for ...

Centralized planning: dams, large 🏭, communication. All aimed towards bringing utopian changes in people's lives.

Standardization: everyone to speak the same language, worship the same god, use the same units of measurement etc... 


The aspiration to such uniformity and order alerts us to the fact that modern statecraft is largely a project of internal colonization, often glossed, as it is in its imperial rhetoric, as a 'civilizing mission'.



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.



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 quick as possible, lest the people decide to repeat the experience.



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