"Seeing Like a State" by James C. Scott

Review by Borodutch

"Seeing Like a State" was extremely dry and repetitive. Overall, James meticulously tries to convey a simple message: most forms of standardization were done to simplify governing people and often failed these same people due to oversimplification. For instance, measuring fields in acres and not accounting for the variation between acres when taxing.

Overall, the author describes the following measures that led to more manageable population accounting and control:

  • Centralized measurement system
  • Centralized language
  • Invention of unique surnames

Standardizing these is primarily harmless unless all four of the following factors are in play — which leads to catastrophic results:

  1. Urge of the state to categorize, describe, standardize
  2. High-modernist ideology when science is worshipped as the omnipotent source of truth
  3. Tyrannical state government with means to enforce #1 and #2 with force
  4. Vulnerable public that cannot oppose #3 for a variety of reasons (e.g., too weak or too poor)

This happened in a variety of states in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author describes the events vividly but in too many details. Unfortunately, James also makes a series of factual mistakes when describing the USSR. For instance, the term "narod" does not mean "uneducated people" (if I remember correctly, the author uses the term "dark people," but I won't go into this territory) but is simply translated as "folk."

The author provides the analogy of oversimplifying governing people and forestry. It is pretty on point, as the trees and the people are often "generalized" to the absurd. Also, James outlines that, like with the forest, the lack of diversity among people (in terms of approaches to agriculture, management, governing, etc.) is susceptible to failure. If there is only one type of tree, the pest population that feeds on it skyrockets and eventually kills the trees. Hence, having diverse cultures in the forests is a must; same with people.

I started reading "Seeling Like a State" to learn what exactly one should avoid to be less "visible" to a state and make it more difficult to suppress one's divergent opinion. Unfortunately, I got a post-mortem of what went wrong in the 19th and 20th centuries and how the states can do better nowadays. The book is excellent for what it's for — explaining how to manage a state better for the people to prosper. So, if you're into that, jump ahead — however, you might as well be better off reading a summary (and all the summaries for this book are vast and detailed anyway).