Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Scott, James C.

"On Exactitude in Science"exactitude-in-science appears as the epigraph to Chapter 2: Cities, People, and Language.

On Surnames & the State

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.38 Tax and tithe rolls, property rolls, conscription lists, censuses, and property deeds recognized in law were inconceivable without some means of fixing an individual's identity and linking him or her to a kin group. Campaigns to assign permanent patronyms have typically taken place, as one might expect, in the context of a state's exertions to put its fiscal system on a sounder and more lucrative footing. Fearing, with good reason, that an effort to enumerate and register them could be a prelude to some new tax burden or conscription, local officials and the population at large often resisted such campaigns.

An interesting account of the origins of the term 老百姓—usually denoting "the common people", but literally means the Classic Hundred Surnames.

If permanent surnames were largely a project of official legibility, then they should have appeared earliest in those societies with precocious states. China provides a striking example.39 By roughly the fourth century B.C. (although the exact timing and comprehensiveness are in dispute), the Qin dynasty had apparently begun imposing surnames on much of its population and enumerating them for the purposes of taxes, forced labor, and conscription.40 This initiative may well have been the origin of the term "laobaixing," meaning, literally, "the old one hundred surnames," which in modern China has come to mean "the common people." Before this, the fabled Chinese patrilineage, while established among ruling houses and related lines, was absent among commoners. They did not have surnames, nor did they even imitate elite practices in this respect. The assigning of patronyms by family was integral to state policy promoting the status of (male) family heads, giving them legal jurisdiction over their wives, children, and juniors and, not incidentally, holding them accountable for the fiscal obligations of the entire family.41 This (Qin) policy required registering the entire population, after which the "hodgepodge of terms by which people were called were all classified as hsing [surname], to be passed down to their patrilineal descendants indefinitely."42 On this account, both the establishment of permanent patronyms and the creation of the patrilineal family itself can be attributed to early state simplification.

Grids and legibility

cf surveil-and-punish, especially "functional sites" in "The art of distributions".


Soviet socialism not any different from capitalism in its large-scale centralisation of agricultural production. Satirised(?) in Wewe, which then inspired 1984 (and TBH probably animal-farm?)

Lenin realized, of course, that the revolutionary project depended on popular militancy and spontaneous protest. The problem of relying solely on popular action from below, however, was that such action was scattered and sporadic, making easy pickings for the czarist police. If we think of popular action as incendiary political material, the role of the vanguard party was to concentrate and aim this explosive charge so that its detonation could bring down the regime. The vanguard party "merged the elemental destructive force of a crowd with the conscious destructive force of the organization of revolutionists." It was the thinking organ of the revolution, ensuring that the otherwise diffuse brute force of the masses was effectively used.

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A newspaper, even more than "agitation" before heckling or sullen crowds, creates a decidedly one-sided relationship.20 The organ is a splendid way to diffuse instructions, explain the party line, and rally the troops. Like its successor, the radio, the newspaper is a medium better suited to sending messages than to receiving them.

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Electricity was also, it should be added, centralizing.58 It produced a visible network of transmission lines emanating from a central power station from which the flow of power was generated, distributed, and controlled.

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Politics miraculously disappears from within the revolutionary ranks and is left to the elite of the vanguard party, much as industrial engineers might discuss, among themselves, how to lay out a factory floor.

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Once the farmer was moved, often to a vastly different ecological setting, his local knowledge was all but useless. As Jason Clay emphasizes, "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." Resettlement was far more than a change in scenery. It took people from a setting in which they had the skills and resources to produce many of their own basic needs and hence the means of a reasonably self-sufficient independence. It then transferred them to a setting where these skills were of little or no avail. Only in such circumstances was it possible for camp officials to reduce migrants to mendicants whose obedience and labor could be exacted for subsistence rations.

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Compare with razing of kampongs in Singapore + resettlement in HDBs

Almost all strictly functional, single-purpose institutions have some of the qualities of sensory-deprivation tanks used for experimental purposes. At the limit, they approach the great social control institutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: asylums, workhouses, prisons, and reformatories. We have learned enough of such settings to know that over time they can produce among their inmates a characteristic institutional neurosis marked by apathy, withdrawal, lack of initiative and spontaneity, uncommunicativeness, and intractability. The neurosis is an accommodation to a deprived, bland, monotonous, controlled environment that is ultimately stupifying.10

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. Complex, diverse, animated environments contribute, as Jacobs saw, to producing a resilient, flexible, adept population that has more experience in confronting novel challenges and taking initiative. 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.

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Note 10 in cited refers to anarchy-in-action

Colonial gaslighting of vernacular practices

The point of departure for colonial policy was a complete faith in what officials took for "scientific agriculture" on one hand and a nearly total skepticism about the actual agricultural practices of Africans on the other. As a provincial agricultural officer in the Shire (Tchiri) Valley put it, "The African has neither the training, skill, nor equipment to diagnose his soil erosion troubles nor can he plan the remedial measures, which are based on scientific knowledge, and this is where I think we rightly come in."'


As cultivators and pastoralists, they had developed patterns of settlement and, in many cases, patterns of periodic movements that were finely tuned adaptations to an often stingy environment which they knew exceptionally well. The state-mandated movement threatened to destroy the logic of this adaptation. Administrative convenience, not ecological considerations, governed the selection of sites; they were often far from fuelwood and water, and their population often exceeded the carrying capacity of the land.

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The Shock Doctrine

Nor was the speed of the operation a mere by-product of administrative haste. The planners felt that the shock of lightning-quick settlement would have a salutary effect. It would rip the peasantry from their traditional surroundings and networks and would put them down in entirely new settings where, it was hoped, they could then be more readily remade into modern producers following the instructions of experts.31 In a larger sense, of course, the purpose of forced settlement is always disorientation and then reorientation. Colonial schemes for state farms or private plantations, as well as the many plans to create a class of progressive yeoman farmers, operated on the assumption that revolutionizing the living arrangements and working environments of people would transform them fundamentally. Nyerere was fond of contrasting the loose, autonomous work rhythms of traditional cultivators with the tight-knit, interdependent discipline of the factory.39 Densely settled villages with cooperative production would move the Tanzanian population toward that ideal.

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exactitude-in-science Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science”. ↩︎ 1

surveil-and-punish Foucault, Michel. 2012. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. ↩︎ 1

we Zamyatin, Yevgeny Ivanovich. We. ↩︎ 1

1984 Orwell, George. 1984. ↩︎ 1

animal-farm Orwell, George. Animal Farm. ↩︎ 1

anarchy-in-action Ward, Colin. Anarchy in Action. ↩︎ 1

seeing-like-a-state Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press. ↩︎ 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8