Like a State
How Certain Schemes
To Improve the
James C. Scott
(Yale)I've been trying to write about this son-of-a-bitch for six months now. And I guess I'll just never do it. The reason: Seeing Like a State is an astonishing, brilliant, exquisitely written, sound, wise, and (sometimes) funny --- and (almost always) a sad tale of how governments screw up.
I've been reviewing books for over forty years, and can only think of a handful that reach the stature of this one. The closest is Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media which turned our view of media on its head (he included cars and timekeepers as "media," just to thicken the plot.) I picked it up in 1963 in University Bookstore, and flipped through it, and put it back in the shelf, and drove home, and had a beer, then got up, drove back to the bookstore, and bought it (and ended up using it as required reading in all my media classes).
Seeing Like A State is that kind of a go-back-and-get-it book, because it has a combination of good writing (the author is an excellent stylist --- he should have been a Nabokovian novelist), a sense of fun, and articulate good sense. Scott can look at German forestry practices during the 17th and 18th centuries, and tie them together with government use of census (to get a handle on potentially taxable subjects) along with the history of grid layout of land (an easy source for interchangeable information for ownership and tax records, plus the easy divisibility of the land for speculative purposes):
The aboveground order of a grid city facilitates its underground order in the layout of water pipes, storm drains, sewers, electric cables, natural gas lines and subways --- an order no less important to the administrators of a city. Delivering mail, collecting taxes, conducting a census, moving supplies and people in and out of the city, putting down a riot or insurrection, digging for pipes and sewer lines, finding a felon or conscript (providing he's at the address given), and planning public transportation, water supply, and trash removal are all made vastly simpler by the logic of the grid.
This kind of writing and insight, like love, should turn our world upside down, and yet keep it glued together so, as we are reading along, we'll be saying, "right" and "o yes" and "wow" --- just like a baptist prayer meeting (and Scott's the preacher). Most of us suspect that planners and experts, given the force of government power and government money, will blow it --- no matter what. For instance, what they did with Brasilia --- a chance to build a whole capital for all time, but the building of which destroyed the street-life found in all other Brazilian cities and towns. They didn't kill it all. They couldn't, because of the natural slum created alongside the "planned" city --- the slum where most of the workers lived --- began to be the place where they transferred the street life and hope.
He calls these errors of construct a "tragic episode" of state development of the last hundred years, and refers to it specifically as "high modernism." It has three elements. The first is a weakened civil society "that lacks the capacity to resist these plans." The second: an unrestrained use of "the power of the modern state as an instrument" for achieving change. The final ---- an "aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, raised to a "comprehensive and ambitious level." His Hall of Fame of 'high modernist' figures are those who are the universally accepted villains of ruination and statism including Le Corbusier, Robert McNamara, Robert Moses, Vladimir I. Lenin, David Lilienthal, Walter Rathenau, and Julius Nyerere.
Seeing Like a State is a rich potage. Take it as you would take Remembrance of Things Past, or Ulysses, or War and Peace --- a few pages at a time. You won't regret it. The scandal --- the great scandal --- is that those who should hear Scott's message will never get it. Those awful people who are doing local "city planning." Those who construct our freeways. The architects who plant yet another blockbuster shopping mall. The Senators and Congressmen and women who haven't an idea in the world about how their various "public works" projects destroy human and humane activities --- and how their tax laws destroy our cities. These ogres who should be attending to Scott's message are, right now, locked in their conference rooms, plotting another stink bomb to add to the ruination of our lives. They will never hear.--- L W Milam