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

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

"Seeing Like A State" was recommended to me by Yale Cold War historian John Gaddis. At its core, this is a book about the many failures of mankind's attempts to assert order and "legibility" to nature, society, and the economy. Scott takes aim at many of the grand-scale authoritarian planning schemes of the 20th century, ranging from the notorious Soviet farming plans to the forced "villagization" of Tanzania. Apparently, this book is somewhat of a classic in historical circles and is cited frequently in research.

The takeaway, as Scott himself says is:

If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were"

Scott got into this whole question through the study of nomadic peoples across the globe. He says:

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.

By trying to impose order upon the chaos of society, states could assert their power more effectively and they thought they could increase productivity and quality of life.

However, these plans have been almost uniformly unsuccessful and occasionally disastrous. Scott writes:

The most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements. All four are necessary for a full-fledged disaster.

  • The first element is the administrative ordering of nature and society - the transformative state simplifications described above....
  • The second element is what I call a high-modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry...
  • The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being...
  • A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans....

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build"

Much of the book is devoted to case studies of failed high-modernist planning. Fascinatingly (for me at least), the book actually begins with an analysis of the birth of "scientific" forestry in 16th century Saxony. Scott explains how the tidy, well-kept rows of monoculture Norway Spruce planted by the Germans produced vast quantities of wood for a rotation or two, and then yields went to hell because of soil depletion, massive pest problems, and so on. Basically - forests are incredibly complex natural systems and trying to impose artificial order on them often leaves you vulnerable to unexpected consequences.

Scott spends a surprising amount of time covering high-modernist architecture and city planning - with a heavy emphasis on Le Corbusier. It's impressive that Scott - as director of the Yale Agrarian Studies program - has such a wide range of knowledge and insights. Of course, much of the second half of the book is devoted to failed large-scale agricultural schemes in the US and abroad. Scott makes the claim that small-holder agriculture often performs as well as massive mechanized agribusiness operations in the short term and is almost always a better long-term plan for sustained high yields. I had always thought that modern agriculture was orders of magnitude more productive than traditional agriculture, so that was a surprise to me.

The very last part of the book is about the concept of "metis" - a sort of practical knowledge which "lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote." Scott holds metis in quite high regard and recommends that social planners do the same.

All in all, this was a great read that significantly changed my views on managing complex real-world systems. I think that before this book I certainly fell into the high-modernist camp. I still certainly believe in the power of better data to help make better decisions, but I think that Scott's book has made me considerably less "imperial" in my faith in high modernism. It's also made me a lot more cautious about grand ambitions for totally "scientific" forest management!

[Update on May 22, 2016] Ever since I originally wrote this review in September of 2012, "Seeing Like a State" has continued to echo in my mind almost every day. In almost every major decision I make, I hear James Scott chiding me about "the hubris of high-modernist scientific planning pretensions." Although the quotes I pulled out don't particularly move me upon re-reading, the overall message of the book continues to resonate with me even today. Certainly one of my all-time most personally influential books.

My favorite quotes below:


Originally, I set out to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around," to put it crudely. In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill peoples on one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves, and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states.

High modernism was about "interests" as well as faith. Its carriers, even when they were capitalist entrepreneurs, required state action to realize their plans. In most cases, they were powerful officials and heads of state. They tended to prefer certain forms of planning and social organization (such as huge dams, centralized communication and transportation hubs, large factories and farms, and grid cities), because these forms fit snugly into a high-modernist view and also answered their political interests as state officials. There was, to put it mildly, an elective affinity between high modernism and the interests of many state officials.

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order.

The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain.

Nature and Space

Radically simplified designs for social organization seem to court the same risks of failure courted by radically simplified designs for natural environments. The failures and vulnerability of monocrop commercial forests and genetically engineered, mechanized monocropping mimic the failures of collective farms and planned cities.

In fact, the new forestry science was a subdiscipline of what was called cameral science, an effort to reduce the fiscal management of a kingdom to scientific principles that would allow systematic planning. Traditional domainal forestry had hitherto simply divided the forest into roughly equal plots, with the number of plots coinciding with the number of years in the assumed growth cycle.

The prospect of declining yields was alarming, not merely because it threatened revenue flows but also because it might provoke massive poaching by a peasantry in search of firewood. One sign of this concern were the numerous state-sponsored competitions for designs of more efficient woodstoves.

The first attempt at more precise measurements of forests was made by Johann Gottlieb Beckmann on a carefully surveyed sample plot. Walking abreast, several assistants carried compartmentalized boxes with color-coded nails corresponding to five categories of tree sizes, which they had been trained to identify. Each tree was tagged with the appropriate nail until the sample plot had been covered.

The fact is that forest science and geometry, backed by state power, had the capacity to transform the real, diverse, and chaotic old-growth forest into a new, more uniform forest that closely resembled the administrative grid of its techniques.

At the limit, the forest itself would not even have to be seen; it could be "read" accurately from the tables and maps in the forester's office.

This utopian dream of scientific forestry was, of course, only the immanent logic of its techniques. It was not and could not ever be realized in practice. Both nature and the human factor intervened. The existing topography of the landscape and the vagaries of fire, storms, blights, climatic changes, insect populations, and disease conspired to thwart foresters and to shape the actual forest. Also, given the insurmountable difficulties of policing large forests, people living nearby typically continued to graze animals, poach firewood and kindling, make charcoal, and use the forest in other ways that prevented the foresters' management plan from being fully realized." Although, like all utopian schemes, it fell well short of attaining its goal, the critical fact is that it did partly succeed in stamping the actual forest with the imprint of its designs.

Gifford Pinchot, the second chief forester of the United States, was trained at the French forestry school at Nancy, which followed a German-style curriculum, as did most U.S. and European forestry schools. The first forester hired by the British to assess and manage the great forest resources of India and Burma was Dietrich Brandes, a German. By the end of the nineteenth century, German forestry science was hegemonic.

In the German case, the negative biological and ultimately commercial consequences of the stripped-down forest became painfully obvious only after the second rotation of conifers had been planted. "It took about one century for them [the negative consequences] to show up clearly. Many of the pure stands grew excellently in the first generation but already showed an amazing retrogression in the second generation. The reason for this is a very complex one and only a simplified explanation can be given... Then the whole nutrient cycle got out of order and eventually was nearly stopped... Anyway, the drop of one or two site classes [used for grading the quality of timber] during two or three generations of pure spruce is a well known and frequently observed fact. This represents a production loss of 20 to 30 percent."

German forestry 's attention to formal order and ease of access for management and extraction led to the clearing of underbrush, deadfalls, and snags (standing dead trees), greatly reducing the diversity of insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil-building processes.

Same-age, same-species forests not only created a far less diverse habitat but were also more vulnerable to massive storm-felling. The very uniformity of species and age among, say, Norway spruce also provided a favorable habitat to all the "pests" which were specialized to that species. Populations of these pests built up to epidemic proportions, inflicting losses in yields and large outlays for fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, or rodenticides. Apparently the first rotation of Norway spruce had grown exceptionally well in large part because it was living off (or mining) the long-accumulated soil capital of the diverse old-growth forest that it had replaced. Once that capital was depleted, the steep decline in growth rates began.

The metaphorical value of this brief account of scientific production forestry is that it illustrates the dangers of dismembering an exceptionally complex and poorly understood set of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.

Cities, People, and Language

No administrative system is capable of representing any existing social community except through a heroic and greatly schematized process of abstraction and simplification.

These types of customary maps (for there would be a great many) would construct the landscape according to units of work and yield, type of soil, accessibility, and ability to provide subsistence, none of which would necessarily accord with surface area. The measurements are decidedly local, interested, contextual, and historically specific.

The illegibility of local measurement practices was more than an administrative headache for the monarchy. It compromised the most vital and sensitive aspects of state security. Food supply was the Achilles heel of the early modern state; short of religious war, nothing so menaced the state as food shortages and the resulting social upheavals. Without comparable units of measurement, it was difficult if not impossible to monitor markets, to compare regional prices for basic commodities, or to regulate food supplies effectively. Obliged to grope its way on the basis of sketchy information, rumor, and self-interested local reports, the state often responded belatedly and inappropriately.

Three factors, in the end, conspired to make what Kula calls the "metrical revolution" possible. First, the growth of market exchange encouraged uniformity in measures. Second, both popular sentiment and Enlightenment philosophy favored a single standard throughout France. Finally, the Revolution and especially Napoleonic state building actually enforced the metric system in France and the empire.

The perennial state project of unifying measures throughout the kingdom received a large degree of popular support in the eighteenth century, thanks to the reaction feodale. Aiming to maximize the return on their estates, owners of feudal domains, many of them arrivistes, achieved their goal in part by manipulating units of measurement.

But the moment it became scarce (when "nature" became "natural resources"), it became the subject of property rights in law, whether of the state or of the citizens. The history of property in this sense has meant the inexorable incorporation of what were once thought of as free gifts of nature: forests, game, wasteland, prairie, subsurface minerals, water and watercourses, air rights (rights to the air above buildings or surface area), breathable air, and even genetic sequences, into a property regime. In the case of common-property farmland, the imposition of freehold property was clarifying not so much for the local inhabitants - the customary structure of rights had always been clear enough to them - as it was for the tax official and the land speculator. The cadastral map added documentary intelligence to state power and thus provided the basis for the synoptic view of the state and a supralocal market in land.

Isaiah Berlin, in his study of Tolstoy, compared the hedgehog, who knew "one big thing," to the fox, who knew many things. The scientific forester and the cadastral official are like the hedgehog. The sharply focused interest of the scientific foresters in commercial lumber and that of the cadastral officials in land revenue constrain them to finding clear-cut answers to one question. The naturalist and the farmer, on the other hand, are like the fox. They know a great many things about forests and cultivable land. Although the forester's and cadastral official's range of knowledge is far narrower, we should not forget that their knowledge is systematic and synoptic, allowing them to see and understand things a fox would not grasp. What I want to emphasize here, however, is how this knowledge is gained at the expense of a rather static and myopic view of land tenure.

By concentrating on the legal paperwork, such as title deeds, and the appropriate fees, they occasionally became landlords to whole villages of cultivators who had imagined they had opened common land free for the taking. The new intermediaries, of course, might occasionally use their knowledge to see their compatriots safely through the new legal thicket. Whatever their conduct, their fluency in a language of tenure specifically designed to be legible and transparent to administrators, coupled with the illiteracy of the rural population to whom the new tenure was indecipherable, brought about a momentous shift in power relations. What was simplifying to an official was mystifying to most cultivators.

Until at least the fourteenth century, the great majority of Europeans did not have permanent patronymics. An individual's name was typically his given name, which might well suffice for local identification. If something more were required, a second designation could be added, indicating his occupation (in the English case, smith, baker), his geographical location (hill, edgewood), his father's given name, or a personal characteristic (short, strong). These secondary designations were not permanent surnames; they did not survive their bearers, unless by chance, say, a baker's son went into the same trade and was called by the same second designation.

Universal last names are a fairly recent historical phenomenon. Tracking property ownership and inheritance, collecting taxes, maintaining court records, performing police work, conscripting soldiers, and controlling epidemics were all made immeasurably easier by the clarity of full names and, increasingly, fixed addresses.

The techniques devised to enhance the legibility of a society to its rulers have become vastly more sophisticated, but the political motives driving them have changed little. Appropriation, control, and manipulation (in the nonpejorative sense) remain the most prominent.

State simplifications have at least five characteristics that deserve emphasis:

  1. Most obviously, state simplifications are observations of only those aspects of social life that are of official interest. They are interested, utilitarian facts.
  2. They are also nearly always written (verbal or numerical) documentary facts.
  3. They are typically static facts.
  4. Most stylized state facts are also aggregate facts. Aggregate facts may be impersonal (the density of transportation networks) or simply a collection of facts about individuals (employment rates, literacy rates, residence patterns).
  5. Finally, for most purposes, state officials need to group citizens in ways that permit them to make a collective assessment. Facts that can be aggregated and presented as averages or distributions must therefore be standardized facts. However unique the actual circumstances of the various individuals who make up the aggregate, it is their sameness or, more precisely, their differences along a standardized scale or continuum that are of interest.

The process by which standardized facts susceptible to aggregation are manufactured seems to require at least three steps:

  1. The first, indispensable step is the creation of common units of measurement or coding...
  2. In the next step, each item or instance falling within a category is counted and classified according to the new unit of assessment...
  3. One arrives, finally, at synoptic facts that are useful to officials: so many thousands of trees in a given size class... Combining several metrics of aggregation, one arrives at quite subtle, complex, heretofore unknown truths, including, for example, the distribution of tubercular patients by income and urban location.

There is, as Theodore Porter notes in his study of mechanical objectivity, a "strong incentive to prefer precise and standardizable measures to highly accurate ones," since accuracy is meaningless if the identical procedure cannot reliably be performed elsewhere.

Authoritarian High Modernism

While factories and forests might be planned by private entrepreneurs, the ambition of engineering whole societies was almost exclusively a project of the nation-state.

The troubling features of high modernism derive, for the most part, from its claim to speak about the improvement of the human condition with the authority of scientific knowledge and its tendency to disallow other competing sources of judgment.

First and foremost, high modernism implies a truly radical break with history and tradition. Insofar as rational thought and scientific laws could provide a single answer to every empirical question, nothing ought to be taken for granted. All human habits and practices that were inherited and hence not based on scientific reasoning - from the structure of the family and patterns of residence to moral values and forms of production - would have to be reexamined and redesigned. The structures of the past were typically the products of myth, superstition,
and religious prejudice. It followed that scientifically designed schemes for production and social life would be superior to received tradition. The sources of this view are deeply authoritarian. If a planned social order is better than the accidental, irrational deposit of historical practice, two conclusions follow. Only those who have the scientific knowledge to discern and create this superior social order are fit to rule in the new age. Further, those who through retrograde ignorance refuse to yield to the scientific plan need to be educated to its benefits or else swept aside.

High-modernist ideology thus tends to devalue or banish politics. Political interests can only frustrate the social solutions devised by specialists with scientific tools adequate to their analysis.

Once again the authoritarian and statist implications of this vision are clear. The very scale of such projects meant that, with few exceptions (such as the early canals), they demanded large infusions of monies raised through taxes or credit. Even if one could imagine them being financed privately in a capitalist economy, they typically required a vast public authority empowered to condemn private property, relocate people against their will, guarantee the loans or bonds required, and coordinate the work of the many state agencies involved.

The temporal emphasis of high modernism is almost exclusively on the future. Although any ideology with a large altar dedicated to progress is bound to privilege the future, high modernism carries this to great lengths. The past is an impediment, a history that must be transcended; the present is the platform for launching plans for a better future. A key characteristic of discourses of high modernism and of the public pronouncements of those states that have embraced it is a heavy reliance on visual images of heroic progress toward a totally transformed future.

If one were required to pinpoint the "birth" of twentieth-century high modernism, specifying a particular time, place, and individual - in what is admittedly a rather arbitrary exercise, given high modernism's many intellectual wellsprings - a strong case can be made for German mobilization during World War I and the figure most closely associated with it, Walther Rathenau. German economic mobilization was the technocratic wonder of the war. That Germany kept its armies in the field and adequately supplied long after most observers had predicted its collapse was largely due to Rathenau's planning.

What is most remarkable about both traditions is, once again, how widely they were believed by educated elites who were otherwise poles apart politically. Taylorism and technocracy were the watchwords of a three-pronged idealism: the elimination of economic and social crisis, the expansion of productivity through science, and the reenchantment of technology. The vision of society in which social conflict was eliminated in favor of technological and scientific imperatives could embrace liberal, socialist, authoritarian, and even communist and fascist solutions. Productivism, in short, was politically promiscuous."

The appeal of one or another form of productivism across much of the right and center of the political spectrum was largely due to its promise as a technological "fix" for class struggle. If, as its advocates claimed, it could vastly increase worker output, then the politics of redistribution could be replaced by class collaboration, in which both profits and wages could grow at once. For much of the left, productivism promised the replacement of the capitalist by the engineer or by the state expert or official. It also proposed a single optimum solution, or "best practice," for any problem in the organization of work. The logical outcome was some form of slide-rule authoritarianism in the interest, presumably, of all.

While it is not my intention to examine in detail all the potential obstacles to high-modernist planning, the particular barrier posed by liberal democratic ideas and institutions deserves emphasis. Three factors seem decisive. The first is the existence and belief in a private sphere of activity in which the state and its agencies may not legitimately interfere... Nevertheless, the idea of a private realm has served to limit the ambitions of many high modernists, through either their own political values or their healthy respect for the political storm that such incursions would provoke. The second, closely related factor is the private sector in liberal political economy... The point of liberal political economy was not only that a free market protected property and created wealth but also that the economy was far too complex for it ever to be managed in detail by a hierarchical administration. The third and by far most important barrier to thoroughgoing high-modernist schemes has been the existence of working, representative institutions through which a resistant society could make its influence felt... high-modernist schemes in liberal democratic settings must accommodate themselves sufficiently to local opinion in order to avoid being undone at the polls.

The High-Modernist City: An Experiment and a Critique

Le Corbusier's new urban order was to be a lyrical marriage between Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the machine. In characteristically bombastic terms, he declared, "We claim, in the name of the steamship, the airplane, and the automobile, the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection."

The Revolutionary Party: A Plan and a Diagnosis

Lenin and Le Corbusier, notwithstanding the great disparity in their training and purpose, shared some basic elements of the high-modernist outlook. While the scientific pretensions of each may seem implausible to us, they both believed in the existence of a master science that served as the claim to authority of a small planning elite.

In this respect, Lenin joins many of his capitalist contemporaries in his enthusiasm for Fordist and Taylorist production technology. What was rejected by Western trade unions of the time as a "de-skilling" of an artisanal workforce was embraced by Lenin as the key to rational state planning. There is, for Lenin, a single, objectively correct, efficient answer to all questions of how to rationally design production or administration.

Lenin's analogy was borrowed from Marx, who frequently used it as a way of saying that the hand loom gives you feudalism and the power loom gives you capitalism.

The Social Engineering of Rural Settlement and Production

How do we explain the decided colonial preference for plantation agriculture over smallholder production? The grounds for the choice can certainly not have been efficiency. For almost any crop one can name, with the possible exception of sugarcane, smallholders have been able historically to out-compete larger units of production. Time and time again, the colonial states found, small producers, owing to their low fixed costs and flexible use of family labor, could consistently undersell state-managed or private-sector plantations. The paradox is largely resolved, I believe, if we consider the "efficiencies" of the plantation as a unit of taxation (both taxes on profits and various export levies), of labor discipline and surveillance, and of political control.

The plantations, although less efficient than smallholders as producers, were far more convenient as units of taxation. It was easier to monitor and tax large, publicly-owned businesses than to do so for a vast swarm of small growers who were here today and gone tomorrow and whose landholdings, production, and profits were illegible to the state.

Soviet Collectivization, Capitalist Dreams

The "new man" - the Bolshevik specialist, engineer, or functionary - came to represent a new code of social ethics, which was sometimes simply called kultura. In keeping with the cult of technology and science, kultura emphasized punctuality, cleanliness, businesslike directness, polite modesty, and good, but never showy, manners. It was this understanding of kultura and the party's passion for the League of Time, with its promotion of time consciousness, efficient work habits, and clock-driven routine, that were so brilliantly caricatured in Eugene Zamiatin's novel We and that later became the inspiration for George Orwell's 1984.

The high tide of enthusiasm for applying industrial methods to agriculture in the United States stretched roughly from 1910 to the end of the 1930s. Agricultural engineers, a new specialty, were the main carriers of this enthusiasm; influenced by currents in their parent discipline, industrial engineering, and most particularly by the doctrines of the prophet of time-motion studies, Frederick Taylor, they reconceptualized the farm as a "food and fiber factory." Taylorist principles of scientifically measuring work processes in order to break them down into simple, repetitive motions that an unskilled worker could learn quickly might work well enough on the factory floor, but their application to the variegated and nonrepetitive requirements of growing crops was questionable. Agricultural engineers therefore turned to those aspects of farm operation that might be more easily standardized. They tried to rationalize the layout of farm buildings, to standardize machinery and tools, and to promote the mechanization of major grain crops.

Behind these admiring references to Russia was less a specifically political ideology than a shared high-modernist faith. That faith was reinforced by something on the order of an improvised, high-modernist exchange program. A great many Russian agronomists and engineers came to the United States, which they regarded as the Mecca of industrial farming. Their tour of American agriculture nearly always included a visit to Campbell's Montana Farming Corporation and to M. L. Wilson, who in 1928 headed the Department of Agricultural Economics
at Montana State University and later became a high-level official in the Department of Agriculture under Henry Wallace.

The giant sovkhoz, named Verblud, which they established near Rostov-on-Don, one thousand miles south of Moscow, comprised 375,000 acres that were to be sown to wheat. As an economic proposition, it was an abject failure, although in the early years it did produce large quantities of wheat. The detailed reasons for the failure are of less interest for our purposes than the fact that most of them could be summarized under the rubric of context. It was the specific context of this specific farm that defeated them. The farm, unlike the plan, was not a hypothecated, generic, abstract farm but an unpredictable, complex, and particular farm, with its own unique combination of soils, social structure, administrative culture, weather, political strictures, machinery, roads, and the work skills and habits of its employees. As we shall see, it resembled Brasilia in being the kind of failure typical of ambitious high-modernist schemes for which local knowledge, practice, and context are considered irrelevant or at best an annoyance to be circumvented.

The mandated delivery price of grain was one-fifth of the market price, and the regime returned to using police methods as peasant resistance stiffened. When the procurements faltered, those who refused to deliver what was required (who, along with anyone else opposing collectivization, were called kulaks, regardless of their economic standing) were arrested for deportation or execution, and all their grain, equipment, land, and livestock were seized and sold. The orders sent to those directly in charge of grain procurement specified that they were to arrange meetings of poor peasants to make it seem as if the initiative had come from below. It was in the context of this war over grain, and not as a carefully planned policy initiative, that the decision to force "total" (sploshnaia) collectivization was made in late 1929. Scholars who agree on little else are in accord on this point: the overriding purpose of collectivization was to ensure the seizure of grain.

Compulsory Villagization in Tanzania: Aesthetics and Miniaturization

They had also forgotten the most important fact about social engineering: its efficiency depends on the response and cooperation of real human subjects. If people find the new arrangement, however efficient in principle, to be hostile to their dignity, their plans, and their tastes, they can make it an inefficient arrangement.

But their insistence that they had a monopoly on useful knowledge and that they impose this knowledge set the stage for disaster.

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.

If the plans for villagization were so rational and scientific, why did they bring about such general ruin? The answer, I believe, is that such plans were not scientific or rational in any meaningful sense of those terms.

Taming Nature: An Agriculture of Legibility and Simplicity

Reviewing the history of major crop epidemics, beginning with the Irish potato famine in 1850, a committee of the United States National Research Council concluded: "These encounters show clearly that crop mono-culture and genetic uniformity invite epidemics.

In contrast, diversity is the enemy of epidemics.

Corn, as the most widely planted crop in the United States (85 million acres in 1986)23 and the first one to be hybridized, has provided nearly ideal conditions for insect, disease, and weed buildup. Pesticide use is correspondingly high. Corn accounts for one-third of the total market for herbicides and one-quarter of the market for insecticides

Thin Simplifications and Practical Knowledge: Metis

This perspective on social order is less an analytical insight than a sociological truism. It does offer, however, a valuable point of departure for understanding why authoritarian, high-modernist schemes are potentially so destructive. What they ignore-and often suppress-are precisely the practical skills that underwrite any complex activity.

Metis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote.

We might reasonably think of situated, local knowledge as being partisan knowledge as opposed to generic knowledge. That is, the holder of such knowledge typically has a passionate interest in a particular outcome. An insurer of commercial shipping for a large, highly capitalized maritime firm can afford to rely on probability distributions for accidents. But for a sailor or captain hoping for a safe voyage, it is the outcome of the single event, a single trip, that matters. Metis is the ability and experience necessary to influence the outcome-to improve the odds-in a particular instance.

The problem, as Aristotle recognized, is that certain practical choices cannot, "even in principle, be adequately and completely captured in a system of universal rules." He singled out navigation and medicine as two activities in which the practical wisdom of long experience is indispensable to superior performance. They were metis-laden activities in which responsiveness, improvisation, and skillful, successive approximations were required. If Plato can be credited, Socrates deliberately refrained from writing down his teachings, because he believed that the activity of philosophy belonged more to metis than to episteme or techne. A written text, even if it takes the form of a philosophical dialogue, is a cut-and-dried set of codified rules. An oral dialogue, by contrast, is alive and responsive to the mutuality of the participants, reaching a destination that cannot be specified in advance. Socrates evidently believed that the interaction between teacher and students that we now call the Socratic method, and not the resulting text, is philosophy.

Albert Howard's description of water management in Japan offers an instructive example: "Erosion control in Japan is like a game of chess. The forest engineer, after studying his eroding valley, makes his first move, locating and building one or more check dams. He waits to see what Nature's response is. This determines the forest engineer's next move, which may be another dam or two, an increase in the former dam, or the construction of side retaining walls. Another pause for observation, the next move is made, and so on, until erosion is checkmated. The operations of natural forces, such as sedimentation and re-vegetation, are guided and used to the best advantage to keep down costs and to obtain practical results. No more is attempted than Nature has already done in the region."" The engineer in Howard's account recognizes implicitly that he is dealing with "an art of one valley." Each prudent, small step, based on prior experience, yields new and not completely predictable effects that become the point of departure for the next step.

The architect of social change can never have a reliable blueprint. Not only is each house he builds different from any other that was built before, but it necessarily uses new construction materials and even experiments with untested principles of stress and structure. Therefore what can be most usefully conveyed by the builders of one house is an understanding of the experience that made it at all possible to build under these trying circumstances.

This brings us squarely to two of the great ironies of metis. The first is that metis is not democratically distributed. Not only does it depend on a touch or a knack that may not be common, but access to the experience and practice necessary for its acquisition may be restricted. Artisan guilds, gifted craftsmen, certain classes, religious fraternities, entire communities, and men in general often treat some forms of knowledge as a monopoly they are reluctant to share. Better stated, the availability of such knowledge to others depends greatly on the social structure of the society and the advantages that a monopoly in some forms of knowledge can confer. In this respect metis is not unitary, and we should perhaps speak of metises, recognizing its nonhomogeneity. The second irony is that, however plastic and receptive metis is, some forms of it seem to depend on key elements of preindustrial life for their elaboration and transmission. Communities that are marginal to markets and to the state are likely to retain a high degree of metis; they have no choice, as they have to rely disproportionately on the knowledge and materials at hand.

What has proved to be truly dangerous to us and to our environment, I think, is the combination of the universalist pretensions of epistemic knowledge and authoritarian social engineering.

As Pascal wrote, the great failure of rationalism is "not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other." By contrast, metis does not put all its eggs in one basket; it makes no claim to universality and in this sense is pluralistic.


One might, on the basis of experience, derive a few rules of thumb that, if observed, could make development planning less prone to disaster. While my main goal is hardly a point-by-point reform of development practice, such rules would surely include something along the following lines:

  1. Take small steps. In an experimental approach to social change, presume that we cannot know the consequences of our interventions in advance. Given this postulate of ignorance, prefer wherever possible to take a small step, stand back, observe, and then plan the next small move...
  2. Favor reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes.
  3. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences. Interventions into ecosystems require particular care in this respect, given our great ignorance about how they interact. Aldo Leopold captured the spirit of caution required: "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts"
  4. Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen...
  5. Plan on human inventiveness. Always plan under the assumption that those who become involved in the project later will have or will develop the experience and insight to improve on the design.

The premise and great appeal of the high-modernist credo was that the state would make the benefits of technological progress available to all its citizens.

To any planned, built, or legislated form of social life, one may apply a comparable test: to what degree does it promise to enhance the skills, knowledge, and responsibility of those who are a part of it? On narrower institutional grounds, the question would be how deeply that form is marked by the values and experience of those who compose it. The purpose in each case would be to distinguish "canned" situations that permit little or no modification from situations largely open to the development and application of metis.