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Seeing Like a State Book Summary by James C. Scott

What you will learn from reading Seeing Like a State:

– Why most well meaning state interventions are prone to fail.

– Why the states many problem has always been legibility of the people it rules over.

– How the metric revolution has caused us to over value what can be measured and ignore what can’t be.

Seeing Like A State Book Summary:


The purpose of the Book:

James Scott initially aimed to uncover the reason why states often appear to be at odds with nomadic groups. However, this issue is not limited to a specific geographical area. Throughout history, states have struggled with nomads, hunter-gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless individuals, and serfs. The attempt to settle these mobile populations (through sedentarisation) has been a persistent goal for states, even though it has rarely been successful.

As he studied the attempts at sedentarisation, James Scott realised that they were actually the state’s efforts to organise society in a way that made it easier for the state to perform its basic functions, such as taxation, drafting for military service, and preventing uprisings. He then came to view legibility as a crucial aspect of state governance.

In the past, states had limited knowledge about their citizens, including their wealth, property, location, and identity. They didn’t have a complete “map” of their territory and people, and lacked a standard system for measuring information. As a result, their actions were often misguided and ineffective.

The creation of permanent last names, standardisation of weights and measures, creation of population registers and land surveys, invention of freehold property ownership, standardisation of language and legal practices, design of cities, and organisation of transportation were all aimed at making society more legible and organised for the state. Officials took complex, local practices, such as land ownership customs or naming conventions, and standardised them so that they could be recorded and monitored centrally.

The book also delves into the reasons for the failure of utopian plans, and the one sentence conclusion is that they failed because their creators overestimated their own intelligence and underestimated the intelligence of those they aimed to help.


The problem with legible systems:

Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why conflict between different ethnic groups, religious sects, or language communities has led to the destruction of so many lives through organised violence. But it’s more challenging to comprehend why many efforts to better humanity have gone so disastrously wrong. James Scott aims to offer a compelling explanation for the failure of some of the major utopian social engineering projects of the 20th century.

According to James Scott, the root causes of the most devastating outcomes of state-led attempts at societal change can be traced back to the convergence of four specific factors. All four components are crucial to the creation of a complete catastrophe.

The first of these is the process of streamlining and organising society and the natural world – the state’s efforts to simplify and categorise. These efforts are fundamental to modern governance, serving both to enhance the well-being and liberty of citizens and to support the aims of oppressive regimes. These changes serve to establish the concept of citizenship and provide social benefits, but can also be utilised for the roundup of marginalised groups.

The second component according to Scott is the concept of high-modernist ideology. This is a strong belief in the advancement of science and technology, increased production, and the ability to design a socially rational order based on scientific understanding. Originating in the West, it is a form of faith that borrowed the legitimacy of science and technology, but was uncritical and un-skeptical about its potential for comprehensive planning of human society and production. When combined with the first element, administrative ordering of society, it creates a potentially dangerous situation.

The third component, according to Scott, is the presence of a tyrannical government with the ability to enforce the implementation of high-modernist ideologies through the use of force. Historically, times of war, revolution, economic downturns, and national liberation movements provide favourable circumstances for the establishment of authoritarian rule. Such conditions can lead to the takeover of emergency powers and the rejection of previous governing systems, as well as the emergence of leaders with radical plans for their citizens.

The fourth factor  ties in with the third: it’s a vulnerable civil society that lacks the power to challenge these plans. Conflicts, revolutions, and economic downturns often severely undermine civil society and make the public more open to change.


The pitfalls of order:

James Scott argues in his book for the crucial importance of hands-on expertise, informal methods, and flexibility in dealing with unpredictability. He critiques the design of planned social order for its oversimplification of reality.

Narrowing one’s focus allows for a more in-depth understanding of a specific aspect of a complex reality. This simplification makes the phenomenon more readable, allowing for more accurate measurement and calculation. When combined with similar observations, a comprehensive overview of a selective reality can be created, resulting in greater schematic knowledge, control, and manipulation.

Formal order, is always and to some considerable degree parasitic on informal processes, which the formal scheme does not recognise, without which it could not exist, and which it alone cannot create or maintain.


Running a State – The Forestry Analogy:

The concept of “fiscal forestry” in the state system saw the actual, multi-functional tree replaced by an abstract representation of its lumber or firewood volume. In “restoration forestry,” attempts were made to recreate a virtual ecology, but at the cost of ignoring the crucial element of diversity.

This brief account of production forestry highlights the dangers of breaking down complex, poorly understood relationships and processes to focus solely on a single, instrumental value. The motivation behind this process was driven by a single-minded interest in producing a commodity, leading to the elimination of anything that impeded its efficient production and ignoring anything that was deemed unrelated.

The new, stripped-down forest was easier to manipulate and experiment with, as many variables were held constant. This made it possible to assess novel forest management techniques in nearly experimental conditions. The linear arrangement of same-age trees and the elimination of underbrush made clearing, felling, extraction, and planting a more routine process, allowing inexperienced workers to follow written protocols. The uniformity of logs in terms of width and length made it easier to forecast yields and market homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. This system promised to maximise returns from a single commodity and was suitable for centralised management.

From an anthropological perspective, the state’s narrow focus ignored the diverse, negotiated social uses of the forest such as hunting, gathering, pasturage, fishing, charcoal making, trapping, food and mineral collection, and cultural significance for magic, worship, refuge, etc.

The analogy between forest management and taxation begins to fall apart as the trees themselves were not political actors, whereas the taxable subjects of the crown most certainly were. Dissatisfaction with taxation could lead to flight, resistance, evasion, and even revolt, requiring the state to not only understand the economic conditions of its subjects but also judge the level of exactions they would resist. In the absence of reliable information about sustainable timber yield, the state risked either overexploiting its resources or missing out on potential revenue.


The Utilitarian language that underpins our modern times:

The language used to categorise nature often reflects the priorities of those using it. Instead of using the term “nature,” utilitarian language often refers to “natural resources,” highlighting the aspects of nature that can be utilised for human purposes.

Similar logic is applied to plants and animals, where valuable species are given positive labels such as “crops,” “timber,” or “game” or “livestock,” while those that compete or harm them are designated as “weeds,” “pests,” “predators,” or “varmints.”


Schematics of Social Order:


Reduce complexity:

James Scott asserts that no government system is able to accurately represent a real-life community as it requires a significant reduction in complexity. The complexity of a community is so vast that it cannot be fully captured through bureaucratic methods.

The state does not aim to document the complete social reality, just like a forester does not aim to document the entire ecology of a forest. The abstractions and simplifications made by state agents are guided by limited objectives, primarily taxation, control, and conscription until the 19th century. These objectives only require basic techniques and understanding.


Centralise local practices:

Each state project reflects a pattern of interaction between local knowledge and practices, on one hand, and state administrative procedures on the other. This pattern recurs throughout the book. In each case, the state found the raw form of local practices of measurement and land ownership to be unreadable. They showed a complexity that was rooted in a variety of local, not state, priorities. This means that the state could not incorporate them into its administrative framework without either modifying or simplifying them into a manageable, though partially imaginary, representation.


Centralise measurement systems:

The measurement systems that emerged outside of state control were rooted in local practices. Despite their diverse forms, they shared certain common traits that made it difficult for the state to enforce uniformity.

Many early measurements were based on human scale, such as the “stone’s throw” for distance or the “cartload” for volume. These measurements varied depending on location and time, as the size of a cart or basket differed from place to place, and a stone’s throw could be different from one person to another.

Local measurements were also contextual or “comparable.” A request for measurement could have varying responses based on the context, such as asking “How far is it to the next village?” and receiving a response of “Three rice-cookings.” This answer considers the time it takes to get there, not the distance in miles, as travel time can vary greatly depending on the terrain, especially for those traveling on foot or by bicycle.

Local units of measurement were tied to specific activities and were influenced by regional differences. For example, the type of rice eaten or the way of cooking chicken could result in different measurements. These measurements were inherently local and could not be easily transferred to other regions.


Side Note – The value in local measurements and why the aren’t of use to states:

The measurements used in local practices are often imprecise and are only as accurate as the task demands. For example, the abundance of rainfall is only considered in relation to a specific crop. A rainfall measurement in inches, though precise, fails to consider the timing of the rain, which is crucial information. A range of four to seven baskets for a rice yield is more informative about its variability than an average of 5.6 baskets over ten years.

There is no universal correct answer to a question about measurement unless the local context and concerns behind the question are considered. These customs of measurement are linked to specific situations, time periods, and geographical locations.

Modern, abstract measurements of land in terms of surface area like hectares or acres hold little meaning to a family trying to make a living from the land. Informing a farmer that they are leasing 20 acres of land is as unhelpful as telling a scholar that they bought six kilograms of books.

Customary land measurements are unique and reflect what is of most practical significance. In areas where land was abundant but labor or draft power was limited, the number of days required to plow or weed the land was often the most meaningful measure. These measurements are local, context-specific, and change over time based on factors like regional crop cycles, labor availability, agricultural technology, and weather.

If these measurements were directly captured by the state, the maps would be confusing and difficult to aggregate into meaningful statistics for state officials to compare. This discussion of local measurement practices may give the impression that they are aiming for objective accuracy, but this is not the case. Every act of measurement is influenced by power dynamics. To fully understand early modern European measurement practices, one must consider the interests of major estates including aristocrats, clergy, merchants, artisans, and serfs.


The Metric Revolution – Empowering the State:

The “metrical revolution” as referred to by Kula was made possible by the convergence of three factors.

Firstly, the expansion of market exchange fueled the demand for uniform measures.

Secondly, the sentiment among the general population and the principles of Enlightenment philosophy supported the adoption of a single standard across France.

Finally, the Revolution and the subsequent state-building efforts under Napoleon helped enforce the use of the metric system throughout France and its empire.


Commercial forces as an incentive to standardise measurement:

Commercial exchange and trade on a large scale tend to drive the adoption of common measurement standards. In small scale trade, such as grain dealing, it was possible to transact with multiple suppliers as long as the measure used was understood. In some cases, those with a better understanding of the multitude of units could even profit, similar to how smugglers exploit variations in taxes and tariffs.

However, for much of commerce that involves extended chains of transactions over long distances between anonymous buyers and sellers, standardising weights and measures greatly simplifies the process and makes it more transparent.


The homogenous citizen (the beginning of modern France) :

The standardisation of measures was closely tied to the political idea of uniform citizenship. In a society where different groups of people were treated as unequal in law, it was also possible for them to have unequal rights with regards to measures.

The Encyclopedists believed that the confusing array of measurements, laws, taxes, and regulations was a barrier to the French becoming a unified people. They envisioned a series of centralising reforms that would create a single national community where the same laws, measures, beliefs, and customs would be used everywhere. The concept of national citizenship, where a French national would experience the same fair and equal conditions throughout the kingdom, was central to this vision.

Instead of a myriad of small communities that were difficult to understand for outsiders, the Encyclopedists wanted to create a single national society that was perfectly legible from the centre. The goal was not only administrative convenience but also the transformation of the French people. The uniformity of customs, beliefs, and principles of action would lead to greater unity among the people. The concept of equal citizenship would create a new reality: the French citizen.


Measuring Land Tenure – The formation of the Cadastral Map:

The aspiration of modern states towards fiscal and administrative control involves the standardisation, documentation, and streamlining of land ownership, similar to how scientific forestry approaches the management of forests. The accommodation of the diverse forms of traditional land ownership was considered unfeasible.

The conventional solution for liberal states has been the reduction of land ownership to individual freehold tenure. Land is held by legal individuals who possess extensive rights to use, inherit, or sell it, and their ownership is represented by a standard title deed enforced through the state’s judicial and law enforcement agencies.

The pinnacle of this simplification is the cadastral map. Created by trained surveyors and mapped to a specific scale, the cadastral map provides a comprehensive and accurate survey of all land holdings.

As the main purpose of the map is to serve as a manageable and dependable format for taxation, it is linked to a property registry that connects each identified (typically numbered) lot on the map to its owner, who is responsible for paying taxes. The cadastral map and property registry serve the same purpose in taxing land as the maps and tables of scientific forestry serve in exploiting forests for revenue.


The early objectives of the cadastral maps:

The purpose of creating a cadastral map is to establish precision, clarity, generality, and uniformity in land ownership and taxation. This map serves as a prerequisite for a tax system that links every piece of land to its owner, who is responsible for paying taxes.

Previously, the lack of knowledge by the state was partly due to the complexity of local production. However, the main reason was the tendency of local officials to underrepresent their situation in order to reduce local tax and conscription. They would manipulate data, such as reducing population numbers, hiding new commercial profits, and overstating crop losses, in order to minimise their tax burden.

The cadastral map and land registry were designed to eradicate this feudal taxation and rationalise the state’s tax collection. Just as a scientific forester needs to catalog the trees in a forest to maximise its commercial value, the fiscal reformer needs a comprehensive inventory of land ownership to maximise revenue.

Cadastral maps are meant to make the local situation transparent to outsiders. However, for purely local purposes, a cadastral map is not necessary, as the community is already aware of who holds a particular piece of land, its value, and the associated duties and fees.


Where the Cadastral map gets it wrong:

The advantage of the cadastral map for the state lies in its uniformity and standardisation. The idea is that the same objective criteria can be applied throughout the country to produce a comprehensive and clear map of all property holdings, regardless of local differences. The map’s simplicity, which results from its abstract nature, is crucial to its completeness. However, this simplicity often leads to a mismatch between the state’s expectations and the reality of rural life.

The farmer’s experience is rarely average, with crops and weather conditions varying greatly. This has resulted in many rural tax revolts throughout history. The rigid and uniform nature of the cadastral system makes it difficult to fairly administer, as it fails to take into account the complexity of the farmer’s experience. Similarly, the scientific forestry schemes are limited in their ability to reflect the intricacies of the natural forest.

One major limitation of the cadastral map and assessment system is that it only considers the land’s value as a productive asset or commodity for sale, ignoring its importance for subsistence or the local ecosystem. The values of the land for purposes such as aesthetics, rituals, or sentiment are disregarded.


How shorthand formulas create incentives to game:

The shorthand formulas through which tax officials must apprehend reality are not mere tools of observation. By a kind of fiscal Heisenberg principle, they frequently have the power to transform the facts they take note of, by setting incentives to game system!

Example: The door-and-window tax in France, for instance, imposed a tax based on the number of windows and doors in a dwelling as a proxy for its size. But this formula had unintended consequences as peasants redesigned their homes to have fewer openings to avoid paying more taxes.

It is important to recognise not only the power of state simplifications to change the world but also society’s ability to modify, subvert, block, or even reject these imposed categories. There can be a gap between the land-tenure facts recorded on paper and the actual situation on the ground. This discrepancy is particularly noticeable during times of social upheaval, but even in peaceful times, there may exist a parallel land-tenure system that operates differently from the official record. Therefore, it should not be assumed that local practices align with state theories.


The origins of the Modern State:

The cadastral survey was just one tool in the arsenal of the modern utilitarian state. Unlike the pre-modern state that only needed basic information to maintain order, collect taxes, and raise armies, the modern state aimed to take control of the nation’s physical and human resources and improve their productivity. This required a more comprehensive understanding of the society. Therefore, creating an inventory of land, population, income, occupation, resources, and deviance was a logical starting point.

The state’s goals were evolving, but the information they sought was still directly related to their goals. For example, in the 19th century, the Prussian state was more concerned with tracking the ages and genders of immigrants and emigrants rather than their religions or races. This was because they were focused on avoiding draft dodging and ensuring a steady supply of men fit for military service. The state’s growing interest in productivity, health, sanitation, education, transportation, minerals, grain production, and investment reflected not a departure from their original objectives, but rather an expansion and strengthening of those objectives in the modern world.


State Tool – Naming Practices:

The categorisation that we now use to understand the social world had their roots in state initiatives for standardisation and simplification. For instance, something as basic as having a permanent surname.

State naming practices, like state mapping practices, were often linked to taxes, which resulted in popular resistance. The English peasant uprising in 1381, also known as the Wat Tyler Rebellion, was a result of a decade of registrations and assessments for poll taxes. For English and Tuscan peasants, a census of all adult males was seen as ominous and could potentially cause ruin.

The concept of having a universal last name is relatively new in history. It made it easier to keep track of property ownership, inheritance, taxes, court records, police work, conscripting soldiers and controlling epidemics. The utilitarian state’s aim of having a complete inventory of its population, combined with the liberal ideas of citizenship, including voting rights and conscription, significantly contributed to the standardisation of naming practices.


State Tool – Creating a language:

The use of a distinct language is an effective barrier to prevent outsiders from accessing and understanding a social world, as it requires an interpreter to navigate unfamiliar linguistic environments. This language also carries a distinct cultural identity, history, literature, and musical heritage. This makes it a formidable obstacle for state knowledge and control, and serves as a basis for autonomy.

The move to standardise language, such as the use of standard French in France, creates a hierarchy of cultures and reduces local languages to a quaint provincialism. Paris and its institutions, such as the Académie Française, are at the apex of this hierarchy, and the success of this cultural project relied on both coercion and incentives. Those who mastered standard French and had connections to Paris had access to social advancement and material success, while those who did not comply faced penalties. This was a state-led effort to simplify and unify culture, but also to assert control and centralise power.


Summary :

The officials of modern states are separated from the society they govern, and their understanding of it is limited by the typifications they use. These typifications, such as maps, censuses, and standard units of measurement, are essential for statecraft but they simplify the reality they are meant to represent.

This reduction of detail to schematic categories enables officials to comprehend aspects of society and to gather information, but it also makes their understanding incomplete. Charles Tilly has demonstrated that the creation and use of these abstractions marks a significant increase in state power, providing officials with direct knowledge of and access to society for the first time.


The Pursuit of Legibility by the State:

The pursuit of a clear and comprehensive understanding of society by state officials is a constant effort, referred to as the “project of legibility.” Although state simplifications like maps, censuses, and standard units of measurement can provide valuable insights into society, they are often plagued by inaccuracies, omissions, and political bias. Despite advancements in technology, the underlying motives for this project remain unchanged: control, manipulation, and appropriation.

However, the ability to precisely identify and differentiate groups within society can have dangerous consequences. The example of a map produced in Amsterdam during Nazi occupation demonstrates this. The map was used to round up and deport 65,000 Jews, and was created using information from population and business registries.

The ability to control and manipulate society is dependent on the ability to create this visibility. The government must identify, monitor, and keep track of various units, such as citizens, villages, or fields, in order to carry out tasks like vaccination, production, taxation, and so on. The amount of information needed to achieve this visibility must match the level of intervention being carried out. Therefore, the more extensive the manipulation is intended to be, the more legibility is required for it to be successful.

It is important to note that legibility merely increases the state’s capacity for discriminatory actions, which can be used for good or evil purposes.


State simplifications, used by officials to govern society, have several key features:

Firstly, they only record information that is of official concern.

Secondly, they are primarily recorded in written form, either as words or numbers.

Thirdly, they tend to be static and unchanging.

Fourthly, the information recorded is often an aggregation of various individual facts, such as the density of transportation networks or statistics on employment, literacy, and residency.

Finally, in order to make collective assessments, officials must standardise the information they gather so that they can be presented as averages or distributions, grouping citizens in ways that allow for this standardisation.


What do we mean by simplification?

The concept of “simplification” refers to two key aspects of state knowledge.

Firstly, the information that an official requires must give them a comprehensive understanding of the entire system and must be presented in terms that can be replicated across different cases. This results in facts that are cast in a simplified or schematic form and are part of a larger class of facts.

Secondly, in a similar vein, the grouping of comprehensive facts often involves ignoring or merging distinctions that might otherwise be significant.

State officials have the power to impose their simplifications and categorisations, as the state has the resources to enforce its schemata. These categories, which may have started as artificial creations of surveyors, census takers, judges, or police officers, can become part of daily life and shape people’s experiences because they are integrated into state-created institutions.


How facts are aggregated to create complex truths:

The creation of standardised facts that can be aggregated involves three key steps.

First, there needs to be the establishment of common units of measurement or coding, such as size classes for trees, freehold tenure, the metric system for measuring land and grain, uniform naming practices, sections of prairie land, and standard-sized urban lots.

Next, each item in a category is counted and classified based on the new unit of measurement. For example, a specific tree becomes an instance of a certain size class, a particular piece of land becomes coordinates on a cadastral map, a job is reclassified into a specific employment category, a person is given a name according to the new formula.

Finally, officials obtain synoptic facts they can use, such as the number of trees in a certain size class, the number of men between 18-35 years old, the number of farms of a particular size, the number of students with surnames starting with the letter A, or the number of people with tuberculosis. By combining several metrics of aggregation, they can uncover new and more complex truths, such as the distribution of tuberculosis patients by income and location in the urban areas.


Part 2 -Transforming Visions


The modern map:

All the state simplifications that we have examined have the character of maps. That is, they are designed to summarise precisely those aspects of a complex world that are of immediate interest to the mapmaker and to ignore the rest. To complain that a map lacks nuance and detail makes no sense unless it omits information necessary to its function

A map is an instrument designed for a purpose. We may judge that purpose noble or morally offensive, but the map itself either serves or fails to serve its intended use.

In case after case, however, we have remarked on the apparent power of maps to transform as well as merely to summarise the facts that they portray. This transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map. A private corporation aiming to maximise sustainable timber yields, profit, or production will map its world according to this logic and will use what power it has to ensure that the logic of its map prevails.


Tragic Episodes of State Development:

Many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late 19th and 20th centuries can be traced to a dangerous blend of three factors.

The first is the goal of administratively organising nature and society, which we have already seen in scientific forestry, but taken to a much more comprehensive and ambitious level, referred to as “High Modernism.”

The second factor is the unchecked use of state power to achieve these designs.

The third is a weakened or vulnerable civil society that lacks the ability to resist these plans. When ruling elites have no commitment to democracy or civil rights and hold this utopian vision, they are likely to use unlimited state power to achieve it. When the society subjected to these utopian experiments lacks the ability to resist, the result can be devastating.


The States new Role in Society:

The application of simplification and rationalisation, previously limited to forests, weights and measures, taxation, and factories, was now expanded to the design of society as a whole. This marked the birth of industrial-level social engineering, with the state taking on the lead role as opposed to private entrepreneurs. This new idea of the state’s purpose marked a significant shift, as the state’s activities were now focused on improving the well-being of all members of society, rather than just contributing to the wealth and power of the sovereign.

The creation of statistical data about the population allowed state officials to better understand the population, much like scientific forestry provided a comprehensive understanding of the forest. The state’s role in managing and transforming society was now limitless, and a progressive nation-state could aim to engineer society using the latest moral and scientific standards. Society was no longer a given entity, but became the subject of active management, potentially leading to an artificial and scientifically designed society, instead of one shaped by historical accident and custom.


High Modernism:

The main issues with high modernism stem from its claim to possess scientific knowledge that can improve the human condition and its tendency to dismiss other forms of judgement.

This approach represents a radical departure from history and tradition, as everything is to be reevaluated and redesigned based on scientific reasoning rather than being taken for granted. The authoritarian nature of this view is evident in the belief that only those with scientific knowledge are fit to rule, and those who reject the scientific plan must be educated or removed.

High modernism values the control of nature to meet human needs and protect safety, which appeals to those who stand to gain status, power, and wealth from its worldview. It is the ideology of bureaucrats, technicians, planners, and engineers who are responsible for nation building and social transformation.


Modernism and City Planning:

Formal simplicity and functional efficiency were not separate goals to be balanced in high modernism; instead, formal order was seen as a requirement for efficiency. The rationale behind this separation of functions was straightforward: it is much easier to plan an urban area if it serves only one purpose, to plan pedestrian circulation if it is not disrupted by vehicles, or to plan a forest for maximum timber production. When two functions are served by one facility or plan, the trade-offs become challenging, and when many purposes must be taken into account, the variables become overwhelming. The planning process, as noted by Le Corbusier, becomes confusing and exhausting.

The criteria of efficiency used for a road may not be suitable for a home, which serves various purposes such as work, recreation, privacy, sociability, education, cooking, gossip, and politics, each of which cannot be reduced to efficiency criteria. To plan efficiently for large populations, each value must be precisely defined, and the number of values being maximised must be limited. Le Corbusier’s doctrine aimed to define urban space by use and function, enabling single-purpose planning and standardisation.

However, no utopian city is built as envisioned by its architect-prophet. The urban planner must consider the tastes and financial abilities of patrons, as well as the resistance of builders, workers, and residents, just as the scientific forester must contend with the unpredictability of nature and the conflicting goals of stakeholders.

Jacobs criticised urban planners for assuming that functional order could be inferred from the repetition and standardisation of building forms. Complex systems, she argued, do not display surface regularity, and their order must be sought at a deeper level. Understanding is required to see complex systems as orderly, not chaotic, and the order of a thing is determined by its purpose, not its visual appearance. Jacobs was a functionalist who asked what a structure was meant to do and how well it did it, which was a concept banned in Le Corbusier’s studio.


Lenin: Architect and Engineer of Revolution

Lenin’s approach to revolution mirrored Le Corbusier’s approach to city planning. Both saw their projects as complex endeavours that required the expertise of trained professionals with the power to carry out the plan. Lenin, like Le Corbusier, was a high modernist who believed in a unified scientific solution that could be carried out by a knowledgeable intelligentsia. Lenin’s view was reflected in his emphasis on the importance of a vanguard party with a monopoly on revolutionary theory to guide the working class towards emancipation.

Lenin’s ideas also transcended national differences, based on the distinct roles of the party and the working class, with class consciousness being an objective truth held only by the party’s ideologically enlightened leaders. He often used metaphors from hygiene and the germ theory of disease to describe the threat of contamination, and sought to keep the party in a sterile environment.

While Lenin and Le Corbusier had different goals and backgrounds, they shared a high modernist outlook, believing in a master science that would provide correct answers to the questions they faced. They had confidence in their methods and saw little value in existing practices and values, seeking to refashion the human material they encountered. Despite their ultimate goal of improving the human condition, both adopted hierarchical and authoritarian approaches.


How winners re-write history:

The writing of official history by victorious revolutionaries holds little significance in terms of the accuracy of their account of their rise to power. Nonetheless, this neat and tidy version of events is widely believed by the citizens, further solidifying their trust in their revolutionary leaders’ foresight, determination, and strength.

The typical portrayal of the revolutionary process is a simplified version of history. It serves political and aesthetic objectives, explaining its form. The new leaders of the revolutionary state have a self-interest in presenting themselves as the driving force behind the outcome of the revolution. This account emphasises their crucial role as leaders and messengers, fitting in with the ideology of the Bolsheviks in Lenin’s case.

After gaining control of the state, the victors are eager to move the revolution from the streets to museums and textbooks, avoiding the possibility of a repeat of the events. A straightforward depiction that highlights the crucial role of a few leaders reinforces their legitimacy and conveys the idea of unity, uniformity, and central purpose, making it appear inevitable and hopefully permanent.

When leaders such as Lenin impose their theories of revolution on the post-revolutionary official history, the narrative often stresses the leadership’s agency, goal, and brilliance, while downplaying the role of chance.


Types of Knowledge:

The short-term focus in scientific studies is not inherent to the scientific method, rather it arises from institutional and commercial influences. The scientific method requires isolating specific variables and disregarding interaction effects outside the experimental model, leading to greater clarity in the outcomes. This clarity is advantageous, but it also results in ignoring important aspects of reality such as blind spots, peripheral details, and long-term implications.

The connection between scientific knowledge and practical knowledge is, as we will discover, a part of a political conflict over institutional dominance by experts and their organisations. On this interpretation, Taylorism and scientific agriculture are not just methods of production, but also techniques of control and exploitation.


Technical Knowledge:

The Relation with Episteme and Techne :

For the Greeks and particularly for Plato, episteme and techne represented knowledge of an order completely different from mētis. Technical knowledge, or techne, could be expressed precisely and comprehensively in the form of hard-and-fast rules (not rules of thumb), principles, and propositions. At its most rigorous, techne is based on logical deduction from self-evident first principles.

Where mētis is contextual and particular, techne is universal. In the logic of mathematics, ten multiplied by ten equals one hundred everywhere and forever

Techne is characteristic, above all, of self-contained systems of reasoning in which the findings may be logically derived from the initial assumptions. To the degree that the form of knowledge satisfies these conditions, to that degree is it impersonal, universal, and completely impervious to context.

But the context of mêtis, is characteristically “situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation, or rigorous logic.


Techne and Science:

If the description of techne as an ideal or typical system of knowledge resembles the self-image of modern science, that is no accident. The actual practice of science, however, is something else again. The rules of techne are the specification of how knowledge is to be codified, expressed, and verified, once it has been discovered.

No rules of techne or episteme can explain scientific invention and insight. Discovering a mathematical theorem requires genius and perhaps mētis; the proof of the theorem, however, must follow the tenets of techne.

Thus the systematic and impersonal rules of techne facilitate the production of knowledge that can be readily assembled, comprehensively documented, and formally taught, but they cannot by themselves add to that knowledge or explain how it came into being


What this means?

Techniques were developed to quantify and control key variables by expressing them in numerical terms (such as a country’s wealth through Gross National Product and public opinion through polling data, and values through psychological surveys).

An example of this is the evolution of neoclassical economics. Consumer preferences are assumed and then quantified, eliminating taste as a significant source of unpredictability. Entrepreneurial activities and invention are considered external factors and are excluded from the discipline due to their inability to be measured and predicted. The discipline now focuses on calculable risks and disregards areas where genuine unpredictability exists, such as ecological hazards and changes in taste.).


Practical knowledge:

A lot of scientific insights are probably quite accurate. But are hardly practical. The hallmark of most practical, local knowledge: it is as economical and accurate as it needs to be, no more and no less, for addressing the problem at hand.



We have seen the idiosyncracies of mētis at work in the historical vernaculars of measurement of area, weight, and volume. The aim was always to achieve a local purpose or to express an important local feature (such as “a farm of two cows”) rather than to accommodate some universal unit of measurement.

Like Squanto’s maxim, such vernacular measures apparently often conveyed more information than an abstract measure could. They certainly conveyed information that was more locally relevant. It was just this local, practical index, which varied from place to place, that ensured that mêtis would be confusing, incoherent, and unassimilable for purposes of statecraft.

Similarly, indigenous communities classify their flora based on practical use and value. The categories into which plants are sorted reflect their utilisation: plants that are good for making soup, twine, treating cuts, settling stomach issues, toxic for cattle, used for weaving cloth, favoured by rabbits for food, building fences, etc. This understanding is dynamic, constantly evolving through hands-on experimentation. It differs from the scientific classification favoured by botanists, which is often based on the invisible Linnaean categories.


Why practical knowledge is effective:

The effectiveness of practical knowledge relies heavily on meticulous observation of the environment. This is why traditional cultivators are such skilled observers. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The cultivators have a direct, personal interest in the outcome of their observations. Unlike a research scientist or extension agent, the cultivator is the immediate beneficiary of their observations and must make decisions based solely on their own knowledge. They have no access to outside experts, unlike modern farmers.
  2. The poverty or marginal economic status of many cultivators drives them to pay close attention and experiment. For example, consider two fishermen who rely on a river for their livelihood. The fisherman who lives by a river with a stable, abundant catch is less likely to be motivated to try new techniques, observe fish habits, and so on, compared to the fisherman who lives by a river with a scarce catch that barely sustains their livelihood. The latter will be more motivated to innovate and pay close attention to the environment.


People value practical knowledge:

The apparent spread of variolation across four continents is a further instance of how widely and how rapidly “traditional peoples” will embrace techniques that solve vital problems.

Examples could be multiplied. Sewing machines, matches, flashlights, kerosene, plastic bowls, and antibiotics are only a tiny sample of the products that solved vital problems or eliminated great drudgery and were thus readily accepted. Practical efficacy is, as we have noted, the key test of mētis knowledge, and all these products passed with flying colours.

Put in another way people love knowledge or things that solve real problems.


Why is practical knowledge disdained?

There seem to be three causes behind this.

The first is professional rivalry, as practical knowledge undermines the significance of specialists and their institutions.

The second reason is high modernism’s disregard for history and previous knowledge. The scientist, as a symbol of modernity, sees themselves as superior and feels they have nothing to learn from traditional ways of knowing.

The third reason is that practical knowledge is expressed in a manner that is incompatible with scientific agriculture. Scientific methodology requires evidence from controlled experiments, and any knowledge that does not come through this process is deemed unreliable and unworthy of consideration. The arrogance of scientific modernism only recognises knowledge that has been acquired through the experimental method.


How to make development planning better:

Stephen Marglin has put everyones problem succinctly: If “the only certainty about the future is that the future is uncertain, if the only sure thing is that we are in for surprises, then no amount of planning, no amount of prescription, can deal with the contingencies that the future will reveal.”¹

By drawing from experience and the quote above, here are a few guidelines to reduce the risk of failure in development planning.

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.

Favour reversibility. Prefer interventions that can easily be undone if they turn out to be mistakes. Irreversible interventions have irreversible consequences.5 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.”

Plan on surprises. Choose plans that allow the largest accommodation to the unforeseen. In agricultural schemes this may mean choosing and preparing land so that it can grow any of several crops. In planning housing, it would mean “designing in” flexibility for accommodating changes in family structures or living styles. In a factory it may mean selecting a location, layout, or piece of machinery that allows for new processes, materials, or product lines down the road

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.