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About the Author

James C. Scott is Sterling Professor of Political Science and codirector of the Agrarian Studies Program at Vale University. His previous books include Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Seeing Like a State, and The Art of Not Being Governed.
Image credit: Drawing of James C. Scott by Karen Eliot.

Obras de James C. Scott

Associated Works

Readings in Planning Theory (1996) — Contribuinte, algumas edições87 cópias


Conhecimento Comum



Really interesting; I’d never read it before despite having read many references to it. The core idea is “legibility”: standardization and simplification—of rules if not of reality—make it easier for outsiders, including government, to understand a community. A colonizer who needs a “native guide” is worse off than one who doesn’t, which is one reason that colonies often had more comprehensive systems of land titling and clearer ownership rules than the colonizing nation itself. Common property may not be less productive than individually owned plots, but it is much harder to tax, and thus much less useful to the state. This power can be used for good (working sewers, less cholera) but can easily be turned to ill, especially if the state is wrong about the lines it has drawn (collective farms, monocultures). Although he repeatedly emphasizes that the organic societal formations that states have sought to replace with regimentation are regularly discriminatory and flawed, he’s ultimately skeptical of big state ideas. At the same time, while he criticizes compulsory villagization in Tanzania—and there’s plenty to criticize—he doesn’t ever address whether there was an alternative, given the country’s resources, to the concentration of population in order to deliver things like schools and famine relief. Maybe the correct answer is “you just can’t have schools with a scattered rural population and really low wealth,” but that’s a pretty serious tradeoff that deserves some discussion.
Another interesting point: the “high modernism” he criticizes focuses on visual order—neatly laid out rows of plants, streets, etc. But, as he points out, visual disorder can also mean high-functioning complexity—the intestines of a rabbit, in his striking example, are not visually orderly but do a great job at their actual job.
I also found it notable that, at the end, Scott acknowledges that non-state actors can do the same thing. Capitalists are interested in control and appropriability; they will adopt less efficient rules if they can appropriate more of the outputs. Scott described what’s now known as “chickenization” as a capitalist, high-modernist project, offloading risk onto individual farmers who would be easy to surveil precisely because their practices were so rigidly dictated by the chicken processor.
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rivkat | outras 23 resenhas | Apr 15, 2024 |
Calling this book a history of the earliest states stretches the term "history" too far. The author isn't a historian and his purpose is not to present new historical research. But he is an original political thinker, as his previous book "Seeing like a state" attests, and I assume he has familiarized himself with a lot of historical research before writing this book. What he actually does is that he applies his anti-state views to the study of history by turning the table on traditional historical narratives.

The first few chapters of the book discuss how agriculture, ecology, war and slavery on the one hand facilitated early state formation, but on the other hand were so precarious that the balance could (and did) often turn to state disintegration as well. There was no linear development from hunting and gathering to agriculture and state formation, but complex back-and forth oscillation with lots of human traffic going in all directions for several millenia. These points are well taken.

The later chapters were in my opinion more interesting. The author argues that the historical record contains a state-centered bias because (p.214) "the self-documenting court center offered convenient one-stop shopping for historians and archaeologists". This bias should not lead us to think that early states offered a better life to its citizens than smaller communities, or that the "collapse" of a state necessarily had, in the long term, negative consequences. The population just dispersed, and they did not leave a written record. Our traditional power- and text-centered historical sequences of "civilization" (Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Maya...) are quite myopic. Most of humanity lived in less powerful societies without written state records.

I think the book could have been structured a bit better, and the argument in the later chapters could have been extended in more detail almost up to modern history (as the author does very briefly at the end). But the title of this book is appropriate and I would recommend it to anyone who likes to think about human history from a different perspective.
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thcson | outras 17 resenhas | Jan 19, 2024 |
This is a fascinating book on the perils of "high modernist" aspirations. The book focuses on the processes that lead to failures in megaprojects.

Many of us have an instinctive knee-jerk reaction to large-scale projects. Yet it's hard to put into words why. At the outset, it sometimes just seems like blind resistance to change. Scott not only provides an explanation for understanding these reactions, but also a framework for thinking about when those reactions are actually justified and when they might be overreactions.

High modernists come in all shapes and sizes. They range from autocrats to revolutionaries, bureaucrats to visionaries, socialists to capitalists. What unites them are their top-down visions that seek to reorganize life, production, or work.

High modernism is a form of tyranny of "experts" over others, symptomized by:

-Top-down visions with little interest, or appreciation of the local context or stakeholders.
-Over-rationalization and standardization leading to ignoring, rejecting, and wiping out local knowledge.
-The consequences of failed high modernist projects range from catastrophic to wasteful.

Going through diverse cases, the book also paints an interesting historical backdrop to trending topics in society, politics, and business. I.e. Systems thinking, user-centered design, and business anthropology all aim to better understand and integrate local knowledge into solutions big and small. Therefore it's also a book on the mistakes that have brought us to this point.
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1 vote
tourmikes | outras 23 resenhas | Jan 3, 2024 |
Please read it before extolling city-planning genius of Le Corbusier et al. Because otherwise to listen to you is akin listening to someone praising living in communal paradise under omniscient gaze of comrade Stalin.
Den85 | outras 23 resenhas | Jan 3, 2024 |



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