I’ve been reading reactions to a couple of James Scott’s latest books, Seeing Like a State (1999) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009). I haven’t read the books themselves, which by all accounts are iterations of themes from earlier books such as Weapons of the Weak (1985) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990). Scott has made an admirable career out of sticking up for plucky folk resisting domination by the powerful. He’s good at what he does.
I’ve read widely and sympathetically in this genre over the years, so for casual readers uninvested in exploring further I’ve boiled down some basic principles. I call them ‘the iron laws of anarchism’. They go like this:
*States are monolithic.
*States must not be claimed to be monolithic, because that would obviously be simplistic.
*States’ purposes are inherently nefarious, and must be resisted.
*Any act or non-act by ordinary people not rigorously consistent with monolithic State purposes must be interpreted as resistance, unless it turns out it was a sneaky (‘hegemonic’) way for the State to get what It wanted after all.
*States are both comprehensively effective and universally inept, depending on what makes them look worse in the analysis at hand.
*Ordinary people are both comprehensively defiant and universally downtrodden, depending on what makes them look better (and States worse) in the analysis at hand.
*For ‘State’, substitute Capitalism, Patriarchy, Colonialism, Imperialism, The Liberal Media, Fox News, The University Administration, My Older Brother, and/or The Devil at will. Modify ‘ordinary people’ accordingly.
Of course this is all pretty silly. Nobody actually thinks like this. Any relationship between such crude caricatures and real persons making real arguments is purely fortuitous. There are costs of not reading carefully. For much more careful and substantive thoughts on Scott’s recent work, check out the links below:
Kerim on The Art of Not Being Governed at Savage Minds
Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber’s long review of that book and Benedict Anderson’s Under Three Flags at American Interest Online, The State of Statelessness
Eric Brandom on Seeing Like a State at Learning Curve
Kerim again on Seeing Like an Economist, with more great links, including
Economist J. Bradford DeLong on James Scott and Friedrich Hayek, arguing that the Austrian liberal economists in their rejection of socialist central planning were the natural allies of local knowledge systems
And, not on Scott but a great demo of how to do really good State/civil society analysis (in the Russian case), Greg Afinogenov on the trouble with cynicism. In which, incidentally, Greg makes amends for an earlier snarky piece of hackwork much like this one, only with better graphics.