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sabot Wooden Shoe Books: anarchist and radical literature
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Book Reviews ...

Reviewed: Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott
Review by: James Generic
Posted: 5.17.2006

While most theory books have a hard time captivating me, this one is very well done. Scott focuses on why some of the utopian centrally-planned societies failed and why organic "home-spun" communities and societies generally are more adapt to deal with harsh times. Echoing Kroptkin's writing nearly a century later (though without all the romance) Scott states that local mutual aid works more systematically than systematic over-arching state plans. He goes through several historical examples, such as Soviet collectivization, the building of Brasilia as the new "modern" capital of Brazil away from the coastal "cultural" capital of Rio de Janeiro, Tanzania's "villagization", the designs of the modernist city planning versus unplanned cities, all the way to such things we today take for granted such as linguistics, measurement, and censuses which he argues all started as ways of social control by the bourgeois State.

One of the most compelling arguments he makes is near the beginning, when he goes through the story of German forest planters, who wanted to make their timber growth larger by planning out a forest, instead of getting it from a thicker natural forest. What they found was that after 1 or 2 generations of trees, the forest began to die, because it had no ecosystem to support it and the species of the trees were more or less the same. The soil became loosen as the trees were perfectly spaced, diseases spread easily since all the trees were the same species and equally susceptible, and there was no ecosystem or diversity to keep the trees health.

He takes that example as a metaphor for human planning, and quickly touches into the ways of measurement in the 1700s versus now. Because in, for example France, there were literally hundreds of different ways of measuring things depending on where you went, it was fairly difficult for the Monarchy to collect taxes on a regular basis. After the French Revolution, the newly ascended bourgeois wanted to empower the state to direct the nation, and thus needed ways to more regurally collect taxes. They made the metric system standard, replacing lots of local culture. Before, in places across the world, the local measurement system made sense to people, and not always involved distance. An example would be in New Guinea, people tell how far away something is by "ricepots". Everyone knows how long it takes to boil a pot of rice, and so 3 ricepots would be a two hour walk.

Another fascinating point was a comparison of a right-wing city planner with the collectivization program of Lenin and Stalin. It is amazing to note the similarities. Huge collective farms were eventually even used for a model of American factory farms, which have replaced most small farmers in the United States today. When Paris redesigned itself in the early 20th century, it destroyed many old neighborhoods, in part as an effort to prevent any more revolutions, since the city had more or less brought down the government four times in less than 100 years (1792, 1830, 1848, 1871). Thus, the perfect modernist designs were not an effort to build a utopia, but an effort of the state to control the population and prevent resistance.

Overall, the book, though a little thick, is a good read. The author is not an anarchist, but the argument he presents lends much credit to the anarchist argument against centralization of society, whether it be state or corporate. His arguments are centered on Europe since this is where much of the state control theories arose, and present good arguments against both the "well meaning socialist" who wants the government to run society for the people, and the "libertarian party" member who would like to see big business replace the state. Unlike many theory books, he also presents a clear alternative in each case cited, such as Rosa Luxemborg to Lenin, the organic mutual-aid driven neighborhoods versus the planned aesthetically perfect city, and the local measurement systems versus the modern metric system (though I can also see the benefits of using standardized metric and language, too.)

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