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Seeing Like a State - Book by James C. Scott

How states attempt to build a better society and regularly fail in doing so is described by James C. Scott in his important work 'Seeing Like a State.' The starting point of his study is the first attempt by a state in history to manage forests as natural resources. Forestry was initiated in Prussia and Saxony in the late 18th century. The state began to treat forests as a commercial good that needed to be optimized. The significance of the forest for the population, as a retreat or as a supplier of firewood, did not exist in the abstract image that the state maintained. The monocultures operated to maximize yields, destroyed the diversity of the forest and prevented its other uses, apart from the state's purpose. Normal trees, weeds, livestock, or pests are relevant categories for forestry that originated in that period. The result for the forests was severe. Their ecosystem was disrupted, and forest decline began. The state bore responsibility because what was considered unimportant from the state's perspective was actually essential. According to Scott, the example of forestry should serve as a blueprint for later state interventions, where the state's blindness had catastrophic consequences for humans and nature.

The world before the modern state came into effect globally looked different from today. Local measurements were very context-dependent and shaped by local interests over time. People measured with the ell or the foot and were unfamiliar with the standardized units of the metric system. An ell had a different length in one village than in the neighboring village. Cities were irregularly planned, and strangers relied on local residents who could guide them through the impenetrable streets. The city was only readable to those who had grown up in it. They enjoyed the benefits of local knowledge inaccessible to strangers. The unreadability of their city was their insurance against invasion or dictatorship. Local rules are only readable to local people. For a state, they are impenetrable barriers that deny it access to the local. Therefore, local customs, local knowledge, and local interests increasingly conflicted with state thinking. The state wanted to establish its own rules with laws. Its intention was multilayered. One of its concerns was to assess the commercial potential of humans and nature for taxation purposes. For the taxation of its citizens, it needed to know how much it could exploit them. Levying too high taxes could burden the farmers excessively and lead to revolts. If they were too low, it would lose income that it could have without taking risks. The state is primarily concerned with efficiency, which is inherent in state thinking because the transformation of nature into natural resources creates scarcity that calls for more efficiency. Another reason for the state's intrusion into the local was its self-preservation instinct. For the operation of the state apparatus, every city and village must be accessible to outsiders. State officials need to be replaced from time to time, and the integration of new colleagues can only proceed smoothly with transparency. Ultimately, the state wants to secure as many options as possible, and local knowledge stands in the way of this plan.

In all areas where it had means and capabilities, the state tried to make the local readable for it by creating maps and cadastres, introducing fixed surnames and the metric system, promoting national languages, or centralizing traffic. The better it succeeded in refining these abstractions, the easier it could control its state territory. The planning of neighborhoods was oriented to make them more understandable for outsiders, so there would be no dependence on their inhabitants. Thus, the state could ensure better control of unrest, crime, or disease spread.


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