Friday, October 1, 2010

Seeing Like a State and the logic of Capital: A Sort of Review

      I came across this recently and thought it would be worth putting up for folks to take a look.  I'm also in process of revising another paper dealing with the documentary, Night and Fog.  It's largely a critique of Agamben (without naming him once in the article), but I need to turn the material on Derrida into not incomprehensible mush.  In any case, here are my thoughts on the then somewhat recently published book by James C. Scott, Seeing Like A State.

      I think it is worth remarking that James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State is an analysis of not the state, but a very specific state, the capitalist state.  This may seem initially suspect.  After all, Scott doesn’t only focus on the state of high capitalism, but he focuses on the colonial state and the socialist state as well.  These distinctions are based on the notion that the bourgeoisie is essential to the regime of capital, but recent Marxist scholarship has emphasized that the bourgeoisie is merely a mediator between the far larger forces of capital and the proletariat.  In all the examples that Scott brings up, the desire of the regime is to create systems that are recognizable to the logic of exchange value.  Perhaps more specifically, they live out a particular fantasy of creating a world in which the particularity of use value is vanquished by exchange.  Scott argues that this fantasy is disastrous because society operates through structures of sociability that operate outside of the logic of exchange, a mutuality to use the language of anarchism.  We need to first define the terms use value and exchange value as Marx uses them.  Then move into the space of mutuality and show how this operates on a logic of mutuality.  We will then look at the way the examples Scott draws on operate on this fantastic economy, one that operates more on an aesthetic then an empirical logic.  The paper will end on a note of caution though, as the prescriptions that Scott presents are increasingly operating as a cultural dominant, albeit one that is creating stronger structures of domination, rather than lessening them.

      Karl Marx opens Capital by creating an essential distinction between use-value and exchange value.  Its particularity and immanence define use value.  “Use-values are only realized in use or in consumption.”[1]  A book is read, corn eaten, a play watched.  The way that the object is consumed is unique.  One could imagine an object imbued with a use value in any number of different ways.  For instance, one could own a book to read it, or to use it as a prop in order to prop up a short end of a table, or perhaps even to accumulate a sense of prestige for the owner or as an aesthetic object.  One could imagine a system of exchange based on this.  However, it would be so complex and provincial as to be unrecognizable to anyone outside of its logic.
       Exchange value is, on the other hand, the primary logic of the capitalist market.  It operates on creating a third term in order to create a recognizable system of exchange in which every item can be made equal to any other object.  There is a sort of common sense to this definition.  It is after a sort of second nature at this point.  However Marx points out something haunting this creation.  Marx points out the following about the nature of exchange value.
“If we then disregard the use-value of commodities, only one property remains, that of being products of labor.  But even the product of labor has already been transformed in our hands.  If we make the abstraction from its use-value, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value.  It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing.  All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished….  There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; they are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labor…”[2]
      The cautionary note in Marx’s explanation has a strong resonance with Scott’s work.  Marx points out that a profound violence is being done to the object (in this case, the commodity).  It is being stripped of all of its recognizable attributes.  What is left is, extinguished of it ‘sensuous characteristics’, homogenous, and is left with an only ‘phantom-like objectivity.’  We can recognize something similar in the way that Scott describes the various structures of planning.  Forest planning of Germany leaves out the complexities of the forest’s ecosystem.  The high modernist city operates on the logic of isolated functions rather than recognizing the dense, complex, and overdetermined structures of the street life of a city, and the modernist agricultural planner ignores the dense structures of knowledge developed in the systems of earlier modes of agriculture.
       All of these structures being ignored are structures of what might be called mutual aid, using Kropotkin’s language, or to use the term that Scott himself employs, Metis.  Whatever term you use, this emphasizes on a knowledge produced through practice, a practice of the body and the complex interactions and negotiations of small social structures.  Scott emphasizes that these interactions are themselves political, and frequently have their own structures of domination contained within them.  An interesting example is the battles over the measurements that occur between lords and bondsmen.  But these systems have a logic to them that is recognizable to the participants that are not as accessible to the outside eye.  Scott’s example of the medieval city is an excellent example.  It is produced through patterns of use that occur in the city over time.  For instance, streets are frequently footpaths that have cobblestones added to them.  These structures, which are produced through constant negotiations, are unrecognizable to outside forces.
       Scott shows how these high-modernist plans are almost inevitably an attempt to destroy these forms of unintelligibility.  This is primarily accomplished through a structure of simplification, a reduction of complex interactions to something that can be placed on map.  Scott points out that these structures can take on a positive role when counter by forms of popular counter-power, but when those structures of popular counter-power are destroyed, high modernist planning can become disastrous.  I would argue that these disastrous moments are precisely the moments that the state authorities try to enact the fantasy of capital, the destruction of use value in favor of a universal exchangeability.  These fantasies take on an aesthetic form where the map, the chart, and the diagram map on perfectly with daily life.
      This relates to an emphasis on the instrumental reason of rationalism.  This rationalism turns the structures of bricolage into its irrational other, making the forms of revolt against its plan into modes of pathology, rather then modes of insurgency and counter-knowledge.  The high modernist project is always constructed against an outside that is read as superstitious, authoritarian, and ignorant.  They attempt to destroy those pathologies through the plan.  In this, it becomes a plan for itself, rather than a plan in the service of use.  As Scott points out,

       The centralizing effects of Soviet collectivization and ujamaa villages were perfectly obvious.  So are those of large irrigation projects, where the authorities decide when to release the water, how to distribute it, and what water fees to charge, or of agricultural plantations, where the workplace is supervised as if it were in a factory setting.  For colonialized farmers, the effect of such centralization and expertise was a radical de-skilling of the cultivators themselves. (Scott 286)

       These structures of domination thought of themselves as taking on a scientific reason as well as an empiricist engagement with daily life, but these projects are primarily created on an aesthetic image of the world, rather than an engagement with its materiality and practices.  Let’s return to the image of the forest that was created in the 19th century by the German State.  In its efforts to clearly demarcate and measure its resources as well as expand them, it transformed the dense structure of the forest into recognizable rows of trees.  What’s more, it stripped away the density of diverse species to create a monocrop system of coniferous trees.  It reduced a complex system to the logic of the exchange value of a commodity, a reduction to yards of timber.  But the ‘pests’ and ‘underbrush’ that was so hated by this logic was crucial to the continued viability of the forest, and after catastrophe, the state had to introduce those elements back into the forest through artificial means.
       Capitalist modernity has been a history of these disasters.  Although Scott rightly emphasizes the catastrophes that have occurred within the space of post-revolutionary regimes and within late colonialism, we can find the same catastrophes in the dust bowls of the United States and the potato famine in Ireland.  The difficulty seems to be in misrecognizing the ‘phantom-like objectivity’ of exchange for reality itself.  Analogously, the simplifications of the map and the diagram are taken for the object itself, or perhaps better put; there is a desire to annihilate the object in favor of the model.  But as Scott points out, the catastrophic nature of this can be seen in the everyday battles of the class struggle.  “In a work to rule action, employees begin doing their jobs by meticulously observing every one of the rules and regulations and performing only the duties stated in their job descriptions. The result, fully intended in this case, is that the work grinds to a halt, or at least a snail’s pace.  The workers achieve the practical effect of a walkout while remaining on the job…” (Scott 310)  The plan without everyday life, without mutuality/use value/metis becomes a catastrophe; however, in most of the cases that Scott discusses, the catastrophe leads to mass death.
       I would like to end on a bit of a cautionary note though.  As Virno notes, the structures of what Scott calls metis, and what Virno calls “virtuosity”, however Virno points out that this new logic of performative virtuosity leads to the dialectic of dread and refuge in a new economy of domination.[3]  The descriptions of metis that Scott gives can be equally valid as descriptions of new management techniques as well as modes of anarchist insurrection.  One wonders if Scott has managed to accomplish what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri see in the work of post-modernist work.  “The danger is that postmodernist theories focus their attention so resolutely on the old forms of power they are running from, with their heads turned backwards, that they tumble unwittingly into the welcoming arms of the new power.”

1.  Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 126.
2.  Ibid., 128.
 3.  Paulo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004)
4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 2000), 142.


  1. I think it was my browser... I just don't know about the generalizations about "the state" here, particularly the reductionism/determinism relative to exchange value. On the one hand, I think it is abstract Value that Marx is headed towards in the passages you refer to and that stopping at exchange value's problematic as a result. On the other hand, I think this perspective treats the state as a tool of/for capital rather than as an alternative realm of struggle under modernity. Its probably my training in a Habermasian/O'Connorian tradition but - whether the development or social/liberal democratic state - there's certainly an accumulation "function" but also a rationalization and legitimation function as well. I couldn't agree more with Scott's vision of seeing like a state being the equivalent of the elite, objectivist scientism of Progressive reformers who claim the mantle of truth over and above the ignorant masses and irresponsible capitalists - but I think it is exactly this Weberian moment that establishes the relative autonomy of the state - whether it increases/intensifies the capture of the state by capital or facilitates/coopts popular resistance. It just feels like your account has Scott painting in far too broad strokes (and its been too long since I read it for me to recall the test myself.) Hoping I'm not completely off base... APR

  2. I think that you're absolutely correct in your critique of my introductory material that makes a set of problematic claims about the the state, per se. If I were going to go back, I would probably emphasize a common thread of the high modernist developmental state (or something like that.) However, at the same time, I'm not arguing that these states serve capital, so much as that their conceptualization of planning is caught up in its logic. One sees in Scott's description a variety of projects implemented for a variety of reasons that nonetheless get caught up in the logic of abstraction that is exemplified by exchange value (in my reading, not Scott's) For Scott, this is a potential contained in the form of state planning, one that is generally put in check by popular counterpower. The moments that Scott looks at are precisely in moments of crisis where those structures are weakened (this needs to be developed further.) I think my argument has a strong resonance with Lukacs' arguments about reification, contained in History and Class Consciousness. Lukacs looks at the way that the logic of capital seeps in to the logical forms of philosphy, law, etc. I think that Scott reveals something similar in his analysis. Despite the fact that several of the projects conceptualized themselves as anti-capitalist, they nevertheless could only imagine forms of planning within the instrumental logic of capital. (I've always felt that this was always the problematic pole of Lenin's logic.) In any case, I probably should say more... but I will leave it here.