The Best-Laid Plans

While reading “Cities For People Not Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City” by edited by Brenner, Marcuse & Mayer, Routledge 2012, I found a reference to this book review by John Gray of James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” that succinctly articulates the problems with planners and politicians utopian dreams and why cities need to be shaped by people for the people, it is especially prescient, in having been written in April 2008 before the full impact of the  global economic crisis had become well known, in its critique of neoliberal economics and free market theories:

The contemporary cult of the free market is just as radical an exercise in social engineering as many experiments in economic planning tried in this century. Like other kinds of high modernism, it rests on a confident ignorance of the immensely complex workings of real societies. Governments throughout the world are being advised by transnational organizations to reconstruct their economies on the basis of free markets. But no government or transnational organization can know what will be the results of promoting free markets in societies in which they have never before been central. What will be the effects on family life, on crime and on the economy itself?”

How Certain Schemes to Improve
the Human Condition Have Failed.
By James C. Scott.
Illustrated. 445 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press. $35.

The 20th century has seen many grand schemes for improving the human condition. The collectivization of farming in the Soviet Union, compulsory ”villagization” in Ethiopia and postcolonial Tanzania, the construction of Brasilia according to Le Corbusier’s theories of urban planning, Maoist China’s Great Leap Forward and the self-sufficient rural economy that was the goal of Pol Pot’s Cambodia were ambitious efforts to better the lot of humankind. The ideas inspiring the schemes and the regimes that attempted them were highly diverse. The human costs of the experiments varied from an immeasurable toll in broken lives in Russia and China to a farcical waste of effort in Brazil. Despite their differences, these bold experiments had one thing in common: all failed. Why is it that such grandiose schemes of human betterment came to nothing? And can we be sure we have learned the lessons of their failure?

In what must be one of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades — ”Seeing Like a State” — James C. Scott contends that these apparently disparate experiments exemplify a single body of ideas. He calls this system of beliefs ”high modernism,” and he tells us that it inspired such different figures as Robert McNamara, Walther Rathenau, Jean Monnet, the Shah of Iran, David Lilienthal, Lenin, Trotsky and Julius Nyerere. Scott identifies the birth of high modernism with the economic mobilization of Germany during World War I, and describes Nazism as ”a reactionary form of modernism.” As he goes on to show, high modernism is found not only in totalitarian regimes. He sees evidence of high modernist ideas in what he terms the ”Soviet-American fetish” of ”industrial farming” — the enthusiasm for mass production in agriculture that led some American agronomists to support Soviet collectivization. What is this set of beliefs that so easily crosses boundaries between regimes, economic systems and political ideologies?

For Scott, high modernism is the attempt to design society in accord with what are believed to be scientific laws. Typically, high modernists think that the best way to meet human needs is by expanding production in agriculture and industry. They want society to be governed not by the practical intelligence of its members but by scientific knowledge. Some believe that production itself should be planned. All are convinced that society must be reshaped according to a rational design. Seeing the apparent disorder of societies that are not governed by some overall scheme as a sign that they are not yet modern, they believe that in a truly modern society everything that is traditional or accidental will have been rendered obsolete.

Read the full review

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