James C. Scott is one of the major social science writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His first book Moral Economy of the Peasant published in 1976, studied Vietnamese peasants, and how they resisted social change while being rooted in a different “moral economy.” In subsequent decades he expanded his work to include other countries of Southeast Asia. And still later in his 1998 book Seeing Like a State he described how state-directed planning in Tanzania, Brazil, China, and the Soviet Union worked—and did not work. In this book, he described how state bureaucrats using the goal of creating a high modernist society, saw people only as simplified from 30,000 feet in the air. Or more literally, they saw people only as abstractions on a computer screen. Whether from an airplane, or computer screen, you cannot see into the hearts and minds of people.
More recently Scott returned to Southeast Asia where he wrote about the traditional ecological relationship between the lowland rice kingdoms of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and China before World War II, and the capacity of highland peoples living outside to avoid the “exactions” of the state, a process which at least in my mind is still on-going particularly in Burma where there are 20 or so insurgent groups controlling territory today. In The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) Scott highlighted the Southeast Asian highlands as a place where small kinship groups and statelets avoid the control and discipline of the lowland kingdoms and especially the institutions of slavery, taxation, and military draft before 1945. Scott wrote that the peasantry “resisted” by disappearing into the mountainous highland forests where soldiers and police could not find them. Their “choice” was in effect between the tyranny and wealth of the lowlands where they must serve the state, and the freedom and poverty of avoiding the states by living in the ecologically difficult highlands. Scott then pulls his theoretical punch, and in effect says “never mind” this only applies to the past. The modern development bureaucracies of the UN, United States, UK, Japan, etc., are modern institutions, so do not need to listen to Scott, and the 20 or so insurgent groups in Burma/Myanmar today are really just drug cartels to be dealt with by modern diplomats development bureaucracies, and when that doesn’t work by Rambo-like soldiers.
The problem with Scott’s academic humility is that the development bureaucrats take advantage of you. Bureaucrats are by definition disciplined technocrats primed to defend policies against critique at all costs. When they sense humility by someone like Scott, they grab onto it, and jump at the chance to avoid critique altogether. They do this by adopting an old bureaucratic technique: They don’t read anything longer than a memo, on the grounds that they are too important and busy, and they can use “common sense” and the obfuscating language of econometrics to avoid the abstract reasoning of people like James Scott. How do they know this is effective? Well, that’s why they’re paid the big bucks, and those academics, and especially the penny-ante peasants are not!
How unimportant are theorists like James Scott in development circles? His name does not even show up in the Wikileaks files from the US State Department about insurgency in Burma! Whose names show up? People like the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), an armed paramilitary humanitarian group which routinely sneaks into Burma to provide humanitarian resources to armed rebel groups. In its spare time FBR also provides advice to the producers of the Rambo IV movie with Sylvester Stallone. And they also of course provide professional advice about policy in Burma to the US State Department in memo length emails. There are perhaps a dozen references to the group in the Wikileaks files—they were a primary source of information for how the United States made Burma policy. The bureaucrat from the State Department, who gives no evidence of having read James Scott or anything else), even reported back to Washington in 2012, where Hillary Clinton’s Chief Staff Cheryl Mills forwarded his email to Clinton, because:
The group remains a good source of information about events in Burma’s ethnic states, primarily along the Thai-Burma border, and post intends to maintain appropriate contact with the group (Source Wikileaks documents from the US State Department and Hillary Clinton).
As for James C. Scott? Not such a good source, I guess. How many times does the State Department reference him in Wikileaks? Answer: Not at all! Who needs the analyses James C. Scott, and the other Burma scholars who read deeply in history, archives, and learn strange languages when you have emails from the Free Burma Rangers? Seemingly, it is more fun for star-struck State Department officials to debrief the man who inspired Rambo IV, and pass his email onto Hillary Clinton herself, than to read an actual academic book. It seems that by favoring such emails over books, State Department bureaucrats (and perhaps Hillary Clinton herself) imagine that they themselves have as Max Weber said “climbed to a level of humanity never before attained” (see Weber 1904-1905/2002:104). Presumably Sylvester’s Stallone’s fictional John Rambo character, as well as the people eating popcorn while watching Rambo slay the bad guys in Burma.
This is perhaps why with all the creativity of a behavioral psychologist planners from USAID, US State Department, etc., would proclaim to me something like this:
We know peasants of Burma/Thailand/Tanzania—they will respond to the carrots and sticks of the Washington consensus, which everyone I know agrees with anyway [which is why it is a consensus]. Besides we have econometric models. And we have bigger salaries than they do, so we are smartest!
But of course many of the US State Department programs “failed,” things like their Afghanistan policy of 2001, Iraq policy of 2003, and so forth. In fact they failed really big. Instead of attending Rambo movies, perhaps the State Department bureaucrats should have read something really old from Teodor Shanin written in the 1960s.
Day by day, the peasants make the economist sigh, the politicians sweat, and the strategists swear, defeating their prophecies all over the world—Moscow and Washington, Peking and Delhi, Cuba and Algeria, the Congo and Vietnam
But they apparently do not read such things, preferring episodic reports from the Burma Free Rangers. The same can be said of Scott’s books which were first published in 1976, and never referred to during the three years I worked with Thai and Indochinese peasants between 1980 and 1983. Instead when I asked the bureaucrats what they thought, their thought did not go much beyond slogans like “Health for All in the Year 2000!” Or they explained why the latest ceasefire negotiated by their bosses in Cambodia would finally work. And when this failed, they inevitably laid blame on the peasants—perhaps citing the lack of a disciplined work ethic or some other self-serving prophecy. Or they blamed the corrupt Thai bureaucrats whose reactions did not fit their expectations of what a good rational hard working modern person should be. Even then this struck me as weird—Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian peasants spent their day managing stubborn water buffalo, anticipating rains, hoeing fields, harvesting, and preparing celebrations to mark seasons and life events. How was this lazy or undisciplined? And who was really corrupt? The western bureaucrat making $150,000 per year in salary (in 2017 dollars), or the Thai bureaucrat making the equivalent of $3,600 per year, who then sent a contract or two to his family business?