Saturday, December 15, 2012

Someone To Pay Attention To

James C. Scott. I'm ashamed to say I had not heard of him:
DURHAM, Conn. — The Yale political scientist James C. Scott may share his 46-acre farm in this picturesque hamlet with a flock of laying hens, a pair of Highland cattle and an active honeybee colony. But don’t mistake him for your typical Connecticut country squire.

For Mr. Scott, the farm, about 20 miles northeast of New Haven, is both a place to blow off steam and an embodiment of the kind of hands-on, ground-up, local knowledge that he has championed during a career spanning five decades and a string of highly influential and idiosyncratic books.

“I’m as proud of knowing how to shear a sheep as I am of anything,” Mr. Scott, who turned 76 on Sunday, said during a recent interview in the living room of his rustic 1826 farmhouse, seated across from a pair of rocking chairs draped with skins of home-butchered Montadales. “I’ve been a better scholar partly because I’ve had this other activity.”

Mr. Scott’s professional accomplishments are certainly considerable, even if the biographical note in his new book, “Two Cheers for Anarchism,” cites his status as a “mediocre” beekeeper alongside his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the official founder of Yale’s agrarian studies program, as well as an unofficial founder of the field of “resistance studies,” in which his book “Weapons of the Weak” (1985), a study of peasant resistance based on fieldwork in a Malaysian village, is a kind of Bible.

And his influence stretches far beyond the academic left, thanks to “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” (1998), a magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute (which recently dedicated an issue of its online journal to the book), development economists and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike.

“He’s one of the people who has really demonstrated all the unintended bad consequences of people who think they can plan a city or economy or whole society, but he’s not ideological about it,” the conservative political theorist Francis Fukuyama said.

He’s also the kind of big thinker (and stylish writer), colleagues say, who has all but disappeared in his field: the last of a breed of wide-angled 20th-century social theorists, going back to Max Weber, to marry the insights of social science to the broad sweep of history, even as he cautions against putting too much faith in theory.
To most Americans the term anarchism probably invokes bomb-throwing radicals. But seen through Mr. Scott’s squint, anarchist principles are in action all around us, whether in jaywalking, the anti-SAT movement or assembly-line slowdowns — all examples, he contends, of everyday resistance to the rule of technocratic elites.

“Unlike the anarchists, I don’t believe the state will ever be abolished,” he said in the interview. “It’s a matter of taming it” — through the kind of lawbreaking and disruption, he argues, that have always been crucial to democratic political change.

The guarantees of equality in the Declaration of the Rights of Man or the Civil Rights Act, he continued, are “achievements of the state, but they are the achievements of the state with a pistol at its temple.”  
The Professor Who Learns From Peasants (NYTimes)

And here's a book to pay attention to: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. This comment at marginal Revolution whets the appetite: " While a number of topics are covered, the core parts of the book concern the importance of energy sources for early economic development."

1 comment:

  1. You should check out his "The Art of Not Being Governed" -- it's one of the most amazing books I've ever read.


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