Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa



In this article, I seek to identify a limitation in the analysis James Scott offers in Seeing Like a State (1998) by asking to what extent his account of the follies of schemes for planned improvement by states provides critical leverage on the present world of neoliberal global capitalism. Scott has claimed that a dynamic of standardization, homogenization, and grid making applies not only to developmentalist states but also equally to the contemporary world of downsized states and unconstrained global corporations. I contest that claim by tracing how recent capital investment in Africa has been territorialized, and some of the new forms of order and disorder that have accompanied that selectively territorialized investment. Because such investment has been overwhelmingly in mineral resource extraction—particularly in oil—a contrast will become visible between the homogenizing, standardizing state optic Scott analyzed and a rather different way of seeing, proper to the contemporary global oil company.