Monday, May 23, 2016

Three conceptions of biography


A biography is a narrative of a person's life. The biographer wants to tell the story of how the subject made it from childhood to adulthood; how he or she came to undertake certain actions in life; how various personal aspirations and commitments were played out in terms of extended projects with varying levels of success; how the adult's character was formed through specific experiences and influences. The biographer wants to make sense of the subject's life itinerary and character.

A biography necessarily pays attention to both external and internal factors. Externally, the biographer will investigate the nature of the family, the accidents of social class and education to which the subject was exposed, the role models and teachers by whom the subject was influenced, the habits of daily life that had unexpected consequences for the longterm development of the subject's life. Internally, the biographer will be interested in reconstructing the character, personality, and mental life of the subject; the inclinations and motives that drove the subject's choices; the values and commitments that shaped the ways in which the subject interacted with other people and social institutions.

There are several basic frames that the narrative of a biography might take. The biographer may tell a story that suggests that the subject possessed a well-developed conception of what he or she wanted out of life, and set out to take specific steps and strategies to bring about these outcomes. This can be called the "architect's view". The subject's life is understood as the fulfillment of a detailed plan, as direct as the migration pathway of a whooping crane.


At the other extreme, the biographer may find that the subject's life looks to be highly contingent and random. The subject moves from one experience to another, one opportunity and another discouragement, and the route is aimless. Call this the "random walk view." The subject's life may have had singular and valued accomplishments; but there is no overall direction to the life, only a series of stochastic and opportunistic interactions.


image: mathematical simulation of Levy walk foraging behavior (link)

There is a third possibility that incorporates both agency and contingency. The biographer may treat the subject as possessing values and ideas about the future that are guiding signposts as the subject moves through the small stages of life. The subject may have a moral sense that leads him or her to question choices through the lens of questions like "what is the right thing to do?" or "how can I contribute to a more just society?" or "what kind of person do I want to be?". Specific steps and initiatives are the result. The subject may be reflective and reflexive: he or she may consider current states of affairs and opportunities in terms of the ways in which these states of affairs contribute to half-fulfilled values and aspirations; and the subject may undertake to act in ways that give further shape to his or her mental environment -- more committed to a set of moral or spiritual values, more attentive to the satisfactions of family or creative achievement, more attuned to a sense of beauty or aesthetic balance. Call this the "bildungs view".

image: Lewis and Clark journey of discovery

The architect's view of life seems highly implausible for almost any given individual. Surely most people's lives have unfolded with a high degree of contingency, improvisation, and indeterminacy. An individual is exposed to this great teacher or that unfortunate necessity; and future actions and plans take shape partly as a result of those prior chance developments. Further, life contingency seems not to be restricted to moments of high drama, but rather seem to be distributed across the full range of daily life.

The random-walk view has some empirical plausibility as an understanding of the lives of a wide range of people. It is plausible enough to imagine that some people are highly unreflective about the future; they make decisions as necessities and opportunities come along, and they make out a life as a sum of these unrelated choices. Even the complexity introduced by the notion of the "Levy walk" is relevant to the unfolding of a life. As the diagram above indicates, the behavior of the subject is not restricted to a local domain of random choices; instead, the course is interspersed with long hops, taking the subject to a new terrain to explore randomly (link).

But it is the bildungs-view that has the most appeal for anyone who favors reflectiveness and the idea of creating a somewhat coherent whole over a long span of time. Here we are to picture a person always only partially formed, but seeking new personal and situational developments that lead towards a set of goals and values that are themselves only partially articulated. This is a boot-straps understanding of a purposive life: the individual at any given stage of life has reflected on values, goals, purposes, and satisfactions, has pursued plans and opportunities that fit with those values, and has reformulated and refined his or her values and goals as life proceeds. This is what can fairly be called a reflective life, embodying both contingency and direction.

The illustration of the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition from St. Louis to Fort Clatsop gives a metaphorical idea of the bildungs view of a life. Lewis and Clark had some partially defined goals and plans when they set out on their journey of discovery. But much of the route depended upon contingencies encountered along the way and opportunities that were exploited in an improvisational manner. Their itinerary and changes of direction were often the result of new information, changing weather, unexpected terrain, and the like. The exact course they eventually traversed was not defined in advance; and yet there was a clear directionality to the expedition.

And what about Inspector Clouseau, depicted above in the person of Peter Sellers? The hapless inspector illustrates the random-walk model as he moves through the Pink Panther movies, with a generous amount of bumbling randomness and amazing turns of favorable luck leading to unlikely success in the end. Regrettably, no one can count on cinematic luck in ordinary life, so a bit more caution and planning seem well advised.

In framing this series of posts on rational life plans I have focused on the idea of rationality over time. There is another approach in philosophy that I haven't considered, however, that considers a similar problem from the point of view of the notion of a "meaningful life". What features or conditions make a life "meaningful" to the individual and to others? Susan Wolf's 2007 Tanner lectures provide a useful beginning at trying to analyze the good life in its fullness over time from the point of view of meaning and value (link). Also useful is Thaddeus Metz's article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on "the meaning of life" (link). Finally, the series of posts presented earlier on the topic of "character" is relevant to this topic as well (link). Character is relevant to life plans because it is shaped by the decisions the individual makes, and it provides the cross-temporal fiber needed to persist in a life plan under adversity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Global inequality


image: scenes from Mumbai, April 2016

Inequalities of wealth and income throughout the world have generated a great deal of attention in the  past several years, in both the media and the scholarly world. Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century gave this set of debates a huge impetus when it appeared in 2013. Branko Milanovic treats this subject in his very recent book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. (Here is a review of the book in the Financial Timeslink.) Some of the core arguments were presented in an earlier World Bank white paper (link). Global inequality refers to the distribution of income over the world's population as a whole, pooling together the populations of all nations. And, as Milanovic observes, this distribution can be understood as the sum of within-nation inequalities and inequalities of the mean incomes of all nations. Piketty's analysis is focused on within-nation incomes, and he highlights the fact that many OECD countries are experiencing a rapid increase in inequalities. But Milanovic demonstrates that the picture is quite different for global inequalities, where there has been a significant decrease in inequalities over the past two decades or so.

An earlier post considered and rejected a similar argument in the New York Times by Tyler Cowen (link). Cowen endorsed the idea that the world is becoming more equal in terms of income, and I argued that this conclusion misses the point of current concerns about inequality. It is not the size distribution of the whole world's population that is of primary concern, but rather the distribution of income within national economies that is of concern. Milanovic provides data supporting a similar conclusion as one part of his analysis. But his arguments are much more substantive and data-rich. And his analysis makes it clear that both trends concerning income inequalities are important.

Milanovic directly addresses the relevant contrast here under the heading of "within-country" and "cross-country" inequalities, or what he designates as class inequalities and location-based inequalities. And, very interestingly, he suggests that the relative importance of the two sources of inequality changes over time, but both are important.

Here is the key graph representing much of the central argument in Milanovic's book. (Milanovic refers to this as the "elephant" graph.)


The graph is reasonably clear once you understand its logic. The chart represents the income segments of the entire global population by percentile, and it represents the growth in income various percentiles have experienced during a recent decade. This means mixing populations globally; so, for example, the 40th percentile group includes rich Malians, middle-income Chinese, and poor Canadians. And, since different economies grew at different rates during that decade, the mix for a given percentile in the global income distribution changes from beginning to end. The x-axis represents percentiles of global income -- the 10th percentile, the 30th percentile, etc. The y-axis represents the real increase in income experienced by that percentile in the period 1988-2008. So the 20th percentile experienced a 40% increase in income during the period; the 75th percentile experienced 29% growth; the 85th percentile is 4% growth; etc. And it is indeed striking to see that different segments or strata of the global income distribution had such very different growth profiles over this twenty-year period.

Milanovic thinks the turning points A, B, and C are particularly revealing about important current economic trends (11 ff.). Here is how he analyzes the segments: Point A encompasses people in the emerging Asian economies, with rapidly rising incomes in the middle range. Point B encompasses middle-income workers in OECD countries. And point C is the "global plutocrats" (22). Framed in these terms, Milanovic's analysis has major implications for global politics and the way we understand the winners and losers of globalization.

The book offers a useful theoretical innovation for development economics. The Kuznets curve was thought to represent a one-time feature of economic development through a process of modernization: the view that inequalities within a national economy increase during the early phase of modernization and structural transformation, and then decline over an extended period of time. The theory seems to be refuted by the sustained period of rising inequalities in OECD economies from the 1980s. Milanovic argues for a revision of the concept by introducing the variation of a Kuznets wave or cycle, or "alternating increases and decreases in inequality" (50ff.). The intervening variable causing this fluctuation in Milanovic's account is rising per capita income and the new social and economic forces this rising level of wealth creates. Two important elements of this dynamic are the paired forces of rising power in the hands of wealth holders on the one hand and mass organizations like labor unions on the other, leading to a struggle between pro-rich policies and pro-worker policies. He explains the current resurgence of inequalities as the consequence of technology change and buy the rapid expansion of international trade (globalization) (103). But key to his approach is a recognition of the extensive complexity of the processes of growth that economies experience -- what Bhaskar called the open character of social causation.

Milanovic goes into substantial detail in explaining the elephant graph in this extensive lecture at Peterson Institute for International Economics (link). The discussion of the slide occurs at 7:45.



Milanovic is one of the most expert analysts of economic inequalities anywhere, and Global Inequality is a contribution that anyone interested in inequalities will want to read.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kerner Commission report


The Kerner Commission released its report in 1968, following months of intensive study of the series of major race riots and rebellions that had occurred in 1967. Here is the executive summary (link), and here is a detailed review of the context and reception of the report in Boston Review (link).

It is enormously important for us today, almost fifty years later, to reread the report with an eye to the diagnosis the commissioners arrived at -- the underlying structural and experiential conditions that had set the stage for 164 riots, rebellions, and disturbances across the country during 1967 -- and the recommendations they made for healing these fundamental contradictions within our American democracy. Newark and Detroit were the most destructive during 1967, but there were many others during that year, and equally destructive uprisings took place in many major American cities in the following year as well. The Commission's "most basic conclusion" is stark, unblinking, and profoundly troubling: "This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

The Commission was careful and deliberate in its assessments of causation of individual rebellions, and they identified broad standing conditions as crucial parts of the causal pathway to the eruption of violence:
Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single "triggering" or "precipitating" incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident-in itself often routine or trivial-became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.
"Prior" incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were "final" incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.
What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.
(6)The report considers the nature of the grievances and demands that motivated participants in these uprisings, and classifies them according to urgency:
First Level of Intensity 
1. Police practices
2. Unemployment and underemployment
3. Inadequate housing 
Second Level of Intensity 
4. Inadequate education
5. Poor recreation facilities and programs
6. Ineffectiveness of the political structure and grievance mechanisms 
Third Level of Intensity 
7. Disrespectful white attitudes
8. Discriminatory administration of justice
9. Inadequacy of federal programs
10. Inadequacy of municipal services
11. Discriminatory consumer and credit practices
12. Inadequate welfare programs
The Commission report is also explicit about the severity of the gap between black and white citizens with respect to crucial elements of life quality:
Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it. Negroes had completed fewer years of education and fewer had attended high school. Negroes were twice as likely to be unemployed and three times as likely to be in unskilled and service jobs. Negroes averaged 70 percent of the income earned by whites and were more than twice as likely to be living in poverty. Although housing cost Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing--three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced. (7)
To this list of racial gaps we must now add the health disparities gap, including disparities by race in infant mortality, disease incidence, and longevity.

And consider these troubling observations about hopes and expectations by young African-American men and women that the Commission discovered. These lines were intended to describe conditions in the late 1960s; but they have great relevance for today's environment in many American cities:
Frustrated hopes are the residue of the unfulfilled expectations aroused by the great judicial and legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic struggle for equal rights in the South.
A climate that tends toward approval and encouragement of violence as a form of protest has been created by white terrorism directed against nonviolent protest; by the open defiance of law and federal authority by state and local officials resisting desegregation; and by some protest groups engaging in civil disobedience who turn their backs on nonviolence, go beyond the constitutionally protected rights of petition and free assembly, and resort to violence to attempt to compel alteration of laws and policies with which they disagree.
The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of "moving the system." These frustrations are reflected in alienation and hostility toward the institutions of law and government and the white society which controls them, and in the reach toward racial consciousness and solidarity reflected in the slogan "Black Power." (9)
The second point is particularly salient today in a political environment in which racial antagonisms have been encouraged by leading presidential candidates, and an encouraging nod has been offered to adherents willing to use violence against peaceful demonstrators at political rallies.

The report's observations about failures of public school systems in segregated cities are particularly relevant to the city of Detroit, and a partial explanation of the growing sense of separation between white and black Michiganders and between Detroit and Lansing:
Education in a democratic society must equip children to develop their potential and to participate fully in American life. For the community at large, the schools have discharged this responsibility well. But for many minorities, and particularly for the children of the ghetto, the schools have failed to provide the educational experience which could overcome the effects of discrimination and deprivation.
This failure is one of the persistent sources of grievance and resentment within the Negro community. The hostility of Negro parents and students toward the school system is generating increasing conflict and causing disruption within many city school districts. But the most dramatic evidence of the relationship between educational practices and civil disorders lies in the high incidence of riot participation by ghetto youth who have not completed high school.
What have the succeeding five decades brought us? The twelve sources of grievance listed above are entirely relevant to today's realities in Detroit, Chicago, or Cleveland. Youth unemployment, crisis conditions in public school systems, highly visible and recurring instances of excessive use of deadly force by police across the country, and ineffective political institutions are high on the list today in African-American communities in virtually all large American cities, including especially Detroit.

If we are honest about the facts of race in America, it is hard to claim that there is substantial progress in the key concerns of the Kerner Commission report. Here is one key finding in 1967: "Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans." And in cities throughout the United States, this devastating reality persists. Racial residential segregation continues; there are continuing racial gaps in education, health, employment, and quality of life; and there continues to be a pattern of police violence against young black men. And, predictably, there is a rising level of anger and disaffection among many millions of young people whose lives are limited by these basic facts. We need to re-read the Kerner Commission report; and we need to act on its wise recommendations.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Hofstadter on the progressive historians


I've frequently found Richard Hofstadter to be a particularly compelling historian of American politics and ideas. He is one of the writers from the 1950s and 1960s who still have insights that repay a close reading as we try to make sense of the swirling complexities of culture, politics, and ideas. His earliest book is The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it, and there were many more to come in his short career. (Hofstadter died at 54 in 1970.) 

In 1969 Hofstadter published a book on American historical writing with the intriguing title, Progressive Historians. The book is a study of three important American historians from the first few decades of the twentieth century, Frederick Jackson Turner (The Frontier in American History), Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), and Vernon Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1 - The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800).

The title itself raises interesting questions of historiography: what is a "progressive" historian? Does this phrase build an unacceptable degree of normative commitment into Hofstadter's understanding of historical writing? The big question here is this: how should a historian think about the two axes of "what happened?" and "was it part of a good thing or a bad thing?" in constructing a program of research in a historical topic. Are the two questions inseparable, or is a dispassionate and objective discovery of the events and causes of the history in question possible, without an attempt to theorize how that narrative fits into a set of political values?

Here is a quick précis of progressive issues at the turn of the century in his account of Charles Beard's development as a historian:
Beard's years at Columbia coincided with the Progressive era in national politics. He had come back to a scene of political and social reform that compared in the intensity of its intellectual ferment with the scene he had left in England. The first outburst of muckraking came during the years of his doctoral work, and by the time his book on the Constitution appeared, the national mood had grown so suspicious, that, as Walter Lippmann put it, the public had a distinct prejudice in favor of those who made the accusations. The political machines and the bosses were under constant fire from political reformers and muckrakers, and all the problems of popular government were being re-examined. Though it had no clear idea what to do about them, the country was in full cry against the great industrialists and the big monopolies. It had become aware too of the pitiful condition of many of the working class -- particularly women and children -- in the factories, mines, and sweatshops, and was making halting experiments at the legal control of industrial exploitation. Almost every aspect of American life, from sex, religion, and race relations to foreign policy, the regulation of business, and the role of the Courts, was being reconsidered.... There was no better moment than the zenith of the Progressive movement for a book dealing with the Constitution as the product of a class conflict, dwelling at great length upon the economic interests and objectives of its framers and advocates, and stressing their opposition to majoritarian democracy. (181-182)
Here is what Hofstadter has to say about the commonality across these three historians:
In grouping these three as Progressive historians I do no more than follow the precedent of other recent writers on American historiography. Not one of them was, to be sure, an easily classifiable partisan in the day-to-day national politics of their time, but all of them took their cues from the intellectual ferment of the period from 1890 to 1915, from the demands for reform raised by the Populists and Progressives, and from the new burst of political and intellectual activity that came with these demands. They were directed to their major concerns by the political debate of their time; they in turn contributed to it by giving reform politics a historical rationale. It was these men above all others who explained the American liberal mind to itself in historical terms. Progressive historical writing did for history what pragmatism did for philosophy, sociological jurisprudence for law, the muckraking spirit for journalism, and what Parrington called “critical realism” for letters. If pragmatism, as someone has said, provided American liberalism with its philosophical nerve, Progressive historiography gave it memory and myth, and naturalized it within the whole framework of American historical experience. (xii)
So their status as "progressive" thinkers does not derive directly from their political views, or at least the political views expressed in their historical writings; but rather from the background assumptions on the basis of which they proceeded. They were historians within the idiom and mental frameworks of the Progressive era. They were oriented by the conflicts of interest that existed in the United States -- in politics, in universities, in letters -- and they believed that ideas and interests unavoidably intersected. And they sought to understand important elements of political culture in terms of those conflicts.

So what about the other part of the phrase, "history"? Hofstadter recognizes that there are several different purposes served by historical writing. But one crucial role is the establishment of public memory as a foundation for civic identity.
MEMORY is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity. Men who have achieved any civic existence at all must, to sustain it, have some kind of history, though it may be history that is partly mythological or simply untrue. That the business of history always involves a subtle transaction with civic identity has long been understood, even in America where the sense of time is shallow. One of our early nineteenth-century promoters of canals and public works was also a promoter of historical collections because he understood with perfect clarity that there was some relation between the two. “To visit a people who have no history,” he wrote, “is like going into a wilderness where there are no roads to direct a traveller. The people have nothing to which they can look back; the wisdom and acts of their forefathers are forgotten; the experience of one generation is lost to the succeeding one; and the consequence is, that people have little attachment to their state, their policy has no system, and their legislature no decided character.” (3)
This is a view of history that emphasizes the committed nature of the genre -- the need to tell a story that inspires identity and admiration. But what about objectivity and facticity? Hofstadter refers to "scientific" history, but he doubts that this genre succeeds in excluding a normative stance from the interpretation of a people's history.
Most of these writers were affected to some extent by the idea of "scientific" or critical history: there would be no more bowdlerization like that of Sparks, no more historical orations or rearranged quotations as in Bancroft. But they did not relinquish the idea of history as a forum for moral judgments: they were deeply concerned with such questions as Who was right? or Which principles were correct? when they dealt with the background of the Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution, the struggles between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, or Jackson and the Whigs.... In short, what the conservative nationalist historians did was to was forge a view of the past that needed only to be inverted point by point by the Progressive historians to yield a historical rationale for social reform. (26-27)
Several key ideas are found in all three historians: the power of large propertied interests in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America (robber barons, exploitation, food adulteration, corruption); the role of individualism in the American political identity; and the role that majoritarian institutions should play in a modern society. In his discussion of Turner's interpretation of America's western frontier Hofstadter teases out four different meanings of "individualism" that have very different implications for political philosophy:
There are at least four senses in which [individualism] can be used. First, a culture may be called individualistic if it offers favorable conditions for the development of personal assertiveness and ambition, encourages material aspiration, self-confidence, and aggressive morale, offers multiple opportunities for advancement and encourages the will to seize them. Second, it may indicate the absence of mutuality or of common and collective effort, in a society that supposedly functions almost as a conglomerate of individual atoms. Third, it may designate a more or less formal creed in which private action is at a premium and governmental action is condemned -- as a synonym, in short, for laissez faire. Finally -- and I believe this usage can be quite misleading -- it may be used as though it were synonymous with individuality, that is with a high tolerance for deviance, eccentricity, nonconformity, privacy, and dissent. (141-142)
Since individualism is so central to the American political identity that Turner addresses, these distinctions are critical.

I find several aspects of the book particularly interesting. One is the remarkable level of detail and context that Hofstadter is able to provide for the positions and interpretive orientations of the three primary historians whom he discusses. This is a level of scholarship that seems remarkably deep by contemporary standards. Second, Hofstadter spends a good deal of effort towards making sense of each historian's career in terms of his social and geographical origins. The fact that each of these men were born in the "West" -- really the Midwest -- is an important part of their intellectual development and the ways in which their thought unfolded. Finally, Hofstadter takes each historian seriously but critically; he gives rigorous efforts to the work of tracing out the ways in which their views go wrong, as well as the valid insights that they express.

Another interesting aspect of Hofstadter's approach is the emphasis he gives to "modernity" as a theme for these early twentieth-century historians.
What was happening, in effect, was that a modern critical intelligentsia was emerging in the United States. Modernism, in thought as in art, was dawning upon the American mind. Beard's book on the Constitution fittingly appeared in the same year as the New York Armory show -- an event that was far more shocking to the world of art than Beard's book was to scholars....The rebels against formalism were trying to assert, above everything else, that all things are related, that all things change, and that all things should therefore be explained historically rather than deductively. And for the most part, they were concerned with knowledge as a rationale for social action, not for passivity. (185)
Of the three historians I find Hofstadter's discussion of Charles Beard the most interesting. Beard's approach to the framing and adoption of the Constitution is in terms very consistent with Marx's economic interpretation of politics and the state -- perhaps even more mechanistic than Marx himself, who leaves room for substantial nuance between interest and political ideas in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Beard traces the workings of financial interests on the positions of various of the Founding Fathers of the constitutional process, and gives the clear implication that interest prevails. Here again, the point is that interests and ideas cannot be fully separated. Hofstadter writes:
In 1913 Beard found nothing in the ideas of the Founding Fathers that made him feel as close to basic realities as the old Treasury Department records he had enterprising lay turned up. For all the amplitude and moral intensity of political thought in the Revolutionary era, he seems to have believed it's residue was not fundamentally important for the Constitution. (246-247)
The topic of scientific objectivity mentioned above comes up as well in Hofstadter's discussion of Beard's early struggles with this issue:
Historical science demanded that the historian, whatever his role as a citizen, should be a detached investigator, seeking the truth for truth's sake. Beard was rationalist enough to respond to this scientific note in Powell, and even in his Oxford days we can see in him an uncomfortable duality that was always to haunt him -- a duality between the aseptic ideal of scientific inquiry and his social passions. (179)
Beard's own passions were clear:
Beard had sworn in 1900 that he would never stop agitating "till the workers who bear upon their shoulders the burden of the world should realize the identity of their own interests and rise to take possession of the means of life". (179)
The book warrants close reading. This is another of the books published a half century ago that still have light to shed on our current predicaments in understanding our own unfolding history -- not antiquarian but very contemporary.

(Here is a good piece by David Greenberg from the Atlantic on Hofstadter's work (link).)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hofstadter on the American right


Richard Hofstadter opened his 1963 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford with these prescient words:
Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. (3)
This lecture became the title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Its emphasis on "uncommonly angry minds" is of obvious relevance to the politics of the right in the United States today. There is more that has a great resonance today:
But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.... His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. (4)
Hofstadter mentions the particular objects of paranoid wrath in the 1950s and 1960s: gun control, fluoridation of municipal water, and international Communist conspiracy. Most especially, the paranoid philosophy is nativist; it directs fear and hostility against "others" (in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, for example; 9). We can hear these same strands of thought to be expressed in current political bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, and transgendered people.

Hofstadter offers perspective on this strand of American political thought from an historian's point of view. He takes up the American campaign against Illuminism and Masonry in the early part of the nineteenth century as an example.
The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820's and 1830's took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first blush, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the earlier outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati--and, indeed, the works of writers like Robison and Barruel were often cited again as evidence of the sinister character of Masonry.  But whereas the panic of the 1790's was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultra-conservative argument, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States and was altogether congenial to popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. (14)
So what about the content of paranoid politics in the twentieth century?
If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country--that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the modern right wing. as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home. (23-24)
Hofstadter believed that mass media had a lot to do with the deepening influence of paranoid politics in the 1960s; it isn't difficult to argue that social media takes that influence to an even greater pitch in the current environment.

He closes the essay with yet another astute observation very relevant to contemporary right-wing rhetoric:
In American experience, ethnic and religious conflicts, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest--perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of their demands--cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power--and this through distorting lenses--and have little chance to observe its actual machinery. L. B. Namier once said that "the crowning attainment of historical study" is to achieve "an intuitive sense of how things do not happen." It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. (39-40)
This is brilliant diagnosis of the political psychology of reaction, very much in line with Fritz Stern's analysis of the politics of cultural despair in the context of Weimar Germany (link). What Hofstadter does not clearly distinguish here is the political psychology of followers and leaders.  But much about mass political mobilization turns on this point. Much of what seems to have transpired in the current political season is the artful orchestration of messages of fear, resentment, and antagonism along the lines of paranoid politics that Hofstadter describes. Antagonism and suspicion appear to be powerful motivators in a mass movement, and scapegoating of minority groups is a familiar and repugnant strategy. These messages have succeeded in motivating followers and voters in support of candidates espousing these messages. What is unclear is what political values actually motivate the candidates; and it is fair enough to speculate that there is a substantial degree of cynical manipulation at work in the message mills of the right in creating a movement around these hateful and suspicious themes.

These are important historical observations by Hofstadter, and they seem to shed a great deal of light on the political rhetoric and successes of the right in the United States over the past fifty years. They capture important insights into the mentality and rhetoric of the political passions that have animated a lot of political activity, both electoral and social, throughout the past half century. They point to the underpinnings of suspicion, hatred, and alienation which seem to drive the bus on the extreme right. And what was on the "extreme" right a decade ago has become mainstream conservatism today. It seems crucial for the future of our democracy to reawaken the political values of trust, mutual acceptance, and equality which are so fundamental to stable and sustainable civic peace within a mass democracy. Significantly, this was the core political message of Barack Obama in 2008.

(There is a thread here that I haven't mentioned but may also be illuminating -- Hofstadter's analysis of American political consciousness seems to shed some indirect light on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well. Hofstadter notes several times above that class conflict has not been a prominent theme in American politics. But perhaps part of the appeal of the Sanders candidacy is exactly his ability to speak about the one percent in ways that resonate with younger voters; and this is a class-based message. Wouldn't it be interesting if large numbers of young and poor voters in the United States became active in support of their longterm economic interests.)

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Predicting, forecasting, and superforecasting


I have expressed a lot of reservation about the feasibility of prediction of large, important outcomes in the social world (link, link, link). Here are a couple of observations drawn from these earlier posts:
We sometimes think that there is fundamental stability in the social world, or at least an orderly pattern of development to the large social changes that occur.... But really, our desire to perceive order in the things we experience often deceives us. The social world at any given time is a conjunction of an enormous number of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. So we shouldn't be surprised at the occurrence of crises, unexpected turns, and outbreaks of protest and rebellion. It is continuity rather than change that needs explanation. 
Social processes and causal sequences have a wide range of profiles. Some social processes -- for example, population size -- are continuous and roughly linear. These are the simplest processes to project into the future. Others, like the ebb and flow of popular names, spread of a disease, or mobilization over a social cause, are continuous but non-linear, with sharp turning points (tipping points, critical moments, exponential takeoff, hockey stick). And others, like the stock market, are discontinuous and stochastic, with lots of random events pushing prices up and down. (link)
One reason for the failure of large-scale predictions about social systems is the complexity of causal influences and interactions within the domain of social causation. We may be confident that X causes Z when it occurs in isolated circumstances. But it may be that when U, V, and W are present, the effect of X is unpredictable, because of the complex interactions and causal dynamics of these other influences. This is one of the central findings of complexity studies -- the unpredictability of the interactions of multiple causal powers whose effects are non-linear. 
Another difficulty -- or perhaps a different aspect of the same difficulty -- is the typical fact of path dependency of social processes. Outcomes are importantly influenced by the particulars of the initial conditions, so simply having a good idea of the forces and influences the system will experience over time does not tell us where it will wind up. 
Third, social processes are sensitive to occurrences that are singular and idiosyncratic and not themselves governed by systemic properties. If the winter of 1812 had not been exceptionally cold, perhaps Napoleon's march on Moscow might have succeeded, and the future political course of Europe might have been substantially different. But variations in the weather are not themselves systemically explicable -- or at least not within the parameters of the social sciences.
Fourth, social events and outcomes are influenced by the actions of purposive actors. So it is possible for a social group to undertake actions that avert the outcomes that are otherwise predicted. Take climate change and rising ocean levels as an example. We may be able to predict a substantial rise in ocean levels in the next fifty years, rendering existing coastal cities largely uninhabitable. But what should we predict as a consequence of this fact? Societies may pursue different strategies for evading the bad consequences of these climate changes -- retreat, massive water control projects, efforts at atmospheric engineering to reverse warming. And the social consequences of each of these strategies are widely different. So the acknowledged fact of global warming and rising ocean levels does not allow clear predictions about social development. (link)
When prediction and expectation fail, we are confronted with a "surprise".
So what is a surprise? It is an event that shouldn't have happened, given our best understanding of how things work. It is an event that deviates widely from our most informed expectations, given our best beliefs about the causal environment in which it takes place. A surprise is a deviation between our expectations about the world's behavior, and the events that actually take place. Many of our expectations are based on the idea of continuity: tomorrow will be pretty similar to today; a delta change in the background will create at most an epsilon change in the outcome. A surprise is a circumstance that appears to represent a discontinuity in a historical series. 
It would be a major surprise if the sun suddenly stopped shining, because we understand the physics of fusion that sustains the sun's energy production. It would be a major surprise to discover a population of animals in which acquired traits are passed across generations, given our understanding of the mechanisms of evolution. And it would be a major surprise if a presidential election were decided by a unanimous vote for one candidate, given our understanding of how the voting process works. The natural world doesn't present us with a large number of surprises; but history and social life are full of them. 
The occurrence of major surprises in history and social life is an important reminder that our understanding of the complex processes that are underway in the social world is radically incomplete and inexact. We cannot fully anticipate the behavior of the subsystems that we study -- financial systems, political regimes, ensembles of collective behavior -- and we especially cannot fully anticipate the interactions that arise when processes and systems intersect. Often we cannot even offer reliable approximations of what the effects are likely to be of a given intervention. This has a major implication: we need to be very modest in the predictions we make about the social world, and we need to be cautious about the efforts at social engineering that we engage in. The likelihood of unforeseen and uncalculated consequences is great.  
And in fact commentators are now raising exactly these concerns about the 700 billion dollar rescue plan currently being designed by the Bush administration to save the financial system. "Will it work?" is the headline; "What unforeseen consequences will it produce?" is the subtext; and "Who will benefit?" is the natural followup question. 
It is difficult to reconcile this caution about the limits of our rational expectations about the future based on social science knowledge, with the need for action and policy change in times of crisis. If we cannot rely on our expectations about what effects an intervention is likely to have, then we can't have confidence in the actions and policies that we choose. And yet we must act; if war is looming, if famine is breaking out, if the banking system is teetering, a government needs to adopt policies that are well designed to minimize the bad consequences. It is necessary to make decisions about action that are based on incomplete information and insufficient theory. So it is a major challenge for the theory of public policy, to attempt to incorporate the limits of knowledge about consequences into the design of a policy process. One approach that might be taken is the model of designing for "soft landings" -- designing strategies that are likely to do the least harm if they function differently than expected. Another is to emulate a strategy that safety engineers employ when designing complex, dangerous systems: to attempt to de-link the subsystems to the extent possible, in order to minimize the likelihood of unforeseeable interactions. (link)
One person who has persistently tried to answer the final question posed here -- the conundrum of forming expectations in an uncertain world as a necessary basis for action -- is Philip Tetlock. Tetlock's decades-long research on forecasting and judging is highly relevant to this topic. The recent book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction provides an excellent summary of the primary findings of the research that he and senior collaborators have done on the topic.

Tetlock does a very good job of tracing through the sources of uncertainty that make projections and forecasts of the future so difficult. The uncertainties mentioned above all find discussion in Superforecasting; and he supplements these objective sources of uncertainty with a volume of recent work on cognitive biases leading to over- or under-confidence in a set of expectations. (Both Daniel Kahneman and Scott Page find astute discussions in the book.)

But in spite of these reasons to be dubious about pronouncements about future events, Tetlock finds that there are good theoretical and empirical reasons for believing that a modest amount of forecasting of complex events is nonetheless possible. He takes very seriously the probabilistic nature of social and economic events, so a forecast that "North Korea will perform a nuclear test within six months" must be understood as a probabilistic statement about the world (there is a specific likelihood of such a test in the world); and a Bayesian statement about the forecaster's degree of confidence in the prediction. And good forecasters aim to be specific about both probabilities: for example, "I have a 75% level of confidence that there is a 55% likelihood of a North Korean nuclear test by date X".

Moreover, Tetlock argues that it is possible to evaluate individual forecasters on the basis of their performance on specific tasks of forecasting and observation of the outcome. Tetlock would like to see the field of forecasting to follow medicine in the direction of an evidence-based discipline in which practices and practitioners are constantly assessed and permitted to improve their performance. (As he points out, it is not difficult to assess the weatherman on his or her probabilistic forecasts of rain or sun.) The challenge for evaluation is to set clear standards of specificity of the terms of a forecast, and then to be able to test the forecasts against the observed outcomes once the time has expired. This is the basis for the multiple-year tournaments that the Good Judgment Project has conducted over several decades. The idea of a Brier score serves as a way of measuring the accuracy of a set of probabilistic statements (link). Here is an explanation of "Brier scores" in the context of the Good Judgment Project (link); "standardized Brier scores are calculated so that higher scores denote lower accuracy, and the mean score across all forecasters is zero". As the graph demonstrates, there is a wide difference between the best and the worst forecasters, given their performance over 100 forecasts.


So how is forecasting possible, given all the objective and cognitive barriers that stand in the way? Tetlock's view is that many problems about the future can be broken down into component problems, some of which have more straightforward evidential bases. So instead of asking whether North Korea will test another nuclear device by November 1, 2016, the forecaster may ask a group of somewhat easier questions: how frequent have their tests been in the past? Do they have the capability to do so? Would China's opposition to further tests be decisive?

Tetlock argues that the best forecasters do several things: they avoid getting committed to a single point of view; they consider conflicting evidence freely; they break a problem down into components that would need to be satisfied for the outcome to occur; and they revise their forecasts when new information is available. They are foxes rather than hedgehogs. He doubts that superforecasters are distinguished by being of uniquely superior intelligence or world-class subject experts; instead, they are methodical analysts who gather data and estimates about various components of a problem and assemble their findings into a combined probability estimate.

The author follows his own advice by taking conflicting views seriously. He presents both Daniel Kahneman and Nassim Taleb as experts who have made significant arguments against the program of research involved in the Good Judgment Project. Kahneman consistently raises questions about the forms of reasoning and cognitive processes that are assumed by the GJP. More fundamentally, Taleb raises questions about the project itself. Taleb argues in several books that fundamentally unexpected events are key to historical change; and therefore the incremental forms of forecasting described in the GJP are incapable in principle of keeping up with change (The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" (Incerto) as well as the more recent Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder). These are arguments that resonate with the view of change presented in earlier posts and quoted above, and I have some sympathy for the view. But Tetlock does a good job of establishing that the situation is not nearly so polarized as Taleb asserts. Many "black swan" events (like the 9/11 attacks) can be treated in a more disaggregated way and are amenable to a degree of forecasting along the lines advocated in the book. So it is a question of degree, whether we think that the in-principle unpredictability of major events is more important or the incremental accumulation of many small causes is a preponderance of historical change. Processes that look like the latter pattern are amenable to piecemeal probabilistic forecasting.

Tetlock is not a fan of pundits, for some very good reasons. Most importantly, he argues that the great majority of commentators and prognosticators in the media and cable news are long on self-assurance and short on specificity and accountability. Tetlock argues several important points: first, that it is possible to form reasonable and grounded judgments about future economic, political, and international events; second, that it is crucial to subject this practice to evidence-based assessment; and third, that it is possible to identify the most important styles, heuristics, and analytical approaches that are used by the best forecasters (superforecasters).

(Here is a good article in the New Yorker on Tetlock's approach; link.)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Samuel Dill on the late Roman Empire


An anonymous reader responds to my short discussion of Patrick Geary's treatment of the late Roman Empire to recommend Samuel Dill's treatment of this process 100 years ago in Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire and Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, books written in 1898 and 1926 respectively. In the anonymous reader's opinion, many of Geary's insights are already there in Dill's books.

Surprisingly enough, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire is available in digital editions; so it is easy enough to consult it. (I can't locate a digital copy of the Merovingian Age book.) How sophisticated was the understanding of the late Roman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? Does a book of history written over a century ago have the potential for giving us new insights into its subject matter? Or are we always better off turning to the most recent scholarship when it comes to history and historical social science?

The thrust of Dill's Last Century is quite different from Geary's approach one hundred years later (not surprisingly). Dill's approach is more categorical about the abruptness and distinctness of the changes that took place during the century under treatment. His evidence is drawn largely from classical historians, whereas Geary's approach takes advantage of the most recent archaeological evidence. Much of this method and style is expressed in the preface to the first edition:
The limits of the period covered by this study of Roman society have not been arbitrarily chosen. The last hundred years of the Western Empire seem marked off both by momentous events, and, for the student of society, by the authorities at his command. The commencement of the period coincides roughly with the passage of the Gothic hordes across the Danube, the accession of Gratian and Theodosius, the termination of the long truce between paganism and the Christian Empire, and the reopening of the conflict which, within twenty years, ended in the final prohibition of heathen rites. It closes not only with the deposition of the last shadowy Emperor of the West, but with the practical extinction of Roman power in the great prefecture of the Gauls. Perhaps even more obvious are the lines drawn by the fullest authorities for our subject. The earliest extant letters of Symmachus, which describe the relations of the last generation of great pagan nobles, belong to the years 376-390. The literary and political activity of Ausonius coincides with the same years, and from his poems we derive an invaluable picture of a provincial society in the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius. A searching light is thrown on the same generation by some of St. Jerome's letters, by the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and by many Inscriptions. At the other end of our period we are almost equally fortunate in our information. The works of Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne are a priceless revelation of the state of society, both in Rome and in Gaul, from the accession of Avitus till the final triumph of the Visigothic power.
As historiography, in other words, Dill's scholarship suffers from the "great men, great dates" problem of nineteenth century historians more generally. His book is very much about the individuals who made this history -- at the top -- and the chronology of their actions and effects. This impression is born out by the extensive table of emperors, kings, and dates that Dill includes in the opening matter of the book:

A related observation is the cultural and normative commitments that are exposed by the narrative. The work is deeply etched by its normative attitude towards Christianity:
In spite of the moral force which ensured the future to the Christian faith, its final triumph was long delayed. Religious conservatism is, of all forms of attachment to the past, probably the most difficult to overcome. It has its seat in the deepest and most powerful instincts of human nature, which, when they have once twined themselves around a sacred symbol of devotion, are only torn away after a long struggle. (3)
This passage illustrates the moral entwinement of Christianity into the historian's apperception of the period; it also reveals a kind of teleological thinking about history that would no longer find support among academic historians. Dill denounces "heathenism" and paganism repeatedly.
In the final stand which paganism made against imperial edicts and the polemic of the Church, many different forces were arrayed. Sensuality and gross superstition in the degraded masses clung to the rites of magic and divination, to the excitement of the circus, and the obscenities of the theatre. (70)
Few inquiries should be more interesting than the attempt to form a conception of the inner tone and life of society in Western Europe on the eve of its collapse. Was society as corrupt and effete as it has been represented? Were its vices, as Salvianus insisted, the cause of the triumph of the barbarians? (115)
But Dill also finds an underlying current of monotheism pushing its way through the thought of the ancient world: "More than five centuries before Christ, Greek speculation had lifted men's minds to the conception of a mysterious Unity behind the phantasmagoria of sense" (8). This seems to illustrate the teleological bent of Dill's thinking.

Dill is centrally preoccupied with the moral and intellectual character of the period about which he writes. He wants to know about the morals, the spirituality, the religious piety, and the poetry of the prominent people who made up Western Europe during these centuries; and he wants to view these characteristics as having crucial causal force in the direction of change that occurred. Here is how he begins a chapter late in the book ("Relations of Romans with the invaders"):
In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to collect the views and feelings of persons, representing various localities and differences of circumstance and character, about the condition and future of the Empire in the face of its assailants. (347)
And earlier he emphasizes the moral decline of Roman civilization:
A careful study of the Code will correct many a popular and antiquated misconception of that great event. It will reveal the fact that, long before the invasions of the reign of Honorius, the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion. The municipal system, once the great glory of Roman organising power, had in the fourth century fallen almost into ruin. The governing class of the municipalities, called curiales, on whom the burdens of the Empire had been accumulated, were diminishing in number, and in the ability to bear an ever -increasing load of obligations. (245)
Further, unlike contemporary approaches to history that emphasize obscure social actors, Dill explicitly excludes the plebeian class from his treatment.
Of the three great classes into which Roman society was divided, the plebeian class, composed of traders, free artisans, etc., who possessed no property in land, may, for our present purpose, be left out of consideration. The other two classes must, from their ownership of the land, and from their relations to one another and to the treasury, engage our sole attention. Of the tone and character of the highest order in the social hierarchy we have attempted to give some account in a previous chapter. They have left us literary materials which enable us to form a tolerably clear idea of their spirit and manner of life; but they seldom speak of their material fortunes or of the classes beneath them, and on these subjects our information must be drawn chiefly from the Code. (248)
So social history, and careful documentation of the role of ordinary people in the events of the time period, plays virtually no role in Dill's approach. By contrast, Geary and other contemporary historians of the ancient world pay substantial attention to the material constitutes of governance, migration, taxation, agriculture, and war -- topics which Dill mostly ignores.

Finally, the evidence that constitutes the foundation of Dill's research is entirely textual and literary. Unlike Geary, who gives substantial weight to archeological evidence, but also unlike Theodor Mommsen, who in mid-nineteenth century made innovative use of inscriptions and steles and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902 for his historical writing (The History of Rome Vol. 1-5), Dill's account is almost exclusively literary. Dill tells a story, and it is an interesting story; but it has very little of the efforts towards uncovering underlying social structures and realities that are defining features of much contemporary historiography.

So it is hard to see that reading Dill today would enlighten us much about the causes and dynamics of change in the late Roman Empire. The history is antiquarian and personalist, it proceeds with a background commitment to the moral superiority of Christianity, and it provides no insight into the kinds of material and structural factors that are of primary interest today. Reading Mommsen sounds like a much better investment.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Large structures and social change


The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx. Here is one way that Marx puts the idea in The Poverty of Philosophy:
M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (chapter 2)
The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers. Consider the view offered by Maurice Dobb in 1946 in Studies In The Development Of Capitalism. Dobb offers an account that corresponds closely to the classical Marxian interpretation offered in Capital: the emergence of the great classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), primitive accumulation, the dynamics of industrial revolution in England, and the inexorable logic of capital accumulation. Dobb offers a very classical definition of capitalism:
Thus Capitalism was not simply a system of production for the market -- a system of commodity-production as Marx termed it -- but a system under which labour-power had "itself become a commodity" and was bought and sold on the market like any other object of exchange. Its historical prerequisite was the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor sector of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labour-power was their only source of livelihood. (7)
Dobb doesn't much care for the notion that there are "many capitalisms" -- many pathways and many institutional variants of market, profit-based economies:
In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general categories which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs. (1)
One thing that is striking about Dobb's book is how "first-generation" the field of economic history is that he consults. So much has been established about European and Eurasian economic history since 1946 that it is unsurprising that Dobb's reconstruction feels a bit monochromatic. New thinking about Europe's population history has emerged (link, link); new ideas about Asian and Chinese economic history have been developed (link, link, link); and a very substantial literature comparing European and Asian economic history has emerged (link, link). So the fairly straight lines that Dobb extends from property relations to technology to capitalist manufacture have a somewhat caricaturist feeling to them. What was schematic and mono-causal in Marx's hands is now substantially more complex and multi-causal in contemporary world economic history.

More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu's How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a "Eurocentric" approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. Here is their description of Eurocentrism:
So what exactly is Eurocentrism? At its core, it represents a distinctive mode of inquiry constituted by three interrelated assumptions about the form and nature of modern development. First, it conceives of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe. Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, Eurocentrism locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socioculturally coherent geographical confines of Europe. Thus we find in cultural history that the flowering of the Renaissance was a solely intra-European phenomenon. Analyses of absolutism and the origins of the modern state form are similarly conducted entirely on the terrain of Europe, with non-European cases appearing (if at all) comparatively. Dominant accounts of the rise of capitalism as either an economic form or a social system similarly place its origins squarely in Western Europe, while non-Europe is relegated to an exploited and passive periphery. (4)
The second feature they identify as crucial to Eurocentrism is the idea that "Europe is conceived as the permanent 'core' and 'prime mover' of history" (5), and the third is the idea that "the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass" (5).

Their globalism and internationalism derives from their rejection of each of these premises. The development of capitalism is not "internal" to Europe, but instead was influenced by forces and influences from many parts of the world. The "core" of capitalist development is not Britain or Europe. And there is nothing universal about the sequence of developments that led from "feudalism" to "capitalism" (a point Marx himself insisted upon in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich (link)).
How the West Came to Rule challenges these assumptions by examining the ‘extra-European’ geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée. (5)
They are open to the idea that there are multiple "capitalisms" rather than a single essence (8); but they argue that there is nonetheless such a thing as capitalism:
We argue that there is a certain unity to its functioning that renders necessary the study of the capitalist mode of production as an intelligible (albeit contradictory) object of analysis. (8)
The core they identify has to do with the "ways in which multiple relations of domination, subordination and exploitation intersect with and reproduce each other".
From this perspective we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation. (8-9)
Anievas and Nişancıoğlu describe their book as historical sociology; they are interested in the domestic and international factors that led to the emergence of global capitalism.  Their book is really about the transition from feudalism to capitalism rather than an account of the core features of the medieval social economy itself. They look at feudalism through the lens of its role in the formation of capitalism -- perhaps not the best way of positioning oneself to recognize the distinctive and historically particular characteristics of the medieval social and economic order.

Robert Brenner's treatment of the emergence of English capitalism is particularly instructive (link). (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer considerable criticism of Brenner's approach.) In two important articles in the 1970s and 1980s Brenner casts doubt on the classic Marxian derivation of capitalism from feudalism; he argued that it was precisely differences in feudal regimes that accounted for the different trajectories taken by English and French capitalism. Ironically, the social power held by French peasants impeded the emergence of managerial farming, which was itself an important step on the way to industrial revolution. As a consequence the proletarianization of English peasants proceeded much more rapidly than French society.

There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We've gotten past the "agent-structure" debate; but perhaps we still have the "large factor, small factor" debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Origins of feudalism in the West




In the grand historical march postulated by historical materialism, ancient slavery and medieval feudalism preceded capitalism as distinct systems of domination and exploitation (e.g. Perry Anderson's Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism). In each social order small elites captured great wealth from the mass of producers, whether enslaved farmers and artisans in the ancient (Roman) world or bonded serfs in the feudal world. And whether we go for "internal contradictions within the forces and relations of production" or other more contingent causes of change, the evolution of European social and economic systems from the Roman Republic through the millennium of Western European feudalism to the "breakthrough" of industrialism in Britain is one of the truly important macro-histories available for study. (China's economic history from its earliest dynasties to the last moments of the Qing is another, and India's longue durée economic history is equally important.)

But how should this story be understood -- as the necessary unfolding of some set of systemic and historical imperatives, or as a process substantially more contingent and piecemeal than that?

Patrick Geary's Before France and Germany: The Creation and Transformation of the Merovingian World is a fascinating study of the centuries-long transition from Romanized barbarian Europe to barbarian Roman society. The book is couched as late Roman history, and in fact the words "feudal" and "feudalism" never appear in the book. But what Geary is describing is precisely this: the emergence of a feudal society and economy out of the late Roman Empire in the West.

A big question is, what social forces and circumstances drove the evolution and transition from one social assemblage to another? The reader will note that I've refrained from using the terms "social system," "social order," or "mode of production" in this question because each of these implies a degree of systematicity which begs the question. And in fact much of the evidence offered in Geary's book gives support to the idea that these transitions were not driven by systemic tendencies, but rather the accretion of a number of different forces, playing out differently in different locales. Technical and artisanal practices (pottery, glass, metal-working), economic demand for agricultural products, concentration of land property, military competition, the rigors of European terrain, and many other factors play into the narrative that Geary provides.

During the second through fourth centuries there was a process of gradual "de-Romanization" of the outer reaches of the Roman Empire, as Roman political institutions and cultural norms lost impact on local society. Geary describes this as a process of "barbarization of the West" -- a resurgence of underlying Celtic and Germanic political and cultural forms that had never disappeared through the long centuries of Roman rule.
From the third through fifth centuries these indigenous traditions increasingly reasserted themselves as the Italian monopoly on politics and culture began to decline. (kl 205)
Barbarization was but part of the rapid changes in Roman society, culture, and government that took place during the third and fourth centuries. Partially spurred by such internal problems as plague, a falling birthrate, constitutional instability, and the failure of the Roman world to develop from a labor-intensive system based largely on slavery to a more efficient mercantile or protoindustrial system, and partially by the increased creased external pressures on its overextended frontiers, the Empire had to seek a new equilibrium. (kl 205)
The thirty-thousand-foot impression that Geary gives is one of the simultaneous development of "barbarian" societies, military alliances, and forms of rulership across much of the Western empire even as Roman rule and military strength continued. Vast land grants assigned by the Romans to local elites, clergy, and military leaders ensured great separation between elites and common farmers. A social world consisting of a combination of interpenetrated Roman and barbarian social arrangements persisted for centuries.

A key location from the point of view of later developments was the fifth- and sixth-century Clovis kingdom in what is modern Belgium (kl 1126). This configuration became the genesis of the Merovingian period of European history.
The population of Clovis's kingdom was complex and heterogeneous in its social, cultural, and economic traditions. Not only were the Franks and Gallo-Romans different from each other culturally, but neither of these populations was itself homogeneous.... This society was deeply rooted in the nature of its economic system, which was characterized by the monopoly of landowning in the hands of a small, extraordinarily wealthy elite, with the vast majority of the population, slave and free alike, destitute and often in desperate straits. (kl 1188)
Key institutional arrangements that defined feudalism centuries later can be identified in Geary's account of the late Roman period. A Roman origin of serfdom derives from the taxation system and the powerlessness of peasants:
In the course of the third century, the status of free tenant farmers, or coloni, grew increasingly indistinguishable from that of serru, or serf-slaves.... Such an arrangement benefited landlords, who were thereby assured labor supplies, and the Empire, which could use landlords to enforce tax collection.... Another way for oppressed freemen to obtain tax relief was to place themselves under the protection (patrociniuni) of wealthy, powerful senators or other notables who, through their military power or wealth, could exert more leverage in dealing with local curials and even imperial tax agents. (kl 482, 495)
And the key feudal institution, the manor, seems to have emerged from a much earlier Roman form of land control in Gaul, the villa:
The normal form of agricultural exploitation established by Romans in Gaul, as elsewhere in the Empire, was the villa, that is, the isolated estate of varying size (80 to 180 square meters for small ones to over 300 square meters for large ones). Within the walls of the villa were found the house of the owner and the habitations of his slaves, who provided the labor on the estate. (kl 1333)
Here is Geary's summing up of this early stage of the formation of European feudalism:
Merovingian civilization lived and died within the framework of late antiquity. Its characteristic political structure remained the kingdom of the imperial German military commander who, by absorbing the mechanism of provincial Roman administration, was able to establish his royal family as the legitimate rulers of the western provinces north of the Pyrenees and the Alps. His rule consisted primarily of rendering justice, that is, of enforcing Roman law and Romanized barbarian law where possible or appropriate within the tradition of his people, and of commanding ing the Frankish army. The economic basis for his power was on the one hand the vast Roman fist and on the other the continuing mechanism of Roman taxation. (kl 2739)
The feature that serves most directly to define "infeudation" emerges out of this narrative as well: the parcelization of military power and reach across commanders whose behavior could not be controlled by the central authority.

These observations make clear the central thrust of the book: there was substantial continuity between the institutions and economy of the late Roman Empire in the West and the political and economic institutions of European feudalism which followed it for a thousand years. This continuity is unwelcome to the "modes of production" train of thought, which postulates a sharp break between classical and feudal systems. But Geary points out that perhaps it is unwelcome as well to modern ideas about European identity:
An essential characteristic of Francia was the fluidity of the political and cultural identities of its inhabitants. To many modern French, who identify with the Roman cultural tradition as opposed to Germanic conquest and occupation, the Gallo-Roman Roman aristocracy of the Merovingian period were a disappointing lot. Gallo-Romans were ready to defend their Roman cultural tradition even while opposing any attempt by Roman imperial government to interfere with their local control. (kl 2750)
(It is possibly far-fetched to raise the issue of Roman-centrism against Geary with his use of the terms "barbarian" and "barbarization", but the terms do appear to be value-loaded in a way that post-colonial scholars have criticized in other contexts of cross-cultural description. Geary confronts this issue when he describes the pernicious and lingering effects of classical ethnography concerning the German barbarians (kl 539).)