Thursday, June 23, 2016

Errors in organizations


Organizations do things -- process tax returns, deploy armies, send spacecraft to Mars. And in order to do these various things, organizations have people with job descriptions; organization charts; internal rules and procedures; information flows and pathways; leaders, supervisors, and frontline staff; training and professional development programs; and other particular characteristics that make up the decision-making and action implementation of the organization. These individuals and sub-units take on tasks, communicate with each other, and give rise to action steps.

And often enough organizations make mistakes -- sometimes small mistakes (a tax return is sent to the wrong person, a hospital patient is administered two aspirins rather than one) and sometimes large mistakes (the space shuttle Challenger is cleared for launch on January 28, 1986, a Union Carbide plant accidentally releases toxic gases over a large population in Bhopal, FEMA bungles its response to Hurricane Katrina). What can we say about the causes of organizational mistakes? And how can organizations and their processes be improved so mistakes are less common and less harmful?

Charles Perrow has devoted much of his career to studying these questions. Two books in particular have shed a great deal of light on the organizational causes of industrial and technological accidents, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. (Perrow's work has been discussed in several earlier posts; linklinklink.) The first book emphasizes that errors and accidents are unavoidable; they are the random noise of the workings of a complex organization. So the key challenge is to have processes that detect errors and that are resilient to the ones that make it through. One of Perrow's central findings in The Next Catastrophe is the importance of achieving a higher level of system resilience by decentralizing risk and potential damage. Don't route tanker cars of chlorine through dense urban populations; don't place nuclear power plants adjacent to cities; don't create an Internet or a power grid with a very small number of critical nodes. Kathleen Tierney's The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience (High Reliability and Crisis Management) emphasizes the need for system resilience as well (link).

Is it possible to arrive at a more granular understanding of organizational errors and their sources? A good place to begin is with the theory of organizations as "strategic action fields" in the sense advocated by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. This approach imposes an important discipline on us -- it discourages the mental mistake of reification when we think about organizations. Organizations are not unitary decision and action bodies; instead, they are networks of people linked in a variety of forms of dependency and cooperation. Various sub-entities consider tasks, gather information, and arrive at decisions for action, and each of these steps is vulnerable to errors and shortfalls. The activities of individuals and sub-groups are stimulated and conveyed through these networks of association; and, like any network of control or communication, there is always the possibility of a broken link or a faulty action step within the extended set of relationships that exist.

Errors can derive from individual mistakes; they can derive from miscommunication across individuals and sub-units within the organization; they can derive from more intentional sources, including self-interested or corrupt behavior on the part of internal participants. And they can derive from conflicts of interest between units within an organization (the manufacturing unit has an interest in maximizing throughput, the quality control unit has an interest in minimizing faulty products).

Errors are likely in every part of an organization's life. Errors occur in the data-gathering and analysis functions of an organization. A sloppy market study is incorporated into a planning process leading to a substantial over-estimate of demand for a product; a survey of suppliers makes use of ambiguous questions that lead to misinterpretation of the results; a vice president under-estimates the risk posed by a competitor's advertising campaign. For an organization to pursue its mission effectively, it needs to have accurate information about the external circumstances that are most relevant to its goals. But "relevance" is a judgment issue; and it is possible for an organization to devote its intelligence-gathering resources to the collection of data that are only tangentially helpful for the task of designing actions to carry out the mission of the institution.

Errors occur in implementation as well. The action initiatives that emerge from an organization's processes -- from committees, from CEOs, from intermediate-level leaders, from informal groups of staff -- are also vulnerable to errors of implementation. The facilities team formulates a plan for re-surfacing a group of parking lots; this plan depends upon closing these lots several days in advance; but the safety department delays in implementing the closure and the lots have hundreds of cars in them when the resurfacing equipment arrives. An error of implementation.

One way of describing these kinds of errors is to recognize that organizations are "loosely connected" when it comes to internal processes of information gathering, decision making, and action. The CFO stipulates that the internal audit function should be based on best practices nationally; the chief of internal audit interprets this as an expectation that processes should be designed based on the example of top-tier companies in the same industry; and the subordinate operationalizes this expectation by doing a survey of business-school case studies of internal audit functions at 10 companies. But the data collection that occurs now has only a loose relationship to the higher-level expectation formulated by the CFO. Similar disconnects -- or loose connections -- occur on the side of implementation of action steps as well. Presumably top FEMA officials did not intend that FEMA's actions in response to Hurricane Katrina would be as ineffective and sporadic as they turned out to be.

Organizations also have a tendency towards acting on the basis of collective habits and traditions of behavior. It is easier for a university's admissions department to continue the same programs of recruitment and enrollment year after year than it is to rethink the approach to recruitment in a fundamental way. And yet it may be that the circumstances of the external environment have changed so dramatically that the habitual practices will no longer achieve similar results. A good example is the emergence of social media marketing in admissions; in a very short period of time the 17- and 18-year-old young people whom admissions departments want to influence went from willing recipients of glossy admissions publications in the mail to "Facebook-only" readers. Yesterday's correct solution to an organizational problem may become tomorrow's serious error, because the environment has changed.

In a way the problem of organizational errors is analogous to the problem of software bugs in large, complex computer systems. It is recognized by software experts that bugs are inevitable; and some of these coding errors or design errors may have catastrophic consequences in unusual settings. (Nancy Leveson's Safeware: System Safety and Computers provides an excellent review of these possibilities.) So the task for software engineers and organizational designers and leaders is similar: designing fallible systems that do a pretty good job almost all of the time, and are likely to fail gracefully when errors inevitably occur.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Capitalism 2.0?


Capitalism is one particular configuration of the economic institutions that define production and consumption in a society. It involves private ownership of firms and resources, and a system of wage labor through which individuals compete for jobs within the context of a labor market. In its nature it creates positions of substantial power for owners of capital, and generally little power for owners of labor power -- workers. In theory capitalism can be joined with both democratic and authoritarian systems of government -- for example, France (democratic) and Argentina 1970 (military dictatorship). (Here is an earlier post on alternative capitalisms; link.)

As Marx himself noted, capitalism brought a number of powerful and emancipatory changes into the world. But it is plain that there are substantial deficiencies in our contemporary political economy, from the point of view of the great majority of society. For example:
  • Rising inequalities of income and wealth
  • Disproportionate power of corporations in political and economic life
  • Persistence of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination 
  • Slow rates of social mobility
  • Pervasive inequalities of opportunity
  • Overwhelming influence of money in electoral politics
  • Inability to address the causes of climate change
  • Inability of the state to effectively regulate products and processes to ensure health and safety
  • Manipulation of culture and values for the sake of profit
What kinds of institutional changes might we imagine for our current political economy that do a better job of satisfying the demands of justice and human wellbeing?

A number of philosophers, political scientists, and economists have addressed the question of how to envision a more just form of capitalism. Kathleen Thelen considers the prospects for an "egalitarian capitalism" (Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidaritylink); Jon Elster had an important contribution to make on the question of alternatives to capitalism (Alternatives to Capitalism; link); and John Rawls put forward a view of a preferable alternative to capitalism, which he referred to as a property-owning democracy (O'Neill and Williamson, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond; link).

So what might capitalism 2.0 look like if we want a genuinely fair and progressive society in the 21st century? Several features seem clear.
  • Something like decentralized markets in labor and capital seem unavoidable in a large modern society. So the 21st-century economy will be a market economy.
  • Rawls is right that extreme inequalities of property ownership lead to unacceptable inequalities of political participation and human capability fulfillment. So the 21st century will need to find effective ways of distributing wealth and income more broadly.
  • Market mechanisms generally leave some disadvantaged sub-populations behind. A key goal of the 21st century state must be to find effective ways of improving the prerequisites of opportunity for disadvantaged groups. This means that a substantial equality of availability and access to education, nutrition, housing, and other components of quality of life need to be secured by the state.
  • Existing market institutions do not automatically guarantee fair equality of opportunity. So the political economy of capitalism 2.0 will need to use public resources and authority to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens.
What kinds of political and economic institutions would serve to advance these social goals?

One approach that is gaining international attention is the idea of a universal basic income for all citizens. Belgian philosopher Philippe van Parijs makes a powerful case for the need for universal basic income (link) in the world economy we now face. Here is his definition in the Boston Review article:
By universal basic income I mean an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not. In most versions–certainly in mine–it is granted not only to citizens, but to all permanent residents. 
The UBI is called "basic" because it is something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest. Any other income–whether in cash or in kind, from work or savings, from the market or the state–can lawfully be added to it. On the other hand, nothing in the definition of UBI, as it is here understood, connects it to some notion of "basic needs." A UBI, as defined, can fall short of or exceed what is regarded as necessary to a decent existence. (link)
Swiss voters defeated such a proposal for Switzerland this spring (link), but serious debates continue. 

Another approach results from politically effective demands for real equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity requires high-quality public education for everyone. So capitalism 2.0 needs to embody educational institutions that are substantially better and more egalitarian than those we now have -- ranging from pre-school to K-12 to universities. Consider this fascinating county-level map of the United States combining per capita income, high school graduate rate, and college graduate rate (link):



The map makes clear the strong association between county income and educational attainment, which implies in turn that children born into the wrong zip code have substantially lower likelihood of attaining high-quality educational success. A more just society would show little variation with respect to educational attainment, even when it also shows substantial variation in per-capita incomes across counties. Achieving comparable levels of educational attainment across rich and poor counties requires a substantial public investment in schools, teachers, and educational resources.

Another determinant of equality of opportunity is universal access to quality healthcare. Poor health affects both current quality of life and future productivity; so when poor people are in circumstances in which they cannot afford or gain access to high-quality healthcare, their current and future life prospects are at risk.

All of these ideas about a more just capitalism require resources; and those resources can only come from public finance, or taxation. The wealth of a society is a joint product which the market allocates privately. Taxation is the mechanism through which the benefits of social cooperation extend more fully to all members of society. It is through taxation that a capitalist society has the potential for creating an environment with high levels of equality of opportunity for its citizens and high levels of quality of life for its population. The resulting political economy promises to be the foundation of a more equitable and productive society. (Here is a post on the moral basis for the extensive democratic state; link.)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Making change happen


There are many large social ills that we would collectively like to change. We would like to see an end to debilitating poverty; we would like to end the systematic disparities by race that exist in our society, in health, education, or income; we would like to see gun violence rates drop to levels found in other advanced countries; we would like to see a dramatic reduction in the smoking rate among young people. And we would like to see crucial public institutions like public schools function at a superlative level. How feasible is it to deliberately bring about change in these kinds of social realities? In particular, how much real leverage do change agents like mayors, governors, presidents, or corporate or foundation leaders have in bringing about these kinds of social progress? How about community activists and community-based organizations?

There are a few considerations that make it clear that reforms leading to large social change in a short time will be very difficult. The example of the War on Poverty discussed in the prior post is instructive (link). On the one hand this case demonstrates that determined political leadership can succeed in focusing large amounts of resources in deliberate policy packages aimed at solving big problems. On the other hand detailed review of the WoP shows that there are very hard questions about causation and policy effectiveness that are still hard to answer (Bailey and Danzinger, Legacies of the War on Poverty).

One reason for the difficulty of large interventions is that these social problems are "wicked problems" with densely interconnected sets of causes (link). John Kolko defines a wicked problem in these terms:
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. (link)
The interconnected nature of these difficult social problems means that attacking one component of causes may inadvertently worsen another source of causation, making the original problem worse. This is one of the discoveries that emerged from the effort to invoke systems engineering and the expertise of the aerospace industry to address urban problems in the 1960s (Hughes and Hughes, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After).

Another source of difficulty in addressing large system social problems is the question of scale of the resources that any actor can bring to bear on a large social problem. Private organizations have limited resources, and governments are increasingly constrained in their use of public resources by anti-tax activism. Cities are chronically caught in fiscal crises that make long-term investments difficult or impossible. And Federal funding since the Reagan revolution has been subject to intense opposition by the right. Finally, it is almost always true that a given strategy of change produces winners and losers, and groups that stand to lose something of value through the exercise of a strategy have many means of resisting change -- through lobbying, through strategic use of the legal system, or through exit. It is often difficult to build a sustainable consensus of political support for a large strategy of transformation or to overcome self-interested opposition.

That said, change sometimes occurs, and it sometimes occurs as a result of determined and intelligent strategic work by one or more agents of change. Recent examples in Michigan include the "Grand Bargain" that resolved the Detroit bankruptcy; the substantial progress achieved by a new Detroit mayor on delivering city services; substantial economic recovery in the state of Michigan since the 2007 recession; and the success of the Affordable Care Act in bringing health coverage to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans (including about 600,000 in Michigan alone).

So it is possible for important social change to occur through deliberate political and policy action. But notice the limits of each of the examples cited here. Each involves taking a fairly simple policy step and maintaining political support for carrying out that policy. Too many uninsured people? Design a way of expanding an existing program to make health insurance more available to poor and middle-income individuals and families. The politics were horrendously difficult for President Obama, but the mechanics were clear. Need to save pensions and a world-class art collection from the  Detroit bankruptcy process? Do some fundraising on a very large scale to allow an acceptable resolution of the bankruptcy process that preserves these two core things. Again, the task of maintaining the coalition was enormously difficult, but the mechanics of the strategy were not very different from other kinds of fundraising efforts in support of collective goods.

Let's think about the problem from another angle. What needs to happen in order for large social change to occur? Here are a couple of categories of change: change of law and policy; change of widespread social values; change of widespread patterns of behavior and disposition (smoking, racism, education); change of distribution of outcomes across a diverse population (health, income, residence). These examples fall in a couple of large types: setting legal and bureaucratic structures (Civil Rights Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development), influencing behavior, and changing values and attitudes.

What are the levers of change for these different kinds of social reality? Consider first structures. Law, policy, and taxation are the result of political and legislative competition. So legislative agendas by politicians and advocacy by interest groups and lobbyists are the main variables in determining the success or failure of a given initiative. The War on Poverty is a good example; the Johnson administration sought to create a number of large funding programs affecting housing, education, and employment, and it succeeded in part in many of these initiatives because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. (Though recall the frustration expressed by President Johnson at Congressional underfunding of many of these initiatives, expressed in his message to Congress on cities; link.)

Governments can address problems like these from two broad avenues: anti-discrimination law and policy initiatives aimed at addressing the obstacles that stand in the way of economic opportunity. Civil rights legislation supporting voting rights and legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination represent the first lever. Using federal funds to improve urban transportation and housing illustrates the latter.

Using the power of the state to raise revenues for initiatives like these through taxation is crucial. The War on Poverty was not chiefly an effort at persuasion; it was a determined political effort to direct Federal resources at enormously important national problems.

Policy change is hard. But achieving behavioral, attitudinal, and cultural change is even harder, it would appear. There is a lot of uncertainty about the causal mechanisms that might drive culture and behavioral change on a large scale. Further, there is often deep conflict about the content of culture change: what is a favorable attitude change for one group is anathema for another. Both considerations point in the direction of privileging non-governmental organization and community-based organization strategies over governmental strategies. Government and law must pay attention to behavior, not attitudes. So the burden of striving to change attitudes and values seems to belong to private initiatives within civil society. So the non-profit Michigan-based social service organization ACCESS can create and promote the "Take on Hate" program for young people as a way of addressing anti/Muslim bigotry, whereas the Department of Education probably couldn't. The national movement aimed at changing the public's attitudes towards same-sex marriage is a good example of a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations and groups successfully bringing about substantial change in public attitudes over a relatively short time.

In order to achieve lasting solutions to major social problems, it seems that all the avenues mentioned here will be needed: legislative action providing for real equality of opportunity and access for poor people to society's positions and advantages; public investment in factors like improved transportation, education, internet access, and green spaces; and private and collaborative efforts at generating public support for change of policy and behavior on a short list of particularly important social problems.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

LBJ's commitment to cities


In the United States we have been in the desert for decades when it comes to big, transformative policy reforms aimed at addressing our most serious social issues. But the 1960s marked a decade of vigorous national effort to address some of our most serious and difficult social problems -- racial discrimination, war, poverty, education, and the quality of life of poor children and the elderly. It is worth thinking back to the large ambitions and strategies that were adopted between 1960 and 1968, the election of Richard Nixon.

A very interesting place to begin is Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, and especially his 1968 Special Message to the Congress on Urban Problems: "The Crisis of the Cities." (link). Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger's volume Legacies of the War on Poverty provides a rigorous specialist assessment of the achievements (and shortcomings) of the war on poverty. Johnson's message is powerful in each of its rhetorical components -- aspiration, diagnosis, and policy recommendations.



The document paints a high-level picture of the way in which cities had developed in the United States in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. And the narrative for the 20th century builds to a sense of deepening urban crisis.  
We see the results dramatically in the great urban centers where millions live amid decaying buildingswith streets clogged with traffic; with air and water polluted by the soot and waste of industry which finds it much less expensive to move outside the city than to modernize within it; with crime rates rising so rapidly each year that more and more miles of city streets become unsafe after dark; with increasingly inadequate public services and a smaller and smaller tax base from which to raise the funds to improve them.
The document identifies a host of key problems in American cities: inner-city youth with limited education and opportunity; violent crime; deep penetration of prejudice and discrimination in the normal workings of social life; poor public health levels; and disaffection among inner city citizens, both young and old.
The city will not be transformed until the lives of the least among its dwellers are changed as well. Until men whose days are empty and despairing can see better days ahead, until they can stand proud and know their children's lives will be better than their own -- until that day comes, the city will not truly be rebuilt.
The document emphasizes both material and psychological factors -- poor housing and "empty and despairing" lives. Johnson links the crisis of cities with the goals and achievements of the fundamental Civil Rights legislation of the recent past. 

Johnson's urban policy recommendations focus on several key city-centered crises: poor housing, inadequate public mass transit, extensive urban blight, high unemployment for young people, and institutions supporting lending and insurance for urban homeowners. The document also recommends increased support for urban-centered social-science research. 

What is most noteworthy is the overall ambition of Johnson's agenda: the goal of devoting substantial organizational effort at the federal level (through the establishment of new agencies like HUD) and billions of dollars to implement effective solutions for these awesomely difficult and important social problems. It is striking that we have not had national leaders since LBJ with the courage and vision to set such an ambitious agenda for progressive social change. The persistent problems of poverty, race, and educational failure will be amenable to nothing less. 

There is one other aspect of Johnson's message that is of interest here -- the sociology of knowledge implications of the document. This is a good example of a place where an STS approach would be helpful. There is probably an existing literature on the policy expertise that underlay Johnson's reasoning in this document, but I haven't been able to identify the person who drafted this message on Johnson's behalf. But there is obviously a high level of expertise and judgment implicit in this document -- and this certainly doesn't derive from the president himself. What is the paradigm of urban theory and policy that drives the reasoning of the document and the associated policy proposals? And what are the blindspots associated with that historically situated research framework? Causes, outcomes, and levers of change for urban decline are all identified. Are these still credible as empirical theories of urban realities?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Bourdieu on post-modern biography


Here is a very interesting short piece by Pierre Bourdieu on the topic of biography, "L'Illusion biographique," that is very relevant to the prior post. (Thanks, Denis!) Here Bourdieu takes issue with common sense on the subjects of the self and the nature of biography. Here is the commonsense understanding that he rejects: the idea of a life as a coherent and sequential story, with a beginning and end and a logical set of steps intervening. This idea underlies the group of metaphors commonly used by biographers representing life as a journey. Bourdieu argues that this reflects an uncritical and traditional understanding of history. This treatment rests upon important presuppositions -- most fundamentally, that a life constitutes a coherent whole that can be understood as the expression of a unified intentional agent. This assumption accounts for the words connoting logical process that are so common in biographies: "thus", "hence", "so", "therefore", and "always" (consistency). The assumption is that a life is intelligible. Here is a nice passage summarizing this thought:
On est sans doute en droit de supposer que le récit autobiographique s'inspire toujours, au moins pour une part, du souci de donner sens, de rendre raison, de dégager une logique à la fois rétrospective et prospective, une consistance et une constance, en établissant des relations intelligibles, comme celle de l'effet à la cause efficiente ou finale, entre les états successifs, ainsi constitués en étapes d'un développement nécessaire.
[One is undoubtedly justified in thinking that the recital of an autobiography is inspired, at least in part, out of a concern to give meaning, to uncover a logic at the moment, both retrospective and prospective, a consistency and constancy, establishing intelligible relations such as cause and effect, between successive states, this establishing an account of a necessary sequence of development.]
Bourdieu thinks this understanding is untenable. He proposes a deconstruction of the self that draws upon a parallel with the form of the modern novel -- Faulkner or Robbe-Grillet -- in which logical sequence is deliberately challenged. Rather than coherence and logical development, we have discontinuity, irrationality, and chaotic sets of experiences. 
Produire une histoire de vie, traiter la vie comme une histoire, c'est-à-dire comme le récit cohérent d'une séquence signifiante et orientée d'événements, c'est peut-être sacrifier à une illusion rhétorique, à une représentation commune de l'existence, que toute une tradition littéraire n'a cessé et ne cesse de renforcer. 
[To produce a history of a life, to treat a life like a history, that is to say, like a coherent recital of a meaningful sequence of events, is perhaps to submit to a rhetorical illusion, a common representation of existence, that our literary tradition has not ceased to reinforce.]
Bourdieu wants to understand these issues in analogy with twentieth-century doubts about the unity of the self. According to this post-modern critique, the self itself is a fiction of coherence, a rhetorical overlay on top of chaotic experience and actions. Kant's unity of apperception is an illusion imposed by the narrator of the self. 

Instead Bourdieu wants to understand the unity of the self sociologically in terms of the functioning of a proper name within specific fields of social interaction. (He refers here to Kripke and Ziff's ideas of rigid designators.) The proper name serves as tag linking the biological individual across social spaces. 
En tant qu'institution, le nom propre est arraché au temps et à l'espace, et aux variations selon les lieux et les moments : par là, il assure aux individus désignés, par delà tous les changements et toutes les fluctuations biologiques et sociales, la constance nominale, l'identité au sens d'identité à soi-même, de constantia sibi, que demande l'ordre social.
[As an institution, a proper name is situated in time and space, and changes according to place and time: accordingly it assures the designated individuals, beyond all biological and social changes and fluctuations, the nominal constancy, identity in the sense of identity to oneself, faithful to itself, that demand social ordering.]
What is the upshot for Bourdieu here? It seems to be that we should discard biography as a fundamentally flawed intellectual undertaking, and we should instead look at "non-biography" as a non-chronological map of social positions occupied by the biological individual designated by the proper name. On this account there is the biological individual and there is the social individual, but there is no personal intentional actor mediating between these. The proper name, a cypher with no content, replaces the self. 
Ainsi s'explique que le nom propre ne puisse pas décrire des propriétés et qu'il ne véhicule aucune information sur ce qu'il nomme :  du fait que ce qu'il désigne n'est jamais qu'une rhapsodie composite et disparate de propriétés biologiques et sociales en changement constant, toutes les descriptions seraient valables seulement dans les limites d'un stade ou d'un espace. Autrement dit, il ne peut attester l'identité de la personnalité, comme individualité socialement constituée, qu'au prix d'une formidable abstraction. 
[Thus it is that a proper names cannot describe properties and conveys no information about the individual named: in fact, the designated item is nothing more than a composite and disparate rhapsody of biological and social properties in constant change, all descriptions are valid only in the limits of a field of space. In other words, it is not possible to attest to the identity of the personality, as a socially constituted individual, except at the process of formidable abstraction.]
The individual is simply the sum of a network graph of positions in social spaces, with nothing interior.  And therefore biography needs replacing by a linked set of spatial locations within the social fields within which her or she competes. 

Is this sufficient? Not at all. It conveys an anti-mentalistic stance about people that is as flawed as was radical behaviorism. No matter how valid the critique of native unitarianism concerning the self, it remains true that people are actors, they make choices, they operate on the basis of mental frames, and they construct itineraries. They act intentionally and self consciously. We cannot dispense with a conception of the self. And therefore biography remained a valid exercise.

What is needed instead is a conception of the self and of a biography that avoids both the primordialism of the traditional view and the actor-less collage associated with the post-modern literary view. We need a conception of the self that emphasizes contingency and continuous development and change, that denies essentialism in either the self or a complete life, and that highlights as well the role that extraneous events play in the development of a person and a life; while still allowing for the reality of the human person who undergoes and guides his or her own path. 

It is interesting to recall the structure of Neil Gross's "sociological" biography of Richard Rorty in Richard Rorty: The Making of an American Philosopher (link). Gross's account conforms to a part of Bourdieu's picture here, in that he takes great care to trace Rorty's movements through his various fields -- philosophy, Yale, Princeton, marriage. But he also gives attention to the interior man -- the person named Richard who makes these various choices. Biography and personhood do not disappear after all. 

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.)