A plan for philosophy of social science circa 1976

image: Imre Lakatos

 

My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. This part of the introduction to the dissertation describes the view I then had of the purposes and current deficiencies of the philosophy of science.

The image of Imre Lakatos is used above because his work from the early 1970s was part of the inspiration for the more contextualized and historical view of the philosophy of social science described in this introduction. I found Lakatos much more stimulating than Kuhn in the early 1970s.

The full introduction is posted here. The full dissertation is posted here.

The philosophy of social science
The philosophy of social science is not a particularly strong area within contemporary philosophy. To some degree it suffers from the division between continental and analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophers have stressed the positivist theory of science, and have consequently come to social sciences with some distrust, while continental philosophers have been preoccupied with the relation of social science to philosophy, rather than the more central question of the defining characteristics of social science. Neither approach has been conducive to the project of constructing a viable, systematic, and sympathetic theory of social science. More importantly, however, the philosophy of social science suffers from its proximity to the philosophy of natural science. The analytical theory of science took shape in the hands of philosophers whose primary training was in natural science, and consequently, whose chief examples were drawn from the natural sciences. Philosophers of social science have all too often shown a tendency to merely import into their field the categories and questions formulated with respect to natural science, rather than posing questions and categories more closely tailored to the real outlines of typical social sciences.{6} It may eventually turn out, of course, that all sciences have the same epistemological structure; but that issue ought not be prejudged. The philosophy of social science needs, therefore, to develop a theory of social science which is not parasitic upon theories of natural science.

Ideally, a philosophy of social science ought to contain an analytical theory of social science which directs attention at the particular trouble spots of social knowledge. It ought to include a discussion of the peculiar nature of the subject matter of social science, an account of the characteristics of social explanation, an account of the relation between empirical evidence and theory in social science, and so forth; and more generally, it ought to consist of a set of questions and categories specifically suited to the special problems confronting social explanation and social theory. Contemporary philosophy of social science fails to come forward with such a theory, in large part because it formulates its theory of science in terms of concepts suggested by the philosophy of natural science.

This diagnosis of the weakness of philosophy of social science indicates that the philosophy of natural science bears a large responsibility for that weakness; happily, however, it is now able to provide the beginnings of a method of philosophical inquiry which can begin to undo that damage. For in the past two decades the philosophy of natural science has witnessed an important transformation in its method of inquiry. It has been transformed from an attempt to provide high-level abstractions concerning the basic concepts of explanation, confirmation, empirical significance, theory choice, and the like, to an attempt to provide a more detailed theory of scientific practice through detailed studies of particular examples of scientific inquiry. Historians of science have argued that the philosophy of science will benefit from greater attention to particular scientific theories and programmes of research, and increasingly philosophers have accepted this judgment. And this shift of attention has already begun to pay off in the form of theories of science which correspond more closely to the actual nature of science, and which thereby come closer to explaining science as a form of human knowledge.

I suggest that the philosophy of social science can benefit from the application of this historical method: its theory of social science can be enriched and corrected through closer attention to actual case studies drawn from the history of social science. Such studies have the potential of suggesting new categories and new questions concerning the nature of knowledge about society and history, and they provide the means by which the analytical theory of science itself may be assessed.

We may get a better idea of the logical relations between case studies of that sort and the formulation of a more general theory of science by working out a rough taxonomy of the logical structure of the philosophy of science.{7} The philosophy of science is (at least in part) a meta-level theory of the epistemological, methodological, and structural characteristics of science. If all scientific theories share certain epistemological characteristics in common, these certainly ought to be part of that theory of science; and if there is diversity, the theory of science ought to indicate the dimensions around which such diversity occurs. The theory of science ought to answer questions like: What is scientific explanation? How are scientific theories organized? How are scientific hypotheses given empirical justification? The theory of science, in other words, attempts to codify the most general characteristics of scientific knowledge.

On this account the theory of science stands at the greatest degree of abstraction: it attempts to make assertions which are true of all or most sciences. At the opposite end of the spectrum stands the particular scientific hypothesis or system: Darwinian evolutionary theory, Newtonian mechanics, Piaget’s psychological theory, and so forth. Each such theory is an attempt to apply empirical rationality to the problem of explaining some complex domain of phenomena; and each advances a theory to the scientific community for some form of evaluation or acceptance. The crucial point to note, however, is that each such theory is an extended and complex argument, in which the principles of inference are almost always left unstated. The scientist engages in a complex form of empirical reasoning, but he does not codify that process of reasoning. For each such example of an empirical hypothesis and explanation, therefore, it is possible to attempt to unravel the implicit standards of empirical rationality, or the implicit conceptions of scientific explanation, inference, evidence, and so forth. This process is in large part the domain of the history of science; however, its results are of plain importance to the general theory of science described above. For if we suppose that any scientific theory rests upon a complex and unstated “grammar” of scientific inference and argument, we may sensibly ask whether there are any regularities among those implicit. theories of science. These particular theories of science embody the set of standards of empirical rationality which guide and regulate the particular scientist, and they constitute part of the raw material for the analytical theory of science. They are what the analytical theory of science is a theory of.

Using this basic taxonomy of the philosophy of science, it is possible to restate the innovation in the practice of the philosophy of science which was described above as having occurred of late: historically minded philosophers of science have argued that we ought to make more explicit the relationship between the two levels of theories of science, and ought to pay more attention to the concrete theories of science implicit in particular scientific systems when formulating and criticizing the analytical theory of science. We ought, that is, to formulate an analytical theory of science which is more sensitive to the particular details of the actual practice of scientific explanation and justification, rather than relying on a priori and unsystematic arguments about science in general.

Notes

1. Consider social theorists like Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Lucio Coletti, and Maurice Godelier; empirical sociologists like Tom Bottomore, Ralph Miliband, and J. H. Westergaard; economists like Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, and Ernest Mandel; and historians like E. P. Thompson, Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Albert Soboul.
2. For a description of a similar project in the biological sciences, consult David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 5-7. Consider also Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery, An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, p. 2.
3. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar, Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1970), pp. 30-1;Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1969), pp. 34-5.
4. David McLellan, Karl Marx (New York: Viking Press, 1975), pp. 303-305; Albrecht Wellmer, Critical Theory of Society (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), Chap. 2; Carl Boggs, Gramsci’s Marxism (London: Pluto Press,·1976) Chap. 1.
5. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. ·(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Norwood Hanson, Patterns of Discovery; Imre Lakatos, “Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes,” Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos & Alan Musgrave (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); David Hull, Philosophy of Biological Science. These works share a commitment to constructing a theory of science based on a close reading of some specific scientific theory.
6. Cf. Richard Rudner, Philosophy of Social Science (Englewood Cliffs., N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966). This is a good example of such studies.
7. Consider Israel Scheffler, The Anatomy of Inquiry (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), pp. 3-15, for a similar discussion and taxonomy of the philosophy of science.

My program of research, circa 1976

image: philosopher at work


My Ph.D. dissertation in philosophy was written between 1974 and 1977 and was accepted in 1977. The topic was Marx’s theory of science as embodied in Capital, and it was one of the early attempts to join an analytical philosophical perspective with careful study of Marx’s ideas. The title of the dissertation was Marx’s Capital: A Study in the Philosophy of Social Science. Given the focus and approach of this work, it might be described as a very early contribution to analytical Marxism. Gerald Cohen’s pivotal Karl Marx’s Theory of History appeared in 1978, Elster’s Making Sense of Marx appeared in 1985, and my Scientific Marx appeared in 1986. More than forty years later I now find it somewhat interesting to see how a young graduate student formulated the task of approaching Marx’s theories in a new way, and perhaps it will be of interest to some readers of Understanding Society as well. The dissertation proposed a different way of attempting to understand Marx, and it also proposed a different approach to developing the philosophy of social science — an approach that gives greater attention to the details and history of social-science research. 

Excerpts from Introduction to Little dissertation, 1977

This thesis is an essay in the philosophy of social science. It is an attempt to address Marx’s social theory as an important episode in the history of social science, and to try to uncover in detail its implicit standards of rational scientific practice. Marx advances the social and economic theory of Capital in the spirit of an objective theory in social science with empirical content and justification. That theory purports to explain certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production, and it has stimulated a tradition of research in social science which is active and productive today.{1} It is therefore important to try to discover the epistemological and methodological characteristics which define it, or in other words, to discover in detail the standards of empirical rationality which underlie its scientific practice. How does it define its subject matter? What sorts of explanations does it advance? What assumptions does it rest on concerning the nature of social explanation? What sort of empirical justification does it advance?{2}

My investigation has consequences for two fairly independent families of questions. First, it is relevant to the question of the ultimate significance of Marx’s work. There is controversy in the Marxist literature concerning the relation between the early Marx and the later. Some critics (like Althusser) assert that only the theory contained in Capital represents the mature Marx, whereas the earlier writings are mere juvenilia.{3} Others argue, on the other hand, that the most significant contributions which Marx makes are contained in the early and middle writings– the theory of alienation, historical materialism, and the philosophical concept of socialism–and that Capital represents an unfortunate excursion into positivism and scientism.{4} We will be able to contribute to a better assessment of the relative merits of these opposing positions if we are able to determine in’ detail the scientific significance of the theory articulated in Capital.

Secondly, this essay is relevant to broader concerns in the philosophy of social science more generally. One of the most fruitful tools brought to the philosophy of science in the past two decades has been the application of the methods of the history of science to research in the philosophy of science.{5} Historically minded philosophers of science have shown–particularly in the natural sciences– that the analytical theory of science may be significantly enriched and tested through detailed attention to case studies in the history of science. These philosophers of science have reconsidered the distinction between description and prescription in the philosophy of science, and have sought to produce theories of science which conform more closely to the actual practice of scientific research. The outcome of such studies has frequently been of great significance to questions in analytical philosophy of science (questions like the nature of explanation and the character of empirical justification, for example). It has also cast some doubt on the principle of the unity of science, at least as an a priori assumption, for detailed case studies of different sciences have suggested that there are.important differences in the practices of these sciences, I will argue below that this historical approach is of particular significance for the future development of the philosophy of social science. Consequently, case studies of the sort I now advance will be of great use in furthering the condition of the philosophy of social science in general. In the next few pages I would like to discuss these two lines of significance of my research in somewhat greater detail.

Marx’s Significance

Marx’s writings encompass a wide range of intellectual activities — philosophical critique, historical analysis, political economy, political commentary. Nonetheless, these disparate activities show a remarkable constancy of direction and pattern of development. Marx’s attention is directed throughout his active career to the problem of comprehending· modern society and its peculiar inadequacies for full human development, what changes from his early contributions to the fully mature position in Capital is chiefly the view he takes concerning the proper method of acquiring such understanding. Marx begins his career as a professional philosopher, trained in the critical dialectics of post-Hegelian Germany. At this stage his social theory is a form of philosophical critique; it is an attempt to diagnose modern society from an abstract and philosophical perspective. This stage of his thought is continuous with Hegel’s social theory in the Philosophy of Right, in method if not in substance, This period includes the Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State and On the Jewish Question as well as lesser articles.

Marx soon transforms this form of philosophical criticism into a methodology for social knowledge which leaves the purely philosophical realm. This transformation begins in the critique of Hegel, where Marx first begins to criticize Hegel’s ”logical mysticism”, or his tendency to try to explain social phenomena solely on the basis of the categories of pure reason. Marx urges in the place of this logical mysticism a methodology for social analysis which turns rather upon concrete historical and empirical investigations rather than purely speculative philosophical critique. This line of thought begins with Marx’s observation that Hegel’s social theory is too abstract, non- historical, and speculative; and it culminates in a full- fledged commitment to concrete historical and social research as ·a method for understanding society. This transformation marks the second stage of Marx’s development as a social theorist: it culminates in the full statement of the principle or historical materialism as a method for social theory in the German Ideology. On this method, if we are to understand the most important characteristics of society, it must be on the basis of detailed empirical and historical research, not philosophical speculation.

Having once posed the question of understanding society in terms of the method of historical materialism, however, Marx is drawn inexorably into a more and more detailed study of history and the most advanced form of social science, political economy. This study leads in turn to the formulation of Marx’s. own analysis of capitalism, Capital, in which he advances an attempt to provide an objective and scientific analysis of the structure and development of modern capitalist society. This represents the third stage of the development of Marx’s distinctive approach to social analysis. Here Marx undertakes a sustained and scholarly attempt to -provide a science of the capitalist mode of production. What has changed from the beginnings of this process of development to its nature form in Capital, however, is not the objective, Marx is still committed to comprehending the essential characteristics of modern society and the nature of its inadequacy as a context for full human development. But now his method is historical, empirical, and scientific rather than speculative and philosophical. Philosophical criticism has been transformed into critical social science.

Capital, then, is the result and culmination of a long process in which Marx constructs a method of inquiry for social theory. It is advanced as an exercise in social science. It is deliberately based upon a method of inquiry securely grounded in historical and empirical research; and it purports to be an objective and scientific theory of the real characteristics of the capitalist mode of production. In Capital Marx attempts to explain the basic structure and historical dynamic of capitalism, and he expects the hypothesis he advances to be evaluated according to the standards of science. His commitment to objectivity and scientific rationality is unequivocal. Social explanation must be objective, empirical, and historically informed, this conviction lies at the heart of his criticisms of Hegel’s method, of Proudhon, and of vulgar political economy, and it defines his criteria of’ successful social analysis.

It is now possible for me to state the aim of my thesis quite precisely: I would like to uncover the implicit theory of science which underlies Marx’s argument in Capital. Capital consists of a complex and extended argument by which Marx attempts to establish a basic hypothesis and show how it explains certain fundamental facts about the capitalist mode of production. This argument implicitly defines a particular set of standards of empirical rationality, it embodies a concept of explanation, justification, and subject matter or social science which underlies and informs the detail of the argument. In this thesis I want to extract as sensitively as possible the details of this conception.

The significance of the thesis can be stated just as succinctly. Having unraveled the theory of science which underlies this particular example of a social science, it will be possible to return to the more abstract and analytical theory of science with a fresher and richer view of what categories and questions are most significant for social science. This thesis, therefore, becomes part of the raw material necessary for the broader enterprise of constructing a theory of science which is adequate to social science.

In what follows I will observe a fairly simple division of labor in attempting to reconstruct Marx’s implicit theory of science. I will focus on three questions: What is Marx’s a theory of, or more generally, what are the principles and assumptions which define its problematic, subject matter, and basic structure? Secondly, what sort of theory is it: a what is the logical structure of the theory? And thirdly, how is it justified: what sort of concept of evidence and the relation of evidence to theory does it rest upon? By answering these questions, we will have established the basic characteristics of Marx’s empirical practice: his conception of explanation and subject matter, the logical structure of his theory, and his concept of empirical justification.

Theorizing about organizations

The fields of organizational studies and organizational sociology originated in the early twentieth century but flourished in the post-war period. This makes a certain amount of historical sense. The emergence in the nineteenth century of large, complex organizations in business and government became a factor in modern society that dwarfed the impact of the organizations of the past — universities, religious societies, and guilds. There was therefore a new sociological topic that demanded study. How do corporations and large government departments work? What concepts permit insightful analysis of large, complex organizations? Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy provided a beginning, but organizations proved to have greater variety and more perplexing features than Weber’s ideas could account for.

Large, complex organizations are the most pervasive social structure in the modern world. They structure the food we eat, the ways we work, the compensation we receive for our labors, the technologies that inform our daily lives, the ways that wars occur, and the modes through which governments function. And, as any observant person will recognize, large organizations create some of the most important dysfunctions that our modern society confronts. So it is enormously important to have a better idea of what a large organization is and how it works. We need to understand the variety, structures, and dynamics of large organizations if we are to have realistic ideas about how to make a more humane world.

Charles Perrow has been one of the most insightful contributors to organizational sociology since the 1960s. His research on the topic of safety within high-risk industries (space, nuclear power, marine transport, chemicals) has been highly influential, including especially his 1984 book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies.

In 1972 Perrow published Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay, which was released in its third edition in 2014. The book is a masterful synthesis of the schools of thought that have emerged in organizational sociology since 1945. Perrow describes the human relations school, the neo-Weberian school, the institutional tradition, the technology [contingency] approach, the economic interpretation, and the “power” interpretation of organizations. The book therefore provides a valuable map of the geography of the field today, and the intellectual origins of current research. But more than that, the book is an important and original presentation of how organizations work, in Perrow’s view. Perrow takes a “structural” view of organizations, which amounts fundamentally to the idea that the most important questions have to do with the internal processes of various organizations and the relationships the organization has to powerful external forces. (Perrow quotes March and Simon on organizational structure: “those aspects of the pattern of behavior in the organization that are relatively stable and that change only slowly”; (124). This contrasts with the “human relations” school, which holds that the important properties of organizations derive from features of behavior associated with the individuals who make them up, including leaders, managers, and workers.

An idea that emerges as particularly important in Perrow’s account is the idea of bounded rationality and the limits on rational planning and decision-making within an organization. This part of Perrow’s treatment depends heavily on the theories of Herbert Simon and James March (March and Simon, Organizations and Simon, Administrative Behavior).

Bounded rationality, however, is visited upon the elites as well. Their position is always insecure, for their information, understanding, and goals are never fully rational. This allows for occasional resistance and subtle changes by the controlled. In fact, bounded rationality, by elites or their subjects, creates a great deal of change, for it permits unexpected interactions, new discoveries, serendipities, and new goals and values. (123)

Perrow emphasizes the inherent diversity of goals and purposes that are operative within an organization at any given point. He describes the “garbage can” theory of organizational goal-setting and problem-setting (135). Executives, managers, and other decision-makers are portrayed as unavoidably opportunistic, in the sense that they address one set of problems rather than another without a compelling reason for thinking that this is the best path forward for the organization.

Goals may thus emerge in a rather fortuitous fashion, as when the organization seems to back into a new line of activity or into an external alliance in a fit of absentmindedness. (135)

Associated with this idea is the idea advanced by March and Simon that plans and goals are often adopted retrospectively rather than in advance of action.

No coherent, stable goal guided the total process, but after the fact a coherent stable goal was presumed to have been present. It would be unsettling to see it otherwise. (135) 

This recognition of the multiplicity and sketchiness of organizational goals casts profound doubt on the functionalism that observers sometimes bring to organizations (the idea that organizations possess the structures and goals they need to optimize the achievement of their goals). Perrow specifically endorses these doubts:

For those doing case studies of organizations it is also indispensable, checking the tendency of social scientists to find reason, cause, and function in all behavior, and emphasizing instead the accidental, temporary, shifting, and fluid nature of all social life…. Garbage can theory provides the tools to examine the process and not be taken in by functional explanations. The decision process must be seen as involving a shifting set of actors with unpredictable entrances and exits from the “can” (or the decision mechanism), the often unrelated problems these actors have on their agendas, the solutions of some that are looking for problems they can apply them to, the accidental availability of external candidates that then bring new solutions and problems to the decision process, and finally the necessity of “explaining” the outcomes as rational and intended. (136, 137) 

Typology and classification of organizations has been a preoccupation of organizational theory for a century. Perrow believes that we do not yet have a satisfactory basis for classifying organizations, but in his discussion of safety and disaster he provides a typology that has a lot going for it. The scheme sorts organizational tasks along two dimensions: the nature of interactions within the functioning of the organization (linear / complex) and the nature of the coupling of events and processes that exists (loose / tight coupling). His analysis of accidents finds that organizations involving high complexity and tight coupling are most vulnerable to disasters; so nuclear plants, the handling of nuclear weapons, the operations of aircraft, military early warning systems, chemical plants, and genetic research fall in the high-risk category. Motor-vehicle departments, community colleges, assembly-line factories, and post offices fall in the “linear, loose coupling” category and present the lowest risk. The intriguing question that arises here is whether there are organizational features that are best suited to safe and efficient functioning in the four quadrants.

Also interesting is Perrow’s treatment of the institutionalist school, represented here by Philip Selznick’s Leadership in Administration: A Sociological Interpretation and Selznick’s study of the Tennessee Valley Authority. This approach is grounded in structuralist-functionalist sociological theory.

Perrow’s considered theory or organizations is offered in the final chapter of the book. He advocates for an interpretation of organizations as vehicles of power through which some individuals control the behavior and products of others.

In my scheme, power is the ability of persons or groups to extract for themselves valued outputs from a system in which other persons or groups either seek the same outputs for themselves or would prefer to expend their effort toward other outputs. Power is exercised to alter the initial distribution of outputs, to establish an unequal distribution, or to change the outputs. (259)

Two specific examples illustrate this approach. Corporations influence consumers’ palate for products, and they do this in ways that serve the interests of one group in society over another. And corporations and industrial bureaucracies have fundamentally shaped the practices and culture of “work” in ways that fundamentally serve the interests of one group over another. Both are examples of the “social construction” of important categories of social life; and corporations (business organizations) are actively involved in this process of social construction. (This is essentially the approach to the definition of “labor” and “work” offered by Bowles and Gintis in Schooling In Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life.) This approach to organizations is mirrored in Perrow’s book about the emergence of the business corporation in the United States in the nineteenth century, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism.

In short, Complex Organizations is an excellent overview of organizational theory today, and it provides many of the conceptual and theoretical tools that help to make sense of these extended and pervasive social constructions that so fundamentally shape our modern experience.

Retelling US history

 
images: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (from Jill Lepore, These Truths)

People who mostly learned American history through their high school education have a limited view of the topic. It was a view that paid little attention to the concrete social issues of race, gender, or class in American history. Fortunately there is now a very good way of updating our understandings of the history of our country that rebalances our knowledge of the past. Jill Lepore’s outstanding 2018 book These Truths: A History of the United States provides crucial reading in these troubled times where racism, nationalism, and sexism are proclaimed at the very top of our government. (The book is also available as an audiobook, read by the author (link).)

The book has many virtues. But most importantly, Lepore shows how the reality and legacy of slavery played a fundamental and debilitating role in the evolving history of the United States, from the writing of the Constitution to the political conflicts preceding the Civil War to the politics of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The realities of race are an essential part of American history.

More broadly, the book gives a full and broad account of disenfranchisement and discrimination in our history. Native Americans, women, freed slaves, and immigrants all find their voices and their struggles in this book — not as secondary walk-on characters, but as shapers of history and actors in the narratives that made us the nation we are. Here is a passage early in the book in which Lepore makes clear the intertwining of liberty and slavery before the American Revolution:

Slavery does not exist outside of politics. Slavery is a form of politics, and slave rebellion a form of violent political dissent. The Zenger trial and the New York slave conspiracy were much more than a dispute over freedom of the press and a foiled slave rebellion: they were part of a debate about the nature of political opposition, and together they established its limits. Both Cosby’s opponents and Caesar’s followers allegedly plotted to depose the governor. One kind of rebellion was celebrated, the other suppressed—a division that would endure. In American history, the relationship between liberty and slavery is at once deep and dark: the threat of black rebellion gave a license to white political opposition. The American political tradition was forged by philosophers and by statesmen, by printers and by writers, and it was forged, too, by slaves. (64)

And the issue of slavery continued to be the key dividing political issue through the Civil War, masked under the rhetoric of “states rights”:

Southern slave owners, a tiny minority of Americans, amounting to about 1 percent of the population, deployed the rhetoric of states’ rights and free trade (by which they meant trade free from federal government regulation), but in fact they desperately needed and relied on the power of the federal government to defend and extend the institution of slavery. The weakness of their position lay behind their efforts to silence dissent. (223)

There are fascinating turns to the story Lepore tells. One concerns America’s most famous poem by its most famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1849, and the change he introduced into the final version of the poem. Staunchly anti-slavery, Longfellow was deeply concerned for the fate of the Union.

By 1849, Longfellow, like most Americans who were paying attention, feared for the Republic. He began writing a poem, called “The Building of the Ship,” about a beautiful, rough-hewn ship called the Union. But as he closed the poem, he could imagine nothing but disaster for this worthy vessel. In his initial draft, he closed the poem with these lines: . . .

where, oh where, Shall end this form so rare? . . . Wrecked upon some treacherous rock, Rotting in some loathsome dock, Such the end must be at length Of all this loveliness and strength!

But instead of ending on this note of despair and inspired by the political campaign of his friend Charles Sumner under the Free-Soil Party, he wrote: 

Sail on! Sail on! O Ship of State! For thee the famished nations wait! The world seems hanging on thy fate. (259)

Close to the end of the Civil War that Longfellow so dreaded, Lepore quotes the equally poetic and compassionate words of President Abraham Lincoln, from his second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (304)

The third large part of the book is titled “Of Citizens, Persons, and People”, and is very relevant to our current political morass. It tells much of the story of the struggle for full citizenship and voting rights for women, African-Americans, and other disenfranchised Americans. Equally it tells the story of the determined efforts of powerful racist, nationalist, and misogynist parties to prevent this from occurring. And it chronicles the rise of powerful corporations and economic interests which had their own political agendas and which so often worked against the wellbeing of working people.

Finance capitalism had brought tremendous gains to investors and created vast fortunes, inaugurating the era known as the Gilded Age, edged with gold. It spurred economic development and especially the growth of big businesses: big railroad companies, big agriculture companies, and, beginning in the 1870s, big steel companies. (335)

Lepore’s account of the rise of populism and its ambiguous relationship to fundamental progressive values is worth the price of the book all by itself, given the ominous turn that populism has taken in the past few years.

Populism entered American politics at the end of the nineteenth century, and it never left. It pitted “the people,” meaning everyone but the rich, against corporations, which fought back in the courts by defining themselves as “persons”; and it pitted “the people,” meaning white people, against nonwhite people who were fighting for citizenship and whose ability to fight back in the courts was far more limited, since those fights require well-paid lawyers. (348)

And the conservative willingness — even eagerness — to discredit scientific knowledge emerges as a century-old impulse, not something invented in the climate-change-denial generation. In general, it is striking how consistent the anti-progressive voice is throughout the past century and more, and how deeply it informs the conservative agenda today. Further, it is hard to miss the nationalism and racism that have historically been part of that rhetoric. William Randolph Hearst seems strikingly contemporary, and McCarthyism, Nixon, weaponized media, and the decades-long struggle against universal health care resonate with today’s headlines as well.

These Truths is an excellent work of historical synthesis that does not oversimplify, and distinctly does not portray US history as a steady march of progress. It makes it clear, really, that the values of equality, liberty, and mutual respect that many of us value so profoundly have been contested throughout our history, and that durable institutions embodying democracy and equality are still to be made, not simply celebrated.

(A good resource for high school history teachers who want to do a more adequate job of bringing difficult issues of race into their curriculum can be found at Facing History and Ourselves.)

Organizations and dysfunction

A recurring theme in recent months in Understanding Society is organizational dysfunction and the organizational causes of technology failure. Helmut Anheier’s volume When Things Go Wrong: Organizational Failures and Breakdowns is highly relevant to this topic, and it makes for very interesting reading. The volume includes contributions by a number of leading scholars in the sociology of organizations.

And yet the volume seems to miss the mark in some important ways. For one thing, it is unduly focused on the question of “mortality” of firms and other organizations. Bankruptcy and organizational death are frequent synonyms for “failure” here. This frame is evident in the summary the introduction offers of existing approaches in the field: organizational aspects, political aspects, cognitive aspects, and structural aspects. All bring us back to the causes of extinction and bankruptcy in a business organization. Further, the approach highlights the importance of internal conflict within an organization as a source of eventual failure. But it gives no insight into the internal structure and workings of the organization itself, the ways in which behavior and internal structure function to systematically produce certain kinds of outcomes that we can identify as dysfunctional.

Significantly, however, dysfunction does not routinely lead to death of a firm. (Seibel’s contribution in the volume raises this possibility, which Seibel refers to as “successful failures“). This is a familiar observation from political science: what looks dysfunctional from the outside may be perfectly well tuned to a different set of interests (for example, in Robert Bates’s account of pricing boards in Africa in Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies). In their introduction to this volume Anheier and Moulton refer to this possibility as a direction for future research: “successful for whom, a failure for whom?” (14).

The volume tends to look at success and failure in terms of profitability and the satisfaction of stakeholders. But we can define dysfunction in a more granular way by linking characteristics of performance to the perceived “purposes and goals” of the organization. A regulatory agency exists in order to effectively project the health and safety of the public. In this kind of case, failure is any outcome in which the agency flagrantly and avoidably fails to prevent a serious harm — release of radioactive material, contamination of food, a building fire resulting from defects that should have been detected by inspection. If it fails to do so as well as it might then it is dysfunctional.

Why do dysfunctions persist in organizations? It is possible to identify several possible causes. The first is that a dysfunction from one point of view may well be a desirable feature from another point of view. The lack of an authoritative safety officer in a chemical plant may be thought to be dysfunctional if we are thinking about the safety of workers and the public as a primary goal of the plant (link). But if profitability and cost-savings are the primary goals from the point of view of the stakeholders, then the cost-benefit analysis may favor the lack of the safety officer.

Second, there may be internal failures within an organization that are beyond the reach of any executive or manager who might want to correct them. The complexity and loose-coupling of large organizations militate against house cleaning on a large scale.

Third, there may be powerful factions within an organization for whom the “dysfunctional” feature is an important component of their own set of purposes and goals. Fligstein and McAdam argue for this kind of disaggregation with their theory of strategic action fields (link). By disaggregating purposes and goals to the various actors who figure in the life cycle of the organization – founders, stakeholders, executives, managers, experts, frontline workers, labor organizers – it is possible to see the organization as a whole as simply the aggregation of the multiple actions and purposes of the actors within and adjacent to the organization. This aggregation does not imply that the organization is carefully adjusted to serve the public good or to maximize efficiency or to protect the health and safety of the public. Rather, it suggests that the resultant organizational structure serves the interests of the various actors to the fullest extent each actor is able to manage.

Consider the account offered by Thomas Misa of the decline of the steel industry in the United States in the first part of the twentieth century in A Nation of Steel: The Making of Modern America, 1865-1925. Misa’s account seems to point to a massive dysfunction in the steel corporations of the inter-war period, a deliberate and sustained failure to invest in research on new steel technologies in metallurgy and production. Misa argues that the great steel corporations — US Steel in particular — failed to remain competitive in their industry in the early years of the twentieth century because management persistently pursued short-term profits and financial advantage for the company through domination of the market at the expense of research and development. It relied on market domination instead of research and development for its source of revenue and profits.

In short, U.S. Steel was big but not illegal. Its price leadership resulted from its complete dominance in the core markets for steel…. Indeed, many steelmakers had grown comfortable with U.S. Steel’s overriding policy of price and technical stability, which permitted them to create or develop markets where the combine chose not to compete, and they testified to the court in favor of the combine. The real price of stability … was the stifling of technological innovation. (255)

The result was that the modernized steel industries in Europe leap-frogged the previous US advantage and eventually led to unviable production technology in the United States.

At the periphery of the newest and most promising alloy steels, dismissive of continuous-sheet rolling, actively hostile to new structural shapes, a price leader but not a technical leader: this was U.S. Steel. What was the company doing with technological innovation? (257)

Misa is interested in arriving at a better way of understanding the imperatives leading to technical change — better than neoclassical economics and labor history. His solution highlights the changing relationships that developed between industrial consumers and producers in the steel industry.

We now possess a series of powerful insights into the dynamics of technology and social change. Together, these insights offer the realistic promise of being better able, if we choose, to modulate the complex process of technical change. We can now locate the range of sites for technical decision making, including private companies, trade organizations, engineering societies, and government agencies. We can suggest a typology of user-producer interactions, including centralized, multicentered, decentralized, and direct-consumer interactions, that will enable certain kinds of actions while constraining others. We can even suggest a range of activities that are likely to effect technical change, including standards setting, building and zoning codes, and government procurement. Furthermore, we can also suggest a range of strategies by which citizens supposedly on the “outside” may be able to influence decisions supposedly made on the “inside” about technical change, including credibility pressure, forced technology choice, and regulatory issues. (277-278)

In fact Misa places the dynamic of relationship between producer and large consumer at the center of the imperatives towards technological innovation:

In retrospect, what was wrong with U.S. Steel was not its size or even its market power but its policy of isolating itself from the new demands from users that might have spurred technical change. The resulting technological torpidity that doomed the industry was not primarily a matter of industrial concentration, outrageous behavior on the part of white- and blue-collar employees, or even dysfunctional relations among management, labor, and government. What went wrong was the industry’s relations with its consumers. (278)

This relative “callous treatment of consumers” was profoundly harmful when international competition gave large industrial users of steel a choice. When US Steel had market dominance, large industrial users had little choice; but this situation changed after WWII. “This favorable balance of trade eroded during the 1950s as German and Japanese steelmakers rebuilt their bombed-out plants with a new production technology, the basic oxygen furnace (BOF), which American steelmakers had dismissed as unproven and unworkable” (279). Misa quotes a president of a small steel producer: “The Big Steel companies tend to resist new technologies as long as they can … They only accept a new technology when they need it to survive” (280).

*****

Here is an interesting table from Misa’s book that sheds light on some of the economic and political history in the United States since the post-war period, leading right up to the populist politics of 2016 in the Midwest. This chart provides mute testimony to the decline of the rustbelt industrial cities. Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western New York account for 83% of the steel production on this table. When American producers lost the competitive battle for steel production in the 1980s, the Rustbelt suffered disproportionately, and eventually blue collar workers lost their places in the affluent economy.

Ethical disasters

Many examples of technical disasters have been provided in Understanding Society, along with efforts to understand the systemic dysfunctions that contributed to their occurrence. Frequently those dysfunctions fall within the business organizations that manage large, complex technology systems, and often enough those dysfunctions derive from the imperatives of profit-maximization and cost avoidance. Andrew Hopkins’ account of the business decisions contributing to the explosion of the ESSO gas plant in Longford, Australia illustrates this dynamic in Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion. The withdrawal of engineering experts from the plant to a remote corporate headquarters was a cost-saving move that, according to Hopkins, contributed to the eventual disaster.

A topic we have not addressed in detail is the occurrence of ethical disasters — terrible outcomes that are the result of deliberate choices by decision-makers within an organization that are, upon inspection, clearly and profoundly unethical and immoral. The collapse of Enron is probably one such disaster; the Bernie Madoff scandal is another. But it seems increasingly likely that Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family’s business leadership of the corporation represent another major example. Recent reporting by ProPublica, the Atlantic, and the New York Times relies on documents collected in the course of litigation against Purdue Pharma and members of the Sackler family in Massachusetts and New York. (Here are the unredacted court documents on which much of this reporting depends; link.) These documents make it hard to avoid the ethical conclusion that the Sackler family actively participated in business strategies for their company Purdue Pharma that treated the OxyContin addiction epidemic as an expanding business opportunity. And this seems to be a huge ethical breach.

This set of issues is currently unresolved by the courts, so it rests with the legal system to resolve the facts and the issues of legal culpability. But as citizens we all have the ability to read the documents and make our own decisions about the ethical status of decisions and strategies made by the family and the corporation over the course of this disaster. The point here is simply to ask these key questions: how should we think about the ethical status of decisions and strategies of owners and managers that lead to terrible harms, and harms that could reasonably have been anticipated? How should a company or a set of owners respond to a catastrophe in which several hundred thousand people have died, and which was facilitated in part by deliberate marketing efforts by the company and the owners? How should the company have adjusted its business when it became apparent that its product was creating addiction and widespread death?

First, here are a few details from the current reporting about the case. Here are a few paragraphs from the ProPublica story (January 30, 2019):

Not content with billions of dollars in profits from the potent painkiller OxyContin, its maker explored expanding into an “attractive market” fueled by the drug’s popularity — treatment of opioid addiction, according to previously secret passages in a court document filed by the state of Massachusetts.

In internal correspondence beginning in 2014, Purdue Pharma executives discussed how the sale of opioids and the treatment of opioid addiction are “naturally linked” and that the company should expand across “the pain and addiction spectrum,” according to redacted sections of the lawsuit by the Massachusetts attorney general. A member of the billionaire Sackler family, which founded and controls the privately held company, joined in those discussions and urged staff in an email to give “immediate attention” to this business opportunity, the complaint alleges. (ProPublica 1/30/2019; link)

The NYT story reproduces a diagram included in the New York court filings that illustrates the company’s business strategy of “Project Tango” — the idea that the company could make money both from sales of its pain medication and from sales of treatments for the addiction it caused.

Further, according to the reporting provided by the NYT and ProPublica, members of the Sackler family used their positions on the Purdue Pharma board to press for more aggressive business exploitation of the opportunities described here:

In 2009, two years after the federal guilty plea, Mortimer D.A. Sackler, a board member, demanded to know why the company wasn’t selling more opioids, email traffic cited by Massachusetts prosecutors showed. In 2011, as states looked for ways to curb opioid prescriptions, family members peppered the sales staff with questions about how to expand the market for the drugs…. The family’s statement said they were just acting as responsible board members, raising questions about “business issues that were highly relevant to doctors and patients. (NYT 4/1/2019; link)

From the 1/30/2019 ProPublica story, and based on more court documents:

Citing extensive emails and internal company documents, the redacted sections allege that Purdue and the Sackler family went to extreme lengths to boost OxyContin sales and burnish the drug’s reputation in the face of increased regulation and growing public awareness of its addictive nature. Concerns about doctors improperly prescribing the drug, and patients becoming addicted, were swept aside in an aggressive effort to drive OxyContin sales ever higher, the complaint alleges. (link)

And ProPublica underlines the fact that prosecutors believe that family members have personal responsibility for the management of the corporation:

The redacted paragraphs leave little doubt about the dominant role of the Sackler family in Purdue’s management. The five Purdue directors who are not Sacklers always voted with the family, according to the complaint. The family-controlled board approves everything from the number of sales staff to be hired to details of their bonus incentives, which have been tied to sales volume, the complaint says. In May 2017, when longtime employee Craig Landau was seeking to become Purdue’s chief executive, he wrote that the board acted as “de-facto CEO.” He was named CEO a few weeks later. (link)

The courts will resolve the question of legal culpability. The question here is one of the ethical standards that should govern the actions and strategies of owners and managers. Here are several simple ethical observations that seem relevant to this case.

First, it is obvious that pain medication is a good thing when used appropriately under the supervision of expert and well-informed physicians. Pain management enhances quality of life for people experiencing pain.

Second, addiction is plainly a bad thing, and it is worse when it leads to predictable death or disability for its victims. A company has a duty of concern for the quality of life of human beings affected by its product, and this extends to a duty to take all possible precautions to minimize the likelihood that human beings will be harmed by the product.

Third, given that the risks of addiction that were known about this product, the company has a moral obligation to treat its relations with physicians and other health providers as occasions of accurate and truthful education about the product, not opportunities for persuasion, inducement, and marketing. Rather than a sales force of representatives whose incomes are determined by the quantity of the product they sell, the company has a moral obligation to train and incentivize its representatives to function as honest educators providing full information about the risks as well as the benefits of the product. And, of course, it has an obligation not to immerse itself in the dynamics of “conflict of interest” discussed elsewhere (link) — this means there should be no incentives provided to the physicians who agree to prescribe the product.

Fourth, it might be argued that the profits generated by the business of a given pharmaceutical product should be used proportionally to ameliorate the unavoidable harms it creates. Rather than making billions in profits from the sale of the product, and then additional hundreds of millions on products that offset the addictions and illness created by dissemination of the product (this was the plan advanced as “Project Tango”), the company and its owners should hold themselves accountable for the harms created by their product. (That is, the social and human costs of addiction should not be treated as “externalities” or even additional sources of profit for the company.)

Finally, there is an important question at a more individual scale. How should we think about super-rich owners of a company who seem to lose sight entirely of the human tragedies created by their company’s product and simply demand more profits, more timely distribution of the profits, and more control of the management decisions of the company? These are individual human beings, and surely they have a responsibility to think rigorously about their own moral responsibilities. The documents released in these court proceedings seem to display an amazing blindness to moral responsibility on the part of some of these owners.

(There are other important cases illustrating the clash between moral responsibility, corporate profits, and corporate decision-making, having to do with the likelihood of collaboration between American companies, their German and Polish subsidiaries, and the Nazi regime during World War II. Edwin Black argues in IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America’s Most Powerful Corporation-Expanded Edition that the US-based computer company provided important support for Germany’s extermination strategy. Here is a 2002 piece from the Guardian on the update of Black’s book providing more documentary evidence for this claim; link. And here is a piece from the Washington Post on American car companies in Nazi Germany; link. )

(Stephen Arbogast’s Resisting Corporate Corruption: Cases in Practical Ethics From Enron Through The Financial Crisis is an interesting source on corporate ethics,)

Development ethnography and the life of the poor

Indian economists V. K. Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan have edited a highly interesting volume, Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, that will be of interest to anyone concerned with the progress of India in recent years. The book is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India, and all the essays are very good.

Ramachandran’s own contribution is a piece of what we might call “development ethnography”, a pair of interview (link) with the Tamil Nadu landless worker Gabriel Selvam. This case study is a valuable document for anyone interested in poverty and global justice. Ramachandran conducted interviews with Selvam at both ends of Selvam’s working life, in 1977 and 2017, and the experiences that Selvam describes are emblematic of the extreme poor in India and elsewhere throughout that forty-year period. Selvam has lived most of his life in rural Tamil Nadu, near the town of Gokilapuram. And Selvam’s life history illustrates many of the deep themes of enduring poverty and inequality in rural India — debt, bonded labor, inadequate access to land, caste, and extremely limited opportunities for collective action.

Usury involving a sum of only 100 rupees forced Selvam into a form of debt bondage to a landlord: “Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month, plus one sheet, a dhoti, a shirt and a thunda (towel-cloth) a year.” He worked 13 hours a day for the salary of Rs 65 per month. After four years the salary increased to Rs 100 per month. (At the 2000 exchange rate of Rs 45 / dollar this is about $2.22 / month.)

Debt bondage has been formally illegal in India since 1976. But Selvam’s condition is clearly one of debt bondage: “There is no choice, I can’t leave my mudalali [employer, landlord] unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

Largescale eviction from farm land is also a part of Selvam’s story. Green Revolution seeds and techniques made farm land more profitable, and landlords had an interest in evicting poor farmers from the land they had previously rented at low rents. Poor farmers became landless workers.

The persistent and debilitating disadvantages of caste in rural India are evident in this story as well. Selvam is of a scheduled caste, and it seems apparent that the wage differentials that he experienced throughout his working life had much to do with his dalit status.

Destitution-level housing is also a striking part of the story that Selvam tells. In 1977: “As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now, there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet.” In 2017, the time of the second interview, the hut has been completed: “it is completed and expanded now: a neat, whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker.”

In 2017 Selvam’s wage has also improved; he now earns Rs 4000 per month for hard agricultural labor — in today’s exchange rate, about $40 / month. As Selvam says, they are better off. And yet it is clear — “better off” in Selvam’s village still means poor access to education and healthcare, limited nutrition, an extremely low income, and a life of toil that few Americans can even imagine.

I hope that you will read the whole interview. It is a more powerful testament to the depth of poverty and inequality in rural India than any set of economic statistics could ever convey.

Here is a World Bank report that makes for excellent parallel reading alongside Ramachandran’s case history (Raji Jayaraman and Peter Lanjouw, “The Evolution of Poverty and Inequality in Indian Villages”; link).

Social ontology of government

I am currently writing a book on the topic of the “social ontology of government”. My goal is to provide a short treatment of the social mechanisms and entities that constitute the workings of government. The book will ask some important basic questions: what kind of thing is “government”? (I suggest it is an agglomeration of organizations, social networks, and rules and practices, with no overriding unity.) What does government do? (I simplify and suggest that governments create the conditions of social order and formulate policies and rules aimed at bringing about various social priorities that have been selected through the governmental process.) How does government work — what do we know about the social and institutional processes that constitute its metabolism? (How do government entities make decisions, gather needed information, and enforce the policies they construct?)

In my treatment of the topic of the workings of government I treat the idea of “dysfunction” with the same seriousness as I do topics concerning the effective and functional aspects of governmental action. Examples of dysfunctions include principal-agent problems, conflict of interest, loose coupling of agencies, corruption, bribery, and the corrosive influence of powerful outsiders. It is interesting to me that this topic — ontology of government — has unexpectedly crossed over with another of my interests, the organizational causes of largescale accidents.

If there are guiding perspectives in my treatment, they are eclectic: Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam, Manuel DeLanda, Nicos Poulantzas, Charles Perrow, Nancy Leveson, and Lyndon B. Johnson, for example.

In light of these interests, I find the front page of the New York Times on March 28, 2019 to be a truly fascinating amalgam of the social ontology of government, with a heavy dose of dysfunction. Every story on the front page highlights one feature or another of the workings and failures of government. Let’s briefly name these features. (The item numbers flow roughly from upper right to lower left.)

Item 1 is the latest installment of the Boeing 737 MAX story. Failures of regulation and a growing regime of “collaborative regulation” in which the FAA delegates much of the work of certification of aircraft safety to the manufacturer appear at this early stage to be a part of the explanation of this systems failure. This was the topic of a recent post (link).

Items 2 and 3 feature the processes and consequences of failed government — the social crisis in Venezuela created in part by the breakdown of legitimate government, and the fundamental and continuing inability of the British government and its prime minister to arrive at a rational and acceptable policy on an issue of the greatest importance for the country. Given that decision-making and effective administration of law are fundamental functions of government, these two examples are key contributions to the ontology of government. The Brexit story also highlights the dysfunctions that flow from the shameful self-dealing of politicians and leaders who privilege their own political interests over the public good. Boris Johnson, this one’s for you!

Item 4 turns us to the  dynamics of presidential political competition. This item falls on the favorable side of the ledger, illustrating the important role that a strong independent press has in helping to inform the public about the past performance and behavior of candidates for high office. It is an important example of depth journalism and provides the public with accurate, nuanced information about an appealing candidate with a policy history as mayor that many may find unpalatable. The story also highlights the role that non-governmental organizations have in politics and government action, in this instance the ACLU.

Item 5 brings us inside the White House and gives the reader a look at the dynamics and mechanisms through which a small circle of presidential advisors are able to determine a particular approach to a policy issue that they favor. It displays the vulnerability the office of president shows to the privileged insiders’ advice concerning policies they personally favor. Whether it is Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff to the current president, or Robert McNamara’s advice to JFK and LBJ leading to escalation in Vietnam, the process permits ideologically committed insiders to wield extraordinary policy power.

Item 6 turns to the legislative process, this time in the New Jersey legislature, on the topic of the legalization of marijuana. This story too falls on the positive side of the “function-dysfunction” spectrum, in that it describes a fairly rational and publicly visible process of fact-gathering and policy assessment by a number of New Jersey legislators, leading to the withdrawal of the legislation.

Item 7 turns to the mechanisms of private influence on government, in a particularly unsavory but revealing way. The story reveals details of a high-end dinner “to pa tribute to the guest of honor, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.” The article writes, “Lobbyists told their clients that the event would be a good thing to go to”, at a minimum ticket price of $25,000 per couple. This story connects the dots between private interest and efforts to influence governmental policy. In this case the dots are not very far apart.

With a little effort all these items could be mapped onto the diagram of the interconnections within and across government and external social groups provided above.

Guest post: VK Ramachandran on details of life as a day laborer in India

[V. K. Ramachandran was a Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and is at present vice chairman of the State Planning Board of the state of Kerala. He is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Previous discussions of Ramachandran’s work in Understanding Society can be found here (link, link, link, link), and here is an interview I conducted with VK in 2008; link.]

[Acknowledgement: Extracted from Ramachandran, V. K., and Madhura Swaminathan, (eds.) (2018), Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, Tulika Books, New Delhi. This is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India.]

“Gabriel Selvam: A Biography of Work”

V. K. Ramachandran

Among the many the many things in which N. Ram was an early instructor (and I not good enough a learner) was on how to interview, take notes, edit copy, and present the results from conversation and observation.

NR was the first among us to meet Gabriel Selvam, and the description “upstanding young agricultural labourer” is his.

An Interview in Two Parts, 1977 and 2017

1977: Young Bonded Worker

G. Selvam (35) is an upstanding young agricultural labourer who has bonded himself as a pannaiyal (permanent farm servant) out of economic necessity. Selvam’s family is of the Parayar scheduled caste.

A loan of Rs 100 taken over six years ago from CT, a petty usurer, led directly to his present condition as farm servant. At that time, the loan was taken for subsistence needs and was perceived as a temporary expedient. On account of a 120 percent interest rate, the loan of Rs 100 became a liability of Rs 220 over a year. The usurer pressed Selvam, then 31 years old, to sell his house in order to repay the loan. Selvam, refusing to abandon the family house site, went around asking for a way to work off his debt. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the landlord SCC. This landlord, who was looking for a young and strong farm servant, was willing to advance the money to clear the debt, provided Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month plus one sheet and a dhoti, a shirt, and a towel-cloth (thundu) a year.

Selvam took an advance of Rs 100 for going to work as a farm servant, and used that to clear just under half his debt. Then, after the first month of work, he took a loan of Rs 120 to clear the debt.

Since then, that is, for six years, Selvam has been working for well over 13 hours a day. He worked at the salary of Rs 65 a month for four years. Two years ago, when paddy prices soared to nearly Rs 150 per 58-kilogram bag, the farm servants in the village asked their employers for a raise. Selvam was given a wage rise that was long overdue: in 1977 he was paid Rs 110 a month.

SCC, like some other big landlords in the village, has found it much to his advantage to hire a farm servant in this way. He has advanced small sums of money to Selvam over the years, sums always taken “temporarily,” but with no real chance of the debtor repaying the debt and getting out of his present condition. Selvam makes it clear that he is not paid anything near the remuneration he should be getting for this work. “There is no choice,” he says, “I can’t leave my mudalali (employer, landlord) unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

In his childhood, Selvam was not as badly off as he is today. His father, Gabriel, was a poor or lower-middle peasant, cultivating surface-irrigated land that had been leased in from landlords of the village. His mother worked as a hired labourer.

His father sent Selvam to school. Selvam studied in the Mission School in Gokilapuram, down the road from where he lives today, up to the fifth class. He completed the sixth class at the NMR School in Gokilapuram. Selvam was a good student and his father sent him to Vatthalakundu, where Selvam studied in the seventh and eighth classes, finishing when he was 16 years old. He stayed at a hostel at Vatthalakundu, and his father sent him Rs 20 a month. Selvam returned to the village after finishing the eighth class. He can read and write Tamil and can still read some English.

Selvam’s father tilled 6 kuzhi (3.6 acres) of surface-irrigated land belonging to landlord ST on kuthagai (fixed rent) for 20 years. He also worked 1.5 acres of groundwater-irrigated land belonging to SP, a landlord of Uthamapalayam. Selvam also worked on the land leased in by the family. Selvam married when he was 20 years old. His wife, Alphonse, is from a family of tenant cultivators from Pudupatti in Uthamapalayam taluk.

In about 1967, there was a sharp decline in the agriculture conducted by the family. The surface-irrigated land had poor soil and bad drainage, and standing water after the rain affected the crop. The land was manured only for one crop, one of the reasons for the yield being poor. The groundwater-irrigated land had a well with plenty of water and had a pulley and rope to draw water with. But household cultivation was in decline, the family began to incur debt, and the age-old symbol of a peasant family heading towards destitution became apparent: the cattle owned by the family became thin and weak.

About the same time, eviction took place on a large scale in the village. Earlier, the paddy crops were the traditional parunnel and samba varieties; later, with the introduction of new seeds, yields were higher, and agriculture became more profitable for the landlords. There was also fear among them, Selvam said, that the tenants would assert their right to cultivate the land. Landlords brought pressure on the tenants to leave the land. Rents were raised, rack-rents were imposed on tenants. In some cases, landlords brought great pressure on tenants to leave, offering them small amounts of money to do so. The peasants were disunited, Selvam said, and, out of fear, accepted the money and left the land.

Agricultural Wage Work

Selvam made it clear that the big landlords can always bring pressure on agricultural labourers; as for agricultural labourers, there is little scope for their advance today. Opportunities for employment in some tasks have gone down since the arrival of tractors, Selvam pointed out. The tractor has robbed those with ploughs and bullocks of ploughing work, and those with carts and bullocks of work in basal manuring. Even during threshing, the tractor has deprived agricultural labourers of employment. While earlier, there would be four days’ work at the threshing-floor and four bullocks would be needed to trample the grain for the second threshing, now the tractor can be driven over the sheaves to complete the task in less than an hour.

Unemployment is high and wages are poor, and women’s wages have actually been brought down, from Rs 3 per day to Rs 2.50 per day. There was agitation by Communists five years ago in southern villages of the Valley, Selvam recalls, when men workers won an increase in their grain wages, from 4 measures per day to 5 measures, and women an increase to 3 measures for threshing.

While wages in the village do not vary directly with the caste of the worker, discrimination against the scheduled castes, the overwhelming majority of whom are landless labourers, is deeply entrenched. Most of the farm servants in the village are Dalit.

Selvam has an extremely busy working year. During the 1976-7 agricultural year, he worked on both crops of paddy on surface-irrigated land, in different operations in the cultivation of irrigated sorghum (cholam), finger millet (ragi), tomato, and banana on groundwater-irrigated land, and in little millet (samai) on unirrigated land. In addition to agricultural work every day, he did domestic tasks at the landlord’s house. Selvam’s wife Alphonse laboured at agricultural operations for 57 days in 1976-7, and earned Rs 158.70 as wages. She seeded and cleaned tamarind for 3 days, for which she earned Rs 7.50.

Selvam’s wage is lower than other farm servants in the village, some of whom are paid Rs 130 and Rs 140 by their landlord employers. But when Selvam asks for a wage increase, the landlord arrogantly insists: “I have already increased your wages. You used to get Rs 65, now you get 110.” The standard that SCC uses, Selvam says, is not the wage paid to other farm servants in the village, but the Rs 65 pittance that Selvam himself used to receive before he was paid Rs 110 a month.

When Selvam is unwell, the landlord may give Selvam a small amount of money to buy medicine, but he will not pay for treatment for Alphonse or the children when they fall ill.

As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet. “We do not know when this hut will be built,” Alphonse said. “We lay a few bricks, and it may be a few months before we can add more bricks. It may take years to complete the hut in this manner.”

With all this, Selvam must also face rudeness and shouts from the landlord, the loud arrogance of SCC as taskmaster of “his” farm servant.

“Life is difficult for me,” Selvam said. He sees his children at 5 a.m. (when he leaves the house), when the older children may be just beginning to wake up. It is seldom, and only in the slack season, that he comes home before they are asleep for the night. And the hours in between are filled with arduous, back-breaking labour that covers every task that an agricultural labourer in the village can perform.

I have seen Selvam, early in the morning, heaving farmyard manure on to a cart and driving the cart to the paddy-fields, unloading it in neat piles across the field. I have seen him, bare-chested, barefoot, and dressed in an old and torn lungi, with a soiled cloth on his head to protect him from the sun, walking with a hoe across his shoulder over the ridge east of the village on the road leading to SCC’s groundwater-irrigated field in neighbouring Anamalaiyanpatti. I have seen him at the field, cutting and clearing water channels before the electricity comes on and irrigation water rushes up; and in the banana field, hacking at the tough young shoots that grow by the banana trees, cutting dry and withered leaves off the tree, and straightening tree trunks with wooden props that have been chopped and shaped by him. I have seen him, in the evenings, working in SCC’s house, watering, feeding, and washing the cattle or chopping a tree trunk for firewood for SCC’s kitchen. I have seen him at the bus-stop in Uthamapalayam, straining to lift a motor pump, newly repaired, on to the carrier of a Gokilapuram-bound bus. Standing under a bus-shelter in Gokilapuram after 11 o’clock at night, I have heard the sound of a cart coming down the road from Anamalaiyanpatti. It is Selvam, urging the bullocks through pouring rain back to the house of SCC. I have seen him after 11.30 at night, rain smudging the red mud that clings to his face and body, entering his hut and eating gruel and pickle by the weak light of an oil lamp, and preparing to catch some sleep before the next day of labour begins.

Selvam states clearly that it is not “loyalty” that keeps him with the landlord. It is his debt and the difficulty of finding alternative employment if he were to leave. “I have heard of the union of agricultural labourers in East Thanjavur. A union is needed, unity of agricultural labourers is needed. If there were a union in Gokilapuram, I would join it.”

May 1977

2017: A Working Life

Selvam worked for a total of 13 years with SCC. When he left, he was paid a mere Rs 400 a month. Selvam said that about 4000 rupees were due to him and unpaid when he left SCC’s employment.

Selvam worked 15 years as a daily worker after he left the employment of SCC. Three years after he left, Selvam’s son Arokiyasami was married. Over the three years, Selvam spent one year as a worker in a cardamom estate in Parathodu in Kerala, owned by Shanmughavel of Pannaipuram.

Alphonse worked as a wage labourer all her working life, that is, until four years ago.

Ten years ago, Selvam began to work for Venkatesan, a retired college teacher. Selvam was hired at a wage of Rs 2000 a month. Venkatesan owns 10.8 acres of thottam land and 1.8 acres of nanjai land in the north of the village, on the banks of the Thamaraikulam irrigation tank, where he grows nendran banana and coconut.

Selvam comes to the field at 7 am every day, takes a break from about 11:00 to 2:30, and works again at the field till 6 pm. He takes care of the field, clears the channels for irrigation, works the locks of the pipes for drip irrigation, supervises and works with other wage workers at some operations (planting and harvest), and weeds and cleans the fields. He also keeps the main trunks of the banana trees free of unwanted side-shoots, and applies fertilizer and undertakes all other plant protection tasks.

After three years with the landlord, Selvam asked for a raise. His new wage was fixed at Rs 4,000 a month (the worker on the neighbouring field gets Rs 6,000 a month, he told us). The landlord agreed, and said that he would henceforth account for Selvam’s withdrawals against the new wage. For Selvam is not paid his wage on a fixed day every month. He takes money for expenses from the owner “whenever I need it,” for household expenses, for festivals. The employer says he is keeping an account; Selvam trusts him and says that he, too, keeps track of how much he has taken from the landlord. He estimates that he has credit of about Rs 10,000 with the landlord. There is no formal account of Selvam’s savings with the landlord.

Four years ago, Alphonse developed a swelling on her right knee. A doctor in Uthamapalayam gave her drugs and an injection, and the swelling “sank to her foot.” Blood and pus was drained with a large syringe from the foot. Alphonse was discharged from the hospital, and was told to spread an ointment on the wound. Selvam did this every day. Alphonse began to scratch the itchy wound before it had healed completely. She eats betel leaf and nuts with lime, and the lime paste on her finger began to inflame the wound. It turned septic. Selvam took her in his son Sekhar’s autorickshaw to Cumbum, where the doctor said that she needed emergency treatment at Theni. Alphonse was taken by ambulance to the Theni Government Medical College and Hospital, where the doctors advised emergency surgery. She had a second surgery, followed by a skin graft.

In the post-operative ward, Selvam watched people on the other beds, and began to realise the importance of dressing Alphonse’s wound correctly – that it was a task that needed an expert, something he could not do himself. He hired a person to change the bandage – at Rs 50 a day – for the three months they spent in the hospital.

Alphonse is back home now. She can move a bit – to the sitting platform in front of the house, to change her clothes, to go to the bathroom; but not more than that. “We do not know how long she will survive. She has never done anyone any wrong. When she goes, it will be to heaven.”

The Children

Arokiasamy (50), the oldest child of Selvam and Alphonse, works as a mason and has a small business as a contractor for constructing small houses. His wife, Sumathi, has a tenth class school-leaving certificate, and works in the panchayat office as a data collector. They have two children, a son, Maniprathi (22), now a student at a polytechnic in Namakkal, and a daughter, Sunitha (21). Sunitha completed a B. A. degree and is now married. Her husband works on the staff of a tea estate owned by N Ramakrishnan, former MLA from Cumbum.

Arokiamary (48), the only daughter of Selvam and Alphonse, is now almost completely blind. She looks after her parents and brother, the much-loved carer in the home.

Shekhar (46) lives in Gokilapuram. He owns an autorickshaw, from which he which earns an income of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a day. His wife, Thilakam, is a manual worker in agriculture and at non-agricultural tasks. Their children, Merlyn Marcia and Praveen, their grandparents’ joy, study in class 1 and class 2 in the English-language medium section of the Savarimuthu Udayar Memorial Higher Secondary School, a reputed school in the neighbouring village of Rayappanpatti.

Vedamuthu (44) stays at home with his parents. He is a person with intellectual disabilities, and is unable to go regularly to work.

Xavier (41), the youngest son of the family, works at loading and unloading bags of rice at the government civil supplies godown in Uthamapalayam. His wife Muthuarokiyam and he are now residents of Uthamapalayam, where his children Akhilesh, Vimalesh, and Pratibha go to school. Xavier earns 600 rupees a day, and an extra 1000 rupees a month for the manual work at the godown.

Forty Years On

Selvam and family live today in the house whose initial construction costs led him into bondage in 1977. It is completed and expanded now, a neat whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker. They were exploited and extremely poor – near destitute – in 1977. Today, they are still poor, Selvam’s wages are low, and he has no knowledge of how much of his earned wages are held by his employer. But he is no longer destitute, no longer in bondage, and no longer at the mercy of a harsh and cruel landlord of the old type.

They are better off now than they were in 1977 – oh yes, of course we are, Selvam says. Our house is complete, and we never go hungry, we have special things to eat: egg curry twice a week, chicken on Sundays, fish once in about twenty days. Thanks to the public system for the distribution of cereal, there is enough rice for the family. The house has been electrified (Selvam says that they received their electricity connection at the same time, conveniently, as their son Arokiasami’s wedding).

I have continued to meet Selvam over the years. I was associated with resurveys of Gokilapuram village in 1986 and 1999, and continue to be interested in changing agrarian relations in the village and region. I return to the Cumbum Valley regularly for tasks connected with the Gokilapuram Educational Trust, an organisation of which the honoree of this volume is a founder trustee. Travel to the Valley gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with Selvam; as we grow older, we grow more conscious of the value of old friendships.

Selvam asks me if I remember the little kerosene lamp (of course I do — made of tin and with a flimsy glass chimney) that I used during our survey in 1977. I used it after dark during conversations and interviews in homes that had no electricity. You gave it to me when you left the village after the survey, he says. After electricity came to the house Selvam stored the lamp deep in a loft, where it remains today. He keeps it as a reminder of his friend — and of the days when they had only a single lamp for light in a half-constructed house.

December 2017

Regulatory failure and the 737 MAX disasters

The recent crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft raise questions about the safety certification process through which this modified airframe was certified for use by the FAA. Recent accounts of the design and manufacture of the aircraft demonstrate an enormous pressure for speed and great pressure to reduce costs. Attention has focused on a software system, MCAS, which was a feature needed to adapt to the aerodynamics created by repositioning of larger engines on the existing 737 body. The software was designed to automatically intervene to prevent stall if a single sensor in the nose indicated unacceptable angle of ascent. The crash investigations are not complete, but current suspicions are that the pilots in the two aircraft were unable to control or disable the nose-down response of the system in the roughly 40 seconds they had to recover control of the aircraft. (James Fallows provides a good and accessible account of the details of the development of the 737 MAX in a story in the Atlanticlink.)

The question here concerns the regulatory background of the aircraft: was the certification process through which the 737 MAX was certified to fly a sufficiently rigorous and independent one?

Thomas Kaplan details in a New York Times article the division of responsibility that has been created in the certification process over the past several decades between the FAA and the manufacturer (NYT 3/27/19). Under this program, the FAA delegates a substantial part of the work of certification evaluation to the manufacturer and its engineering staff. Kaplan writes:

In theory, delegating much of the day-to-day regulatory work to Boeing allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on the most critical safety work, taps into existing industry technical expertise at a time when airliners are becoming increasingly complex, and allows Boeing in particular to bring out new planes faster at a time of intense global competition with its European rival Airbus.

However, it is apparent to both outsiders and insiders that this creates the possibility of impairing the certification process by placing crucial parts of the evaluation in the hands of experts whose interests and careers lie in the hands of the corporation whose product they are evaluating. This is an inherent conflict of interest for the employee, and it is potentially a critical flaw in the process from the point of view of safety. (See an earlier post on the need for an independent and empowered safety officer within complex and risky processes; link.)

Senator Richard Blumenthal (Connecticut) highlighted this concern when he wrote to the inspector general last week: “The staff responsible for regulating aircraft safety are answerable to the manufacturers who profit from cutting corners, not the American people who may be put at risk.”

A 2011 audit report from the Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office highlighted exactly this kind of issue: “The report cited an instance where FAA engineers were concerned about the ‘integrity’ of an employee acting on the agency’s behalf at an unnamed manufacturer because the employee was ‘advocating a position that directly opposed FAA rules on an aircraft fuel system in favor of the manufacturer’.” The article makes the point that Congress has encouraged this program of delegation in order to constrain budget requirements for the federal agency.

Kaplan notes that there is also a worrisome degree of exchange of executive staff between the FAA and the airline industry, raising the possibility that the industry’s priorities about cost and efficiency may unduly influence the regulatory agency:

The part of the FAA under scrutiny, the Transport Airplane Directorate, was led at the time by an aerospace engineer names Ali Bahrami. The next year, he took a job at the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group whose members include Boeing. In that position, he urged his former agency to allow manufacturers like Boeing to perform as much of the work of certifying new planes as possible. Mr. Bahrami is now back at the FAA as its top safety official.

This episode illustrates one of the key dysfunctions of organizations that have been highlighted elsewhere here: the workings of conflict of commitment and interest within an organization, and the ability that the executives of an organization have to impose behavior and judgment on their employees that are at odds with the responsibilities these individuals have to other important social goods, including airline safety. The episode has a lot in common with the sequence of events leading to the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger (Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA).

Charles Perrow has studied system failure extensively since publication of his important book, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and extending through his 2011 book The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. In a 2015 article, “Cracks in the ‘regulatory state'” (link), he summarizes some of his concerns about the effectiveness of the regulatory enterprise. The abstract of the article shows its relevance to the current case: 

Over the last 30 years, the U.S. state has retreated from its regulatory responsibility over private-sector economic activities. Over the same period, a celebratory literature, mostly in political science, has developed, characterizing the current period as the rise of the regulatory state or regulatory capitalism. The notion of regulation in this literature, however, is a perverse one—one in which regulators mostly advise rather than direct, and industry and firm self- regulation is the norm. As a result, new and potentially dangerous technologies such as fracking or mortgage backed derivatives are left unregulated, and older necessary regulations such as prohibitions are weakened. This article provides a joint criticism of the celebratory literature and the deregulation reality, and strongly advocates for a new sociology of regulation that both recognizes and documents these failures. (203)

The 2015 article highlights some of the precise sources of failure that seem to be evident in the 737 MAX case. “Government assumes a coordinating rather than a directive role, in this account, as regulators draw upon industry best practices, its standard-setting proclamations, and encourage self-monitoring” (203). This is precisely what current reporting demonstrates about the FAA relationship to the manufacturers.

One of the key flaws of self-monitoring is the lack of truly independent inspectors:

Part of the problem stems from the failure of firms to select truly independent inspectors. Firms can, in fact, select their own inspectors—for example, firemen or police from the local areas who are quite conscious of the economic power of the local chemical firm they are to inspect. (205)

Here again, the Boeing 737 MAX certification story seems to illustrate this defect as well. How serious are these “cracked regulatory institutions”? According to Perrow they are deadly serious. Here is Perrow’s summary assessment about the relationship between regulatory failure and catastrophe:

Almost every major industrial accident in recent times has involved either regulatory failure or the deregulation demanded by business and industry. For more examples, see Perrow (2011). It is hard to make the case that the industries involved have failed to innovate because of federal regulation; in particular, I know of no innovations in the safety area that were stifled by regulation. Instead, we have a deregulated state and deregulated capitalism, and rising environmental problems accompanied by growing income and wealth inequality. (210)

In short, we seem to be at the beginning of an important reveal of the cost of neoliberal efforts to minimize regulation and to pass the responsibility for safety significantly to the manufacturer. 

(Baldwin, Cave, and Lodge provide a good exposure to current thinking about government regulation in Understanding Regulation: Theory, Strategy, and Practice, 2nd Edition. Their Oxford Handbook of Regulation also provides excellent resources on this topic.)

%d bloggers like this: