Recent posts have considered the question of whether liberal democracy is stable, or whether the assaults on liberal democracy by the populist far-right are likely to further undermine democratic institutions and values. In particular, I have considered the question of whether democracy generates its own supporting political psychology (as Rawls seems to believe), with citizens in a just society coming to have the moral emotions necessary to sustain robust public support for democratic institutions and arrangements. I’ve been using the phrase “civic loyalty” to capture the ensemble of political emotions that might serve to reinforce the stability of a democracy.
But there is a prior question to explore before we get to esoteric reasoning about democratic social psychology: is liberal democracy an attractive ideal for most ordinary people? Do the institutions and values of liberal democracy hang together as a durable system that would give virtually all clear-headed people a reason to prefer democracy over available alternatives — let us say, illiberal democracy or populist authoritarian rule?
Suppose we define liberal democracy as a political system in which there are strong protections for the rights and liberties of all citizens, including minority groups, and which embody effective institutions of electoral representative democracy and equal rights of political participation. Now the question is a relatively simple one: assuming this kind of political system is functioning as advertised, would citizens find these arrangements satisfying and fulfilling, and would they develop civic loyalty in their support? Are these institutions valued by the citizens who live in countries in which they are present? Would every citizen have an interest or inclination in supporting the continuing effectiveness of this set of constraints and institutions?
The results of recent public opinion research are not encouraging. For example, a 2020 Pew Research study (link) based on a 2019 Global Attitudes Survey across many countries showed declining levels of satisfaction with democracy among citizens in numerous countries, with 59% of US respondents “not satisfied” against 39% of US respondents “satisfied”. And the “not satisfied” numbers are comparable or worse for France, Spain, Italy, UK, Bulgaria, and Greece. The highest levels of satisfaction with democracy found in the study include Sweden (72%), Netherlands (68%), Canada (66%), Poland (66%), and Germany (65%).
These levels of dissatisfaction are surprising and disturbing. For most of the decades since the end of World War II the common assumption among observers is that the great majority of the population are satisfied and grateful for the freedoms and the rights of political participation that we have in the United States. It is surprising to discover in the past two decades, then, that satisfaction with this system of freedoms and political participation has fallen in the general population; and it is ominous to recognize that there are well-organized political movements in the United States and elsewhere — right-wing populist movements — that reject the premises of human equality and democratic participation that underlie our political system.
This seems to imply that liberal democracy does not automatically generate the political psychology it needs for stability — at least not in a super-majority of its citizens. Instead, maintaining the conditions of a liberal democracy is itself a problem of democratic politics and strategy. And very deliberate conservative, anti-liberal politicians have been making the opposite case for several decades in the United States. The undermining of confidence and faith in democratic institutions by the GOP and Fox News did not begin in 2016.
In other words, the program of supporting liberal democracy and the political rights and liberties it encompasses is now just one more topic of political conflict. The values of equality, liberty, and unity as a nation are now up for debate. Democrats advocate for the institutions and values of democracy, and right-wing populists actively advocate for a vision of the future in which those institutions and values play a diminished or even vanished role.
Democrats and progressives have largely believed that the political contest in the United States between “liberals” and “conservatives” is over specific legislative policies: taxation, environmental regulation, use of force by police, limitations on the extent of inequalities, and so on. But actually, it seems apparent that the contest now must also include marshaling support for our constitutional democracy itself: the integrity of elections, equal voting rights for all citizens, constitutional protections of individual rights and freedoms. We do not currently have a broad consensus about the value and inviolability of our constitutional democracy throughout the whole population. We seem to have evolved into a country which is divided between the party of democracy and the party of minority rule by any means possible. This must be addressed through political means.
Parties, politicians, civic organizations, and citizens who favor the institutions of liberal democracy must therefore take an active role in building political consensus around our democratic institutions. They must persuasively make the case to enough of the rest of the population to maintain broad and deep commitment to the values of constitutional protections of our rights and the institutional fairness of our electoral processes. They must build the case through mobilization, communication, and leadership in ways that inspire millions to share their cause. They must persuade other citizens to support the agenda of liberal democracy and to resist the suasion of the illiberal parties, the authoritarians, and the hate-based parties. (This is the thrust of the very interesting report released this year by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the Twenty-first Century (link).)
The election of 2020 has a clear lesson for people who care about democracy in America. We now need to actively build and mobilize mass support for our democratic institutions, across all segments of our population. It is an open question whether we will be able to succeed in doing that, and if we fail, the future of our democracy is in doubt.
But there is another important lesson about legitimacy that emerges from the recent fortunes of liberal democracy: that political justice — constitutional protections of rights and liberties — by itself is probably insufficient to generate strong satisfaction and civic loyalty among the great majority of citizens. People are concerned about economic justice and fairness as well as political rights and electoral democracy. American society (and perhaps French and British society as well) has fallen behind on issues of economic justice, with rapidly rising inequalities between rich and poor, declining availability of “middle class” jobs in an increasingly globalized economy, declining opportunities for social mobility for people in the bottom 50% or more of the economic ladder, and continuing discrimination and disparity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. These are some of the factors that observers like Justin Gest have highlighted in explanation of “white working class disaffection” with the existing order, and it is hard to see how broad civic loyalty will be rekindled until there is a broader reality of social equality, equality of opportunity, and solidarity across all segments of society that would allow all members of society to believe that “democracy and wellbeing are for all of us”. Protecting our liberal democracy means taking concrete, meaningful measures through legislation to increase the basic economic fairness of our market economy.
Why should we revere our constitution as the fundamental set of political and moral principles underlying our democracy? Is it simply because it was written and adopted by the “Framers”? Is it because it has legitimacy as a whole by having been democratically ratified through our history? Or, most fundamentally, is it because there are compelling arguments of political morality for various of the individual stipulations of the constitution and the Bill of Rights? This latter view is essentially the position advocated by Ronald Dworkin as a fundamental premise of constitutional interpretation in Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. Here is a clear statement of Dworkin’s view of the moral interpretation of the US Constitution:
The book … illustrates a particular way of reading and enforcing a political constitution, which I call the moral reading. Most contemporary constitutions declare individual rights against the government in very broad and abstract language, like the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress shall make no law abridging “the freedom of speech.” The moral reading proposes that we all–judges, lawyers, citizens–interpret and apply these abstract clauses on the understanding that they invoke moral principles about political decency and justice. The First Amendment, for example, recognizes a moral principle–that it is wrong for government to censor or control what individual citizens say or publish–and incorporates it into American law. So when some novel or controversial constitutional issue arises–about whether, for instance, the First Amendment permits laws against pornography–people who form an opinion must decide how an abstract moral principle is best understood. They must decide whether the true ground of the moral principle that condemns censorship, in the form in which this principle has been incorporated into American law, extends to the case of pornography. (2)
Dworkin formulates this idea at the level of constitutional interpretation; but his view also extends to the issue of legitimacy and authority of constitutional provisions as well.
Christopher Peters characterizes this topic as the problem of “constitutional authority” (link), and his major law review article on the subject is well worth reading. Constitutional authority is important because it is the feature that gives us a reason to consider a constitutional provision normatively and legally binding. Peters argues for a procedural theory of constitutional authority: a constitutional provision has authority if it was enacted in a procedurally correct way, and lacks authority if it was not so enacted (439).
I contend that the only plausible justification of constitutional authority is not substantive in this sense, but rather procedural: it requires obedience to the Constitution, not because of what it commands, but because of how it commands us—that is, because of the process by which constitutional commands are generated. (439)
He contrasts this with the “substantive” theory of constitutional authority exemplified by Dworkin, which he emphatically rejects. In particular, he argues for a condition of “content-independence” for constitutional authority: “An authority’s right to be obeyed also exists regardless of the moral content of what the authority is commanding…. A command possesses authority if it imposes a defeasible content-independent moral obligation to act as the command directs” (442, 446).
For a variety of reasons, I like aspects of both substantive and procedural theories about the authority of constitutional provisions. There is a special force to provisions like freedom of speech or freedom of religion that goes beyond the force of merely reasonable institutional stipulations. So it is pertinent to ask about the moral status (as does Dworkin) of various constitutional provisions. We might say, most generally, that there ought to be consistency between our constitution and our best understanding of the requirements of a just society.
If we take the moral interpretation of constitutional authority seriously, we are faced with a potential problem. What if we discover for one or more stipulations, that there is in fact no underlying moral consideration for that provision? What if one or more constitutional provisions appears to be entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view? And in fact, when we consider this question, we find ourselves in exactly this position. Some provisions — freedom of speech and religion, procedural protections against search and arbitrary arrest — can be justified on the basis of a more fundamental conception of the requirements of a society consisting of free and equal moral beings. Other provisions may be justified as reasonable institutional arrangements — right to a jury trial, right to stand for president at the age of 35, which seem to derive authority from the kinds of substantive reasoning Peters describes. These are provisions that Peters describes as legitimate procedural specifications. But others — like the right to bear arms or form a citizens’ militia — have no such basis. They are morally arbitrary, much as might have been a constitutional right to live near a grocery store. And yet other provisions are now seen to be flatly immoral — for example, the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, section 2). The inclusion of arbitrary or immoral provisions in the Constitution, we might say, was a mistake on the part of the Framers, and it should now be corrected.
Peters considers the constitutional authority of the Second Amendment in extensive detail through the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the controversial Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of restrictions on firearms in the District of Columbia. He believes that a constitutional provision without authority simply does not bind citizens or lawmakers: “The Second Amendment thus brings front and center the question, not merely of how the Court should interpret constitutional rights, but of why— indeed whether—those rights ought to bind us at all” (438). His most extensive argument about constitutional authority is flatly contradictory to the idea of a moral justification for constitutional provisions (Dworkin’s position). So he considers instead whether there is a procedural justification for the Second Amendment.
The procedural approach requires showing that the provision reduces or resolves important public conflicts by reducing bias or entrenchment by powerful majorities. Applying this approach to the Second Amendment, Peters finds that, on the central public interpretations of the meaning of the amendment (individual self-defense and resistance to tyranny), there is no such justification. The first concern should be addressed through ordinary majoritarian legislation, and the second is self-contradictory. (How could there be a constitutional right to disobey the constitution?) Peters does find a procedural justification for the amendment, however, in Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion in the majority ruling. Stevens ties the amendment to the “public militia” part of the language, and argues that this entails that the amendment serves a narrow scope: to ensure that states are empowered to maintain their own armed “militia” forces. This interpretation would lend constitutional authority to the amendment; but it would strip the amendment of the implication that democratically elected legislators lack legal authority to regulate or limit individual ownership, possession, and use of firearms.
This line of thought leads to a fairly remarkable and simple idea: the citizens of the United States ought to amend or abolish the Second Amendment. We respect the Constitution as the law of the land, but we also stipulate a process for revising or amending the constitution. And we might hold that only those provisions that hold up as justified moral requirements should be sacrosanct. There is no moral basis for the right to bear arms, it does not express a reasonable institutional arrangement, and it has shown itself to lead to deleterious social effects.
There is another moral consideration for the authority of existing constitutional provisions that has force — the idea of loyalty to the constitution as the fundamental governing document of the United States’ democracy. Our democratic obligations as citizens entail our commitment to the rule of law, and the constitution represents the most general framework of law in our system of government. Therefore we are morally or normatively bound by existing constitutional provisions — which means that even though we may think that the Second Amendment is morally ungrounded and institutionally perverse, we are bound to accept its authority until amended. This does not mean we are compelled to accept the extreme reading offered by conservatives about the scope and implications of the amendment concerning unfettered gun ownership and carrying; this is precisely the question of interpretation that constitutional lawyers argue about. But the general line of reasoning has force; it is part and parcel of the idea of being bound by a system of law that citizens within a democracy are subject to the authority of laws (including constitutional provisions) that have been duly enacted. Individual citizens or legislatures do not have the legal option of picking and choosing the constitutional and legal principles that they will accept. And the remedy to constitutional provisions that we find morally or socially odious is clear; it is the mechanism of constitutional amendment (as the Thirteenth Amendment largely negated the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV, section 2 through its abolition of slavery throughout the nation).
Donald Trump’s attack on the electoral system has gone far beyond normal and evidence-based legal challenges to details about the election and the vote counting. There is nothing normal or inconsequential about the president’s current tactics or the support he receives from influential Republican officials. Trump and his supporters are now undertaking to reverse the election results in several states by encouraging elected officials to “throw out” the voting results from their states and send a slate of electoral representatives to the Electoral College who will vote for Donald Trump and Mike Pence rather than Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the winners of the popular vote in their states. Senator Lindsay Graham has been accused by Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger of suggesting that he should throw out votes from certain areas. (Citizens everywhere, not just in Georgia, owe Raffensperger deep gratitude for his integrity in the performance of his duties.) Donald Trump himself is pressuring legislators and local officials in Michigan to throw out the vote from Wayne County and to send Trump electoral representatives to the Electoral College. Shameful, and racist!
This is a truly horrifying, public, and shameless assault on the most fundamental institutions and values of a democracy: the voters decide the outcomes of elections. The fact that Trump would act in this shameful way is unsurprising, because he has a lifelong record of immoral and unprincipled behavior. He plainly cares nothing about our country’s values, institutions, or citizens; he cares only about his own power and self-image. The fact that Republican elected officials fail to rise up and express — clearly, strongly, and courageously — their unwavering and unqualified support for our democratic electoral institutions is simply nauseating. They bring lasting shame upon themselves, and upon their party. Senators Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah), thank you for your integrity and patriotism in publicly rejecting the president’s effort at seizing authoritarian power. Your Republican colleagues in the Senate must join you.
In the state of Michigan, our most senior legislators — House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey — have been invited to the White House to be influenced by the president in their conduct of their sworn duties in Michigan. Speaker Chatfield and Majority Leader Shirkey, the citizens of your state demand that you reject this overture and clearly express the plain truth: Michigan voted decisively in favor of Joe Biden over Donald Trump, and the process will be governed by that fact. This is your duty. Anything less will be a permanent and unforgettable stain on your character.
Let’s be clear. None of the president’s claims about voter fraud or fraudulent practices in vote counting have been supported by evidence. The legal cases have almost entirely collapsed; they were withdrawn in Michigan; they were meritless. Earlier this week the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, disgraced and humiliated himself in Federal court in Pennsylvania by making wild and unsupported claims that reflected mental confusion about the facts of his own case. He showed himself to be a dangerous, unprincipled clown.
The argument that some Republican politicians are making today, that Trump’s efforts are certain to fail and that he is simply thrashing around like an enraged five-year-old child, completely misses the point. Attempting a coup is horrible and unforgivable, whether or not it is successful. And our leaders need to stand up and forcefully “pledge allegiance” to our institutions and explicitly reject the president’s authoritarian power grab.
This is the time for all citizens and elected officials to declare themselves unambiguously. Do we support our democracy? Will we resist and refuse any effort to negate the results of the 2020 election? Will we express rock-solid support for the integrity of the vote that occurred and the equal weight of all votes — black, brown, white, rich, poor, conservative, and liberal? Do we honor our constitution and our democratic freedoms?
As citizens, we must face a crucial reality: our democracy is under terrible threat. If any votes are cancelled or overridden by Republican-dominated legislatures — in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, or any other state — we must soberly realize that we have passed the point of letter-writing and quiet disapproval. Only massive civil disobedience, pro-democracy demonstrations, and courage and persistence will do. The citizens of Belarus and Thailand have shown the way; we must follow their example. The president’s current efforts at reversing the votes in key states must be firmly rejected; and, if he were to succeed in retaining power, we must steel ourselves for a very long period of non-violent civil protest and disobedience.
I am spending several weeks in one of my courses on the struggle in South Africa to bring the apartheid system to an end. This is a struggle many of us remember well from the 1970s and 1980s, largely because it became a leading issue for activists in the United States as well as many other places in the world. But — as I’ve come to understand about the Holocaust and other atrocities of the twentieth century as well — the ideas that many Americans had about the evils of apartheid were vastly oversimplified and uninformed. The apartheid regime was racist, it was neo-colonial, it was oppressive, and it was violent. But these descriptions, though true enough, fail to capture the human reality of the system of apartheid. And for that reason, even well-intentioned advocates tended to fail to understand the human evil that this system represented.
It is possible that every instance of widespread injustice and suffering has this same problem. The plight of Syrian refugee children is horrendous, and it is horrendous for each child and parent in a very specific and poignant human way. And yet we subsume this vast human situation of suffering under a single phrase, “the refugee crisis”. What is needed in order to allow distant human cousins to deeply empathize with these suffering children, and to commit to substantial, meaningful ways to steps that would ameliorate or end the circumstances that bring about their suffering? What is needed in order to come to a more adequate human and historical understanding of circumstances like these?
In the case of the apartheid system, one important step is to learn more exactly about the magnitude of the suffering: the vast numbers of black South Africans whose liberties and lives were truncated, the depth of poverty and hopelessness created in each family in a black “homeland” or shanty-town, the shameful differences in wages between white and black workers, the health disparities and childhood mortality rates — in short, the full range of circumstances that flow from oppression and exploitation. And it is crucial to understand the fundamental racism that underlay the system, the fundamental assumptions of white European superiority.
This is where history comes in. Historians help us understand these human realities in more than the shorthand ways that we often navigate the world. They help us increase the scope and complexity of the moral frameworks within which we understand the world — of the present as well as the past. They educate and deepen us by providing some of the important facts about various historical events, some of the ways that those events were experienced by the men, women, and children who lived through them, and some ways of asking the question, why? Why did apartheid arise? Why did Stalin and the Soviet regime engineer the mass starvation of the Ukrainian peasants? Why are millions of innocent people from Iraq, Syria, or Palestine forced to trudge away from their homes to find refuge somewhere else? Why and how did the Nazi regime undertake the murder of Europe’s Jews? When people read history they come to think and understand differently; one would like to think they become more fully human in their capacity for compassion and understanding.
This seems to be one of Marc Bloch’s central contributions in his reflections about “the historian’s craft”: historians have the task of understanding human beings as actors in time, and in uncovering the nature of human experience in dramatically different times and places. Consequently the Annales school took the subject of the mentalité of people in the past very seriously as an object of investigation. Here is a brief description from an earlier post:
Historians of the Annales school gave special attention to the task of reconstructing the mentalité of people and groups of the past. Durkheim’s ideas about the social world seem to be in the background in the focus offered by Marc Bloch or Jacques Le Goff on this aspect of history’s tapestry — though the Annales approach seems to be more psychological than Durkheim would have preferred. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, for example, sought to capture the mentalité of the peasants of Montaillou in his book of that title, offering substantial commentary on their attitudes towards death, sex, and religion. Lawrence Stone writes of Le Roy Ladurie’s “sheer brilliance in the use of a unique document to reconstruct in fascinating detail a previously totally unknown world, the mental, emotional, sexual, and religious life of late thirteenth-century peasants in a remote Pyrennean village” (review by Lawrence Stone). (link)
Mentalité is not exactly the same as “lived experience”, but the two concepts have a great deal in common. And if we can come to understand the mental frameworks and meanings of the actors during these periods of intense human experience, we come much closer to having a genuine human understanding of the historical event as well.History can have this effect on us. But so can literature — novels, poetry, and theatre that creatively seek to inspire in readers and viewers some of the understanding and pity that we often lack in our everyday lives. Novels are not the same as historical books; they have different standards of “authenticity” and truth; but they have the capacity to take the reader into a world very far from home. And this ability of literature and fiction to create a vivid experience of a different world for readers is profoundly deepening for each person who engages with Rufus in Another Country, or Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago, or Joseph K in The Trial.
But here is the really hard question for anyone who cares about education: how is that deepened understanding of the past, and the human significance of some of the horrible events in our history — how is that understanding supposed to come about for young people in the United States? In practical terms, what intellectual and educational experiences can children, adolescents, and young adults be expected to have that will lead them to deepen their understandings of the history of our world, and our moral place in that world? How can they be expected to come to see the difference between “apartheid” (the label to which they have been exposed very superficially) and apartheid (the human reality and fundamental injustice that a system of racial oppression represented)?
This month represents the end of the thirteenth year of publication of Understanding Society. Since 2010 the blog has received 11,874,515 pageviews. (Pageviews increased quickly through 2018, and have declined and stablized in 2019 and 2020.) So far the blog has published 1,340 posts and about 1.3 million words. (That’s about the length of thirteen normal academic books — the better part of a bookshelf!) It is quite amazing to me to look back on the many topics, books, and intellectual figures that have come in for discussion here on Understanding Society over these years. In 2007 I described this undertaking as a form of “open source philosophy,” a kind of lab notebook that allowed me to work on some of the topics and ideas that interested me without waiting for a sabbatical to write a book. As I formulated the idea of the blog at the very beginning, “It is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time.” It has proven to be just that.
During these years I can see that my interests and ideas have evolved almost continuously. In 2007 I would primarily have identified myself as a philosopher of social science, interested in ideas such as microfoundations, causal mechanisms, contingency, and social plasticity. These topics continue to interest me. But now I consider myself (perhaps immodestly) as a philosopher who contributes to the social sciences. My emphasis has shifted a bit from philosophical reflection to an effort to make concrete and useful contributions to substantive issues of social concern to all of us. In recent years I have come to focus on more concrete problems in the social world that we share — for example, organizational causes of technology failure, the risks to democracy created by radical populism, the systemic causes of government failures, and the persistence of systemic racism in our country. Just now I described this as a shift of disciplinary perspective on my part; but maybe it is better to simply describe it as a non-disciplinary attempt to understand various things about the social world.
In fact, I have come to realize that these substantive topics, though not contained within traditional definitions of philosophical inquiry, are all areas where a philosopher can make a substantive contribution. It is certainly true that there is a crucial empirical and sociological dimension to each of these topics that cannot be treated in the apriori way that philosophers often approach subjects. Nonetheless, if a philosopher is willing to make the effort to learn in some detail the empirical and theoretical issues that each of these topics involves, it is possible to contribute to better understanding of the nature of these complex social phenomena. Here is a post where I try to show how philosophy is relevant to the subject of technology failure; link. The results are not “pure philosophy”, and neither are they novel empirical discoveries based on original sociological investigation. Instead, we might describe the results of this kind of work as integrative and exploratory. Work like this is integrative because it is cross-disciplinary and allows the engaged philosopher to see connections from one field of research to another that are sometimes more difficult to perceive from within the parameters of a single discipline. It is exploratory because philosophy encourages us to think about topics like these in ways that are perhaps somewhat more angular and idiosyncratic than traditional experts in these fields might take.
Consider the wide range of topics considered in the blog over the past year: the threat to democracy posed by right-wing populism; new thinking in the philosophy of history; new analysis of the social causes of technology failures; racism and police abuse towards young black men; genocide and the Holocaust; agent-based models of social phenomena; the philosophy of technology; and the social ontology of organizations. There is a pleasing diversity in this range of topics. But there is also a surprising degree of continuity over time with respect to some topics — for example, safety, organizations, democracy, populism, and racism. Since the beginning I’ve used “category labels” and keywords for each post, to allow the reader to quickly filter the posts on a given topic. (For example, here are dozens of posts on “democracy and hate”; link.) This way of organizing the blog is found in the right sidebar, under the label “Themes”, and all the labels can be found under “Labels”.
One thing that has become clear to me is how valuable it is for me personally to take the time to try to express a certain idea or topic while it is fresh. Spending an hour or two formulating, researching, and testing an idea in one thousand words is a great way of further developing the idea; but even more fundamentally, it is a great way of capturing the idea. For example, the post I wrote about “Responsible Innovation” (link) resulted from a serendipitous invitation to a publisher’s book party in Milan while I was there in January 2020. One of the book’s editors, René von Schomberg, talked with great conviction about the book. I then read a number of chapters and wrote the post. I identified some of the ways in which this European initiative on technology parallels developments in the philosophy of technology in the United States — as well as ways in which it is distinctly different. But in hindsight one thing is clear to me: I now realize that if I hadn’t put these ideas on “paper” at the time, the details and insights would have escaped me by now. That is the value of a “philosopher’s lab notebook”.
It is interesting for me to think about the specific experiences that led me to focus on the particular questions I’ve taken up over the years. In the past year or so, returning to full-time teaching has been very stimulating for me, and many topics I’ve considered in the blog have arisen as a result of preparation for my courses. For example, designing a course in the philosophy of technology in 2019 led me to think about how technologies of flood control on the Mississippi River illustrate many of the key problems in the philosophy of technology; thinking about Eichmann and Bonhoeffer in an honors class has led me to do a lot more reading and to think differently about the Holocaust; and teaching a course about democracy and the politics of hate has led me to think (and read) about current theories about authoritarian personality. Another source of stimulation comes from interacting with colleagues in other places, including Milan, Tianjin, Paris, and British Columbia. My accidental friendship with Thai Professor Chaiyan Rajchagool led to some interesting thinking about “global history” — I met Chaiyan at a philosophy conference at Nankai University and I then read his history of the Thai monarchy, which I liked very much. And right here in Michigan, leisurely conversations with George Steinmetz during his recovery from a bike accident have led to many new insights into studying the Holocaust. Interactions with smart, interesting people have always given me new ideas to explore in the blog.
When I began the blog I thought it might gain a regular following. And in a limited sense, that has turned out to be true — on any given day there are a few hundred “returning visitors” who visit the blog on a regular basis, and there are several thousand followers on Twitter and Facebook. But it’s not the New York Review of Books! The vast majority of pageviews are generated by search engines, bringing visitors looking for some information or commentary on topics like “social structure”, “power”, “assemblages theory”, “Steven Lukes”, or hundreds of other search terms. Visits are therefore highly random. In the past few minutes, for example, visitors have opened pages on “Epicurus’s philosophy”, “The rise of Austro-fascism”, “Methodological individualism”, “Causal narratives about historical actors”, and “Hofstadter on the American right”. (Another growing source of visits is the learning platforms like Blackboard and Canvas, as instructors have increasingly linked to specific posts as reading assignments in their courses.) In the past twelve months the top posts have been:
Lukes on power (15K)
Liquid modernity? 14.5K)
Sociology as a social science discipline (10.6K)
Dynamics of medieval cities (9.3K)
The global city — Saskia Sassen (8.7K)
Power and social class (8.0K)
A modern world-system? (7.8K)
Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics (7.7K)
Social science and social problems (5.5K)
Philosophy and society (4.7K)
I’m glad the blog has survived through four presidential elections, one pandemic, a massive global recession, and so many other social and political events that are worth reflecting about. I hope to continue writing and posting for years to come. What do they call a twentieth anniversary when it comes around in 2027?
There is something encouraging about the health of American democracy on Election Day, 2020. That is the passion for our democracy that so many millions of US citizens have shown in coming out to vote — either through early voting or in-person voting on November 3. This is not an apathetic electorate this season; rather, men and women of all ages and races are engaged in very personal ways in this crucial election. Our fellow citizens care about the stakes in this election — government incompetence and inaction in this time of pandemic, horrifying signs of racism and authoritarianism in the president’s speeches, tweets, and actions, rising economic inequalities and limited economic opportunity, and the president’s visible disdain for the values and institutions of our democracy itself. And, by their determination to make their vote count, they express also their patriotic commitment to our democratic institutions and history. Current projections suggest that this week’s voter turnout, currently projected at 66.3%, is the highest we have seen since 1908. These are indeed echoes of the “mystic chords of memory”.
Also reassuring is the fact that Tuesday’s voting appears to have been calm and peaceful in virtually all parts of the country. This is a happy development given the concern many Americans had about the possibility of voter intimidation, armed “poll watchers”, and civil unrest. No National Guard, no menacing truckloads of Trump supporters driving around on the highways, no Proud Boys. But of course that is before the final results come in.
The amazing number of early-voting ballots, including vote-by-mail, drop-box, and in-person early voting in many states is also an important development. This surge is a response to the pandemic, but it also suggests the possibility of a more permanent shift in voter behavior. It is the more remarkable in light of the full-court press mounted by President Trump and his supporters to undermine confidence in vote-by-mail ballots. This can be a very important shift in voter behavior by broadening voter participation and reducing some forms of voter suppression. Broader voter participation enhances democracy.
Also noteworthy is the calm competence of state election officials around the country, persisting in their rigorous, fair, and legally governed work of counting ballots. This is part of the sinews and skeleton of our democratic system, and officials throughout the country have demonstrated their integrity and competence in carrying out the work of democracy. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has been especially noteworthy in her calm and judicious oversight of the highly pressurized work of ballot counting in Michigan.
What is grossly repellent, and yet clearly telegraphed weeks in advance, is Trump’s brazen refusal to accept the legitimacy of the electoral process, still underway, and his groundless demand early Wednesday morning that he has won the election. With millions of votes still to be counted, this insistent and ungrounded assertion — repeated still several days later — represents a fundamental assault on our democracy. And to assault our democracy is not only to dismiss the democratic rights of all Americans who had already voted and whose votes must be counted; it is to assault all Americans. Every citizen — whether Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Green — has a fundamental interest in the integrity of our electoral institutions. The president’s lies and his continuing efforts to undermine public confidence in the voting process show him to be truly antagonistic to all Americans, including his own party’s supporters. Can any person be said to be patriotic and loyal to our country when he commits such brazen, purely self-interested acts of sabotage against our most fundamental democratic institutions? Surely not. And the fact that at least two US Senators have supported the president in these claims — Senator Cruz and Senator Graham — will follow them with shame into the annals of history. Their support is craven; they surely know better.
The election is still unresolved as of this hour, though the signs point strongly toward a Biden victory. Biden currently leads Trump by 4,102,000 votes in the popular vote, and he is favored to win enough undecided states to win the Electoral College vote as well — a very strong mandate for change. The control of the Senate is unresolved, and depends on run-off elections in Georgia for two Senate seats in January. The Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives has narrowed, but it looks as though it will be sustained. So the coming years of government, especially in the circumstances of global pandemic, out-of-control spread of the disease in the United States, severe and very unequal economic harms to be addressed, looming crises having to do with global climate change, and international relations in shambles, will be challenging and unpredictable. But many Americans today are ready to take some greater optimism from the fact that the current incumbent is likely to lose his power to do further harm.
Also unresolved is how the incumbent president will behave in the next two months. His anger at the increasing likelihood of losing the election seems unhinged at the moment, his desire to lash out seems strong, and he plainly has no awareness of the way that history will remember him: as a petulant, mendacious, hateful, incompetent, and authoritarian president who put American democracy into its greatest crisis in one hundred sixty years. Where is the statesman who cares more about his duty to the Constitution and the whole citizenry than about his own political power? There has been no such person of that description in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for four years. And now, it seems very likely, there soon will be.
Most writings in the philosophy of history have focused on issues of epistemology, method, and explanation. But our history as human beings is thoroughly invested with moral significance, and the philosophy of history needs to reflect on the moral issues raised by historical experience. Historians themselves have moral responsibilities; but perhaps more compellingly, all of us have responsibilities as participants in history to honestly confront our own pasts and the historical events that have influenced us, and acknowledge the often morally repugnant circumstances that this honesty will reveal.The professional responsibilities of historians have occupied much of the discussion of history and ethics within philosophy in the past few years. Here is Brian Fay’s description of the topic in the special issue of History and Theory devoted to these concerns (Fay 2004):
In proposing the topic for this Theme Issue the editors of History and Theory wished to revisit afresh a question that has periodically been urgent to those who think and care about the discipline of history, namely, the relationship between historians, the practice of history, and questions of ethics. Put succinctly: do historians as historians have an ethical responsibility, and if so to whom? Are there ethical commitments that historians have whether they like it or not? Are there ways that historians can either insulate themselves from ethical commitments (insofar as these commitments infect historical research and render it unable to function as it should), or re-conceive these commitments so as to practice history better and to understand the nature of their endeavor more accurately?
The special issue is worth reading as a whole; each article adds something to the question, in what ways does the practice of history create obligations or responsibilities for the historian? Perhaps the most striking and original of the contributions to the History and Theory volume is the contribution by Andrus Pork, “History, Lying, and Moral Responsibility” (link). Pork’s perspective is especially interesting because he was Estonian and intimately familiar with Soviet lies. Pork opens his essay in a very striking way:
Scholars’ moral responsibility for truth, for the objective content of the results of their investigations, is a somewhat neglected problem in Western English-speaking critical philosophy of history. Nor has this problem found much theoretical attention in Soviet philosophy of history. At the same time the process of reassessing and rewriting Soviet history in the light of glasnost has helped to reveal the magnitude of distortions, lies, and half-truths in Soviet historiography over a number of years. The process of rediscovering what actually happened in the past has made history (at least for the time being) a very fashionable subject in Soviet intellectual life, and has also raised painful moral questions for many older historians who now face tough moral accusations by their colleagues, the general public, and perhaps by their own conscience. (321)
Crucial to Pork’s moral framework is his conviction that historians must accept the idea that there are “approximately true representations” of events and circumstances in the past. He acknowledges that an account is never complete, it is always selective, but it may also be false; and it is the historian’s job to try to ensure that the statements and descriptions that he or she brings forward are approximately true and are appropriately supported by relevant evidence. Fundamentally, Pork defends a commonsense conception of historical truth: ” I think that it is morally wrong to suggest that it is never possible to show objectively that some historical accounts are closer to truth than others” (326). Pork’s central concern in this short essay is the topic of lying about the past. Pork distinguishes between “direct lies” (falsification of facts about the past) and “blank pages” (deliberate omission of important details in a historical account), and suggests that the latter are the more insidious for the field of historical representation. He refers, for example, to Soviet historiography about Soviet behavior in the 1930s: “Many other important historical facts that now surface (like the stories about massacres of thousands of people in 1937 and in the following years near Minsk in Byelorussia) were simply absent from history books of that [Stalinist] period.” Pork offers a more detailed and extensive example of Stalinist historiography based on the annexation of Estonia to the USSR in 1940. Stalinist histories that refer to this case use a combination of direct lies and “blank pages” to completely misrepresent and obscure the facts of Soviet coercion of Estonia. For example: “The existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was usually not explicitly denied; rather it was simply not mentioned” (325).
So it is a moral responsibility of the historian to refrain from omitting salient facts from her account. We might take this point a bit further and argue that historians have a positive obligation to deliberately and actively seek out those aspects of the past for research that are the most morally troublesome—for example, the origins and experience of slavery during the eighteenth century in the American South, or the role of the Gulag in the Soviet Union in the twentieth century. We may reasonably fault the historian of the American South in the nineteenth century who confines her investigation to the economics of the cotton sector but ignores slavery, or the historian of the USSR who studies the institutions of engineering research in the 1950s while ignoring the fact of forced labor camps. Historians have an obligation to squarely confront the hard truths of their subject matter. There are many ways to twist the truth, and leaving out crucial parts of the story is as much of a deception as misrepresenting the facts directly. This is what Pork refers to as “blank page” deception. “For example, if the important fact of who started the war is omitted from the historical account, but detailed descriptions of some particular battles are given (as is the case with many Soviet accounts of the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish war), then we clearly have a morally blameworthy selection of facts” (328).
The thread of honesty and truthfulness runs through all of these ethical issues. Tony Judt (1992) argues that a people or nation at a point in time have a collective responsibility to face the facts of its own history honestly and without mythology. Judt’s points can be distilled into a few key ideas. Knowledge of the past matters in the present; being truthful about the past is a key responsibility for all of us. Standing in the way of honest recognition is the fact that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments. The result is “myth-making”, according to Judt. The history of the twentieth century has shown itself to be especially prone to myth-making, whether about resistance to Nazi occupation or refusal to collaborate with Soviet-installed regimes in Poland or Czechoslovakia. Judt (1992) argues that a very pervasive process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in post-war Europe. But, Judt argues, bad myths give rise eventually to bad collective behavior—more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future. Judt expresses throughout his work a credo of truth-telling about the past: we have a weighty obligation to discover, represent, and understand the circumstances of our past, even when those facts are deeply unpalatable. Myth-making about the past is not only bad history and bad politics, it is morally deficient. (A more extensive treatment of Judt’s argument is provided in an earlier post; link.)
Consider the normative and value challenges created by the need for the historian to confront and honestly present the very repugnant features of the past. Anna Wylegala takes on this kind of project in her recent article “Managing the difficult past: Ukrainian collective memory and public debates on history” (link). Here is the abstract of her article:
This article analyzes the status of difficult historic events in Ukrainian collective memory. Difficult elements of collective memory are defined as those which divide society on basic matters, such as identity and national cohesion, and events which are being actively forgotten because of the role of Ukrainians as perpetrators. Three such issues were analyzed: World War II and the role of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the Holocaust, and the ethnic purge of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in 1943-1945. Utilizing data from quantitative and qualitative studies, the author showcases the significance of these issues for contemporary Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s relations with its neighbors. In particular, the evaluation of World War II and the role of the UPA in Ukrainian history polarizes Ukrainian society to a great degree. At the same time, this element of national history is used to construct a common, anti-Russian identity. The difficulty of relating to the memory of the Holocaust and the ethnic purge in Volhynia is of a different character. These events are problematic for Ukrainian collective memory because they demand a painful settling of accounts with the past. At present, only Ukrainian elites are willing to work on these subjects, and only to a limited degree, while the common consciousness either denies or ignores them altogether.
What does she mean by “difficult”? I would paraphrase her meaning as unsavory, repugnant, and inconsonant with one’s identity as a “decent” people. “It is associated with certain events which refuse to simply become part of history and instead trouble contemporaries, demanding attention and provoking strong emotions.” These are events that “demand a painful settling of accounts with the past”. This is exactly the kind of issue that Tony Judt addresses in “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”. And Wylegala makes a compelling case for the idea that Ukrainians must come to grips with this past if they are to move forward as a more just society.
It is indeed the case, then, that the search for historical understanding forces us to consider moral issues. These issues have to do with the moral value of fidelity to truth. But more fundamentally, they have to do with issues about collective identity and integrity. We want to know who we are; and that means knowing honestly what we have done, and attempting to understand these moments of collective cruelty and immorality. This means, in turn, that the philosophy of history must confront these issues.
(A recent post offered a more indirect way of articulating related ideas about history, memory, and moral identity (link). There I formulated an allegory about a forgetful but long-lived individual who wants to make sense of earlier episodes in his life. Perhaps if Max von Sydow were still around it could be the basis of a short existentialist film! Here are two scenes from Ingmar Bergman’s allegory about life’s meaning and death, Seventh Seal (clip, clip).)
Many observers have raised concerns about the direction that American politics has taken in the past decade, and especially since the election of 2016. The concern is that conservatives in the United States, included elected officials and GOP leaders, have increasingly shown disregard for fundamental democratic values: the independence of the judiciary, the inviolable role in a democracy of a free press, the right of citizens to peacefully protest, and the right of all citizens to exercise their right to vote.
A recent study by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden (link) has given these concerns new urgency. V-Dem is a collaborative academic project involving a multinational group of social scientists, that is devoted to arriving at evidence-based assessments of the state of democracy in the world. Here is the V-Dem mission statement:
Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) is a new approach to conceptualizing and measuring democracy. We provide a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset that reflects the complexity of the concept of democracy as a system of rule that goes beyond the simple presence of elections. The V-Dem project distinguishes between five high-level principles of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian, and collects data to measure these principles.
The Institute has released an important and evidence-based briefing paper reporting “New Global Data on Political Parties” (link) along with an annual report on the global status of democracy (link). The briefing paper provides very striking data about the transformation of US politics over the past several decades, and the findings are highly disturbing. Here are the summary findings:
V-Party’s Illiberalism Index shows that the Republican party in the US has retreated from upholding democratic norms in recent years. Its rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary. Conversely, the Democratic party has retained a commitment to longstanding democratic standards.
This is a global trend: The median governing party in democracies has become more illiberal in recent decades. This means that more parties show lower commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence. (1)
Here is how the report defines the “illiberalism index”:
The Illiberalism Index gauges the extent of commitment to democratic norms that a party exhibits before an election. It is the first comparative measure of the “litmus test” for the loyalty to democracy, which the famous political scientist Juan Linz developed in 1978, and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have propagated in their 2018 book on “How Democracies Die”. Indicators comprising the Illiberalism Index are low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence. (1)
Notice the features that are measured in this index: low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights, and encouragement of political violence. These are the factors that are given greatest attention by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their analysis of the decline of democracies. Each of these features has been prominent in the Trump presidential election campaign — including rallies and campaign stops in the state of Michigan, where a right-wing extremist plot to kidnap and harm the governor of the state was recently uncovered.
The graph represents the positions of a dozen or so parties in Europe and North America, on a Left-Right scale on the X-axis and the Illiberalism measure on the Y-axis. There are many important things to notice on this graph, but the most important is the progression of the Republican Party up the scale of Illiberalism between 2004 and 2018. This is a steady march towards anti-democratic values on the part of one of the major parties in the US democracy. By contract, the Democratic Party has a substantially lower Illiberalism value, and a score that has not changed appreciably. The Democratic Party shows a continuing support for democratic institutions and values, and the Republican Party does not. As the report notes, “the Republican Party scores much higher than almost all parties in democracies on almost all of these indicators” (1).
The features of the Illiberalism index are broken out in Figure 2 of the report:
Here again the data are unsurprising for anyone who follows the discourse of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. These measures show a massive change in Republican Party language with regard to “disrespects opponents”, “encourages violence”, “anti-immigration”, and “espouses cultural superiority”, and a substantial difference between the two parties on all the other measures as well.
(The data underlying these calculations of Illiberalism are available from the V-Dem institute.)
This report — and the many books that have been published in the past few years about the decline of democracy — forces us to ask several pointed questions.
First, why are senior elected officials (senators, congressmen and women, and the president and the vice president of the United States) willing to sacrifice these irreplaceable values and institutions of our democracy for short-term political expediency? Do they in fact care nothing for the values and institutions of our constitutional democracy? Do they not understand the terrible harm they are producing? Has Trumpism so completely corrupted the culture of the Republican Party that its leaders no longer stand for anything but their own power?
Second, what can be done to reverse these trends within the political culture of the United States? The situation is not beyond repair, and a variety of smart defenders of democracy have sought to imagine effective ways for citizens and social movements to defend our democracy and our institutions. One such effort is The Democracy Playbook: Preventing and Reversing Democratic Backsliding (link), published in 2019 by the Brookings Institution. Here is a good description by the authors of the anti-democratic process of erosion of democratic institutions and values:
Once in power, illiberal governments capitalize on popular support to deploy a discernible toolkit and a loosely predictable sequence to chip away at democracy and build an illiberal state. As argued in a related Brookings report, The Anatomy of Illiberal States, “Liberal principles—political ideas that espouse the importance of individual liberties, minority rights, and the separation of power across levers of government—and democratic institutions—processes that translate popular will into public policy through legitimate elections—are being pulled apart.” At times, their efforts extend beyond attacks on liberal principles to include delegitimizing political opposition, diminishing fundamental political rights to free speech, assembly and media plural- ism, and clamping down on civil society—all of which are indispensable for a functioning democracy. (9)
To resist this process of right-wing populist authoritarianism, the authors suggest these ideas:
Be prepared for and invest in protecting against internal and external interference in elections. Elections are the foundation of a democracy yet advances in digital technology have rendered elections increasingly complex and vulnerable to interference. Governments should have a proactive and comprehensive deterrence strategy—with responsible actors in clearly defined roles—that will appropriately punish nations who interfere in democratic elections. Governments and political parties should invest in the people and systems necessary for the technological security of election counting, voter registration machines, and political campaign networks.
Enact policies that promote and protect broad access to the vote, such as automatic or same-day voting.
Regulate the role of money in politics to retain trust in the democratic system through the creation of such mechanisms as public financing of campaigns, disclosure requirements for donations, and limits on the amount of campaign donations.
Uphold institutional obligations and use their political power responsibly through “institutional forbearance” (i.e., politicians should refrain from using the full breadth and scope of their politically allocated power) and through “mutual toleration” (i.e., opposing sides regarding one another as legitimate rivals, but not enemies.) When these norms break down and authoritarian challenges emerge, further legal mechanisms should be considered to sanction extreme behavior.
Defend the independence of the judiciary by establishing public procedures for the selection, appointment, and promotion of judges, for the allocation of cases to judges, as well as codes of ethical behavior that protect the integrity of the judicial decision-making process from undue political pressure, intimidation, and attacks.
Implement judicial transparency mechanisms (e.g., opening up courtrooms, producing publicly available transcriptions of proceedings, and placing cameras in courtrooms).
What is alarming in reading these recommendations from 2018-2019 is that the Republican Party and the Trump presidential campaign seem already to have jumped over many of them. “Judicial independence” is now deeply compromised, given the highly partisan Federal judges who have been appointed in the past four years through an entirely partisan process; policies ensuring broad access to the vote are both crippled and discredited by Republican officials (including the president’s all-out assault on mail-in ballots); and the idea that Republican senators would “uphold institutional obligations to use their political power responsibly” is now entirely laughable. Senate Majority Leader McConnell shows no such restraint. And the very believable threat made by the president that he would have to “wait and see” whether he would accept electoral defeat is the most anti-democratic declaration of all. If we can’t count on candidates accepting the outcomes of elections, where is our democracy?
What is the role of history and narrative for human beings and peoples? What do we gain by learning of “our” past and the often horrendous crimes that we human beings have committed? Consider this parable.
* * *
Imagine that you are a different kind of human being. You are of a species that lives for a thousand years. You have a capacity for memory, moral reasoning, purposiveness, and reflection. But your capacities are bounded, and there are whole decades that you no longer recall. You have what we might describe as a persistent but intermittent personal identity; you know who you are, but not always who you have been. After passing the age of 800 you have reckoned that you are in the autumn of your years and you would like to collect the materials for an autobiography. You begin collecting documents and markers and newspapers and personal recollections from other people, and gradually you begin to form a more complete picture of yourself over time. It is not a happy picture.
It turns out that your younger years were turbulent. In your 100s you were impulsive and violent, sometimes attacking people for no reason, sometimes threatening and attacking them to take their property. Towards the end of this period you found tranquility, an excellent psychiatrist, and a yoga mat, and you were able to put your aggressiveness and percolating violence aside. Things went well for a century or so, you formed a family, you were a good father for at least a hundred years, and you practiced meditation in a disciplined way. Your life was orderly and kind.
Your researches have informed you, however, that this tranquility and peace did not last forever. In your fourth century you took up politics, you developed strong opinions, and you became intolerant. You were a charismatic person, and others followed you, and in that century you had a lot of influence. One of your passions was patriarchy — you became committed to the idea of the natural and moral superiority of men over women. By seizing the power of the state you sought to create a system of law in which women were permanently subordinated to men. With your followers at your side, you mostly succeeded. This period too didn’t last for ever. Instead, the women of the empire you had created rebelled, and they were successful. You left the palace in your fully charged Tesla, and you never looked back. It took another century for the state you had left behind to recover its equanimity, but eventually a decent liberal democracy was restored.
You felt you had learned a lesson, some kind of lesson, though you quickly forgot many of the details of this bad political episode. Anyway, your research tells you that things went better for you in your sixth century. You cultivated friends, had another family, and practiced the calming arts of meditation once again.
But then, once again, bad times. Petty disagreements with your friends led to breaches, to distrust, and eventually to active enmity. You broke your friendships, you broke promises and allegiances that had seemed permanent, you betrayed the trust of the men and women who had been your community. In fact, your own resentments and anger led you to do things you shouldn’t have done — you let slip embarrassing information about one friend to the newspapers, you denounced another friend to the political authorities for her disloyalty to the state, and you actively connived in presenting evidence against a third former friend to support a spurious allegation of business fraud. Once again, despicable behavior for a moral human being — “how could I have done those things?”.
Tranquility and peace came once again, as it always has. And this brings you more or less up to date. You have now filled in the gaps. You “know” yourself over time. And because you have been exhaustive in your search for evidence about your past, and because you have been unflinching in confronting the truth about yourself over the centuries as exposed by these researches, you now know that you have been a very long-lived person who has embodied both good and evil, both benevolence and hatred, both temperance and unbounded aggression. You have, you are now ashamed to realize, harmed a great many people who deserved only kindness and respect from you. The story of your life is now collected in eight compact volumes in a small library in your current palace. And you ask yourself this question: in the remainder of my centuries of life, how shall I live, given what I now know about my past and my potential for doing evil?
You realize a number of things all at once. (You spent a fruitful century studying philosophy with one of the great sages only a century or so ago. On balance, you preferred the philosopher to the psychiatrist, but more than both of them you preferred Seinfeld.) First, you realize that you have not consistently been a good person, a virtuous person, a person of integrity and courage. Second, you realize that the people you harmed are now dead and gone. You cannot make up your debt to them, you cannot undo the evil you inflicted upon them. You cannot, at the moment, even fully understand why you did those things. And yet, you now believe that you are a more fully moral person, a person who wants to act justly and well in the remainder of your years. Your overriding wish is to act as a virtuous human being for the time left to you, and to make the world a better place. You return to the philosopher-sage for more advice.
What advice can the sage offer this long-lived, flawed, but aspiring human being?
The sage, who seems to be a latter-day Stoic with a bit of Martin Buber included in the mix, has only five things to offer. To be humble. To seek to understand the deficiencies of character that led to the bad behavior over the centuries. To find ways to correct these flaws of character. To seek to rebalance the evils you have created. And most fundamentally, to dedicate your strength, talents, wisdom, and years, to the task of contributing to a better future for humanity. This will be enough, given that you cannot live your life over and undo the evil you have done.
* * *
Here is my question: Does this story about a limited, erratic, and forgetful human being provide an analogy for how we might think about long stretches of human history? Does the parable provide some means for understanding the history of humanity and the ways that we understand ourselves as human beings over time? Does it shed light on how we human beings, a historical species, must feel our way into an understanding of our past, our present, and our future? Is knowing history a form of self-discovery of often-forgotten truths about ourselves, and developing the strength to honestly acknowledge those truths, learn from them, and move beyond them? Can humanity deal with its blemished history in the same ways that the nameless ancient one in the parable is advised to deal with his own personal history and actions?
It is very interesting to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) after a gap of about forty years or more. I remember reading the book in the 1970s with a sense of great admiration for Orwell’s moral and personal commitment to the Republican and anti-fascist cause. I read it primarily as an anti-fascist book, by a writer who eventually gained fame for novels about totalitarianism. Like several thousands of American leftists who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln brigades, Orwell made the choice to travel to Spain and to join a POUM militia unit near Barcelona. I did not pay a lot of attention to Orwell’s detailed descriptions of the “political lines” taken by the various factions of anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and syndicalists whose militias constituted the primary opposition to Franco’s forces — POUM, CNT, … But now those passages seem perhaps more interesting than the description of day-to-day life on the line in Catalonia and street fighting in Barcelona. And they are interesting in part because they demonstrate a more “revolutionary” Orwell than we have generally come to expect.
The issue dividing the factions was what to do about social revolution in Spain. The anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists believed that the struggle must involve war against the fascist opposition and consolidation of revolution in Spain. The Communists (Stalinists) held for a common front with many groups in Spain — including the bourgeoisie and liberal landed classes. They advocated for a united front, and attempted to restrain or roll back revolutionary actions like land seizures and collectivized factories, and flew the flag of “War against Fascism first, revolution later”.
What comes across from Orwell’s comments about the Communists, the anarchists, and the POUM activists is that Orwell is more radical than expected. He appears to believe — along with the Spanish anarchists — that fundamental social revolution is necessary in Spain, and that any other outcome will be one form or another of class dictatorship. He faults the Soviet-backed Spanish Communists for many things, but most fundamentally for their willingness to compromise with landlords and the bourgeoisie against dispossessed peasants and workers.
Orwell had joined a militia group affiliated with POUM; but he had no special allegiance to POUM. “I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with I.L.P. papers, but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” (kl 698). The Spanish civil war might have been perceived abroad as an anti-fascist struggle between defenders of the republic and a rogue fascist general; but Orwell perceived it as a revolutionary struggle between peasants and workers, on the one hand, and the landlords and owners of wealth who dominated them, on the other. The Church, as defender of the system of property that constituted this system of domination, was the natural antagonist of the peasants and workers.
The Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo’, their resistance was accompanied by — one might almost say it consisted of — a definite revolutionary outbreak. (kl 719)
The men and women who rose up in anarchist militias to fight Franco’s troops did not do so on behalf of “liberal capitalist democracy,” but on behalf of revolution. The Spanish Communist Party’s “United Front” strategy (foisted upon them by the Soviet Communist Party and the military assistance offered by the USSR) was antithetical to the project of consolidating and furthering the gains that peasants and workers had already achieved through land seizures, workers’ control of factories, and parallel military and police systems. “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it. Even the P.S.U.C. newspapers, Communist-controlled and more or less committed to an anti-revolutionary policy, talked about ‘our glorious revolution’.” (kl 762)
The Spanish Communists and their Soviet masters strove to eliminate their rivals, including the major anarchist parties (and their arms) and the POUM. POUM was denounced as a Trotskyist organization and a pro-fascist “fifth-column” seeking to undermine the defense of the Spanish state against Franco’s uprising. Orwell goes into great and convincing detail about the mendacity of the Communist press during those struggles, including especially the lies told during the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the revolutionary goals of the anarchists’ struggles were extinguished:
A general ‘bourgeoisification’, a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place. All happened so swiftly that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they seemed scarcely to be visiting the same country; what had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor. (kl 821)
Here is how Orwell encapsulated the POUM “line” on revolution, for which he plainly had deep sympathy:
‘It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in Fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi — bourgeois Government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers’ militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to “bourgeoisify” them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.’ (kl 895)
This is what I mean above that Orwell is more of a revolutionary at this period in his life than he is normally thought to be: he appears to believe that this assessment of the social situation in Spain is largely correct, and that retreating on these convictions means subordinating Spain’s peasants and workers once again to the chains of property, poverty, and repression that they have suffered for centuries. True, he also concedes the point that the Communist United Front line was a more practical way of pursuing the war against Franco; but he seems to believe that the result will be some form of class-based dictatorship. Orwell’s disgust with Communism seems to derive most deeply from its profound dishonesty and willingness to lie and murder in pursuit of Stalin’s wishes rather than its revolutionary or anti-democratic “line”. In this respect it is difficult to classify Orwell as a kind of democratic socialist.
It is also apparent from the book that Orwell was deeply affected by the ordinary men and women (as well as children) whom he met in Catalonia who were throwing everything in their lives into the flames of civil war in order to better their lives and support their revolutionary gains. His sympathies throughout his life were in favor of equality and for the ordinary men and women who must make do in a class-ordered society, and he had great contempt for the “bosses” and elites who profited from the exploitation of these ordinary people and exercised unconstrained power over them.
The dramatic end of Orwell’s time in Spain and the Civil War comes quickly. Within days of his return to the front lines with his militia unit after leave in Barcelona during the street-fighting in May 1937, he was shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet, a wound that was thought to be inevitably fatal. He survived and spent weeks recuperating in hospitals, eventually making his way back to Barcelona in June 1937. During June the government, under the direction of the Soviet Communists, undertook a major repression of the POUM and its militia and supporters, with arrests throughout the city and the arrest and execution of its leader, Andreu Nin Pérez. Orwell himself was under danger of arrest and returned to England only hours ahead of Spanish secret police intent upon arresting him as a POUM spy. Orwell regarded the repression of POUM leaders and ordinary followers that subsequently occurred in Catalonia as a continuation of the purge trials that were underway in the Soviet Union itself. Here are an evocative few sentences by Orwell about the atmosphere in Barcelona in June 1937:
It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. In England political intolerance is not yet taken for granted. There is political persecution in a petty way; if I were a coal-miner I would not care to be known to the boss as a Communist; but the ‘good party man’, the gangster-gramophone of continental politics, is still a rarity, and the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle, and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger. The thing everyone feared was a thing which, after all, did not happen — a fresh outbreak of street-fighting, which, as before, would be blamed on the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchists. There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town. Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): “I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona . . . perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.” It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl. (kl 2800)
The worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late. When you sleep out of doors you always wake about dawn, and none of the Barcelona cafes opens much before nine. It was hours before I could get a cup of coffee or a shave. It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out. I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Gataluna the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath. Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line. It was a queer situation that we were in. At night one was a hunted fugitive, but in the daytime one could live an almost normal life. (kl 3019)
It seems evident that much of Orwell’s understanding of — and loathing of — the methods of totalitarianism, with its lies, violence, and betrayal, was much deepened by his experiences in Spain and especially in Barcelona in May and June 1937. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46.
Also interesting in this context is Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937), which was published a year earlier than Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had read The Spanish Cockpit before completing Homage to Catalonia and describes it as “the ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war”. Borkenau himself is an interesting leftist intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Austria and educated in Leipzig, Borkenau became a member of the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked as a Comintern agent through 1929. He left the party in 1929 out of disgust for the activities of Soviet secret police. He was a tireless anti-Nazi and also anti-Stalinist, and he was a vigorous critic of various intellectuals of the left whom he regarded as apologists for the Soviet regime, including Isaac Deutscher. In many respects his evolution and political position resembled that of Arthur Koestler, though Koestler’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism came a decade later. Borkenau visited Spain for several months, beginning in September 1936 and again in 1937, and wrote a penetrating analysis of the politics and revolutionary struggles that were underway in Spain at that time. One of the more interesting aspects of The Spanish Cockpit is Borkenau’s effort to explain the social and ideational basis of the power of anarchist ideas in Spain rather than Britain, France, or Germany. He attributes this willingness of Spanish peasants and workers to accept the political theories of anarchism to their clear and unmistakeable recognition of the need for a revolution in the relations of power and property that governed their lives. “Bakunin, for his part, regarded social revolution and socialism as the result of the revolutionary action of people prompted by the moral conviction of the immorality, the hideousness, the human inacceptability of the capitalist world.” Marxist socialism, by arguing for the slow historical inevitability of capitalist development, counseled patience in waiting for the crises that would allow the radical working class to seize power. Borkenau argues that the appeal of anarchism is its voluntarism: “The [anarchists] saw socialism as possible at any moment, provided there was revolutionary conviction and decision. But this conviction and decision, according to Bakunin’s idea, could not be put at the disposal of the masses simply by a small group of professional revolutionaries; they must emerge from a revolutionary spirit in the people itself.”
Revolutionaries by heart and instinct, according to Bakunin, were first and foremost those nations who did not admire the blessings of civilization; who were not in love with material progress; where the masses were not yet imbued with religious respect for the property of the individual bourgeois; revolutionary were the countries where the people held freedom higher than wealth, where they were not yet imbued with the capitalist spirit; and particularly his own people, the Russians, and, to a still higher degree, the Spaniards.
Here is how Borkenau describes the political power of the Communists with Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937:
Communist influence [in Spain], after all, works neither through a dominating organization nor through dominating personalities, but through a policy which is welcome to the republicans and the Right-wing socialists and which has the backing of such supremely important factors as the international brigades, the command of General Kleber in Madrid, and Russian help in general. Neither the republicans nor the Right-wing socialists are strong political forces in themselves. In fine, increasing communist influence today is a symptom of the shifting of the movement from the political to the military and from the social to the organizational factor. It is military and organizing, not political, influence which gives the communists their strength, and indirectly makes them the politically dominant factor. (kl 3718)
Borkenau himself was arrested and jailed by Communist-backed secret police in Valencia for the thought-crime of being critical of communist policies and of suspected Trotskyist sympathies.
The inferences from which they drew this conclusion were twofold: first, I had been highly critical of the type of bureaucratic tyranny towards which the communists are driving in Spain, and have achieved in Russia, as others have achieved it in Germany and Italy. Second, among many friends and acquaintances, I had some who were Trotskyist. What else but a Trotskyist could a man be, if he is opposed to the totalitarian state and talks to Trotskyists? (kl 4469)
Once again — Borkenau’s account provides a clear portrayal of a Stalinist police state as it was manifest in Spain in 1937.
The parties and militias
FAI Federación Anarquista Ibérica (anarchist party) CNT Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union) POUM Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification) UGT Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers) i JCI Juventud Comunista Ibérica (Iberian Communist Youth) (youth wing of POUM JSU Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth) AIT Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (International Laborers’ Association) PSUC Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia PCE Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain) PSOE Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)
(Philip Bounds has written a very interesting book, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell, on Orwell’s relationship to English Marxism. Bounds is primarily interested in the question of cultural studies, but he offers a great deal of information about the English Communist intellectuals whom Orwell studied and with whom he sometimes interacted in print.)