What are the prospects for a progressive movement in the United States?

It is hard to remember that American politics has experienced times of profound reflection upon and criticism of the premises of modern urban, capitalist, democratic life. Engagement in progressive issues and progressive political movements has a strong history in the U.S. The period of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War was one such time, when institutionalized racism and imperialistic use of military power were the subjects of political debate and activism. An earlier period of profound reflection about our premises was the Progressive era at the beginning of the twentieth century. And the resonance that Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have had with large numbers of younger voters suggests that it is not impossible that we may experience another period of serious progressive thought. It’s hard to remember today, in the grips of the most right-wing extremist government our country has seen in a century, that the temper of a time often changes in unpredictable ways.

What would it take for a progressive political movement to become mainstream in the U.S.? For one thing, it seems unlikely to imagine that it will all come from a “youth movement”. The sixties anti-war movement did in fact find a very strong base in universities, but those circumstances were probably fairly exceptional and context-specific: for example, the fact that young men faced the Selective Service focused the minds of many young people on the apparent looniness of the war in Southeast Asia. But the social and cohort composition of the Civil Rights movement seems to have been somewhat different — a broader range of ordinary people were involved, at a variety of levels, and young people played a role that was only part of the activism of the time. There were student-based organizations, of course; but there were also broad-based coalitions of faith-based, occupation-based, and regionally-based individuals who were ready and willing to be mobilized. And the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the twentieth century appears to have involved many hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people, farmers, and professionals. The Pullman Strike of 1894 involved at least 250,000 workers in 27 states, and in the presidential election of 1904 Eugene Debs received some 403,000 votes as candidate for the Socialist Party of America, some 3% of the total vote.

What issues seem to be key for building a strong and impactful progressive movement in the U.S. in the 2020s? Activism about the imperative of addressing climate change is one. The issue of extreme, unjustified, and growing inequalities of wealth and income is another. And the failures of American society in addressing the inequalities associated with race and immigration status constitute another urgent issue of concern for progressives.

If we take as a premise that the issues that are most likely to stimulate activism and sustained political commitment are those that are perceived to be key to the future of one’s group, each of these issues has an obvious constituency. Climate change affects everyone, and it affect young people the most. They will live their lives in a world that is in permanent environmental crisis — intense storms, rising ocean levels, destruction of habitat — that will create enormous disruption and hardship. Rising inequalities represent a crisis of justice and fairness; how can it possibly be justified that the greatest share of the new wealth created by innovation and economic recovery flowed to the top 1% or the top 10%? And why should the 99% or the 90% tolerate this injustice, decade after decade? And the social harm of racism affects everyone, not just people of color. The Civil Rights movement demonstrated the potency of this issue for mobilizing people across racial groups and across regions to protest and to demand change.

And yet, these issues are not new. The Occupy movement focused on the inequalities issue, but it came and went. There is broad support in the population for policies that will slow down the processes of climate change, but this support does not appear to be easy to turn into activism and effective popular demands against our government. The government continues to push back environmental regulation and to go out of its way to flout the global consensus about CO2 emissions and climate change. And activism about racism arises periodically, often around police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement; but this activism is sporadic and intermittent, and doesn’t seem to have created much meaningful change.

The question of uncovering the factors that lead to a widespread shift of engagement with new politics is one of the key topics in Doug McAdam’s account of mobilization during the Civil Rights movement in the introduction to the second edition of Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, 2nd Edition. Consider this diagram of his view of the interactive nature of contention:

Here is McAdam’s description of the theory involved here. 

The figure depicts movement emergence as a highly contingent outcome of an ongoing process of interaction involving at least one set of state actors and one challenger. In point of fact, while I focus here on state/challenger interaction, I think this perspective is applicable to episodes of contention that do not involve state actors. (KL 280)

 This implies that new political thinking and a corresponding social movement do not generally emerge on their own, but rather through contention with another group or the state concerning issues that matter to both. It is a dynamic process of contention and mental formulation involving both status-quo power holders and challengers. And it is an interactive process through which each party develops its own interpretations of the current situation and the opportunities and threats that currently exist through interaction with the other group. This process leads to the formation of “organization / collective identity” — essentially a shared vision of who “we” are, what we believe in and care about, which in turn supports the emergence of a round of “innovative collective action”. The crucial part of his theory is that there is interaction between the two groups at every stage — interpretation, formation of collective identity, and choice of collective actions. Each party influences and shapes the identity and behavior of the other.

So let’s say that the “challengers” of the decade of the 2020s care primarily about three things: reducing the enormous economic inequalities that exist in our society, controlling climate change, and increasing the power of dispossessed groups to advocate for the issues they care about (abortion rights, Black Lives Matter, and achieving more favorable treatment of immigrants). And the forces of the status quo want three things as well: a favorable environment for corporate profits, secure control of the Federal court system, and no change in racial equality and immigrant status. How might the dynamic that McAdam describes play out?

Some of the political mechanisms of mobilization that are described in Dynamics of Contention are relevant for thinking about this scenario. Brokerage, coalition formation, and escalation are strategies available to the “new progressives”. They can seek to find common ground among a range of groups in society who are poorly served by the reigning conservative government. But it will also emerge that there are serious disagreements about priorities, rankings, and willingness to struggle for a common set of goals. The goal of brokerage and coalition formation is to create broader and more numerous (and therefore potentially more influential) groups who will support a common agenda. But achieving collaboration and consensus is hard, and often not achieved.

And what about the “forces of the status quo”? The strategies available to them are already visible through their actions since 2008 to entrench their blocking powers within state and federal government: retreat on voter rights and voter participation; use the primary process to ensure that extreme versions of the conservative agenda find support in candidates nominated for office; undermine the political power of labor unions; use the ideological power of government to discredit the progressive opposition (disloyal, favorable to terrorists, enemies of business, …); and, in the extreme case, use the police and surveillance powers of the state to discredit and undermine the organizations of the progressive movement. (Think of the use of agents provocateurs against the Black Panther party in the 1960s and 1970s through infiltration and misdirection as well as the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago.)

All too often the balance of forces between coalition building on the left and the right seems to favor the right; somehow the groups on the left in the United States in the past several decades seem to have been more insistent on ideological purity than those on the right, with the result that the progressive end of the spectrum seems more fragmented than the right. And somehow the organs of the media that have the greatest influence on political values in voters seem to be in the hands of the far right — Fox News and its commentators in particular. There is also the common background assumption on the left that only profound structural “revolutionary” change (socialism, rejection of electoral politics) will do; whereas typical voters seem to want change that proceeds through the institutions we currently have. 

Current activism in France over reforms of the pension system has several features that make it more feasible than progressive politics in the U.S. First, it is a focused single issue whose consequences are highly visible to everyone. Second, there is a long tradition in France of using strikes, demonstrations, and street protests to apply pressure on the government. These are the “repertoires of contention” that are so important in Charles Tilly’s analysis of French popular politics. Third, the “gilets jaunes” present a very recent and potent example of collective action that was successful in applying a great deal of pressure on the government. It is possible to think of steps that the U.S. government might take that would spark similar levels of national protests (abolition of the Social Security system, for example), but many other provocations by the Trump administration have not sparked ongoing and effective protests (reversal of EPA regulations, withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, legislative attacks on the Voting Rights Act, appointments of hundreds of reactionary  and unqualified hacks to seats on the Federal bench, a “feed the rich” tax reform, massive ICE roundups of immigrants, …). 

Perhaps the identity that has the greatest potential for success in the U.S. is a movement based on “reasserting the values of democracy and equality” within the context of a market economy and a representative electoral democracy. This movement would demand tax policies that work to reduce wealth inequalities and support a progressive state; environmental policies that align the U.S. with the international scientific consensus on climate change; healthcare policies that ensure adequate universal insurance for everyone; immigration policy that made sensible accommodations to the realities of the current U.S. population and workforce, including humane treatment of Dreamers; and campaign funds restrictions that limit the political influence of corporations. The slogan might be, “Moving us all forward through social justice, economic innovation, and good government.” This might be referred to as “centrist progressivism”, and perhaps it is too moderate to generate the passion that a political movement needs to survive. Nonetheless, it might be a form of progressivism that aligns well with the basic pragmatism and fair-mindedness of the American public. And who might serve as a standard bearer for this progressive platform? How about someone with the political instincts and commitments of a Carl Levin, a Harris Wofford, or a Sherrod Brown?

Sociology of Trumpism

What does sociology have to offer when it comes to understanding the political phenomenon of Donald Trump as president? It seems that there are a number of different kinds of questions that sociologists ought to consider (link).

Ideology and culture

A political movement needs to mobilize a significant population of followers around a set of ideas and values, and a narrative of blame and praise for the current situation (link). There are meaningful themes of communication that help to convey a political movement to the public. There are also pervasive cultural elements that are invoked by a movement — images, sounds, bits of music and video — that convey its values in less direct and cognitive ways. It is important to probe those ideological and cultural themes in detail.

As a candidate Donald Trump put forward a hodgepodge of themes and tropes — birtherism, hateful slanders about immigrants, the need for a strong leader, inflammatory language about race (“What do you have to lose?”), anti-Muslim slurs, and international bellicosity, hostility to “political correctness”, and antagonism to women’s rights. This really is a dog’s breakfast of ideas, failing to add up to a coherent ideology. But as a collection of emotional red flags for various groups of disaffected people, it worked pretty well. And it did appear to succeed in creating a movement of true believers. These true believers are not a majority of American voters, but they appear to be a firmly committed political force.

We need a twenty-first century equivalent to Fritz Stern with his masterful analysis of The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology as an attempt to account for the rise of National Socialism in Weimar Germany (link). Some of that work is being done by scholars who are trying to get to the heart of right-wing populism (link).

Parallels with European populist extreme right parties

There is a high degree of consistency of the Trump rhetoric and ideology, with the xenophobic, anti-immigrant ideology of extreme right parties in various European countries. Even though Trump may seem like a sui generis American extremist, his vision and rhetoric have strong resonance with the extreme right in Europe. Sociologists need to examine the substantial degree of parallel that exists between Trumpism and the far right in Europe. This is work for which comparative historical social scientists are very well prepared. (Here are a few prior discussions of this point; link, link, link.)

It is evident that there is a great deal of similarity across the ideologies of these various extreme-right movements. What accounts for the diffusion and mobilization impact of these kinds of ideologies? Jorg Flecker’s collection on the socioeconomic factors influencing right-wing mobilization, Changing Working Life and the Appeal of the Extreme Right (first published in 2007), is a useful resource. Mileti and Plomb provide an excellent review essay, “Addressing the link between socio-economic change and right-wing populism and extremism: A critical review of the European literature”. They usefully distinguish between the “conditions of emergence” and the “conditions of success” (quoting Mazzoleni). Significantly, the work described in this volume was written long before Donald Trump was a serious political figure — suggesting clearly that Trumpism is not a singular American phenomenon.

The mobilization strategies and mechanisms of hate

We cannot underestimate the contagious nature of hate and hateful behavior and speech. Hateful mobilization is powerful and rapid. Better understanding of the mechanisms of social networks, fake news, big lies, and manipulation of belief through right-wing channels like talk radio, Fox News, white supremacist YouTube channels, and targeted FaceBook advertising needs intensive investigation. It is clear today that social media platforms were weaponized by interested political groups, including right-wing extremist organizations, and that these efforts continue. The unwillingness of Facebook to address this problem is indicative of a serious problem of corporate values and corporate responsibility on the part of this multi-billion member social media platform. This failure represents a serious threat to our democracy.

We need to achieve a better and more sophisticated understanding of the mechanisms through which hate spreads in a population, and the means that are deliberately employed by hate-based groups to gain support for their positions (link, link).

The alt-right and white supremacy

A key ideological asset of this oppositional, divisive program for political mobilization is the aggressive propaganda machine of the alt-right. Publications like Breitbart have created a space of legitimacy for racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy that is a crucial part of the mobilization of the Trump constituency. And with the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist for newly-elected President Trump, these hateful currents came directly into the White House itself.

International aggressivity

Also essential to Trump’s vision is a bellicose, aggressive approach to international relations. He threatens China with naval power, he bullies Mexico, he denigrates Merkel (a key linchpin in a unified Europe), and he speaks carelessly about the use of nuclear weapons. His message of “America first” promises a reckless, bullying approach to international relations that bodes ill for a peaceful future. What role does this bellicosity play? It seems to be a key part of his message

The material causes of a propensity for responding to these messages

Observers right and left have tried to understand the Trump constituency in terms of the “forgotten white lower middle class”, with few of the gains of growth of recent decades flowing to these men and women. Shrinking job prospects, hourly wages declining, and other material forces make this group psychologically ripe for anti-establishment, xenophobic, racist, resentful mobilization. Trump panders to this constituency; he will inevitably disappoint them. It is a theme that Justin Gest explores in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link). It is a fair question to ask whether this picture is accurate, or whether the social causes of the rise of extremism lie elsewhere.

Trump’s real agenda has proven to be fundamentally at odds with the desires of this group. He has made wild promises, he has denigrated the groups these individuals blame, and he has promised populist and nationalist change. But simultaneously he has appointed a room full of multi-millionaires to his cabinet whose economic interests are patently clear. The economic and tax policies that emanate from the Trump administration are demonstrably ones that favor the one percent. And the first steps the administration undertook concerning health care bore this out. Attacking the Affordable Care Act hurts only lower middle-class people, with the likelihood of eliminating great numbers of people from health insurance and materially shortening their lives.

The inevitable disappointment

So where does our country go when Trumpism fails? One possibility is that the Democratic party in opposition can rebuild its policy platform in a way that realistically works to level the playing field for all Americans. A genuinely progressive plan can create avenues of opportunity that drain a different swamp — the swamp of resentful, racist neo-fascist groups who brought this strongman to power. But the other possibility exists as well: the resentments and hatreds stoked very deliberately by the Trump political machine have nowhere else to go except into greater extremism. And the politics of hatred, division, and resentment gain even greater support. Cas Mudde’s recent The Far Right Today provides a basis for thinking about our future in light of these political currents, and his conclusions are not entirely encouraging.

The far right is here to stay. This even applies to the extreme right, which also survived the repressive aftermath of the 1945 defeat of the fascist movements and regimes that originally inspired it. To be clear, there are few indications that extreme right parties or politicians are returning to political power. Even in Greece, which probably resembles Weimar Germany more than any other democracy, the neo-Nazi XA is remarkably stable at roughly 5–7 percent of the vote. That said, extreme right actors and ideas have recently been praised by two of the most powerful men in the world, Brazilian president Bolsonaro (military dictatorship) and US president Trump (“ alt-right” demonstrators in Charlottesville). Moreover, antisemitism and racism have returned to the center of the political debate, be it more implicitly in traditional media or more explicitly on social media. (The Far Right Today, 174)

The ultimate goal of all responses to the far right should be the strengthening of liberal democracy. Put simply, only fighting the far right does not necessarily strengthen liberal democracy, but strengthening liberal democracy will, by definition, weaken the far right. That the two do not always go hand in hand is not always acknowledged. Limiting free speech or the right to demonstrate not only infringes on the democratic rights of far-right activists, it undermines these rights in general, and thereby the liberal democratic regime. This is not even to speak of the tendency for repressive measures aimed at one group to be later applied to other groups, including some that are neither radical nor right. (178)

We have our work cut out for us.

Academic social media

The means through which academics engage in communication and discussion of their ideas have changed significantly in the past decade through the rapid growth of the importance of social media in the dissemination of new ideas. Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Blogger, Tumblr, and WordPress have become important media for communication in a range of fields, from celebrity gossip to news flashes to the dissemination of new breakthroughs in particle physics. Blogging platforms such as Blogger, Medium, and WordPress in particular have become a highly accessible place for the expression of ideas, opinions, and social commentary. An idea posted on WordPress is instantly visible in most countries in the world (not including China). And because of the amazing coverage of search engines, that idea can be located by the academic researcher in Mumbai, Helsinki, Buenos Aires, or Des Moines within minutes of posting.

The challenge of social media as a channel for serious ideas and engaged debate is the fact that there are few of the badges of reliability provided by conventional media and academic journals associated with social media. So the hard question is whether social media channels can serve a serious intellectual purpose in terms of the dissemination of knowledge.

The appearance of a second edition of Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is therefore timely. Both young academics — well versed in the mechanics of social media — and more senior scholars will find the book interesting and provocative, and many will find useful new ways of presenting and discussing their work using the resources created by social media platforms. I’ve long been convinced of the value of blogging as a platform for developing and disseminating my work in philosophy and sociology, and I celebrate Mark’s efforts to help all of us figure out constructive, intellectually valuable ways of using the various media available to us.

It is interesting to reflect a bit on what an academic — a professor, a professional political scientist or literary critic or physicist — wants to accomplish with his or her writing, and whether social media can help with those goals. There are a number of possible goals that come to mind:

  1. to explore new ideas and get useful feedback from others about those ideas
  2. to achieve solid, well argued results on a topic that will be a permanent part of the corpus in one’s field
  3. To contribute to important contemporary debates through better insights into current problems (global climate change, war in the Middle East, the threat of rising nationalist-populism)
  4. to elevate one’s position in the status-hierarchy of the profession
  5. to create a “celebrity” reputation in a field that leads to invitations as commentator on public television or CNN

The first motivation is well suited to social media. If one can gather a small network of people with similar interests and a willingness to interact, a blog can be a very good mechanism for testing and improving one’s ideas. The second motivation can also be served by social media, in the sense that exposure of one’s ideas through social media can help to deepen and refine one’s thinking. In order for these ideas to become part of the permanent corpus of one’s field of study, it seems likely enough that the ideas and theories will need to find more traditional forms of academic expression — book chapters, peer-reviewed articles, and books. But these two goals are entirely consistent with being an authentic scholar and academic; they have to do with the pursuit of truth and insight. And they fall in the category of the “new collegiality” that Carrigan discusses (232).

The third goal is a respectable academic goal as well. It is entirely legitimate and appropriate for academics to bring their voices to bear on the issues of the day. Certainly some of the Twitter feeds I appreciate the most come from academics like Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann), Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan), Juan Cole (@jricole), and Dan Nexon (@dhnexon). And what I appreciate about their tweets is the honesty and relevance their ideas (and links) have in addressing topics like climate change, global inequalities, and issues of war and peace.

The final pair of goals — status, reputation, and well-paid television gigs — seem a bit antagonistic to the most important academic values. I suppose that Aristotle and Kant both would find these goals obnoxious because they are narrowly self-interested and unrelated to the virtues or duties of an academic — pursuit of truth and the advancement of knowledge. But, sad to say, it is clear enough how social media can support these goals as well, as Carrigan discusses in several places (136).

I am very glad that Mark has brought a discussion of the “dark side” of social media into the discussion in the second edition. Like all things digital, the hate-based Internet has moved rapidly since the first edition of this book, and it is now a very important part of the rise of right-wing populism in many countries. Likewise, the use of social media to bully and harass people in the most abhorrent ways is a plague that we haven’t learned how to control. And the weaponization of social media that has occurred since the first edition of the book is a genuine threat to democratic institutions.

Mark Carrigan is an astute and well-informed follower of the topic of the rising role of social media in the academic world, and the book is well worth a close reading. And it raises an interesting question: what would Socrates’ Twitter stream have looked like?

The power of case studies in system safety

Images: Andrew Hopkins titles

Images: Other safety sources

One of the genuinely interesting aspects of the work of Andrew Hopkins is the extensive case studies he has conducted of the causation of serious industrial accidents. A good example is his analysis of the explosion of an Esso natural gas processing plant in Longford, Australia in 1998, presented in Lessons from Longford: The ESSO Gas Plant Explosion, with key findings also presented in this video. Also valuable is Hopkins’ analysis of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (link). Here he dispassionately walks through the steps of the accident and identifies faults at multiple levels (operator, engineering, management, corporate policy).

In addition to these books about major accidents and disasters, Hopkins has also created a number of very detailed videos based on the analysis presented in the case studies. These videos offer vivid recreation of the accidents along with a methodical and evidence-based presentation of Hopkins’ analysis of the causes of the accidents at multiple levels.

It is intriguing to consider whether it would be possible to substantially improve the “safety thinking” of executives and managers in high-risk industries through an intensive training program based on case studies like these. Intensive system safety training for executives and managers is clearly needed. If complex processes are to be managed in a way that avoids catastrophic failures, executives and managers need to have a much more sophisticated understanding of safety science. Further, they need more refined skills in designing and managing risky processes. And yet much training about industrial safety focuses on the wrong level of accidents — shop floor accidents, routine injuries, and days-lost metrics — whereas there is a consensus among safety experts that the far larger source of hazard in complex industrial processes lies at the system level.

We might think of Hopkins’ case studies (and others that are available in the literature) as the basis of cognitive and experiential training for executives and managers on the topic of system safety, helping them gain a broader understanding of the kinds of failures that are known to lead to major accidents and better mental skills for managing risky processes. This might be envisioned in analogy with the training that occurs through scenario-based table-top exercises for disaster response for high-level managers, where the goal is to give participants a practical and experiential exposure to the kinds of rare situations they may be suddenly immersed in and a set of mental tools through which to respond. (My city’s top fire official and emergency manager once said to a group of senior leaders at my university at the end of a presentation about the city’s disaster planning: “When disaster strikes, your IQ will drop by 20 points. So it is imperative that you work with lots of scenarios and develop a new set of skills that will allow you to respond quickly and appropriately to the circumstances that arise. And by the way — a tornado has just blown the roof off the humanities building, and there are casualties!”)

Consider a program of safety training for managers along these lines: simulation-based training, based on detailed accident scenarios, with a theoretical context introducing the ideas of system accidents, complexity, tight coupling, communications failures, lack of focus on organizational readiness for safety, and the other key findings of safety research. I would envision a week-long training offering exposure to the best current thinking about system safety, along with exposure to extensive case studies and a number of interactive simulations based on realistic scenarios.

I taught a graduate course in public policy on “Organizational causes of large technology failures” this year that made substantial use of case materials like these. Seeing the evolution that masters-level students underwent in the sophistication of their understanding of the causes of large failures, it seems very credible that senior-manager training like that described here would indeed be helpful. The learning that these students did on this subject was evident through the quality of the group projects they did on disasters. Small teams undertook to research and analyze failures as diverse as the V-22 Osprey program, the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance disaster (in which the state’s software system wrongly classified thousands of applicants as having submitted fraudulent claims), and the Chinese melamine milk adulteration disaster. Their work products were highly sophisticated, and very evidently showed the benefits of studying experts such as Diane Vaughan, Charles Perrow, Nancy Leveson, and Andrew Hopkins. I feel confident that these students would be able to take these perspectives and skills into the complex organizations in which they may work in the future, and their organizations will be safer as a result.

This kind of training would be especially useful in sectors that involve inherently high risks of large-scale accidents — for example, the rail industry, marine shipping, aviation and space design and manufacturing, chemical and petrochemical processing, hospitals, banking, the electric power grid, and the nuclear industry.

(I should note that Hopkins himself provides training materials and consultation on the subject of system safety through FutureMedia Training Resources (link).)

Non-action in times of catastrophe

Ivan Ermakoff’s 2008 book Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications is dense, rigorous, and important. It treats two historical episodes in close detail — the passing of Hitler’s enabling bill by the German Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House in March 1933 (“Law for the Relief of the People and of the Reich”) and the decision by the National Assembly of the French Third Republic in the Grand Casino of Vichy to transfer constitutional authority to Marshal Pétain in July 1940. These legislative actions were momentous; “the enabling bill granted Hitler the right to legally discard the constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic,” and the results in France were similar for Pétain’s government. In both events major political parties and groups acquiesced in the creation of authoritarian legislation that predictably led to dictatorship in their countries and repression of their own parties and groups. Given that these two events largely set the terms for the course of the twentieth century, this study is of great importance.

The central sociological category of interest to Ermakoff here is “abdication” — essentially an active decision by a group not to continue to oppose a social or political process with which it disagrees. Events are made by the actions of the actors, individual and collective. But Ermakoff demonstrates that sometimes events are made by non-action as well — deliberate choices by actors to cease their activity in resistance to a process of concern.

Abdication is different from surrender. It is surrender that legitimizes one’s surrender. It implies a statement of irrelevance. When the act is collective, the statement is about the group that makes the decision. The group dismisses itself. It surrenders its fate and agrees to do so, thereby justifying its subservience. This broad characterization sets the problem. Why would a group legitimize its own subservience and, in doing so, abdicate its capacity for self-preservation? (xi)

Based on a great deal of archival research as well as an apparently limitless knowledge of the secondary literature, the book sheds great light on the actions and inactions of the individual and collective actors involved in these enormously important episodes of twentieth-century history. As a result it provides a singular contribution to the theories and methods of contentious politics as well as comparative historical sociology.

The book is historical; but even more deeply, it is a sustained contribution to an actor-centered theory of collective behavior. Ermakoff wants to understand, at the level of the actors involved, what were the dynamics of decision making and action that led to abdication by experienced politicians in the face of anti-constitutional demands by Hitler and Pétain. Ermakoff believes that the obvious theories — coercion, ideological sympathy, and the structure of existing political conflicts — are inadequate. Instead, he proposes a dynamic theory of belief formation and decision making at the level of the actor through which the political actors arrive at the position they will adopt based on their observations and inferences of the behavior of others with regard to this choice. Individuals retain agency in their choices in momentous circumstances: “Individuals fluctuate because (1) they are concerned about the behavioral stance of those whom they define as peers and (2) they do not know where these peers stand. Individual oscillations are the seismograph of collective perceptions. Their uncertainty fluctuates with the degree of irresolution imputed to the group.” Ermakoff wants to understand the dynamic processes through which individuals arrive at a decision — to abdicate or to remain visibly and actively in opposition to the threatened action — and how these decisions relate to judgments made by individuals about the likely actions of other actors.

Ermakoff’s key theoretical concept is alignment: the idea that the individual actor is seeking to align his or her actions with those of members of a relevant group (what Ermakoff calls a “reference group”). “By alignment I mean the act of making oneself indistinguishable from others. As a collective phenomenon, alignment describes the process whereby the members of a group facing the same decision align their behavior with one another’s.” For individuals within a group it is a problem of coordination in circumstances of imperfect knowledge about the intentions of other actors. And Ermakoff observes that alignment can come about through several different kinds of mechanisms (sequential alignment, local knowledge, and tacit coordination), leading to substantially different dynamics of collective behavior.

Jon Elster and other researchers in the field of contentious politics and collective action refer to this kind of situation as an “assurance game” (link): an opportunity for collective action which a significant number of affected individuals would join if they were confident that sufficient others would do so as well in order to give the action a reasonable likelihood of success.

Though Ermakoff does not directly suggest this possibility, it would appear that the kinds of decision-making processes within groups involved here are amenable to treatment using agent-based models. It would seem straightforward to model the behavior of a group of actors with different “thresholds” and different ways of gaining information about the likely behavior of other actors, and then aggregating their choices through an iterative computational process.

Much of the substance of the book goes into evaluating three common explanations of acquiescence: coercion, miscalculation, and ideological collusion. And Ermakoff argues that the only way to evaluate these hypotheses is to gain quite a bit of evidence about the basis of decision-making for many of the actors. A meso-level analysis won’t distinguish the hypotheses; we need to connect the dots for individual decision-makers. Did they defer because of coercion? Because of miscalculation? Or perhaps because they were not so adamantly opposed to the fascist ideology as they professed? But significantly, Ermakoff finds that individual-level information fails to support any of these three factors as being decisive.

Part III moves from description of the cases to an effort at formulating a formal decision model that would serve to explain the processes of alignment and abdication described in the first half of the book. This part of the book has something in common with formal research in game theory and the foundations of collective action theory. Ermakoff undertakes to provide an abstract mid-level description of the processes and mechanisms through which individuals arrive at a decision about a collective action, illustrating some of the parameters and mechanisms that are central for the emergence of abdication as a coordination solution. This part of the book is a substantial addition to the literature on the theory of collective action and mobilization. It falls within the domain of theories of the mechanics of contentious politics along the lines of McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s Dynamics of Contention; but it differs from the treatment offered by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly by moving closer to the mechanics of the individual actor. The level of analysis is closer to that offered by Mancur Olsen, Russell Hardin, or Jon Elster in describing the logic of collective action.

Consider the logic of the “abdication game” that Ermakoff presents (47):

The “authoritarian challenger” is the leader who wishes to extend his powers beyond what is currently constitutionally permissible. The “target actors” are the groups and parties who have a say in modification of the constitution and legislative framework, and in this scenario these actors are assumed to have a blocking power in the legislative or constitutional process. If they remain unified in opposition the constitutional demands will be refused and either the status quo or an attempt at an unconstitutional seizure of power will occur. If they acquiesce, the authoritarian challenger will immediately undertake a transformation of the state that gives him unlimited executive power.

There is a difficult and important question that arises from reading Ermakoff’s book. It is the question of our own politics in 2020. We have a president who has open contempt for law and political morality, who does not even pretend to represent all the people or to respect the rights of all of us; and who is entirely willing to call upon the darkest motivations of his followers. And we have a party of the right that has abandoned even the pretense of maintaining integrity, independent moral judgment, and a willingness to call the president to account for his misdeeds. How different is that environment from that of 1933 in Berlin? Is the current refusal of the Republican Party to honestly judge the president’s behavior anything other than an act of abdication — shameful, abject, and self-interested abdication?

It seems quite possible that the dilemmas created by authoritarian demands and less-than-determined defenders of constitutional principles will be in our future as well. This book was published in 2008, at the beginning of what appeared to be a new epoch in American politics — more democratic, more progressive, more concerned about ordinary citizens. The topic of abdication would have been very distant from our political discourse. Today as we approach 2020, the threat of an authoritarian, anti-democratic populism has become an everyday reality for American society.

One other aspect of the book bears mention, though only loosely related to the theory of collective action and abdication that is the primary content of the book. Ermakoff’s discussion of the challenges that come along with defining “events” is excellent (chapter 1). He correctly observes that an event is a nominal construct, amenable to definition and selection by different observers depending on their theoretical and political interests.

Events are nominal constructs. Their referents are bundles of actions and decisions that analysts and commentators abstract from the flow of historical time. This abstraction is based on a variety of criteria—temporal contiguity, causal density, and significance for subsequent happenings—routinely mobilized by synthetic judgments about the past. Because events are temporal constructs, their temporal boundaries can never be taken for granted. They take on different values depending on whether we derive these boundaries from the subjective statements left by contemporary actors (Bearman et al. 1999) or construct them in light of an analytical relevance criterion derived from the problem at hand (Sewell 1996, 877).

Ermakoff returns to this theme at the end of the book in chapter 11. The approach here taken towards “events” is indicative of one of the virtues of Ermakoff’s book (as well as the work of many of the comparative historical sociologists who have influenced him): respect for the contingency, plasticity, and fluidity of historical processes. We have noted elsewhere (linklinklink) Andrew Abbott’s insistence on the fluidity of the social world. There is some of that sensibility in Ermakoff’s book as well. None of the processes and sequences that Ermakoff describes are presented as deterministic causal chains; instead, choice and contingency remain part of the story at every level.

(Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die provides a stark companion piece for Ermakoff’s historical treatment of the ascendancy of authoritarianism.)

High reliability organizations

Charles Perrow takes a particularly negative view of the possibility of safe management of high-risk technologies in Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. His summary of the Three Mile Island accident is illustrative: “The system caused the accident, not the operators” (12). Perrow’s account of TMI is chiefly an account of complex and tightly-coupled system processes, and the difficulty these processes create for operators and managers when they go wrong. And he is doubtful that the industry can safely manage its nuclear plants.

It is interesting to note that systems engineer and safety expert Nancy Leveson addresses the same features of “system accidents” that Perrow addresses, but with a greater level of confidence about the possibility of creating engineering and organizational enhancements. A recent expression of her theory of technology safety is provided in Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety (Engineering Systems) and Resilience Engineering: Concepts and Precepts

In examining the safety of high-risk industries, our goal should be to identify some of the behavioral, organizational, and regulatory dysfunctions that increase the likelihood and severity of accidents, and to consider organizational and behavioral changes that would serve to reduce the risk and severity of accidents. This is the approach taken by a group of organizational theorists, engineers, and safety experts who explore the idea and practice of a “high reliability organization”. Scott Sagan describes the HRO approach in these terms in The Limits of Safety:

The common assumption of the high reliability theorists is not a naive belief in the ability of human beings to behave with perfect rationality, it is the much more plausible belief that organizations, properly designed and managed, can compensate for well-known human frailties and can therefore be significantly more rational and effective than can individuals. (Sagan, 16)

Sagan lists several conclusions advanced by HRO theorists, based on a small number of studies of high-risk organizational environments. Researchers have identified a set of organizational features that appear to be common among HROs:

  • Leadership safety objectives: priority on avoiding altogether serious operational failures
  • Organizational leaders must place high priority on safety in order to communicate this objective clearly and consistently to the rest of the organization
  • The need for redundancy. Multiple and independent channels of communication, decision-making, and implementation can produce a highly reliable overall system
  • Decentralization — authority must exist in order to permit rapid and appropriate responses to dangers by individuals closest to the problems
  • culture – recruit individuals who help maintain a strong organizational culture emphasizing safety and reliability
  • continuity – maintain continuous operations, vigilance, and training
  • organizational learning – learn from prior accidents and near-misses.
  • Improve the use of simulation and imagination of failure scenarios

Here is Sagan’s effort to compare Normal Accident Theory with High Reliability Organization Theory:

The genuinely important question here is whether there are indeed organizational arrangements, design principles, and behavioral practices that are consistently effective in significantly reducing the incidence and harmfulness of accidents in high-risk enterprises, or whether on the other hand, the ideal of a “High Reliability Organization” is more chimera than reality.

A respected organizational theorist who has written on high-reliability organizations and practices extensively is Karl Weick. He and Kathleen Sutcliffe attempt to draw some useable maxims for high reliability in Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World. They use several examples of real-world business failures to illustrate their central recommendations, including an in-depth case study of the Washington Mutual financial collapse in 2008.

The chief recommendations of their book come down to five maxims for enhancing reliability:

  1. Pay attention to weak signals of unexpected events
  2. Avoid extreme simplification
  3. Pay close attention to operations
  4. Maintain a commitment to resilience
  5. Defer to expertise

Maxim 1 (preoccupation with failure) encourages a style of thinking — an alertness to unusual activity or anomalous events and a commitment to learning from near-misses in the past. This alertness is both individual and organizational; individual members of the organization need to be alert to weak signals in their areas, and managers need to be receptive to hearing the “bad news” when ominous signals are reported. By paying attention to “weak signals” of possible failure, managers will have more time to design solutions to failures when they emerge.

Maxim 2 addresses the common cognitive mistake of subsuming unusual or unexpected outcomes under more common and harmless categories. Managers should be reluctant to accept simplifications. The Columbia space shuttle disaster seems to fall in this category, where senior NASA managers dismissed evidence of foam strike during lift-off by subsuming it under many earlier instances of debris strikes.

Maxim 3 addresses the organizational failure associated with distant management — top executives who are highly “hands-off” in their knowledge and actions with regard to ongoing operations of the business. (The current Boeing story seems to illustrate this failure; even the decision to move the corporate headquarters to Chicago, very distant from the engineering and manufacturing facilities in Seattle, illustrates a hands-off attitude towards operations.) Executives who look at their work as “the big picture” rather than ensuring high-quality activity within the actual operations of the organization are likely to oversee disaster at some point.

Maxim 4 is both cognitive and organizational. “Resilience” refers to the “ability of an organization (system) to maintain or regain a dynamically stable state, which allows it to continue operations after a major mishap and/ or in the presence of a continuous stress”. A resilient organization is one where process design has been carried out in order to avoid single-point failures, where resources and tools are available to address possible “off-design” failures, and where the interruption of one series of activities (electrical power) does not completely block another vital series of activities (flow of cooling water). A resilient team is one in which multiple capable individuals are ready to work together to solve problems, sometimes in novel ways, to ameliorate the consequences of unexpected failure.

Maxim 5 emphasizes the point that complex activities and processes need to be managed by teams incorporating experience, knowledge, and creativity in order to be able to confront and surmount unexpected failures. Weick and Sutcliffe give telling examples of instances where key expertise was lost at the frontline level through attrition or employee discouragement, and where senior executives substituted their judgment for the recommendations of more expert subordinates.

These maxims involve a substantial dose of cognitive practice, changing the way that employees, managers, and executives think: the importance of paying attention to signs of unexpected outcomes (pumps that repeatedly fail in a refinery), learning from near-misses, making full use of the expertise of members of the organization, …. It is also possible to see how various organizations could be evaluated in terms of their performance on these five maxims — before a serious failure has occurred — and could improve performance accordingly.

It is interesting to observe, however, that Weick and Sutcliffe do not highlight some factors that have been given strong priority in other treatments of high-reliability organizations: the importance of establishing a high priority for system safety in the highest management levels of the organization (which unavoidably competes with cost and profit pressures), the organizational feature of an empowered safety executive outside the scope of production and business executives in the organization, the possible benefits of a somewhat decentralized system of control, the possible benefits of redundancy, the importance of well-designed training aimed at enhancing system safety as well as personal safety, and the importance of creating a culture of honesty and compliance when it comes to safety. When mid-level managers are discouraged from bringing forward their concerns about the “signals” they perceive in their areas, this is a pre-catastrophe situation.

There is a place in the management literature for a handbook of research on high-reliability organizations; at present, such a resource does not exist.

(See also Sagan and Blanford’s volume Learning from a Disaster: Improving Nuclear Safety and Security after Fukushima.)

Entertainment as a valuable thing

Quite a bit of the GDP of the United States goes into a broad category we can call “entertainment” — television, video streaming services, books and newspapers, concerts, theatre, sports events (live and broadcast), and video games. The entertainment industry amounts to $717 billion in the US economy (link), and professional athletics adds another $73.5 billion (link). This category approaches a trillion dollars, and we haven’t even taken account of the video gaming sector. US GDP is about $19.4 trillion; so entertainment in all sectors may amount to 5% or more of the total US economy.

It is interesting to take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey (link) to get an empirical idea of how Americans of varying ages spend their time each day; link. Table 8A breaks down “time spent in primary activities for the civilian population 18 years and over”. Out of a 24-hour day, personal care activities and sleeping amount to 18 hours per day; organizational, civic, and religious activities amount to .27 hours per day; and leisure and sports activities amount to 4.12 hours per day. Work takes 3.94 hours per day (on average; 4.96 hours for men and 3.07 hours for women). (These are averages over a population, which explains the relatively low number of hours spent working.)

Both these observations demonstrate that millions of people value entertainment: they pay for it and the spend their time engaging with it. So entertainment is plainly valued in the lives of most people. But we can still ask a more fundamental question: what is the good of entertainment? Should society be organized in such a way as to facilitate the ability of people to find and consume sources of entertainment? Is more entertainment better than less?

There are a few simple answers to the question.

First, people often want to be entertained and choose to be entertained, and it is a basic principle of liberalism that it is good for people to exercise their liberty by doing what they want to do. (Liberty principle)

Second, people take pleasure in being entertained, pleasure is an important component of happiness, and happiness is a good thing. Therefore entertainment is a good thing, and people should be in a position to be entertained. (Happiness principle)

Third, sometimes “entertainment” is developmental and fulfilling of human capabilities for imagination, empathy, and ethical reasoning. By watching Citizen Kane or reading The Fire Next Time, people gain new insights into their own lives and the lives of others; they extend their capacity for empathy; and they enrichen their ability to think about complex social and moral topics. Martha Nussbaum makes this point in her discussions of the value of literature in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Nussbaum’s views are discussed by Heather McRobie in OpenDemocracy (link). These outcomes too seem intrinsically valuable by the individuals who experience them. This view of the potential value of “entertainment” converges with the capabilities approach to human wellbeing.(Human development principle)

But, of course, not all forms of entertainment are uplifting in an intellectual or moral sense. Six seasons of The Sopranos probably didn’t result in much intellectual or moral uplift for the millions of viewers who enjoyed the series, and an earlier generation’s interest in Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Car 54 was probably equally unrewarded. So what about “pure entertainment”, without moral, intellectual, or aesthetic redeeming value? What about Tetris, Solitaire, Grand Theft Auto, or the Madden NFL franchise? What about Downton Abbey?

J. S. Mill, far-sighted media critic that he was, distinguished between higher and lower pleasures, and argued that the former are inherently preferable to any agent who has experienced both over the latter. His reasoning is based on his view that human beings have higher faculties and lower faculties; the higher pleasures exercise the higher faculties; and anyone who has experienced both will prefer the higher pleasures. Here are a few lines from Utilitarianism.

Now, it is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones· by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both. Few human creatures would agree to be changed into any of the lower animals in return for a promise of the fullest allowance of animal pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base, even if they were convinced that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his life than they are with theirs. . . . If they ever think they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their situation for almost any other, however undesirable they may think the other to be. Someone with higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is probably capable of more acute suffering, and is certainly vulnerable to suffering at more points, than someone of an inferior type; but in spite of these drawbacks he can’t ever really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. …. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. (14)

This position is based on Mill’s idea that people who have experienced both kinds of pleasures will choose the higher (demanding, challenging, aesthetically and morally complex) pleasures over the lower pleasures. But this view seems to be largely refuted by the current entertainment industry; the audience for bad television certainly includes a proportionate share of Mill’s counterparts today (college professors, literary critics, journalists, and pundits). Plainly, there are many millions of people who have indeed experienced both higher and lower pleasures, and continue to enjoy both.

So Mill did not have a very good psychological theory of “entertainment”, even if he had a good aspirational philosophy of living. I doubt that Netflix would want JS Mill to serve as programming chief for its upcoming seasons.

There is probably a nugget of truth in the idea that the challenge and complexity of an activity is a dimension of its continuing appeal to the individuals who engage in the activity. Perhaps Go masters and chess masters take greater satisfaction in their games than do checkers players and aficionados of tic-tac-toe, and people who love literature may take more satisfaction from a novel by Boris Pasternak than Nora Roberts because of the relative complexity, unpredictability, and nuance of Pasternak’s love story. But it is clear that pleasure in entertainment derives from more than this: humor, suspense, nostalgia, complicated plots, character development, amazing special effects, depictions of human emotions, violence, plots that speak to one’s own experience, and so on indefinitely. Why these elements produce pleasure, however, is still unclear.

Perhaps we need to go back to ancient Greek philosophers in our quest for the sources of pleasure in “entertainment”. Is Aristotle right that we enjoy tragedy because of the catharsis it provides, and comedy, because of the physical pleasure we take in laughter? Does Epicurus have anything to tell us about why we enjoy watching Breaking Bad and Blazing Saddles? Can the Stoics shed light on why Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) were so very unpopular with the movie audience? Does Plato have anything to say about whether Waiting for Godot is really entertaining, and whether people can take pleasure in viewing it?

Why do regulatory organizations fail?

Why is Charles Perrow a pessimist about government regulation?

Perrow is a leading researcher in the sociology of organizations, and he is a singular expert on accidents and failures. Several of his books are classics in their field — Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism. So why is he so gloomy about the ability of governmental organizations to protect the public from large failures and disasters of various kinds — hurricanes, floods, chemical plant fires, software failures, terrorism? He is not a relentless critic of organizations such as the EPA, the Department of Justice, or the Food and Drug Administration, but his assessment of their capacity for success is dismal.

We should not expect too much of organizations, but the DHS is extreme in its dysfunctions. As with all organizations, the DHS has been used by its masters and outsiders for purposes that are beyond its mandate, and the usage of the DHS has been extreme. One major user of the DHS is Congress. While Congress is the arm of the government that is closest to the people, it is also the one that is most influenced by corporations and local interest groups that do not have the interests of the larger community in mind. (The Next Catastrophe, kl 205)

I don’t think that Perrow’s views derive from the general skeptical view that organizations never succeed in accomplishing the functions we assign to them — hospitals, police departments, labor unions, universities, public health departments. And in fact his important book Complex Organizations: A Critical Essay provided a constructive description of the field of organizational studies when it appeared in 1972 and was updated in 2014 (link).)

Instead, there seem to be particular reasons why large governmental organizations designed to protect the public are likely to fail, in Perrow’s assessment. It is organizations that are designed to regulate risky activities and those that are charged to create prudent longterm plans for the future that seem particularly vulnerable, in his account. So what are those reasons for failure in these kinds of organizations?

FEMA is faulted, for example, because of its failure to adequately plan for and provide emergency relief to the people of New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf region from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Poor planning, incompetent executives at the top, politicized directions coming from the White House, poor coordination across sub-units, and poor internal controls eventually resulted in a historic failure. These are fairly routine organizational failures that could happen within the United Parcel Service corporate headquarters as easily as Washington.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is faulted for its oversight of safety in nuclear plants, including Three Mile Island, Davis-Besse, and Shoreham. Key organizational faults include regulatory capture by owners and the nuclear industry, excessive dependence on specific key legislators, commissioners who are politically beholden, and insufficient personnel to carry out intensive inspection regimes.

Perrow’s key ideas about failures in the industrial systems themselves seem not to be central in his negative assessment of government regulatory organizations. The features of “complex systems” and “tightly coupled processes” that are so central to his theory of normal accidents in industrial systems like nuclear power plants play only incidental roles in his analysis of regulatory failure. Agencies are neither complex nor tightly coupled in the way a petroleum processing plant is. In fact, an outside observer might hypothesize that a somewhat more tightly coupled system in the NRC or the EPA (a more direct connection among the scientists, engineering experts, inspectors, and commissioners) might actually improve performance.

Instead, his analysis of regulatory failure depends on a different set of axes: interests, influence, and power. Regulatory agencies fail, in Perrow’s accounts, when their top administrators have bureaucratic interests and dependencies that diverge from the mission of safety, when powerful outsiders and owners have the capacity to influence rules, policies, and implementation, and when political and economic power is deployed to protect the interests of powerful actors. (All these defects are apparent in Trump administration appointments to federal agencies with regulatory responsibilities.)

Interestingly, these factors have also played a central role in Perrow’s sociological thinking about the emergence of the twentieth-century corporation; he views corporations as vehicles for the concentration of power:

Our economic organizations — business and industry — concentrate wealth and power; socialize employees and customers alike to meet their needs; and pass off to the rest of society the cost of their pollution, crowding, accidents, and encouragement of destructive life styles. In the vaunted “free market” economy of the United States, regulation of business and industry to prevent or mitigate this market failure is relatively ineffective, as compared to that enacted by other industrialized countries. (Organizing America, 1-2)

So the primary foundation of Perrow’s assessment of the linked of organizational failure when it comes to government regulation derives from the role that economic and political power plays in deforming the operations of major government organizations to serve the interests of the powerful. Regulatory agencies are “captured” by the powerful industries they are supposed to oversee, whether through influence on the executive branch or through merciless lobbying of the legislative branch. Commissioners are often very sympathetic to the business needs of the sector they regulate, and strive to avoid “undue regulatory burden”.

This leads us to a fascinating question: is there a powerful constituency for safety that could be a counterweight to corporate power and a bulwark for honest, scientifically guided regulatory regimes? Is a more level playing field between economic interests and the public’s interests in effective safety regulation possible?

We may want to invoke the public at large, and it is true that public opinion sometimes effectively demands government intervention for safety. But the public is generally limited in several important ways. Only a small set of issues manage to become salient for the public. Further, issues only remain salient for a limited period of time. And the salience of an issue is often geographically and demographically bounded. There was intense opposition to the Shoreham nuclear plant siting decision on Long Island, but the public in Chicago and Dallas did not mobilize around the issue. Sometimes vocal public opinion prevails, but much more common is the scenario where public interest wanes and profit-motivated corporate interests persists. (Pepper Culpepper lays out the logic of salience and unequal power between a diffuse public and a concentrated corporate interest in Quiet Politics and Business Power: Corporate Control in Europe and Japan.)

Other pertinent voices for safety are public interest organizations — the Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Organizations like these have succeeded in creating a national base of support, they have drawn resources in support of their efforts, and they have a greater organizational capacity to persist over an extended period of time. (In another field of advocacy, organizations like Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have succeeded in maintaining organizational focus on the dangers of hate-based movements.) So public interest organizations sometimes have the capacity and staying power to advocate for stronger regulation.

Investigative journalism and a free press are also highly relevant in exposing regulatory failures and enhancing performance of safety organizations. The New York Times and Washington Post coverage of the FAA’s role in certification of the 737 Max will almost certainly lead to improvements in this area of aircraft safety. (Significantly, when I made this statement concerning the link between industrial safety in China and a free press, I was told that “this is a sensitive subject in China.”)

(These examples are drawn from the national level of government. Sometimes local government — e.g. police departments and zoning boards — are captured as well, when organized crime “firms” and land developers are able to distort regulations and enforcement in their favor. But it may be that organizations at this level of government are a bit more visible to their publics, and therefore somewhat less likely to bend to the dictates of powerful local interests. Jessica Troundstine addresses these kinds of issues in Political Monopolies in American Cities: The Rise and Fall of Bosses and Reformers (link).

The second primitive accumulation

One of the more memorable parts of Capital is Marx’s description of the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital” — the historical process where rural people were dispossessed of access to land and forced into industrial employment in cities like Birmingham and Manchester (link). It seems as though we’ve seen another kind of primitive accumulation in the past thirty years — the ruin of well-paid manufacturing jobs based on unionized labor, the disappearance of local retail stores, the extinction of bookstores and locally owned hardware stores, all of which offered a large number of satisfying jobs. We’ve seen a new set of bad choices for displaced workers — McDonald’s servers, Walmart greeters, and Amazon fulfillment workers. And this structural economic change threatens to create a permanent under-class of workers earning just enough to get by.

So what is the future of work and class in advanced economies? Scott Shane’s major investigative story in the New York Times describing Amazon’s operations in Baltimore (link) makes for sobering reading on this question. The story describes work conditions in an Amazon fulfillment center in Baltimore that documents the intensity, pressure, and stress created for Amazon workers by Amazon’s system of work control. This system depends on real-time monitoring of worker performance, with automatic firings coming to workers who fall short on speed and accuracy after two warnings. Other outlets have highlighted the health and safety problems created by the Amazon system, including this piece on worker safety in the Atlantic by Will Evans; link. It is a nightmarish description of a work environment, and hundreds of thousands of workers are employed under these conditions.

Imagine the difference you would experience as a worker in the hardware store mentioned in the New York Times story (driven out of business by online competition) and as a worker in an Amazon fulfillment center. In the hardware store you provide value to the business and the customers; you have social interaction with your fellow workers, your boss, and the customers; you work in a human-scale enterprise that actually cares whether you live or die, whether you are sick or well; and to a reasonable degree you have a degree of self-direction in your work. Your expertise in home improvement, tools, and materials is valuable to the customers, which brings them back for the next project, and it is valuable to you as well. You have the satisfaction of having knowledge and skills that make a difference in other people’s lives. In the fulfillment center your every move is digitally monitored over the course of your 10-hour shift, and if you fall short in productivity or quality after two warnings, you are fired. You have no meaningful relationships with fellow workers — how can you, with the digital quotas you must fulfill every minute, every hour, every day? And you have no — literally no — satisfaction and fulfillment as a human being in your work. The only value of the work is the $15 per hour that you are paid; and yet it is not enough to support you or your family (about $30,000 per year). As technology writer Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute is quoted in the Times article, [It’s not that we may be replaced by robots,] “it’s that we’ve been relegated to robot status.”

What kind of company is that? It is hard to avoid the idea that it is the purest expression that we have ever seen of the ideal type of a capitalist enterprise: devoted to growth, cost avoidance, process efficiency, use of technology, labor control, rational management, and strategic and tactical reasoning based solely on business growth and profit-maximizing calculations. It is a Leviathan that neither Hobbes nor Marx could really have visualized. And social wellbeing — of workers, of communities, of country, of the global future — appears to have no role whatsoever in these calculations. The only affirmative values expressed by the company are “serving the consumer” and being a super-efficient business entity.

What is most worrisome about the Amazon employment philosophy is its single-minded focus on “worker efficiency” at every level, using strict monitoring techniques and quotas to enforce efficient work. And the ability to monitor is increased asymptotically by the use of technology — sensors, cameras, and software that monitor the worker’s every movement. It is the apotheosis of F.W. Taylor’s theories from the 1900s of “scientific management” and time-motion studies. Fundamentally Taylor regarded the worker as a machine-like component of the manufacturing process, whose motions needed to be specified and monitored so as to bring about the most efficient possible process. And, as commentators of many ideological stripes have observed, this is a fundamentally dehumanizing view of labor and the worker. This seems to be precisely the ideal model adopted by Amazon, not only in its fulfillment centers but its delivery drivers, its professional staff, and every other segment of the workforce Amazon can capture.

Business and technology historian David Hounshell presciently noticed the resurgence of Taylorism in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article on “modern manufacturing”; link. (This was well before the advent of online business and technology-based mega-companies.) Here are a few relevant paragraphs from his piece:

Rather than seeing workers as assets to be nurtured and developed, manufacturing companies have often viewed them as objects to be manipulated or as burdens to be borne. And the science of manufacturing has taken its toll. Where workers were not deskilled through extreme divisions of labor, they were often displaced by machinery. For many companies, the ideal factory has been — and continues to be — a totally automated, workerless facility. 

Now in the wake of the eroding competitive position of U.S. manufacturing companies, is it time for an end to Taylor’s management tradition? The books answer in the affirmative, calling for the institution of a less mechanistic, less authoritarian, less functionally divided approach to manufacturing. Dynamic Manufacturing focuses explicitly on repudiating Taylorism, which it takes to be a system of “command and control.” American Business: A Two-Minute Warning is written in a more popular vein, but characterizes U.S. manufacturing methods and the underlying mind-set of manufacturing managers in unmistakably similar ways. Taylorism is the villain and the anachronism. 

Predictably, both books arrive at their diagnoses and prescriptions through their respective evaluations of the “Japanese miracle.” Whereas U.S. manufacturing is rigid and hierarchical, Japanese manufacturing is flexible, agile, organic, and holistic. In the new competitive environment — which favors the company that can continually generate new, high-quality products — the Japanese are more responsive. They will continue to dominate until U.S. manufacturers develop manufacturing units that are, in Hayes, Wheelwright, and Clark’s words, “dynamic learning organizations.” Their book is intended as a primer. (link)

Plainly the more positive ideas associated with positive human resources theory about worker motivation, knowledge, and creativity play no role in Amazon’s thinking about the workplace. And this implies a grim future for work — not only in this company, but in many others who emulate the workplace model pioneered by Amazon.

The abuses of the first fifty years of industrial capitalism eventually came to an end through a powerful union movement. Workers in railroads, textiles, steel, and the automobile industry eventually succeeded in creating union organizations that were able to effectively represent their interests in the workplace. So where is the Amazon worker’s ability to resist? The New York Times story (link) makes it clear that individual workers have almost no ability to influence Amazon’s practices. They can choose not to work for Amazon, but they can’t join a union, because Amazon has effectively resisted unionization. And in places like Baltimore and other cities where Amazon is hiring, the other job choices are even worse (even lower paid, if they exist at all). Amazon makes a great deal of money on their work, and it manages its great initiatives based on their Chaplin-esque speed of completion (one-day delivery). But there is very little ability to change the workplace towards a more human-scale one, and a workplace where the worker’s positive human capacities find fulfillment. An Amazon fulfillment center is anything but that when it comes to the lives of the workers who make it run.

Is there a better philosophy that Amazon might adopt for its work environments? Yes. It is a framework that places worker wellbeing at the same level as efficiency, “1-day delivery” and profitability. It is an approach that gives greater flexibility to shop-floor-level workers, and relaxes to some degree the ever-rising quotas for piece work per minute. It is an approach that sets workplace expectations in a way that fully considers the safety, stress, and health of the workers. It is an approach that embodies genuine respect and concern for its workers — not as public relations initiative, but as a guiding philosophy of the workplace.

There is a hard question and a harder question posed by this idea, however. Is there any reason to think that Amazon will ever evolve in this more humane direction? And harder, is there any reason to think that any large modern corporation can embody these values? Based on the current behavior of Amazon as a company, from top to bottom, the answer to the first question is “no, not unless workers gain real power in the workplace through unionization or some other form of representation in production decisions.” And to the second question, a qualified yes: “yes, a more humane workplace is possible, if there is broad involvement in business decisions by workers as well as shareholders and top executives.” But this too requires a resurgence of some form of organized labor — which our politics of the past 20 years have discouraged at every turn.

Or to quote Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770):

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

So where did the dispossessed wind up in nineteenth century Britain? Here is how Engels described the social consequences of this “primitive accumulation” for the working people of Britain in his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England:

It is only when [the observer] has visited the slums of this great city that it dawns upon him that the inhabitants of modern London have had to sacrifice so much that is best in human nature in order to create those wonders of civilisation with which their city teems. The vast majority of Londoners have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them. (30)

This passage, written in 1845, could with minor changes of detail describe the situation of Amazon workers today. “The vast majority … have had to let so many of their potential creative faculties lie dormant, stunted and unused in order that a small, closely-knit group of their fellow citizens could develop to the full the qualities with which nature has endowed them.”

And what about income and standard of living? The graph of median US income by quintile above in constant 2018 dollars tells a very stark story. Since 1967 only the top quintile of household income has demonstrated significant growth (in a timeframe of more than fifty years); and the top 5% of households shows the greatest increase of any group. 80% of US households are barely better off today than they were in 1967; whereas the top 5% of households have increased their incomes by almost 250% in real terms. This has a very clear, unmistakeable implication: that working people, including service workers, industrial workers, and most professionals have received a declining share of the economic product of the nation. Amazon warehouse workers fall in the 2nd-lowest quintile (poorest 21-40%). (It would be very interesting to have a time series of Amazon’s wage bill for blue-collar and white-collar wages excluding top management as a fraction of company revenues and net revenues since 2005.)

Here is a relevant post on the possibilities created for a more fair industrial society by the institution of worker-owned enterprises (link), and here is a post on the European system of workers councils (link), a system that gives workers greater input into decisions about operations and work conditions on the shop floor.

Organizations as open systems

Key to understanding the “ontology of government” is the empirical and theoretical challenge of understanding how organizations work. The activities of government encompass organizations across a wide range of scales, from the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (40 employees) to the Department of Defense (861,000 civilian employees). Having the best understanding possible of how organizations work and fail is crucial to understanding the workings of government.

I have given substantial attention to the theory of strategic action fields as a basis for understanding organizations in previous posts (link, link). The basic idea in that approach is that organizations are a bit like social movements, with active coalition-building, conflicting goals, and strategic jockeying making up much of the substantive behavior of the organization. It is significant that organizational theory as a field has moved in this direction in the past fifteen years or so as well. A good example is Scott and Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open System Perspectives (2007). Their book is intended as a “state of the art” textbook in the field of organizational studies. And the title expresses some of the shifts that have taken place in the field since the work of March, Simon, and Perrow (link, link). The word “organizing” in the title signals the idea that organizations are no longer looked at as static structures within which actors carry out well defined roles; but are instead dynamic processes in which active efforts by leaders, managers, and employees define goals and strategies and work to carry them out. And the “open system” phrase highlights the point that organizations always exist and function within a broader environment — political constraints, economic forces, public opinion, technological innovation, other organizations, and today climate change and environmental disaster.

Organizations themselves exist only as a complex set of social processes, some of which reproduce existing modes of behavior and others that serve to challenge, undermine, contradict, and transform current routines. Individual actors are constrained by, make use of, and modify existing structures. (20)

Most analysts have conceived of organizations as social structures created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specified goals. Given this conception, all organizations confront a number of common problems: all must define (and redefine) their objectives; all must induce participants to contribute services; all must control and coordinate these contributions; resources must be garnered from the environment and products or services dispensed; participants must be selected, trained, and replaced; and some sort of working accommodation with the neighbors must be achieved. (23)

Scott and Davis analyze the field of organizational studies in several dimensions: sector (for-profit, public, non-profit), levels of analysis (social psychological level, organizational level, ecological level), and theoretical perspective. They emphasize several key “ontological” elements that any theory of organizations needs to address: the environment in which an organization functions; the strategy and goals of the organization and its powerful actors; the features of work and technology chosen by the organization; the features of formal organization that have been codified (human resources, job design, organizational structure); the elements of “informal organization” that exist in the entity (culture, social networks); and the people of the organization.

They describe three theoretical frameworks through which organizational theories have attempted to approach the empirical analysis of organizations. First, the rational framework:

Organizations are collectivities oriented to the pursuit of relatively specific goals. They are “purposeful” in the sense that the activities and interactions of participants are coordinated to achieve specified goals….. Organizations are collectivities that exhibit a relatively high degree of formalization. The cooperation among participants is “conscious” and “deliberate”; the structure of relations is made explicit. (38)

From the rational system perspective, organizations are instruments designed to attain specified goals. How blunt or fine an instrument they are depends on many factors that are summarized by the concept of rationality of structure. The term rationality in this context is used in the narrow sense of technical or functional rationality (Mannheim, 1950 trans.: 53) and refers to the extent to which a series of actions is organized in such a way as to lead to predetermined goals with maximum efficiency. (45)

Here is a description of the natural-systems framework:

Organizations are collectivities whose participants are pursuing multiple interests, both disparate and common, but who recognize the value of perpetuating the organization as an important resource. The natural system view emphasizes the common attributes that organizations share with all social collectivities. (39)

Organizational goals and their relation to the behavior of participants are much more problematic for the natural than the rational system theorist. This is largely because natural system analysts pay more attention to behavior and hence worry more about the complex interconnections between the normative and the behavioral structures of organizations. Two general themes characterize their views of organizational goals. First, there is frequently a disparity between the stated and the “real” goals pursued by organizations—between the professed or official goals that are announced and the actual or operative goals that can be observed to govern the activities of participants. Second, natural system analysts emphasize that even when the stated goals are actually being pursued, they are never the only goals governing participants’ behavior. They point out that all organizations must pursue support or “maintenance” goals in addition to their output goals (Gross, 1968; Perrow, 1970:135). No organization can devote its full resources to producing products or services; each must expend energies maintaining itself. (67)

And the “open-system” definition:

From the open system perspective, environments shape, support, and infiltrate organizations. Connections with “external” elements can be more critical than those among “internal” components; indeed, for many functions the distinction between organization and environment is revealed to be shifting, ambiguous, and arbitrary…. Organizations are congeries of interdependent flows and activities linking shifting coalitions of participants embedded in wider material-resource and institutional environments.  (40)

(Note that the natural-system and “open-system” definitions are very consistent with the strategic-action-field approach.)

Here is a useful table provided by Scott and Davis to illustrate the three approaches to organizational studies:

An important characteristic of recent organizational theory has to do with the way that theorists think about the actors within organizations. Instead of looking at individual behavior within an organization as being fundamentally rational and goal-directed, primarily responsive to incentives and punishments, organizational theorists have come to pay more attention to the non-rational components of organizational behavior — values, cultural affinities, cognitive frameworks and expectations.

This emphasis on culture and mental frameworks leads to another important shift of emphasis in next-generation ideas about organizations, involving an emphasis on informal practices, norms, and behaviors that exist within organizations. Rather than looking at an organization as a rational structure implementing mission and strategy, contemporary organization theory confirms the idea that informal practices, norms, and cultural expectations are ineliminable parts of organizational behavior. Here is a good description of the concept of culture provided by Scott and Davis in the context of organizations:

Culture describes the pattern of values, beliefs, and expectations more or less shared by the organization’s members. Schein (1992) analyzes culture in terms of underlying assumptions about the organization’s relationship to its environment (that is, what business are we in, and why); the nature of reality and truth (how do we decide which interpretations of information and events are correct, and how do we make decisions); the nature of human nature (are people basically lazy or industrious, fixed or malleable); the nature of human activity (what are the “right” things to do, and what is the best way to influence human action); and the nature of human relationships (should people relate as competitors or cooperators, individualists or collaborators). These components hang together as a more-or-less coherent theory that guides the organization’s more formalized policies and strategies. Of course, the extent to which these elements are “shared” or even coherent within a culture is likely to be highly contentious (see Martin, 2002)—there can be subcultures and even countercultures within an organization. (33)

Also of interest is Scott’s earlier book Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, which first appeared in 1995 and is now in its 4th edition (2014). Scott looks at organizations as a particular kind of institution, with differentiating characteristics but commonalities as well. The IBM Corporation is an organization; the practice of youth soccer in the United States is an institution; but both have features in common. In some contexts, however, he appears to distinguish between institutions and organizations, with institutions constituting the larger normative, regulative, and opportunity-creating environment within which organizations emerge.

Scott opens with a series of crucial questions about organizations — questions for which we need answers if we want to know how organizations work, what confers stability upon them, and why and how they change. Out of a long list of questions, these seem particularly important for our purposes here: “How are we to regard behavior in organizational settings? Does it reflect the pursuit of rational interests and the exercise of conscious choice, or is it primarily shaped by conventions, routines, and habits?” “Why do individuals and organizations conform to institutions? Is it because they are rewarded for doing so, because they believe they are morally obligated to obey, or because they can conceive of no other way of behaving?” “Why is the behavior of organizational participants often observed to depart from the formal rules and stated goals of the organization?” “Do control systems function only when they are associated with incentives … or are other processes sometimes at work?” “How do differences in cultural beliefs shape the nature and operation of organizations?” (Introduction).

Scott and Davis’s work is of particular interest here because it supports analysis of a key question I’ve pursued over the past year: how does government work, and what ontological assumptions do we need to make in order to better understand the successes and failures of government action? What I have called organizational dysfunction in earlier posts (link, link) finds a very comfortable home in the theoretical spaces created by the intellectual frameworks of organizational studies described by Scott and Davis.

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