Moral progress and critical realism

Critical realists share a rejection of the fact-value distinction as a fundamental criterion of scientific rationality — and rightly so (link). They believe that social research and theorizing involve value commitments all the way down. Further, they commonly believe that good social science should lead to improvement in the world and in our system of moral judgments.

So far, so good. But some critical realists think that this points to “moral realism” as well as scientific realism. Moral realism maintains that there are objective and timeless answers to the questions, what is justice? what should we do? what rights do people have? Moral realists hold that holds that the moral facts are out there and waiting for discovery; there is a domain of “moral facts” that ultimately goes beyond the limits of rational disagreement.

This impulse towards moral realism is a problem. Moral realism and scientific realism are not analogous. There is no philosophical or theological method that will resolve moral questions into an unquestionable foundation or set of universal moral truths. Neither Kantianism, nor Aristotelianism, nor utilitarianism, nor traditional religious systems have the capacity to establish universal and unquestionable moral conclusions. The impulse towards moral realism has the perilous possibility of morphing into a dogmatic view of morality that substitutes one’s own convictions for eternal moral truths. In my view, this is farfetched and ultimately implies an unreflective dogmatism about values. Fortunately there is a better and more modest position available that drives from the same pragmatist origins that are inspiring other advances in critical realism.

The better approach is based on a coherence epistemology. This approach is explicitly anti-realist when it comes to moral values. Ethical reasoning always has to do with conversation, disagreement, and sometimes progress. Moral practices have social reality, to be sure; but there are no “moral facts” consisting of moral principles and values that are beyond the possibility of further rational debate. This approach to moral theory emphasizes corrigibility and pragmatic debate about ends, means, and values. It converges with coherence epistemology along the lines of Quine and Rawls; it deliberately replaces a foundationalist approach to moral thinking with a corrigible ongoing series of discussions by moral equals. This allows for an epistemology based on dialogue, and it comes out of the pragmatist tradition.

This is the approach that John Rawls adopted in his theory of reflective equilibrium. Rawls explicitly links his approach to the anti-foundationalist thinking of philosophers like Quine. (Here is a 1985 paper in which I tried to summarize Rawls’s moral methodology of reflective equilibrium; link.) Moral reasoning involves a back-and-forth between a set of considered judgments (current moral judgments about concrete issues) and more abstract moral principles. Both considered judgments and abstract principles are adjusted until the system of beliefs is reasonably consistent and coherent. Here is how Rawls describes this process of moral navigation with respect to the idea of the original position in A Theory of Justice 2nd edition:

In searching for the most favored description of this situation [the hypothetical original position] we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions. We then see if these conditions are strong enough to yield a significant set of principles. If not, we look for further premises equally reasonable. But if so, and these principles match our considered convictions of justice, then so far well and good. But presumably there will be discrepancies. In this case we have a choice. We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium. It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments. Yet for the time being we have done what we can to render coherent and to justify our convictions of social justice. We have reached a conception of the original position. (TJ 18)

This approach leads to two important features. (i) There are no fixed and final moral facts; moral facts are not part of the furniture of the world. But (ii) our moral frameworks have the potential of improving over time, as we grope reflectively with our moral responses, sympathies, and principles. There is a bootstrapping kind of progress here.

What Rawls adds is the idea that our efforts to move toward reflective equilibrium permit us to increase the overall adequacy of our system of beliefs and considered judgments. And this ties directly to his treatment of Political Liberalism — an ongoing discourse allowing us to refine and reform our convictions on the basis of communication with fellow members of our communities and groups. (Habermas and the public communicative process converges here as well.)

It is clear enough that no group is likely ever to reach full unanimity in a discussion like this. This is implied by Rawls’s own conception of a liberal society including people with conflicting conceptions of the good. And ultimately a society can be very stable even as it embraces multiple conceptions of the good and other important questions of value.

These considerations suggest that we should abandon the idea of absolute moral truth (moral realism) and embrace instead the goal of securing a respectful, thoughtful dialogue that creates a possibility of moral progress. We may have the optimistic hope that a community or society improves its ability to make moral perceptions and distinctions over time, through the practice of debating and testing the normative ideas that are shared and those that divide the population.

The ongoing work by various theorists on deliberative democracy sheds some light on the concrete ways in which this kind of moral clarification can work within a group of citizens and otherwise unrelated people. (Here is a programatic statement from the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance; link.) Everyone brings a moral and value sensibility to their interactions and reactions to the world, and sometimes those sensibilities can change through interaction with other individuals. Consideration of facts, complications, and alternative ways of stating various value commitment permit the individuals to honestly reflect on their commitments and social reactions and perhaps adjust them. (Here is a discussion of deliberative democracy; link. And here is a recent paper by Archon Fung on deliberative democracy and progressive social change; link.)

(Richmond Campbell’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on “Moral Epistemology” is excellent as background on this topic; link.)

Time for a critical-realist epistemology

The critical realism network in North America is currently convened in Montreal in a three-day intensive workshop (link). In attendance are many of the sociologists and philosophers who have an active interest in critical realism, and the talks are of genuine interest. A session this morning on pragmatist threads of potential interest to critical realists, including Mead, Abbott, and Elias, was highly stimulating. And there are 29 sessions altogether — roughly 85 papers. This is an amazing wealth of sociological research.

Perhaps a third of the papers are presentations of original sociological research from a CR point of view. This is very encouraging because it demonstrates that CR is moving beyond the philosophy of social science to the concrete practice of social science. Researchers are working hard to develop research methods in the context of CR that permit concrete investigation of particular social and historical phenomena. And this implies as well that there is a growing body of thinking about methodology within the field of CR.

CR theorists began with ontology, and a great deal of the existing literature takes the form of theoretical expositions of various ontological theses. And this was deliberate; following Bhaskar, theorists have argued that we need better ontology before science can progress. (This seems particularly true in the social realm; link.) So ontology needs to come first, then epistemology.

I believe the time has come when CR needs to give more explicit and extended attention to epistemology.

What is epistemology? It is an organized effort to answer the question, what is (scientific) knowledge? It attempts to provide a justified theory of empirical justification. Epistemology is an attempt to articulate the desired relationship between evidence and assertion; more specifically, it is an attempt to uncover the nuances of the domain of “evidence” across the realm of social research. Most fundamentally, it is an attempt to articulate how the practices of science are “truth-enhancing”: a given set of epistemic practices (methodologies) are hoped to result in a higher level of veridicality over time.

Like a left handed quarterback, CR has a disadvantage in formulating an epistemology because of its blind side. In the case of CR, the blind side is the movement’s visceral rejection of positivism. CR theorists are so strongly motivated to reject all elements of positivism that they are disposed to avoid positions they actually need to take. For example, The two following statements sound very similar:

A “Sociological claims must be evaluated on the basis of objective empirical evidence”

B “Sociological claims need to be confirmed or falsified”

And so the CR theorist is inclined to reject A as well as B. But this is a philosophical misstep caused by fear of the blind side. A is actually a perfectly valid requirement of epistemological rationality.

So what do we need from a developed epistemology for CR? Essentially we need three things.

First, we need an explicit commitment to empirical evaluation.

Second, we need a nuanced discussion of the complications involved in identifying “empirical evidence” in social research; for example, the impossibility of theory-independent or perspective-independent social data, the constructive nature of most historical and social observation, and the problem of selectivity in the collection of evidence.

Third, we need a discussion of the modes of inference — deductive, inductive, statistical, causal, and Bayesian — on the basis of which social scientists can arrive at an estimate of likelihood for a statement given a set of evidence statements.

Finally, our CR epistemology needs to give an appropriate discussion of the fallibility of all scientific research.

The epistemological frame that I currently favor is the coherence methodology described by philosophers like Quine and Goodman. The social sciences constitute a web of belief, and provisional conclusions in one area may serve to establish a method or valuation for findings in another area of the web. both ontological positions and epistemological maxims may require adjustment in light of future empirical and theoretical findings. Rawls’s conception of reflective equilibrium illustrates this epistemology in the moral field. This approach has an unexpected affinity for CR, because there is an emerging interest in the pragmatist philosophy from which this approach derives.

Epistemology allows us to place various specific methodological approaches into context. So we can locate the method of process tracing into the context of justification, and therefore into epistemology. It also validates the idea of methodological pluralism: there are multiple avenues through which researchers can create evidence through which to prove and evaluate a variety of sociological claims.

Critical realism seeks to significantly influence the practice and content of social science theory and research. In order to do this it will need to be able to state with confidence the commitments made by CR researchers to empirical standards and evidence-based findings. This will help CR to fulfill the promise of discovering some of the real structures and processes of the social world based on publicly accessible standards of theory discovery and acceptance.

The Guardian drops the ball …

The Guardian posted a short documentary video on the city where I live, Dearborn, Michigan (link). The video is, frankly, a careless, sensationalized, and false approach to the social realities of Muslims in southeast Michigan. It gives the impression that Dearborn is riven with conflict between insular Muslim people and anti-Muslim militia types and xenophobes who fear Islam. And without evidence it suggests the presence of extremist cells in the city. There is a persistent underlying theme of menace in the film, as if violence is about to break out at any time across communities. These themes of division, conflict, and menace are underlined in the blurb about the video published by the Guardian as context for the film. These are canards, and they do great injustice to the people and organizations of Dearborn and the rest of southeast Michigan. The message of the video lines up more exactly with the hate-mongers on the far right who persist in talking about Sharia law and “Dearbornistan”.

The video also inflames the sense of conflict by showing white militia members and a young Muslim woman using firearms. There are far too many guns in our society. But there is no suggestion whatsoever that Muslim people are arming themselves in significant numbers; this is just not part of the discourse, and it is a reckless act of editorial discretion to give this impression. One person choosing to own a firearm does not constitute evidence for a broader tendency. (There is of course no doubt at all about the number of firearms in the hands of white supremacist organizations.)

The video also gives a prominence to the Michigan Militia that is almost entirely undeserved. MMCW has almost no presence in Wayne County, according to its website (link). Inflammatory talk radio with its xenophobic and anti-Muslim themes is of course a key tool in the politics of division and hate that we have experienced in the past several decades; but this has no special relevance to Dearborn. It is entirely unclear why these snippets from shock radio should have been included in this documentary about a particular place.

These impressions of severe conflict, fear, and hatred are entirely false to the city in which I have lived for over seventeen years. Relations between majority residents and Muslim and Arab-American residents are in general very good. Incidents of hate-based harassment or violence are very rare. And as a person who shops, dines, and socializes in the city and enjoys the city’s parks and cultural attractions, I know first-hand that virtually everywhere are to be found individuals and groups representing all the diversity of our city. There are friendly and mutually respectful relations on display in all these public places. This is a source of pride for most people who live in Dearborn. One sign of this engagement in diversity is the response last spring to a call to action in the Ford Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to discuss and protest President Trump’s executive orders against Muslim travelers. At least half of the people present, out of a crowd of over a thousand, were non-Muslim residents who attended to demonstrate their solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.

One of the great strengths of our city and our region is the existence of mature, longstanding community-based organizations that have worked for decades at building bridges across the multiple communities of our city — organizations like ACCESS, the American Chaldean Council, New Detroit, the JCRC, La Sed, the Arab American Civil Rights League, and dozens of other community-based organizations. It is regrettable that the filmmakers did not take it upon themselves to interview and profile leaders and members of organizations like these, whose optimism and dedication to inclusion and social harmony are profound and effective. Community leaders such as the Mayor of Dearborn, the leadership of ACCESS, and leaders of the JCRC have shown themselves to be committed to the values of mutual respect and civility which are the foundation of a viable democracy. And Dearborn is thriving in the context of those values.

By the way — there is no such place as the “University of Dearborn.” The University in question is the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and is very proud of its diverse student body and its deep culture of inclusion — including a sizable proportion of Muslim and Arab American students. And members of the university community have learned the importance of nuance. Not all Arab Americans are Muslim; not all Muslims derive from the Middle East; and there is great diversity of political and cultural opinion across Muslim America. This is a small matter, perhaps, but it gives a sharp indication of the carelessness with which the filmmakers approached their work.

First generation anti-positivism: Wellmer

In Critical Theory Of Society (1969) Albrecht Wellmer announced a critique of positivist assumptions in the study of society. Proceeding from the perspective of critical theory and especially Horkheimer and Adorno, Wellmer denounced the embrace of positivism by “bourgeois” social science. But perhaps more surprisingly, he addresses this critique to Marx’s system as well.

Probably Horkheimer himself offered the most impressive statement of the Frankfurt school’s estimate of its own function and importance when, in his article on traditional and “critical” theory, he joined issue with bourgeois science and its objectivist misconception of its own nature. The essay shows clearly that the confrontation between critical, Marxist and traditional “bourgeois” science had hardly moved by then into the vague realm of methodological abstractions; to the extent that the debate was concerned with methodology, critical theory was more inclined to view it as the mere reflection of actual social conflicts. (10)

The main thrusts against positivism consist of the claim that positivists look at social arrangements as purely objective and factual; whereas they require interpretation.

Apart from strict behaviorists, social scientists would in general no longer dispute the fact that access to the measured or observed


of their field of study is obtained through the medium of communication. but, they opine, the role of interpretations finishes with its provision of a means of access to the data, and perhaps also of a heuristic value for the discovery of explanations; in addition, they would claim for their science the methodological status of a natural science, and therefor of a science entitled, with the aid of universal laws, to explain and predict unusual phenomena. (35)

And positivism assumes that value perspectives can be filtered out in the perception of facts; whereas critical theorists maintain that perspective is inseparable from perception. (Proletarians see the social world differently from the bourgeois.)

So what is “critical social science”? To start, it is hermeneutic, according to Wellmer: it has to do with the interpretation of meanings in social action.

It has already been shown that explanatory sociology is always interpretative sociology as well; and that an interpretative sociology cannot be merely a subjective sociology of the interpretation of meaning. It is also clear now that the empirical content of social scientific theories is peculiarly proportional to the historical concretion to which they attain. (38)

Further, critical social science is fundamentally responsive to historical context. So hermeneutic interpretation cannot be extracted from its historical context.

So much of the specific content of a certain historical period enters into the basic theoretical assumptions and the framework of reference used for categorization, that its hypotheses cannot be transferred without violence to more distant socio-historical situations. (36)

This point parallels the post-positivist view that observation is theory-laden; but it goes beyond that by postulating that social observations are framed by conceptual systems that are themselves historically specific.

Third, critical social science rests on a recognition (even more explicit in Habermas) that knowledge and interest are interwoven:

Already apparent is the changed relation of theory and practice that exists for a critical social theory derived form a practical interest in cognition. Critical theory is derivable from a notion of the “good life” already available to it as part of the socio-historical situation it subjects to analysis; which, as the notion of an acknowledgement of each individual as a person by each other individual, and as the idea of a non-coercive communal human life of dialogue, is a draft meaning of history already fragmentarily embodied in a society’s traditions and institutions. (41)

The tension between the Frankfurt School and orthodox Marxist theory is evident here, because Wellmer’s critique of “bourgeois social science” is extended to Marx himself.

The critique of the objectivism of Marx’s philosophy of history was directed at a latently positivistic misconception, which, according to Habermas’s thesis, arises from the part played by the concept of labor. (67)

“Objectivism” here means the stance of the social researcher to regard the social as “given”, not subject to interpretation. And Wellmer argues that there is a strand of Marx’s thought that does precisely that. Marx’s materialist theory of history — “history consists of a dialectic of change driven by conflict between the forces and relations of production” — leaves no room for the radical interpretivism that Wellmer favors. Crudely, Marx in the German Ideology and Capital is not at all interested in the ideas that men and women have, but rather the objective system of social relations that underlies their actions and interactions. Even arguments that Marx makes about ideology, false consciousness, and fetishism of commodities takes the form of demystification — dissolution of the system of false consciousness rather than interpretation of how these representations relate to the workings of the social order. Consciousness plays no role in the dynamics of history. And in fact Wellmer believes that this stance plays a self-defeating role in Marx’s system:

The union of historical materialism and the criticism of political economy in Marx’s social theory is inherently contradictory. (74)

What Wellmer favors for social theory is expressed here:

This means that critical theory does not wish to replace an ideological consciousness with a scientific consciousness, but — of course by means of empirical and historical analyses — to assist the practical reason existing in the for of ideological consciousness to “call to mind” its distorted form, and at the same time to get control of its practical-utopian contents. Ultimately, therefore, critical theory can prove itself only by initiating a reflective dissolution of false consciousness resulting in liberating praxis: the successful dissolution of false consciousness as an integrative aspect of emancipatory practice is the proper touchstone for its truth. (72)

So Wellmer’s “critical theory of society” is criticism all the way down: critique of the assumptions about knowledge, action, and social relations that underlie both bourgeois social science and large swathes of Marx’s own theoretical framework. In place of orthodox “empiricist” ideas about empirical confirmation and “hypothetico-deductive method”, he advocates the “hypothetico-practical model of validation. Those theories which unfold into a basis for human liberation are for that reason rationally preferable to those that do not. Rather than theory and observation, Wellmer’s philosophy of science rests on a view of theory and praxis, or theory and liberation.

However, it is difficult today to interpret this series of observations as a serious and credible approach to social science epistemology. It offers suggestive ideas about what is involved in making sense of a given historical-social reality. But it gives little guidance about how to evaluate various theories and interpretations.

(The choice of Millet’s painting “Peasants planting potatoes” is apt for a discussion of Wellmer’s philosophy of social science. The painting represents a set of “facts”; but we cannot say what facts these are without substantial interpretation, and various interpretations are possible. The painting might be regarded as a small piece of critical social theory all by itself, with a gesture towards social reality, a depiction that can be understood as a system of domination, and a call for liberation.)

Dynamics of medieval cities


Cities provide a good illustration of the ontology of the theory of assemblage (link). Many forms of association, production, logistics, governance, and population processes came together from independent origins and with different causal properties. So one might imagine that unexpected dynamics of change are likely to be found in all urban settings.

The medieval period is not known for its propensity for innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, or dynamic tendencies towards change. One thinks rather of the placid, continuing social relations of the English countryside, the French village, or the Italian town. There is the idea that a stultifying social order made innovation and change difficult. However, studies of medieval cities over the past century have cast some doubt on this stereotype. Henri Pirenne’s lectures on the medieval city in 1923 were collected in Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade, and there are numerous clues indicating that Pirenne found ample features of dynamic change in the medieval city from the eleventh century forward. Here are a few examples:

The eleventh century, in fact, brings us face to face with a real commercial revival. This revival received its impetus from two centers of activity, one located in the south and the other in the north: Venice on one side and the Flemish coast on the other. (82) 

Trade was thus forced upon them [Venice] by the very conditions under which they lived. And they had the energy and the genius to turn to profit the unlimited possibilities which trade offered them. (83)

 Constantinople, even in the eleventh century, appears not only as a great city, but as the greatest city of the whole Mediterranean basin. Her population was not far from reaching the figure of a million inhabitants, and that population was singularly active. She was not content, as had been the population of Rome under the Republic and the Empire, to consume without producing. She gave herself over, with a zeal which the fiscal system shackled but did not choke, not only to trading but to industry. (84)

The geographical situation of Flanders, indeed, put her in a splendid position to become the western focus for the commerce of the seas of the north. It formed the natural terminus of the voyage for ships arriving from Northern England or which, having crossed the Sound after coming out of the Baltic, were on their way to the south. (97)

It was only in the twelfth century that, gradually but definitely, Western Europe was transformed. The economic development freed her from the traditional immobility to which a social organization, depending solely on the relations of man to the soil, had condemned her. Commerce and industry did not merely find a place alongside of agriculture; they reacted upon it…. The rigid confines of the demesnial system, which had up to now hemmed in all economic activity, were broken down and the whole social order was patterned along more flexible, more active and more varied lines. (101-102)

Large or small, [cities] were to be met everywhere; one was to be found, on the average, in every twenty-five square leagues of land. They had, in fact, become indispensable to society. They had introduced into it a division of labor which it could no longer do without. Between them and the country was established a reciprocal exchange of services. (102)

So trade, finance, manufacturing, and flexible labor led to a dynamic of change that resulted in real economic and urban development in medieval European cities. Pirenne emphatically does not give a rendering of the medieval city that features a rigid social order impeding social and economic change.

A recent study provides modern evidence that the stereotyped impression of social stasis in the urban world of the middle ages is incorrect (link). Rudolf Ceseretti and his co-authors of “Population-Area Relationship for Medieval European Cities” provide a strikingly novel view of the medieval city (link). Their key finding is that there is an unexpected similarity of behavior with modern urban centers that can be observed in the population and spatial characteristics of medieval cities. They have collected data on 173 medieval cities across Western Europe:

Here is how they frame their finding in the Introduction:

This research suggests that, at a fundamental level, cities consist of overlapping social and physical networks that are self-consistently bounded by settled physical space [55–57]. Here, we investigate whether the relationships between settlement population and settled land area predicted by scaling theory—and observed in contemporary cities—also characterized medieval European cities.

In this paper, we analyze the relationship between the extent of built-up area and resident populations of 173 settlements located in present-day Belgium, France, England, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, ca. AD 1300. Previous scholarship has produced population estimates for a large number medieval European cities [58,59]. We build on this work by linking population estimates with estimates for the built-up area compiled from historical and archaeological sources.

The authors focus on a common belief about medieval cities — the idea that social interactions among residents are structured by powerful social institutions. Guilds, ethnicities, family groups, and religion provide examples of such institutions. If the net effect of social institutions like these is to reduce the likelihood of interaction of pairs of individuals, then medieval cities should display different patterns of spatial distribution of population and growth; if this effect is not significant, then medieval cities should resemble modern cities in these respects. This study finds the latter to be the case. Fundamentally they are interested in the topic of “scaling of settlement area with population size”. Here is a plot of area and population for the cities they studied, separated by region:

Their central finding is that the data about population density and spatial distribution do not support the hypothesis that medieval social institutions substantially inhibited social interactions to an extent that hindered urban growth and development. Rather, medieval cities look in their population and spatial structures to be very similar to modern cities.

Table 1 shows that the point estimates of the scaling coefficients for all four regional groups and for the pooled dataset fall within the 2/3 ≥


≥ 5/6 range predicted by the social reactor model… Thus, medieval cities across Western Europe exhibit, on average, economies of scale with respect to spatial agglomeration such that larger cities were denser on average. This pattern is similar to that observed for modern cities. 

Even though medieval cities were structured by hierarchical institutions that are ostensibly not so dominant today, we interpret this finding as excluding a strongly segregating role for medieval social institutions. This would suggest that the institutions of Western European urban systems ca. 1300 did not substantially constrain social mixing, economic integration, or the free flow of people, ideas, and information. We take these findings as an indication that the underlying micro-level social dynamics of medieval cities were fundamentally similar to those of contemporary cities. (discussion)

This study presents a fascinating contemporary test of a thesis that would surely have interested Pirenne almost a century ago: did medieval cities develop spatially in ways that reflect a reasonable degree of freedom of choice among residents about where they lived and worked? And the data seem to confirm a “yes” for this question.

(I haven’t attempted to summarize the methods used in this study, and the full article bears reading for anyone interested in the question of interpreting urban history from a quantitative point of view.)

Contingency and explanation


Social change and historical events are highly contingent processes, in a specific sense: they are the result of multiple causal influences that “could have been otherwise” and that have conjoined at a particular point in time in bringing about an event of interest. Contrast this situation with what we are looking for when we seek an explanation of a change or event. When we explain an event, we show how and why it was not random or accidental; we identify a set of circumstances that made it necessary or likely in the given circumstances. Contingency and explanation therefore seem to be in tension with each other: a wholly contingent world is perhaps one in which explanation of particular occurrences is impossible.

The appearance of contradiction lessens when we realize that “contingent” is not the same as “random” or “uncaused”. (See an earlier post for an effort to disentangle a number of related causal concepts; link.) When a uranium atom decays at a particular moment, this is a truly random event. There is no underlying cause that brought about the decay of the nucleus at this particular moment. When a race riot occurs in in Detroit on July 23, 1967, this was a contingent occurrence — it did not have to happen; but it was not random, spontaneous, or uncaused. Rather, there were multiple causal factors and processes, along with a number of accidental and spontaneous events, leading to a pathway of social actions that resulted in largescale confrontation, arson, violence. Here is how the Kerner Commission described the occurrence of major race riots in the United States (link):

Disorder did not erupt as a result of a single “triggering” or “precipitating” incident. Instead, it was generated out of an increasingly disturbed social atmosphere, in which typically a series of tension-heightening incidents over a period of weeks or months became linked in the minds of many in the Negro community with a reservoir of underlying grievances. At some point in the mounting tension, a further incident–in itself often routine or trivial–became the breaking point and the tension spilled over into violence.

We can understand this account as depending on a distinction between proximate and distal causes; distal causes (a pattern of police brutality, say) set the stage for racial tension, which makes an outbreak of violence more likely; and a precipitating (proximate) event triggers the outburst. The point in this paragraph is that the triggering cause is not the sole cause, or even the most important cause. But all these factors are causally relevant to the outcome. We say that the riot was contingent because there are many ways in which the tensions created by the background conditions could have been defused — a progressive mayor could have enacted a police reform along with a jobs program, a charismatic leader like Dr. King could have emerged in Detroit who helped to channel tension into electoral politics rather than an outbreak of violence, the Federal government could have been more successful in its civil rights reforms and its War on Poverty. Or the raid on the blind pig could have happened in a driving rainstorm, with the result that no crowd gathered. So the outcome was not preordained. It was contingent, but it was caused.

So it is not the case that a contingent world is one in which nothing can be explained. A chaotic and random world has that property; but contingency is not chaos. Rather, for many historical and social events we can identify a set of background or standing conditions that elevated the probability of the event, we can sometimes identify independent causal processes underway at the same time that interact to further elevate the probability of the event; and we can identify one or more unrelated and random events that served as a trigger to the occurrence of the event of interest.

This is one reason why the strategy of seeking out causal mechanisms in the social world is an appealing approach to social explanation. Appeal to causal mechanisms allows us to make sense of both important features of the social world: that processes and events are contingent, and that many processes and events are amenable to causal explanation.

When researchers set their goals on identifying general causes for groups of social phenomena, they often have in mind the idea that there are similarities in the background standing causal conditions that serve to increase the likelihood of a certain kind of event — revolution, riot, economic crisis, or period of rapid innovation. And indeed, there are credible hypotheses about such conditions; this is the underlying rationale for the application of Mill’s methods to causal reasoning in the social sciences. It is indeed perfectly credible that there are pervasive social conditions that make certain kinds of social events more likely — a good university system and rapid technological innovation, a defeat in war and political turmoil, the pervasiveness of Protestantism and the hockey stick of market activity.

This insight is closely related to the distinction that Bhaskar and critical realists draw between closed and open systems. In an open system we cannot predict future states of the system because we cannot achieve causal closure; there is always the possibility of another kind of causal influence or mechanism that can offset the workings of the known mechanisms.

The page from the Washington Times above draws attention to an event that was itself highly contingent and yet explicable (the bungled but eventually successful effort to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand); leading to an important historical event (the outbreak of World War I) which was also both contingent and explicable.

A new model of organization?

In Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World General Stanley McChrystal (with Tantum Collins, David Silverman, and Chris Fussell) describes a new, 21st-century conception of organization for large, complex activities involving thousands of individuals and hundreds of major sub-tasks. His concept is grounded in his experience in counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq. Rather than being constructed as centrally organized, bureaucratic, hierarchical processes with commanders and scripted agents, McChrystal argues that modern counter-terrorism requires a more decentralized and flexible system of action, which he refers to as “teams of teams”. Information is shared freely, local commanders have ready access to resources and knowledge from other experts, and they make decisions in a more flexible way. The model hopes to capture the benefits of improvisation, flexibility, and a much higher level of trust and communication than is characteristic of typical military and corporate organizations.


One place where the “team of teams” structure is plausible is in the context of a focused technology startup company, where the whole group of participants need to be in regular and frequent collaboration with each other. Indeed, Paul Rabinow’s ethnography in 1996 of the Cetus Corporation in its pursuit of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) in Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology reflects a very similar topology of information flows and collaboration links across and within working subgroups (link). But the vision does not fit very well the organizational and operational needs of a large hospital, a railroad company, or a research university. It seems plausible that the challenges the US military faced in fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIL are not really analogous to those faced by less dramatic organizations like hospitals, universities, and corporations. The decentralized and improvisational circumstances of urban warfare against loosely organized terrorists may be sui generis

McChrystal proposes an organizational structure that is more decentralized, more open to local decision-making, and more flexible and resilient. These are unmistakeable virtues in some circumstances; but not in all circumstances and all organizations. And arguably such a structure would have been impossible in the planning and execution of the French defense of Dien Bien Phu or the US decision to wage war against the Vietnamese insurgency ten years later. These were situations where central decisions needed to be made, and the decisions needed to be implemented through well organized bureaucracies. The problem in both instances is that the wrong decisions were made, based on the wrong information and assessments. What was needed, it would appear, was better executive leadership and decision-making — not a fundamentally decentralized pattern of response and counter-response.

One thing that deserves comment in the context of McChrystal’s book is the history of bad organization, bad intelligence, and bad decision-making the world has witnessed in the military experiences of the past century. The radical miscalculations and failures of planning involved in the first months of the Korean War, the painful and tragic misjudgments made by the French military in preparing for Dien Bien Phu, the equally bad thinking and planning done by Robert McNamara and the whiz kids leading to the Vietnam War — these examples stand out as sentinel illustrations of the failures of large organizations that have been tasked to carry out large, complex activities involving numerous operational units. The military and the national security establishments were good at some tasks, and disastrously bad at others. And the things they were bad at were both systemic and devastating. Bernard Fall illustrates these failures in Hell In A Very Small Place: The Siege Of Dien Bien Phu, and David Halberstam does so for the decision-making that led to the war in Vietnam in The Best and the Brightest.

So devising new ideas about command, planning, intelligence gathering and analysis, and priority-setting that are more effective would be a big contribution to humanity. But the deficiencies in Dien Bien Phu, Korea, or Vietnam seem different from those McChrystal identifies in Iraq. What was needed in these portentous moments of policy choice was clear-eyed establishment of appropriate priorities and goals, honest collection of intelligence and sources of information, and disinterested implementation of policies and plans that served the highest interests of the country. The “team of teams” approach doesn’t seem to be a general solution to the wide range of military and political challenges nations face.

What one would have wanted to see in the French military or the US national security apparatus is something different from the kind of teamwork described by McChrystal: greater honesty on all parts, a commitment to taking seriously the assessments of experts and participants in the field, an openness to questioning strongly held assumptions, and a greater capacity for institutional wisdom in arriving at decisions of this magnitude. We would have wanted to see a process that was not dominated by large egos, self-interest, and fixed ideas. We would have wanted French generals and their civilian masters to soberly assess the military function that a fortress camp at Dien Bien Phu could satisfy; the realistic military requirements that would need to be satisfied in order to defend the location; and an honest effort to solicit the very best information and judgment from experienced commanders and officials about what a Viet-Minh siege might look like. Instead, the French military was guided by complacent assumptions about French military superiority, which led to a genuine catastrophe for the soldiers assigned to the task and to French society more broadly.

There are valid insights contained in McChrystal’s book about the urgency of breaking down obstacles to communication and action within sprawling organizations as they confront a changing environment. But it doesn’t add up to a model that is well designed for most contexts in which large organizations actually function.

Chinese modernization c. 1930

At the end of the nineteenth century — which was also of the end of the Qing Dynasty — China was not “modern”. Its political institutions had crumbled, it had not substantially incorporated new technologies and forms of economic organization, and its military was still equipped with mid-century weapons and tactics. And, of course, the conditions for peasants and landless workers were abysmal; here is J. R. Tawney’s description in a review of Chen Han-seng’s 1936 Agrarian Problems in Southermost China (link):

Not only the whole surplus, but a large part of the cultivator’s bare livelihood is skinned off by the landowner. As a result, the peasant falls increasingly into debt, and what the landowner and tax-collector leave, the usurer takes. “We close our survey, then,” writes Dr. Chen Han-seng, “upon a note of misery beyond which human experience can hardly go, except in times of catastrophe.” So much for the author’s account of the facts. No one not intimately acquainted with the region studied can say whether the picture is overdrawn, or not. If it is not–and the evidence presented suggests that it is not–then rural society in China, or in this part of China, is crumbling at the bottom. No stable state can be built on such foundations, and the case for some serious policy of land reform, already unanswerable, is once more reinforced. (346)

What avenues of purposeful social change were available to China’s leaders in the early part of the twentieth century? This broad question was addressed in strikingly relevant terms  in 1937 in a special issue of Pacific Affairs. This is a remarkable volume for anyone interested in China’s twentieth-century history, including contributions by Leonard Hsü, Edgar Snow, and R. H. Tawney. It is striking to read these reflections from the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the realities of China in the early twenty-first century.

The model of modernization that prevailed by mid-century in China was that of communist revolution, emphasizing class conflict, state ownership and management of the economy, and a substantial dose of ideological orthodoxy. This trajectory began in the 1920s in China, and led through a very tumultuous several decades before the final triumph of communism in China in 1949. Edgar Snow was a friendly observer of the left in China in the 1930s, and his 1937 Red Star over China represents his first-hand observations of the early stages of Mao’s movement and the Long March. Here is how Snow described the situation of communist activism in North China in the 1930s in his contribution to the Pacific Affairs volume, “Soviet Society in Northwest China”:

Practical considerations, however, denied the Reds the possibility of organizing much more than the political framework for the beginnings of socialist economy, of which naturally they could think only in terms of a future which might give them power in the great cities, where they could take over the industrial bases from foreign imperialism and thus lay the foundations for a true socialist society. Meanwhile, in the rural areas, their activity centered chiefly on the solution of the immediate problems of the peasants -land and taxes. This may sound like the reactionary program of the old Narodniks of Russia, but the great difference lies in that Chinese Communists regarded land distribution as only a phase in the building of a mass base, enabling them to develop the struggle toward the conquest of power and final realization of profound socialist changes-in which collectivization would be inevitable. In Fundamental Laws of the Chinese Soviet Republic’ the First All-China Soviet Congress in 1931 set forth in detail the “maximum program” of the Communist Party of China-and reference to it shows clearly that the ultimate aim of Chinese Communists is a true and complete socialist state of the Marx-Leninist conception. Meanwhile, however, it has to be remembered that the social, political and economic organization of the Red districts has all along been only a very provisional affair. Even in Kiangsi it was little more than that. Because the soviets have had to fight for an existence ever since they began, their main task has always been to build a military and political base for the extension of the revolution on a wider and deeper scale, rather than to “try out Communism in China,” which is what some people childishly imagine the Reds have been attempting in their little blockaded areas. (266-267)

Communism was one important strand of reform that China witnessed in the 1930s. But there were other efforts at modernization that offered a different view of what China needed in order to move forward. Many of these non-Communist directions fell within a broad coalition of individuals and groups under the label of “rural reconstruction,” which focused on social reforms, educational reforms, and governance reforms in the countryside. Leonard Hsü was an early American-educated sociologist in China. Hsü’s career is briefly described in Yung-chen Chiang’s Social Engineering and the Social Sciences in China, 1919-1949. Hsü describes the rural reconstruction movement in China in his 1937 article, “Rural reconstruction in China” in the Pacific Affairs volume (link). Here is Hsü’s brief description of the rural reconstruction movement:

The origin of the movement may be traced to three factors: China’s contact with the industrial powers of the West and the consequent decline of its rural economy; the proposals of Chinese thinkers and statesmen, beginning with Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s San Min Chu-I (Three Principles of the People) for a planned social development; and, finally, the series of incidents in 1931 and 1932 which brought about a national crisis unparalleled in the previous history of China. This crisis furnished an impulse toward national salvation through reconstruction. It included not only the Japanese military aggression in China, but a great flood in the Yangtze and Huai River valleys, the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic in the Yangtze provinces, and the spread of world economic depression to Chinas after the suspension of the gold standard in Great Britain and Japan, and later in the United States.

Within the rural reconstruction movement, which is itself the product of diverse social forces, three main objectives can be observed. One is increased production. China is only now awakening to the need for industrialization, and has not yet had freedom for unhampered growth, with the result that there has been insufficient urban industrial development to offset the rural decline. The estimated percentages of home production in 1935 of the following. (249)

Here is Hsü’s conclusion in the article:

I may, therefore, conclude by saying that rural reconstruction in China, as a social movement, is one phase of a correlated attack, on various technical fronts, on the problem of realizing a planned society. The movement presupposes that if China is to survive, it must modernize its social organization and vastly increase its work- ing efficiency. This in turn means the application of scientific knowledge to community reconstruction from the village unit up. Finally, the application must be a planned process, taking into consideration the social factors of population, resources and technical skill, and making use of the local unit of government as the medium of coordinating and correlating technical services.

The hard question to be considered now, eighty years later, is whether rural reconstruction and social reform could have brought about wide and deep processes of social change in China without the traumas associated with decades of revolutionary war. On the one hand, the logic of centralized one-party rebuilding of a large society like China is inherently risky. It poses the hazard of bad ideas prevailing at a certain time and being implemented on a vast and destructive scale. The Great Leap Forward and subsequent massive famine is one such example, and so is the Cultural Revolution. So centralized blueprints for longterm change carried out by an authoritarian regime seem inherently hazardous for a people. But at the same time, the problems that China faced in the 1930s, both in rural life and in urban life, were genuinely massive; and it isn’t entirely clear that a piecemeal, decentralized process of reform could have reached the scope necessary to bring about sustained social and economic progress in China. Hsü highlights the scope of the challenge in his summary of rural reconstruction:

When the total needs of China are considered, all these efforts are small indeed. There are still almost 220 million hectares that need to be afforested. How much can a million members of co-operatives help, when the farm population exceeds 340 million and the number of farm households exceeds 6o million? In spite of the interest in rural loans of the big banks, one study shows that peasants receive only 2.4 per cent of their financial assistance from the banks, and 97.6 per cent in loans at high interest from landlords and usurers.

Even smaller is the beginning that has been made in the social and cultural aspects of rural reconstruction. It is true that not until a physical and economic foundation has been laid can social and cultural work be developed on any considerable scale. It is not unreasonable to expect that in a few years the nation will take a more serious and systematic interest in such social fields as rural education, community recreation, rural health, social welfare, and local self-government. Present developments in these fields are inadequate to meet the needs of the rural population. How much help can hsien health centers and 144 rural health stations and clinics give to a rural population of 340 million? China has nearly 2,000 hsien, 100,000 villages and one to two million hamlets, for which in I932 there were only 477 rural normal schools, with 50,150 students. (261)

These points lead to a degree of uncertainty about the potential effectiveness and scope of cumulative small-scale reform programs. However, on balance the decentralized and pluralistic strategy is probably the most convincing pathway to long-term social and economic progress, given what we know about the alternatives. And there are good examples of such a pluralistic process leading to great social progress — greater democracy, improved quality of life, and increasing economic opportunities in all sectors of society. It would be very interesting to see a novelist of the stature of an André Malraux attempting to think through an alternative non-communist history for China. It might have the same gripping power as Malraux’s account of the early experience of the Chinese Revolution in Man’s Fate (La Condition Humaine).

* .    * .    *

Kate Merkel-Hess addresses China’s indigenous alternative to Communist modernization theory in her recent book, The Rural Modern: Reconstructing the Self and State in Republican China. The book is an important contribution to our understanding of how China might have developed differently into the twentieth century and beyond. Several earlier posts have focused on the question of the feasibility of largescale programs of social progress; linklinklink.

Morphogenesis and social norms

Critical realism pays particular attention to the enduring structures that underlie various social orders and processes. But as argued in an earlier post, CR also needs to be able to provide a vocabulary for describing the “subjective” and normative aspects of the social order. Margaret Archer’s evolving theory of morphogenesis provides resources for discussing precisely this dimension of the social world. The most recent volume of collaborative research emerging from Archer’s morphogenesis research project, Morphogenesis and the Crisis of Normativity (2016), is highly relevant to the ontology of normative features of the social world. The book focuses on the stability of legal systems in changing societies; but it is relevant to broader issues of normative coherence as well. The book includes contributions from a dozen contributors, and there is an admirable degree of focus and coherence across the chapters. Particularly interesting to me were chapters by Doug Porpora, Phil Gorski, Colin Wight, Emmanuel Lazega, and Mark Carrigan; but every essay is excellent. The volume provides the basis for a very important conversation about the nature of norms and laws in the context of rapid social change.

Here is how Archer frames the central issue in this volume:

Do shared values promote social stability and social integration, or is it the other way round? Is it rather that social stability fosters normative consensus about the legitimacy of the rule of law, the appropriateness of prevailing rules and attachment to existing conventions? This question has a long history in the philosophy of law and the sociology of development, whose respective thinkers often took different positions during the twentieth century. (1)

Archer and her colleagues introduce a new circuit of social interaction for this set of topics: social normativity, social integration, and social regulation (NIR) (1). In a thumbnail, the central insight of the volume is that much writing on the sociology of law has assumed a setting of morphostasis; but this leaves entirely open the question of the role and stability of legal and normative systems during periods of morphogenesis. The presumption has been that periods of significant, rapid social change are entirely destabilizing for legal and normative structures. And the project of the volume is to show how legal and normative structures can persist, evolve, or emerge within a period of morphogenesis. In other words, the collaborators here are interested in the topic of “normativity in changing times” (5).

One way of construing the puzzle under consideration here is the status of the “bindingness” of a normative or legal system. What circumstances or forces lead participants of a given society to internalize the prescriptions of a given set of norms or laws? And in particular, what could create this fact of norm internalization in a period of substantial and rapid social change?

There are a few features of normativity in society that are reasonably self-evident. One is a point that Archer herself emphasizes (8) and attributes as well to Dave Elder-Vass in The Causal Power of Social Structures: the fact that there are almost always multiple normative systems at work in a given society, rather than a single overarching and universal normative system. This point refutes key assumptions of both Durkheim and Parsons — the assumption that a social order requires a fundamental and universal set of norms if it is to function coherently at all. This observation is implicit in Elder-Vass’s idea of norm circles; but it is also quite visible through even cursory study of the norms of family, gender, fairness, etiquette, or life-aspiration that are current across different groups in one’s own society. Archer makes a similar point here:

The hallmark of cultural relations in modernity was one of ‘competitive contradictions’ between the respective corpuses of ideas activated critically and conflictually by opposed groups for purposes of legitimation. (16)

But the idea that these normative conflicts must or will be resolved or eliminated in a period of greater stability is mistaken.

It is also unpersuasive to insist that a group (ethnic, racial, gender) only exists if it possesses a universal and common set of norms defining behavior for members of the group. (This appears to be the view of various theorists of “we” identities.) The same point about heterogeneity of the whole of society applies equally to groups within society. Protestants, Muslims, mid-westerners, or surfers can all construe their identities in terms of affinities with these various constructions, without being subject to a single and uniform normative code. Norms are more like strands within a woven fabric than like essential features of a group’s identity. (Here is an earlier post that makes this point; link.)

Archer closes her introduction by highlighting three emerging hypotheses about morphogenesis and normativity:

  1. Where (N) is concerned, intensified morphogenesis has entailed a retreat from public, deontic normativity in the developed world.
  2. Where (I) is concerned, the increase in accessible cultural variety serves to decrease social uniformity and in consequence, social integration.
  3. Where (R) is concerned, social regulation becomes increasingly preoccupied with coordination and attends to fostering co-operation and redistribution only in so far as these are needful for coordinating different societal sectors.

What is somewhat surprising to me in these conclusions is the underlying sense of discomfort that Archer conveys with the conditions of change and transformation that they imply. The conservative critique of modernity is that the old normative foundations of social solidarity are disappearing, and chaos is the result. Archer seems almost to agree with some version of this critique; she seems to accept that morphogenesis leads to “disorderliness, destructiveness, unfairness, inhumaneness, and other iniquities” (26). This same discontent seems to underlie her critique of Bauman’s view of “liquid modernity” (link). In this volume she introduces the idea of “anormative social regulation” as an alternative to norm-based social cohesion:

In forging the link between anormative bureaucratic regulation and the intensification of morphogeneisis one socio-political characteristic of regulations is crucial. Regulations themselves can be innovatory, independent of any previous precedent and faster to to introduce than legislation. Since they do not rely upon consensus among or consultation with the public affected, neither are they dependent upon the relatively slow development, typical of social conventions and of norms. This feature recommends their suitability for ready response to the novel changes introduced through morphogenesis and its generic tendency for new variety to generate more variety. (149)

This is not Archer’s whole answer to the question of the role of norms within a society undergoing morphogenesis; but it is the most concrete idea she advances. And it is a very limited conception of the ways in which a society might seek to preserve and promote the common good.

What seems much more promising is a view of transformation and social change that permits constant “morphogenesis” and yet witnesses a reasonably stable patchwork of continuing normative communities that permit new solutions to the constant challenges created by rapid change. Perhaps surprisingly, John Rawls’s conception of a “liberal society” with a constantly shifting set of ideas across society about justice and the common good seems more suitable to the conditions of change that Archer herself is most concerned with (Political Liberalismlink). We are indeed passengers on Neurath’s raft riding on currents of “liquid modernity”; but we have the ability to continually recreate the conditions of a humane and just social order around us. Critical realism and the theory of morphogenesis can perhaps help us make greater progress in formulating an ontology of “progress and stability through ongoing change”.

Jobs, basic income, and the future of the techno-market economy

In the dystopian vision of the future described in William Gibson’s Sprawl novels, there are few people with normal jobs, regular sources of income, retirement plans, and health insurance. Instead, there are hackers, freelance security guards, software traffickers, criminals at many levels, and a few distant corporations with scientists and managers. It is a grim picture.

But how distant is that future from our current trajectory? Is that pretty much where we are heading? With the effort to shed 24 million Americans from health insurance; with the disappearance of “good” industrial jobs; with the rise of the gig economy; with the super-extreme development of inequalities of income and wealth, based on privileged positions in the financial and tech economies — do these trends not seem like early-stage Gibson?

Philippe van Parijs has long been an advocate for a very fundamental change to the legal and economic structure of a capitalist democracy, the establishment of a universal basic income for all citizens and legal residents of a country. A recent statement of his position (with Yannick Vanderborght) is Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy. The central value that drives van Parijs’ social philosophy is “real freedom”. And he believes that the creation of a legal commitment to universal basic income within advanced democracies is both politically feasible and desirable for the impact it would have on the levels of freedom enjoyed by the most disadvantaged members of society. Here is how van Parijs and Vanderborght put the fundamental point:

A basic income is not just a clever measure that may help alleviate urgent problems. It is a central pillar of a free society, in which the real freedom to flourish, through work and outside work, will be fairly distributed. It is an essential element of a radical alternative to both old socialism and neoliberalism, of a realistic utopia that offers far more than the defense of past achievements or resistance to the dictates of the global market. It is a crucial part of the sort of vision needed to turn threats into opportunities, resignation into resolution, anguish into hope. (kl 81)

What should be the level of a universal basic income? Parijs and Vanderborght choose as a benchmark the 25th percentile of a country’s GDP per capita. In the US this would amount to $1,163 and in Brazil $180 (kl 235). For a US family of five including two adults, this amounts to $2,326 per month — roughly the current level of the US poverty threshold for a family of five. (Van Parijs and Vanderborght address the relation between the UBI and the poverty threshold; kl 252.)

The current issue of Boston Review includes a forum on “Work, Inequality, Basic Income”, with essays and discussions by Brishen Rogers, Philippe van Parijs, Dorian Warren, Tommie Shelby, Diane Coyle, and others. It is “must” reading for anyone concerned about the question of how we can craft an equitable and livable world in the context of a market economy in the coming decades.

Here is how Brishen Rogers describes the idea of universal basic income in his anchor essay:

The idea is simple: the state would provide regular cash grants, ideally sufficient to meet basic needs, as a right of citizenship or lawful residency. Understood as a fundamental right, basic income would be unconditional, not means-tested and not contingent on previous or current employment. It would help sever the link between work and welfare, provide income security for all who are eligible, and perhaps mitigate growing inequality. It could also enable people to provide unpaid work or community service, start new businesses, or get an education. (



Rogers places a great deal of emphasis on the changes in the power relations between capital and labor that are implicit in the technology revolution currently underway. Workers (think Uber drivers or Amazon inventory fulfillers) are more and more disempowered with respect to their conditions of work, including wage levels but also including job satisfaction, job security, workplace safety and health standards, and other features of meaningful work experience. Rogers thinks that basic income is a good idea, but one that needs to be part of a more comprehensive package of reforms.

An alternative case for basic income draws from classic commitments to social democracy, or an economic system in which the state limits corporate power, ensures a decent standard of living for all, and encourages decent work. In the social democratic view, however, a basic income would be only art of the solution to economic and social inequalities — we also need a revamped public sector and a new and different collective bargaining system. Indeed, without such broader reforms, a basic income could do more harm than good. (15)

Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of van Parijs in an earlier Boston Review forum on universal basic income strikes a similar note (link). Anderson believes that the “real libertarian” foundations of van Parijs’s arguments for UBI are unconvincing, and they are inconsistent with the broader goal of establishing a just society within the circumstances of a capitalist democracy. Van Parijs over-estimates income relative to other social entitlements. Her summary is straightforward: “I will argue that Van Parijs’s real libertarianism cannot justify a UBI, but that a UBI may have some promise as a supplementary part of a larger social welfare package that is justified on other grounds.”

So let’s consider whether the establishment of a universal basic income would in fact lead to a substantially better level of quality of life and real freedom for the disadvantaged in a given capitalist democracy. To start, the level of basic income postulated by van Parijs and Vanderborght is by no means comparable to the level of living standards associated with a current unionized American worker. At $18/hour, a single earner family in the automotive manufacturing sector generates about $36,000 per year; with two earners this may rise to $48,000-$72,000 per year, depending on the nature of the second earner’s job and number of hours of work. So the universal basic income does not substitute for “good jobs”.

But this is perfectly clear to the advocates for a universal basic income. Their vision is not that the UBI is the sole source of income for most people most of the time. Both private employment and social provisioning would also be part of the individual’s overall bundle of entitlements.

Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes characterized and to the chagrin of those among its advocates who want to sell it as a radical simplification, a basic income should not be understood as being, by definition, a full substitute for all existing transfers, much less a substitute for the public funding of quality education, quality health care, and other services. (kl 252)

Rather than constituting an all-round solution to the problem of living well in a capitalist democracy, the UBI is a safety net in the context of which individuals can seek out employment of various kinds.

It does not amount to giving up the objective of full employment sensibly interpreted. For full employment can mean two things: full-time paid work for the entire able-bodied part of the population of working age, or the real possibility of getting meaningful paid work for all those who want it. As an objective, the basic income strategy rejects the former but embraces the latter. (kl 617)

Individuals can use their skills and their interests to generate additional income permitting higher levels of prosperity and job satisfaction. And in a country in which access to affordable healthcare and free public education are rights, we can begin to see how van Parijs can assert that UBI would be a foundation for real freedom of choice and life plan.

This, then, is van Parijs’s response to Rogers and Anderson: his view too depends upon a host of social-democratic reforms, including access to healthcare, education, and other critical components of quality of life. But this seems to concede the point: the reforms we need are broader than simply establishing UBI. And that seems to be correct. We need social democracy, and UBI may be a valuable component of a full social-democratic regime.

(The moral basis for an extensive state along the lines of the Nordic examples was discussed in a prior post; link. The topic of rapid change in employment opportunities in advanced capitalism came up earlier in a post about “A Jobless Future”; link. Also of interest is a post on the social construction of work; link. And here is a post on alternatives to capitalism; link.)

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