Experiencing the Holocaust

When we think we know about an historical event — the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Jim Crow years in America — generally what we know is a limited and miscellaneous set of facts, impressions, interpretations, and summaries we have gathered through many avenues — monographs, novels, films, poetry, historical lectures in college. No one now living has had direct experience of the French Revolution. And even if we came across a time-traveling Parisian from the relevant dates, we would probably quickly learn that this person’s perspective on the events he or she lived through is highly limited and perhaps even misleading.

What do most American adults know about the Holocaust? Here are some core beliefs that most people could probably recite. It was a horrible crime. It was a deliberate program of extermination. Over six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered. Other groups were also targeted, including Roma people, homosexuals, and Communists. It was the result of racist Nazi ideology. There were particular agents of this evil — Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess, … There were countless ordinary people across the face of Europe, in Germany and many other countries, who facilitated this evil — the “banality of evil”. There were some heroes who fought against the killing — Wallenberg, Schindler, Bonhoeffer, Marc Bloch, the villagers of Le Chambron. There are noted tragic victims — Anne Frank, Maximilian Kolbe. And the Allies could have done much more to disrupt the killing and to facilitate escape for the Jews of Europe.

But notice how thin this body of beliefs is. It is barely thick enough to constitute “knowledge of the Holocaust”. It is encapsulated in just a few sentences. If it has emotional content it is a hazy version of the emotions of pity and sorrow. Is this knowledge adequate to the realities it represents? When we repeat the words, “Never again!”, do we know what we are saying? And how can a more full and satisfactory level of knowledge of this horrifying and defining event in the twentieth century be achieved?

Here is one possible answer. There is a different way of gaining a more personal and nuanced understanding of the Holocaust — an extended visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau (link). It is a museum, an historical site, a killing ground, a place where one and a half million people were systematically murdered.  A visit to the concentration camps is a very different avenue of knowledge — knowledge through personal, empathic understanding of the vastness and horror of the crimes committed here.

So, for example, one can see the photographs of individual prisoners, their life stories encapsulated by the date and place of their arrest and the date of their death in the gas chambers. One can read a very personal family tragedy in these photographs.

 
There are mountains of human hair. There are piles of kitchen goods, shoe polish, clothing, combs, and other items of daily life, all carried through their final days of desperation and transit, all stolen from the dead. There are the drawings by child prisoners found on the walls of the barracks, depicting scenes of concentration camp life through the eyes of children. These children too mostly did not survive. 
 

This drawing by a child depicts something the child must have seen — the arrival of prisoners and their separation at the platform into those who would perform slave labor and those who would die immediately.

So an intensive visit to Auschwitz is very powerful at the level of emotion and empathy. It makes the horror of the Holocaust both personal and particular. The visitor is led to imaginatively place himself or his loved ones on the platform, in the barracks, in the changing room. The Holocaust is no longer just a set of numbers and facts, but am invitation to vicarious empathic understanding — and then a mental multiplication of that experience by a factor of millions. 

The museum and grounds of the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau receive over two million visitors a year, from dozens of countries. Some number of these visitors are perhaps unaffected by what they see. But surely large numbers of visitors are profoundly affected, and come to have a much more nuanced and personal understaffing of what happened here. And surely this is a more important way of influencing our collective understanding of the Holocaust than any number of monographs.
 
There is a practical consequence of this kind of more personal experience of an historical horror. This experience strongly pushes the person to consider how the currents of hate that led to this historical crime are present in the world today. It leads one to care in a more particular way about the Rohingya people today, or about the resurgence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the United States at Charlottesville. And it brings one to see the danger implicit in anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and other countries today.

In other words, we may speculate that the more particular experience of the Holocaust afforded by a meaningful visit to Auschwitz contributes to creating a different kind of twenty-first century citizen, one who has a deeper visceral appreciation of what these crimes of the Nazi period involved in human terms, and a better and deeper understanding of the enormity of this experience. Equally important, it helps to create a much more specific emotional experience of pity and sorrow that honors the humanity of these millions of human beings who were murdered during this period. 

 
(I offer special thanks to Teresa Wontor-Cichy, a senior researcher and educator at the museum, for the very intensive tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau that she provided.)
 
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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 ≥

a

≥ 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.

Snippets from the Roman world

image: Arch of Septimius Severus, Forum (203 CE)

The history of Rome has a particular fascination for twenty-first century readers, especially in the West. Roman law, Roman philosophy, Roman legions, and Roman roads all have a powerful resonance for our imaginations today. Mary Beard’s recent SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an interesting recent synthesis of the long sweep of Rome’s history.

Beard affirms the continuing importance of Roman history in these terms:

Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it…. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia – a dangerous place lying, as they saw it, beyond the great Ocean that encircled the civilised world. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. (15)

Much of Beard’s treatment is deflationary: she demonstrates that Rome’s reality in the first five hundred years was substantially more ordinary and less grand than Roman historians from the time of the Republic and Empire wanted to believe. The population of the city was in the tens of thousands; the armies were more often the retainers of local “big men” (and as often as not ran away when confronted with superior forces); and law and political institutions were very little developed. And yet by the end of the period of the Republic in the first century BCE, Rome had in fact become grand: grand in population (more than a million inhabitants), grand in military power, and grand in the scope of control it exercised over other parts of the known world.

One of the events that Beard deflates is the slave rebellion of Spartacus.

In 73 BCE, under the leadership of Spartacus, fifty or so slave gladiators, improvising weapons out of kitchen equipment, escaped from a gladiatorial training school at Capua in southern Italy and went on the run. They spent the next two years gathering support and withstanding several Roman armies until they were eventually crushed in 71 BCE, the survivors crucified in a grisly parade along the Appian Way. 

It is hard now to see through the hype, both ancient and modern, to what was really going on. Roman writers, for whom slave uprisings were probably the most alarming sign of a world turned upside down, wildly exaggerate the number of supporters Spartacus attracted; estimates go as high as 120,000 insurgents. Modern accounts have often wanted to make Spartacus an ideological hero, even one who was fighting the very institution of slavery. That is next to impossible. Many slaves wanted freedom for themselves, but all the evidence from ancient Rome suggests that slavery as an institution was taken for granted, even by slaves. If they had a clearly formulated aim, the best guess is that Spartacus and his fellow escapees wanted to return to their various homes – in Spartacus’ case probably Thrace in northern Greece; for others, Gaul. One thing is certain, though: they managed to hold out against Roman forces for an embarrassingly long time. 

What explains that success? It was not simply that the Roman armies sent out against them were ill trained. Nor was it just that the gladiators had discipline and fighting skills developed in the arena and were powered by the desire for freedom. Almost certainly the rebel forces were stiffened with the discontented and the dispossessed among the free, citizen population of Italy, including some of Sulla’s ex-soldiers, who may well have felt more at home on military campaign, even against the legions in which they had once served, than on the farm. Seen in these terms, Spartacus’ uprising was not only an ultimately tragic slave rebellion but also the final round in a series of civil wars that had started twenty years earlier with the massacre of Romans at Asculum that marked the beginning of the Social War. (pp. 248-249). 

Her view is, apparently, that there was a great deal of hype surrounding the revolt of Spartacus even among the ancients — embellishment of the size and ideological purposes of the revolt and the heroism of the gladiators. She wants us to understand the ordinary significance of the uprising. But in turn she gives the revolt a larger social significance — it was a part of the “civil wars” that had wracked Rome for twenty years prior.

From the tragic to the comic — Beard spends a few pages on the bar scene in the early Empire.

Elite Romans were often even more dismissive – and anxious – about what the rest of the population got up to when they were not working. Their keenness for shows and spectacles was one thing, but even worse were the bars and cheap cafés and restaurants where ordinary men tended to congregate. Lurid images were conjured up of the types of people you were likely to meet there. Juvenal, for example, pictures a seedy drinking den at the port of Ostia patronised, he claims, by cut-throats, sailors, thieves and runaway slaves, hangmen and coffin makers, plus the occasional eunuch priest (presumably off duty from the sanctuary of the Great Mother in the town). And writing later, in the fourth century CE, one Roman historian complained that the ‘lowest’ sort of person spent the whole night in bars, and he picked out as especially disgusting the snorting noise the dice players made as they concentrated on the board and drew in breath through their snotty noses.  

There are also records of repeated attempts to impose legal restrictions or taxes on these establishments. Tiberius, for example, apparently banned the sale of pastries; Claudius is supposed to have abolished ‘taverns’ entirely and to have forbidden the serving of boiled meat and hot water (presumably to be mixed, in the standard Roman fashion, with wine – but then why not ban the wine?); and Vespasian is said to have ruled that bars and pubs should sell no form of food at all except peas and beans. Assuming that all this is not a fantasy of ancient biographers and historians, it can only have been fruitless posturing, legislation at its most symbolic, which the resources of the Roman state had no means to enforce.

Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower orders congregate, and – though there was certainly a rough side and some rude talk – the reality of the normal bar was tamer than its reputation. For bars were not just drinking dens but an essential part of everyday life for those who had, at best, limited cooking facilities in their lodgings. As with the arrangement of apartment blocks, the Roman pattern is precisely the reverse of our own: the Roman rich, with their kitchens and multiple dining rooms, ate at home; the poor, if they wanted much more than the ancient equivalent of a sandwich, had to eat out. Roman towns were full of cheap bars and cafés, and it was here that a large number of ordinary Romans spent many hours of their non-working lives. (pp. 455-456)

There is much to enjoy and to reflect upon in Beard’s narrative. It is a thought-provoking book. But it is worth asking — what kind of history is SPQR? Essentially it is the product of a deeply learned historian, a distinguished classicist, who has set out to write an engaging narrative telescoping the history of a thousand years of Roman life into a single volume, necessarily providing a very selective set of stories and themes. It is not a detailed work of scholarship itself; rather, it is a selective narrative presenting description and commentary on some of the outlines of this world-historical tapestry. A large portion of the book takes the form of stories and snippets of ordinary life, intended to give the reader a more vivid engagement with the lives of these long-dead Romans. And the reader can bring a degree of confidence to the reading, knowing that Beard is a genuine expert bringing to bear the most recent historical and archeological evidence to the main questions of interpretation. Many of the powerful themes that have interested observers for a century are there — the social conflicts, the emerging institutions of governance, the arrangements of military power — but none are treated in the detail that would be expected of a monograph. Instead, the reader is offered a story with many strands, interesting and engaging, but an appetizer rather than the main course for a thorough study of Roman history.

Perspectives on transport history

I view transport as a crucial structuring condition in society that is perhaps under-appreciated and under-studied. The extension of the Red Line from Harvard Square (its terminus when I was a graduate student) to Davis Square in Somerville a decade later illustrated the transformative power of a change in the availability of urban transportation; residential patterns, the creation of new businesses, and the transformation of the housing market all shifted rapidly once it was possible to get from Davis Square to downtown Boston for a few dollars and 30 minutes. The creation of networks of super-high-speed trains in Europe and Asia does the same for the context of continental-scale economic and cultural impacts. And the advent of container shipping in the 1950’s permitted a substantial surge in the globalization of the economy by reducing the cost of delivery of products from producer to consumer. Containers were a disruptive technology. It is clear that transportation systems are a crucial part of the economic, political, and cultural history of a place larger than a village; and this is true at a full range of scales.

We can look at the history of transport from several perspectives. First, we can focus on the social imperatives (including cultural values) that have influence on the development and elaboration of a transportation system. (Frank Dobbin considers some of these factors in his Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, where he considers the substantial impact that differences in political culture had on the build-out of rail networks in France, Germany, and the United States; link.) Second, we can focus on the social and political consequences that flow from the development of a new transportation system. For example, ideas and diseases spread further and faster; new population centers arise; businesses develop closer relationships with each other over greater distances. And third, we can consider the historiography of the history of transport — the underlying assumptions that have been made by various historians who have treated transport as an important historical phenomenon.

Over fifty years ago L. Girard treated these kinds of historical effects in his contribution to Cambridge Economic History of Europe: Volume VI (Parts I and II), Part I, in a chapter dedicated to “Transport”. He provides attention to the main modalities of transport — roads, sea, rail. In each case the technology and infrastructure are developed in ways that illustrate significant contingency. Consider his treatment of the development of the English road network.

Eventually the English network, the spontaneous product of local decisions, progressed out of this state of disorganization. Its isolated segments were linked up and ultimately provided a remarkably comprehensive network corresponding to basic national requirements. By trial and error and by comparing their processes, the trustees and their surveyors arrived at a general notion of what a road should be. (217) 

(Notice the parallels that exist between this description and the process through which the Internet was built out in the 1980s and 1990s.)

 Similar comments are offered about the American rail system.

The American railroad was the product of improvisation, in contrast to the English track, which was built with great care. At first all that was required was a fairly rough and ready line which could operate with a minimum amount of equipment. Then as traffic increased and profits began to be made, the whole enterprise was transformed to take account of the requirements of increased traffic and of the greater financial possibilities. (232)

Despite all their improvisations and wastage, the American railroads astonished Europe, which saw a whole continent come to life in the path of the lines. The railways opened up America for a second time. By 1850 the east-west link between western Europe and the Mississippi valley was already created by means of the States on the Atlantic seaboard. The supremacy of the Chicago-New York axis had become established, at the expense of the South and of Canada, which were taking more time to get organized. America swung away from a north-south to an east-west orientation. (233)

And here is a somewhat astounding claim:

The northern railways allowed the Union to triumph in the Civil War, which was fought in part to determine the general direction to be taken by the future railways. (233-234)

Also surprising is the role that Girard attributes to the politics of railroads in the ascendancy of Napoleon III in 1851 (239).

Here is Girard’s summary of the large contours of the development of transport during this critical period:

Whatever the course of future history, the century of the railway and the steamer marks a decisive period in the history of transport, and that of the world. Particular events in political history often tend to assume less and less importance as time goes on. But the prophecies of Saint-Simon on the unification of the planet, and the meeting of the races for better or for worse, remain excitingly topical. Man has changed the world, and the world has changed man — in a very short time indeed. (273)

This history was written in 1965, over fifty years ago. One thing that strikes the contemporary reader is how disinterested the author appears to be in cause and effect. He does not devote much effort to the question, what forces drove the discoveries and investments that resulted in a world-wide network of railways and steamships? And he does not consider in any substantial detail the effects of this massive transformation of activities at a national and global scale. Further, Gerard gives no indication of interest in the social context or setting of transport — how transport interacted with ordinary people, how it altered the environment of everyday life, how it contributed to social problems and social solutions. It seems reasonable to believe that the history of transport during this period would be written very differently today.

(Prior posts have given attention to transport as a causal factor in history; link.)

Ideologies, policies, and social complexity

 

The approach to social and historical research that I favor is one that pays attention to the heterogeneity and contingency of social processes. It advises that social and historical researchers should disaggregate the large patterns they start with and try to identify the multiple underlying mechanisms, causes, motivations, movements, and contingencies that came together to create higher-level outcomes. Social research needs to focus on the micro- or meso-level processes that combined to create the macro world that interests us. The theory of assemblages fits this intellectual standpoint very well, since it emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity all the way down. The diagram above was chosen to give a visual impression of the complexity and interconnectedness of factors and causes that are associated with this approach to the social world.

According to the premises of this approach, we are not well served by imagining that there are simple, largescale forces that drive the outcomes in history. Examples of efforts at overly simplified explanations like these include:

  • Onerous conditions of the Treaty of Versailles caused the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
  • The Chinese Revolution succeeded because of post-Qing exploitation of the peasants.
  • The Industrial Revolution occurred in England because of the vitality of English science.

Instead, each of these large outcomes is the result of a large number of underlying processes, motivations, social movements, and contingencies that defy simple summary. To understand the Mediterranean world over the sweep of time, we need the detailed and granular research of a Fernand Braudel rather than the simplified ideas of Johann Heinrich von Thunen in the economic geography of central place theory.

In situations of this degree of underlying complexity, it is pointless to ask for a simple answer to the question, “what caused outcome X?” So the Great Depression wasn’t the outcome of capital’s search for profits; it was instead the complex product of interacting forms of private business activity, financial institutions, government action, legislation, war, and multiple other forces that conjoined to create a massive and persistent economic depression.

This approach has solid intellectual and ontological foundations. This is pretty much how the social world works. But this ontological vision about the nature of the social world is hard to reconcile with the large intellectual frameworks on the left and on the right that are used to diagnose our times and sometimes to prescribe solutions to the problems identified.

An ideologue is a thinker who seeks to subsume the sweep of history or current events under an overarching narrative with simple explanatory premises and interpretive schemes. The ideologue wants to portray history as the unfolding of a simple set of forces or drivers — whether markets, classes, divine purposes, or philosophies. And the ideologue is eager to force the facts into the terms of the narrative, and to erase inconvenient facts that appear to conflict with the narrative.

Consider Lenin, von Hayek, and Ronald Reagan. Each had a simplified mental framework that postulated a set of ideas about how the world worked. For Lenin it was expressed in a few paragraphs about class, the economic structure of capitalism, and the direction of history. For von Hayek it was the idea that free economic activity within idealized markets lead to the best possible outcomes for the whole of society. For Reagan it was a combination of von Hayek and the simplified notions of realpolitik associated with Kennan, Morgenthau, or Kissinger.

There are two problems for these kinds of approaches to understanding the social world. First is the indifference ideologues express to the role of facts and empirical validation in their thinking. This is an epistemic shortcoming. But second, and equally problematic, is their insistence on representing the social world as a fundamentally simple process, with a few driving forces whose impact can be forecast. This is an ontological shortcoming. The social world is not simple, and there are not a small number of dominant forces whose effects overshadow the myriad of other socially relevant processes and events that make up a given situation.

Ideologues are insidious for serious historians, since they denigrate careful efforts to discover how various events actually unfolded, in favor of the demands of a particular interpretation of history. It is not possible to gain adequate or insightful historical knowledge from within the framework of a rigid and dogmatic ideology. But even more harmful are policy makers driven by ideologies. An ideological policy maker is an actor who takes the simplistic assumptions of an ideology and attempts to formulate policy interventions based on those assumptions. Ideology-based policies are harmful, of course, because the world has its own properties independent from our theories, and interventions based on false hypotheses about how the world works are unlikely to bring about their intended results. Policies need to be driven by theories that are fact-based and approximately true. And policy makers and officials need to be rejected when they flout science and fact-based inquiry in favor of pet theories and ideologies.

A hard question that this line of thought poses and that I have not addressed here is whether policies can be formulated at all within the context of a fundamentally heterogeneous and contingent world. It might be argued that policy formation requires fairly simple cause-and-effect relationships in order to justify the idea of an intervention; and complexity makes it unlikely that such relationships exist. I believe policies can be formulated within this ontological framework; but I agree that the case must be made. A few earlier posts are relevant to this topic (link, linklink, link, link).

What is “conceptual history”?

The post-war German historian Reinhart Koselleck made important contributions to the theory of history that are largely independent from the other sources of Continental philosophy of history mentioned elsewhere in this blog. (Koselleck’s contributions are ably discussed in Niklas Olsen’s History in the Plural: An Introduction to the Work of Reinhart Koselleck (2012).) Koselleck contributed to a “conceptual and critical theory of history” (The Practice of Conceptual History: Timing History, Spacing Concepts (2002), Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004)). His major compendium, with Brunner and Conze, of the history of concepts of history in the German-speaking world is one of the major expressions of this work (Staat und Gesellschaft im Deutschen Vormarz 1815-1848 (Industrielle Welt I Schriftenrihe des Arbeitskreises fur Moderne Sozialgeschichte) (1972-97).

Koselleck believes there are three key tasks for the metahistorian or philosopher: to identify the concepts that are either possible or necessary in characterizing history; to locate those concepts within the context of the social and political discourses and conflicts of the time period; and to critically evaluate various of these concepts for their usefulness in historical analysis.

Here is how Koselleck distinguishes between social history and conceptual history in The Practice of Conceptual History:

The claim to reduce all historical utterances concerning life and all changes in them to social conditions and to derive them from such conditions was asserted from the time of the Enlightenment philosophies of history up to Comte and the young Marx. Such claims were followed by histories that, methodologically speaking, employed a more positivistic approach: from histories of society and civilization, to the cultural and folk histories of the nineteenth century, up to regional histories that encompassed all aspects of life, from Moser to Gregorovius to Lamprecht, their synthetic achievement can aptly be called social-historical.

By contrast, since the eighteenth century there have also been deliberately thematized conceptual histories (Begriffigeschichten) — the term apparently derives from Hegel — which have retained a permanent place in histories of language and in historical lexicography. Of course, they were thematized by disciplines that proceeded in a historical-philological manner and needed to secure their sources via hermeneutic questioning. Any translation into one’s own present implies a conceptual history; Rudolf Eucken has demonstrated its methodological inevitability in an exemplary fashion for the humanities and all the social sciences in his Geschichte der philosophischen Tenninologie. (21)

A large part of Koselleck’s work thus involves identifying and describing various levels of historical concepts. In order to represent history it is necessary to make use of a vocabulary that distinguishes the things we need to talk about; and historical concepts permit these identifications. This in turn requires both conceptual and historical treatment: how the concepts are understood, and how they have changed over time. In “The critical theory of history: Rethinking the philosophy of history in light of Koselleck’s work” (link) Christophe Bouton encapsulates Koselleck’s approach in these terms: “[It is an] inquiry into the historical categories that are used in, or presupposed by, the experience of history at its different levels, as events, traces, and narratives” (164).

What this amounts to is the idea that history is the result of conceptualization of the past on the part of the people who tell it – professional historians, politicians, partisans, and ordinary citizens. (It is interesting to note that Koselleck’s research in the final years of his career focused on the meaning of public monuments.) It is therefore an important, even crucial, task to investigate the historical concepts that have been used to characterize the past. A key concept that was of interest to Koselleck was the idea of “modernity”. This approach might seem to fall within the larger field of intellectual history; but Koselleck and other exponents believe that the historical concepts in use actually play a role as well in the concrete historical developments that occur within a period.

A good example of this kind of historical-conceptual treatment is Koselleck’s account of the history of the German concept of “bund” in Futures Past (87-88). “A history of the meanings of the word Bund is not adequate as a history of the problems of federal structure “conceptualized” in the course of Reich history. Semantic fields must be surveyed and the relation of Einung to Bund, of Bund to Bündnis, and of these terms to Union and Liga or to Allianz likewise investigated” (88).

Here is how Koselleck opens chapter 5 of  Futures Past, “Begriffsgeschichte and social history”:

According to a well-known saying of Epictetus, it is not deeds that shock humanity, but the words describing them. Apart from the Stoic point that one should not allow oneself to be disturbed by words, the contrast between “pragmata” and “dogmata” has aspects other than those indicated by Epictetus’s moral dictum. It draws our attention to the autonomous power of words, without whose use human actions and passions could hardly be experienced, and certainly not made intelligible to others. This epigram stands in a long tradition concerned with the relation of word and thing, of the spiritual and the lived, of consciousness and being, of language and the world. Whoever takes up the relation of Begriffsgeschichte to social history is subject to the reverberations of this tradition. The domain of theoretical principles is quickly broached, and it is these principles which will here be subjected to an investigation from the point of view of current research.

The association of Begriffsgeschichte to social history appears at first sight to be loose, or at least difficult. For a Begriffsgeschichte concerns itself (primarily) with texts and words, while a social history employs texts merely as a means of deducing circumstances and movements that are not, in themselves, contained within the texts. Thus, for example, when social history investigates social formations or the construction of constitutional forms—the relations of groups, strata, and classes—it goes beyond the immediate context of action in seeking medium- or long-term structures and their change. Or it might introduce economic theorems for the purpose of scrutinizing individual events and the course of political action. Texts and their attributed conditions of emergence here possess only a referential nature. The methods of Begriffsgeschichte, in contrast, derive from the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology, semasiology, and onomatology; the results of its work can be evaluated continually through the exegesis of texts, while at the same time, they are based on such exegesis. (75)

So Koselleck has in mind a methodology that focuses on the formal semantics of historical concepts — what he refers to here as “the sphere of a philosophical history of terminology, historical philology”.

It is worth noticing that history comes into Koselleck’s notion of Begriffsgeschichte in two ways. Koselleck is concerned to uncover the logic and semantics of the concepts that have been used to describe historical events and processes; and he is interested in the historical evolution of some of those concepts over time. (In this latter interest his definition of the question parallels that of the so-called Cambridge School of Quentin Skinner, John Dunn, and John Pocock.) More generally, Koselleck’s aim is to excavate the layers of meaning that have been associated with key historical concepts in different historical periods. (Whatmore and Young’s A Companion to Intellectual History (2015) provide extensive and useful accounts of each of the positions mentioned here.)

Numerous observers emphasize the importance of political conflict in Koselleck’s account of historical concepts: concepts are used by partisans to define the field of battle (Pankakoski 2010). Here is a passage in Futures Past that makes this point clearly:

The semantic struggle for the definition of political or social position, defending or occupying these positions by deploying a given definition, is a struggle that belongs to all those times of crisis of which we have learned through written sources. Since the French Revolution, this struggle has become more acute and has undergone a structural shift; concepts no longer serve merely to define given states of affairs, but reach into the future. (80)

Conceptual history may appear to have a Kantian background – an exploration of the “categories” of thought on the basis of which alone history is intelligible. But this appears not to be Koselleck’s intention, and his approach is not apriori. Rather, he looks at historical concepts on a spectrum of abstraction, from relatively close to events (the French Revolution) to more abstract (revolutionary change). Moreover, he makes rigorous attempts to discover the meanings and uses of these concepts in their historical contexts.

Christophe Bouton also argues that Koselleck also brings a critical perspective to the concepts that he discusses: he asks the question of validity. To what extent do these particular concepts work well to characterize history?

More precisely, its methodology lays claim to an autonomous sphere which exists in a state of mutually engendered tension with social history. From the historiographic point of view, specialization in Begriffsgeschichte had no little influence on the posing of questions within social history. First, it began as a critique of a careless transfer to the past of modern, context-determined expressions of constitutional argument; and second, it directed itself to criticizing the practice in the history of ideas of treating ideas as constants, assuming different historical forms but of themselves fundamentally unchanging. (81)

Koselleck’s work defines a separate space within the field of the philosophy of history. It has to do with meanings in history, but it is neither teleological nor hermeneutic. It takes seriously the obligation of the historian excavate the historical facts with scrupulous rigor, but it is not empiricist or reductionist. It emphasizes the dependence of “history” on the conceptual resources of those who live history and those who tell history, but it is not post-modern or relativist. Koselleck provides an innovative and constructive way of formulating the problem of historical representation and knowledge.

Hofstadter on the progressive historians

 

I’ve frequently found Richard Hofstadter to be a particularly compelling historian of American politics and ideas. He is one of the writers from the 1950s and 1960s who still have insights that repay a close reading as we try to make sense of the swirling complexities of culture, politics, and ideas. His earliest book is The American Political Tradition: And the Men Who Made it, and there were many more to come in his short career. (Hofstadter died at 54 in 1970.) 
 

In 1969 Hofstadter published a book on American historical writing with the intriguing title, Progressive Historians. The book is a study of three important American historians from the first few decades of the twentieth century, Frederick Jackson Turner (The Frontier in American History), Charles Beard (An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States), and Vernon Parrington (Main Currents in American Thought: Volume 1 – The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800).

Here is a quick précis of progressive issues at the turn of the century, as expressed by Richard Hofstadter in his account of Charles Beard’s development as a historian:

Beard’s years at Columbia coincided with the Progressive era in national politics. He had come back to a scene of political and social reform that compared in the intensity of its intellectual ferment with the scene he had left in England. The first outburst of muckraking came during the years of his doctoral work, and by the time his book on the Constitution appeared, the national mood had grown so suspicious, that, as Walter Lippmann put it, the public had a distinct prejudice in favor of those who made the accusations. The political machines and the bosses were under constant fire from political reformers and muckrakers, and all the problems of popular government were being re-examined. Though it had no clear idea what to do about them, the country was in full cry against the great industrialists and the big monopolies. It had become aware too of the pitiful condition of many of the working class — particularly women and children — in the factories, mines, and sweatshops, and was making halting experiments at the legal control of industrial exploitation. Almost every aspect of American life, from sex, religion, and race relations to foreign policy, the regulation of business, and the role of the Courts, was being reconsidered…. There was no better moment than the zenith of the Progressive movement for a book dealing with the Constitution as the product of a class conflict, dwelling at great length upon the economic interests and objectives of its framers and advocates, and stressing their opposition to majoritarian democracy. (181-182) 

The title itself raises interesting questions of historiography: what is a “progressive” historian? Does this phrase build an unacceptable degree of normative commitment into Hofstadter’s understanding of historical writing? The big question here is this: how should a historian think about the two axes of “what happened?” and “was it part of a good thing or a bad thing?” in constructing a program of research in a historical topic. Are the two questions inseparable, or is a dispassionate and discovery of the events and causes of the history in question, without an attempt to theorize how that narrative fits into a set of political values?

 

Here is what Hofstadter has to say about the commonality across these three historians:

In grouping these three as Progressive historians I do no more than follow the precedent of other recent writers on American historiography. Not one of them was, to be sure, an easily classifiable partisan in the day-to-day national politics of their time, but all of them took their cues from the intellectual ferment of the period from 1890 to 1915, from the demands for reform raised by the Populists and Progressives, and from the new burst of political and intellectual activity that came with these demands. They were directed to their major concerns by the political debate of their time; they in turn contributed to it by giving reform politics a historical rationale. It was these men above all others who explained the American liberal mind to itself in historical terms. Progressive historical writing did for history what pragmatism did for philosophy, sociological jurisprudence for law, the muckraking spirit for journalism, and what Parrington called “critical realism” for letters. If pragmatism, as someone has said, provided American liberalism with its philosophical nerve, Progressive historiography gave it memory and myth, and naturalized it within the whole framework of American historical experience. (xii)

So their status as “progressive” thinkers does not derive directly from their political views, or at least the political views expressed in their historical writings; but rather from the background assumptions on the basis of which they proceeded. They were historians within the idiom and mental frameworks of the Progressive era. They were oriented by the conflicts of interest that existed in the United States — in politics, in universities, in letters — and they believed that ideas and interests unavoidably intersected. And they sought to understand important elements of political culture in terms of those conflicts.

So what about the other part of the phrase, “history”? Hofstadter recognizes that there are several different purposes served by historical writing. But one crucial role is the establishment of public memory as a foundation for civic identity.

MEMORY is the thread of personal identity, history of public identity. Men who have achieved any civic existence at all must, to sustain it, have some kind of history, though it may be history that is partly mythological or simply untrue. That the business of history always involves a subtle transaction with civic identity has long been understood, even in America where the sense of time is shallow. One of our early nineteenth-century promoters of canals and public works was also a promoter of historical collections because he understood with perfect clarity that there was some relation between the two. “To visit a people who have no history,” he wrote, “is like going into a wilderness where there are no roads to direct a traveller. The people have nothing to which they can look back; the wisdom and acts of their forefathers are forgotten; the experience of one generation is lost to the succeeding one; and the consequence is, that people have little attachment to their state, their policy has no system, and their legislature no decided character.” (3)

This is a view of history that emphasizes the committed nature of the genre — the need to tell a story that inspires identity and admiration. But what about objectivity and facticity? Hofstadter refers to “scientific” history, but he doubts that this genre succeeds in excluding a normative stance from the interpretation of a people’s history.

Most of these writers were affected to some extent by the idea of “scientific” or critical history: there would be no more bowdlerization like that of Sparks, no more historical orations or rearranged quotations as in Bancroft. But they did not relinquish the idea of history as a forum for moral judgments: they were deeply concerned with such questions as Who was right? or Which principles were correct? when they dealt with the background of the Revolution, the adoption of the Constitution, the struggles between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians, or Jackson and the Whigs…. In short, what the conservative nationalist historians did was to was forge a view of the past that needed only to be inverted point by point by the Progressive historians to yield a historical rationale for social reform. (26-27)

Several key ideas are found in all three historians: the power of large propertied interests in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America (robber barons, exploitation, food adulteration, corruption); the role of individualism in the American political identity; and the role that majoritarian institutions should play in a modern society. In his discussion of Turner’s interpretation of America’s western frontier Hofstadter teases out four different meanings of “individualism” that have very different implications for political philosophy:

There are at least four senses in which [individualism] can be used. First, a culture may be called individualistic if it offers favorable conditions for the development of personal assertiveness and ambition, encourages material aspiration, self-confidence, and aggressive morale, offers multiple opportunities for advancement and encourages the will to seize them. Second, it may indicate the absence of mutuality or of common and collective effort, in a society that supposedly functions almost as a conglomerate of individual atoms. Third, it may designate a more or less formal creed in which private action is at a premium and governmental action is condemned — as a synonym, in short, for laissez faire. Finally — and I believe this usage can be quite misleading — it may be used as though it were synonymous with individuality, that is with a high tolerance for deviance, eccentricity, nonconformity, privacy, and dissent. (141-142)

Since individualism is so central to the American political identity that Turner addresses, these distinctions are critical.

 
I find several aspects of the book particularly interesting. One is the remarkable level of detail and context that Hofstadter is able to provide for the positions and interpretive orientations of the three primary historians whom he discusses. This is a level of scholarship that seems remarkably deep by contemporary standards. Second, Hofstadter spends a good deal of effort towards making sense of each historian’s career in terms of his social and geographical origins. The fact that each of these men were born in the “West” — really the Midwest — is an important part of their intellectual development and the ways in which their thought unfolded. Finally, Hofstadter takes each historian seriously but critically; he gives rigorous efforts to the work of tracing out the ways in which their views go wrong, as well as the valid insights that they express.
 
Another interesting aspect of Hofstadter’s approach is the emphasis he gives to “modernity” as a theme for these early twentieth-century historians.

What was happening, in effect, was that a modern critical intelligentsia was emerging in the United States. Modernism, in thought as in art, was dawning upon the American mind. Beard’s book on the Constitution fittingly appeared in the same year as the New York Armory show — an event that was far more shocking to the world of art than Beard’s book was to scholars….The rebels against formalism were trying to assert, above everything else, that all things are related, that all things change, and that all things should therefore be explained historically rather than deductively. And for the most part, they were concerned with knowledge as a rationale for social action, not for passivity. (185)

Of the three historians I find Hofstadter’s discussion of Charles Beard the most interesting. Beard’s approach to the framing and adoption of the Constitution is in terms very consistent with Marx’s economic interpretation of politics and the state — perhaps even more mechanistic than Marx himself, who leaves room for substantial nuance between interest and political ideas in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Beard traces the workings of financial interests on the positions of various of the Founding Fathers of the constitutional process, and gives the clear implication that interest prevails. Here again, the point is that interests and ideas cannot be fully separated. Hofstadter writes:

In 1913 Beard found nothing in the ideas of the Founding Fathers that made him feel as close to basic realities as the old Treasury Department records he had enterprising lay turned up. For all the amplitude and moral intensity of political thought in the Revolutionary era, he seems to have believed it’s residue was not fundamentally important for the Constitution. (246-247)

The topic of scientific objectivity mentioned above comes up as well in Hofstadter’s discussion of Beard’s early struggles with this issue:

Historical science demanded that the historian, whatever his role as a citizen, should be a detached investigator, seeking the truth for truth’s sake. Beard was rationalist enough to respond to this scientific note in Powell, and even in his Oxford days we can see in him an uncomfortable duality that was always to haunt him — a duality between the aseptic ideal of scientific inquiry and his social passions. (179)

Beard’s own passions were clear:

Beard had sworn in 1900 that he would never stop agitating “till the workers who bear upon their shoulders the burden of the world should realize the identity of their own interests and rise to take possession of the means of life”. (179)

The book warrants close reading. This is another of the books published a half century ago that still have light to shed on our current predicaments in understanding our own unfolding history — not antiquarian but very contemporary.

(Here is a good piece by David Greenberg from the Atlantic on Hofstadter’s work (link).)

 
 

Samuel Dill on the late Roman Empire

An anonymous reader responds to my short discussion of Patrick Geary’s treatment of the late Roman Empire to recommend Samuel Dill’s treatment of this process 100 years ago in Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire and Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, books written in 1898 and 1926 respectively. In the anonymous reader’s opinion, many of Geary’s insights are already there in Dill’s books.

Surprisingly enough, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire is available in digital editions; so it is easy enough to consult it. (I can’t locate a digital copy of the Merovingian Age book.) How sophisticated was the understanding of the late Roman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? Does a book of history written over a century ago have the potential for giving us new insights into its subject matter? Or are we always better off turning to the most recent scholarship when it comes to history and historical social science?

The thrust of Dill’s Last Century is quite different from Geary’s approach one hundred years later (not surprisingly). Dill’s approach is more categorical about the abruptness and distinctness of the changes that took place during the century under treatment. His evidence is drawn largely from classical historians, whereas Geary’s approach takes advantage of the most recent archaeological evidence. Much of this method and style is expressed in the preface to the first edition:

The limits of the period covered by this study of Roman society have not been arbitrarily chosen. The last hundred years of the Western Empire seem marked off both by momentous events, and, for the student of society, by the authorities at his command. The commencement of the period coincides roughly with the passage of the Gothic hordes across the Danube, the accession of Gratian and Theodosius, the termination of the long truce between paganism and the Christian Empire, and the reopening of the conflict which, within twenty years, ended in the final prohibition of heathen rites. It closes not only with the deposition of the last shadowy Emperor of the West, but with the practical extinction of Roman power in the great prefecture of the Gauls. Perhaps even more obvious are the lines drawn by the fullest authorities for our subject. The earliest extant letters of Symmachus, which describe the relations of the last generation of great pagan nobles, belong to the years 376-390. The literary and political activity of Ausonius coincides with the same years, and from his poems we derive an invaluable picture of a provincial society in the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius. A searching light is thrown on the same generation by some of St. Jerome’s letters, by the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and by many Inscriptions. At the other end of our period we are almost equally fortunate in our information. The works of Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne are a priceless revelation of the state of society, both in Rome and in Gaul, from the accession of Avitus till the final triumph of the Visigothic power.

As historiography, in other words, Dill’s scholarship suffers from the “great men, great dates” problem of nineteenth century historians more generally. His book is very much about the individuals who made this history — at the top — and the chronology of their actions and effects. This impression is born out by the extensive table of emperors, kings, and dates that Dill includes in the opening matter of the book:

A related observation is the cultural and normative commitments that are exposed by the narrative. The work is deeply etched by its normative attitude towards Christianity:

In spite of the moral force which ensured the future to the Christian faith, its final triumph was long delayed. Religious conservatism is, of all forms of attachment to the past, probably the most difficult to overcome. It has its seat in the deepest and most powerful instincts of human nature, which, when they have once twined themselves around a sacred symbol of devotion, are only torn away after a long struggle. (3)

This passage illustrates the moral entwinement of Christianity into the historian’s apperception of the period; it also reveals a kind of teleological thinking about history that would no longer find support among academic historians. Dill denounces “heathenism” and paganism repeatedly.

In the final stand which paganism made against imperial edicts and the polemic of the Church, many different forces were arrayed. Sensuality and gross superstition in the degraded masses clung to the rites of magic and divination, to the excitement of the circus, and the obscenities of the theatre. (70)

Few inquiries should be more interesting than the attempt to form a conception of the inner tone and life of society in Western Europe on the eve of its collapse. Was society as corrupt and effete as it has been represented? Were its vices, as Salvianus insisted, the cause of the triumph of the barbarians? (115)

But Dill also finds an underlying current of monotheism pushing its way through the thought of the ancient world: “More than five centuries before Christ, Greek speculation had lifted men’s minds to the conception of a mysterious Unity behind the phantasmagoria of sense” (8). This seems to illustrate the teleological bent of Dill’s thinking.

Dill is centrally preoccupied with the moral and intellectual character of the period about which he writes. He wants to know about the morals, the spirituality, the religious piety, and the poetry of the prominent people who made up Western Europe during these centuries; and he wants to view these characteristics as having crucial causal force in the direction of change that occurred. Here is how he begins a chapter late in the book (“Relations of Romans with the invaders”):

In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to collect the views and feelings of persons, representing various localities and differences of circumstance and character, about the condition and future of the Empire in the face of its assailants. (347)

And earlier he emphasizes the moral decline of Roman civilization:

A careful study of the Code will correct many a popular and antiquated misconception of that great event. It will reveal the fact that, long before the invasions of the reign of Honorius, the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion. The municipal system, once the great glory of Roman organising power, had in the fourth century fallen almost into ruin. The governing class of the municipalities, called curiales, on whom the burdens of the Empire had been accumulated, were diminishing in number, and in the ability to bear an ever -increasing load of obligations. (245)

Further, unlike contemporary approaches to history that emphasize obscure social actors, Dill explicitly excludes the plebeian class from his treatment.

Of the three great classes into which Roman society was divided, the plebeian class, composed of traders, free artisans, etc., who possessed no property in land, may, for our present purpose, be left out of consideration. The other two classes must, from their ownership of the land, and from their relations to one another and to the treasury, engage our sole attention. Of the tone and character of the highest order in the social hierarchy we have attempted to give some account in a previous chapter. They have left us literary materials which enable us to form a tolerably clear idea of their spirit and manner of life; but they seldom speak of their material fortunes or of the classes beneath them, and on these subjects our information must be drawn chiefly from the Code. (248)

So social history, and careful documentation of the role of ordinary people in the events of the time period, plays virtually no role in Dill’s approach. By contrast, Geary and other contemporary historians of the ancient world pay substantial attention to the material constitutes of governance, migration, taxation, agriculture, and war — topics which Dill mostly ignores.

Finally, the evidence that constitutes the foundation of Dill’s research is entirely textual and literary. Unlike Geary, who gives substantial weight to archeological evidence, but also unlike Theodor Mommsen, who in mid-nineteenth century made innovative use of inscriptions and steles and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902 for his historical writing (The History of Rome Vol. 1-5), Dill’s account is almost exclusively literary. Dill tells a story, and it is an interesting story; but it has very little of the efforts towards uncovering underlying social structures and realities that are defining features of much contemporary historiography.

So it is hard to see that reading Dill today would enlighten us much about the causes and dynamics of change in the late Roman Empire. The history is antiquarian and personalist, it proceeds with a background commitment to the moral superiority of Christianity, and it provides no insight into the kinds of material and structural factors that are of primary interest today. Reading Mommsen sounds like a much better investment.

Large structures and social change

The relationship between feudalism and the origins of capitalism was of great interest to Marx. Here is one way that Marx puts the idea in The Poverty of Philosophy:

M. Proudhon the economist understands very well that men make cloth, linen, or silk materials in definite relations of production. But what he has not understood is that these definite social relations are just as much produced by men as linen, flax, etc. Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (chapter 2)

The question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism remained central for subsequent Marxist thinkers. Consider the view offered by Maurice Dobb in 1946 in Studies In The Development Of Capitalism. Dobb offers an account that corresponds closely to the classical Marxian interpretation offered in Capital: the emergence of the great classes (bourgeoisie and proletariat), primitive accumulation, the dynamics of industrial revolution in England, and the inexorable logic of capital accumulation. Dobb offers a very classical definition of capitalism:

Thus Capitalism was not simply a system of production for the market — a system of commodity-production as Marx termed it — but a system under which labour-power had “itself become a commodity” and was bought and sold on the market like any other object of exchange. Its historical prerequisite was the concentration of ownership of the means of production in the hands of a class, consisting of only a minor sector of society, and the consequential emergence of a propertyless class for whom the sale of their labour-power was their only source of livelihood. (7)

Dobb doesn’t much care for the notion that there are “many capitalisms” — many pathways and many institutional variants of market, profit-based economies:

In the case of historians who adopt this nihilistic standpoint, their attitude seems to spring from an emphasis upon the variety and complexity of historical events, so great as to reject any of those general categories which form the texture of most theories of historical interpretation and to deny any validity to frontier-lines between historical epochs. (1)

One thing that is striking about Dobb’s book is how “first-generation” the field of economic history is that he consults. So much has been established about European and Eurasian economic history since 1946 that it is unsurprising that Dobb’s reconstruction feels a bit monochromatic. New thinking about Europe’s population history has emerged (link, link); new ideas about Asian and Chinese economic history have been developed (link, link, link); and a very substantial literature comparing European and Asian economic history has emerged (link, link). So the fairly straight lines that Dobb extends from property relations to technology to capitalist manufacture have a somewhat caricaturist feeling to them. What was schematic and mono-causal in Marx’s hands is now substantially more complex and multi-causal in contemporary world economic history.

More recent views of the origins of capitalism have merged Marxism and some of the key ideas of post-colonialism. An interesting current example is Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancıoğlu’s How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism, a 2015 book from Pluto Press.

Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer an account of the transition to capitalism that emphasizes the international character of the transition from the start. Their story differs in some important ways from the classic Marxian account, according to which European feudalism possessed its own dynamic of conflict between forces and relations of production, eventuating in the emergence of a new social order, capitalism. Anievas and Nişancıoğlu reject a “Eurocentric” approach to the emergence of capitalism and industrial revolution; rather, international trade, war, and colonialism were essential components of the emergence of the capitalist mode of production. Here is their description of Eurocentrism:

So what exactly is Eurocentrism? At its core, it represents a distinctive mode of inquiry constituted by three interrelated assumptions about the form and nature of modern development. First, it conceives of the origins and sources of capitalist modernity as a product of developments primarily internal to Europe. Based on the assumption that any given trajectory of development is the product of a society’s own immanent dynamics, Eurocentrism locates the emergence of modernity exclusively within the hermetically sealed and socioculturally coherent geographical confines of Europe. Thus we find in cultural history that the flowering of the Renaissance was a solely intra-European phenomenon. Analyses of absolutism and the origins of the modern state form are similarly conducted entirely on the terrain of Europe, with non-European cases appearing (if at all) comparatively. Dominant accounts of the rise of capitalism as either an economic form or a social system similarly place its origins squarely in Western Europe, while non-Europe is relegated to an exploited and passive periphery. (4)

The second feature they identify as crucial to Eurocentrism is the idea that “Europe is conceived as the permanent ‘core’ and ‘prime mover’ of history” (5), and the third is the idea that “the European experience of modernity is a universal stage of development through which all societies must pass” (5).

Their globalism and internationalism derives from their rejection of each of these premises. The development of capitalism is not “internal” to Europe, but instead was influenced by forces and influences from many parts of the world. The “core” of capitalist development is not Britain or Europe. And there is nothing universal about the sequence of developments that led from “feudalism” to “capitalism” (a point Marx himself insisted upon in his correspondence with Vera Zasulich (link)).

How the West Came to Rule challenges these assumptions by examining the ‘extra-European’ geopolitical conditions and forms of agency conducive to capitalism’s emergence as a distinctive mode of production over the longue durée. (5)

They are open to the idea that there are multiple “capitalisms” rather than a single essence (8); but they argue that there is nonetheless such a thing as capitalism:

We argue that there is a certain unity to its functioning that renders necessary the study of the capitalist mode of production as an intelligible (albeit contradictory) object of analysis. (8)

The core they identify has to do with the “ways in which multiple relations of domination, subordination and exploitation intersect with and reproduce each other”.

From this perspective we argue that capitalism is best understood as a set of configurations, assemblages, or bundles of social relations and processes oriented around the systematic reproduction of the capital relation. (8-9)

Robert Brenner’s treatment of the emergence of English capitalism is particularly instructive (link). (Anievas and Nişancıoğlu offer considerable criticism of Brenner’s approach.) In two important articles in the 1970s and 1980s Brenner cast doubt on the classic Marxian derivation of capitalism from feudalism; he argued that it was precisely differences in feudal regimes that accounted for the different trajectories taken by English and French capitalism. Ironically, the social power held by French peasants impeded the emergence of managerial farming, which was itself an important step on the way to industrial revolution. As a consequence the proletarianization of English peasants proceeded much more rapidly than French society.

There is an important historiographical issue here that is illustrated in these works by Dobb, Anievas and Nişancıoğlu, and Brenner: to what extent is it feasible to look for large macro-processes and transitions in history? Should we expect large social and economic factors writing out social change? Or is history more contingent and more multi-pathed than that? My own view is that the latter approach is correct (link). Neither technology (link) nor population (link) nor class conflict (link) suffices to explain large historical change. Rather, large structures and small innovations add up to contingent and variable pathways of historical development. We’ve gotten past the “agent-structure” debate; but perhaps we still have the “large factor, small factor” debate standing in front of us (link). And the solution may be the same: both large structures and contingent local arrangements are involved in the development of new social systems.

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