Shakespeare on tyranny

Stephen Greenblatt is a literary critic and historian whose insights into philosophy and the contemporary world are genuinely and consistently profound. His most recent book returns to his primary expertise, the corpus of Shakespeare’s plays. But it is — by intention or otherwise — an  important reflection on the presidency of Donald Trump as well. The book is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, and it traces in fascinating detail the evolution and fates of tyrants through Shakespeare’s plays. Richard III gets a great deal of attention, as do Lear and Macbeth. Greenblatt makes it clear that Shakespeare was interested both in the institutions of governance within which tyrants seized power, and the psychology of the tyrant. The parallels with the behavior and psychology of the current US President are striking.
Here is how Greenblatt frames his book.

“A king rules over willing subjects,” wrote the influential sixteenth-century Scottish scholar George Buchanan, “a tyrant over unwilling.” The institutions of a free society are designed to ward off those who would govern, as Buchanan put it, “not for their country but for themselves, who take account not of the public interest but of their own pleasure.” Under what circumstances, Shakespeare asked himself, do such cherished institutions, seemingly deep-rooted and impregnable, suddenly prove fragile? Why do large numbers of people knowingly accept being lied to? How does a figure like Richard III or Macbeth ascend to the throne? (1)

So who is the tyrant? What is his typical psychology?

Shakespeare’s Richard III brilliantly develops the personality features of the aspiring tyrant already sketched in the Henry VI trilogy: the limitless self-regard, the lawbreaking, the pleasure in inflicting pain, the compulsive desire to dominate. He is pathologically narcissistic and supremely arrogant. He has a grotesque sense of entitlement, never doubting that he can do whatever he chooses. He loves to bark orders and to watch underlings scurry to carry them out. He expects absolute loyalty, but he is incapable of gratitude. The feelings of others mean nothing to him. He has no natural grace, no sense of shared humanity, no decency. He is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it and takes pleasure in breaking it. He hates it because it gets in his way and because it stands for a notion of the public good that he holds in contempt. He divides the world into winners and losers. The winners arouse his regard insofar as he can use them for his own ends; the losers arouse only his scorn. The public good is something only losers like to talk about. What he likes to talk about is winning. (53)

One of Richard’s uncanny skills—and, in Shakespeare’s view, one of the tyrant’s most characteristic qualities—is the ability to force his way into the minds of those around him, whether they wish him there or not. (64)

Greenblatt has a lot to say about the enablers of the tyrant — those who facilitate and those who silently consent.

Another group is composed of those who do not quite forget that Richard is a miserable piece of work but who nonetheless trust that everything will continue in a normal way. They persuade themselves that there will always be enough adults in the room, as it were, to ensure that promises will be kept, alliances honored, and core institutions respected. Richard is so obviously and grotesquely unqualified for the supreme position of power that they dismiss him from their minds. Their focus is always on someone else, until it is too late. They fail to realize quickly enough that what seemed impossible is actually happening. They have relied on a structure that proves unexpectedly fragile. (67)

One of the topics that appears in Shakespeare’s corpus is a class-based populism from the under-classes. Consider Jack Cade, the lying and violent foil to The Duke of York.

Cade himself, for all we know, may think that what he is so obviously making up as he goes along will actually come to pass. Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering a fantasyland—“ When I am king, as king I will be”—and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him. In that space, two and two do not have to equal four, and the most recent assertion need not remember the contradictory assertion that was made a few seconds earlier. (37)

And what about the fascination tyrants have with secret alliances with hostile foreign powers?

Third, the political party determined to seize power at any cost makes secret contact with the country’s traditional enemy. England’s enmity with the nation across the Channel—constantly fanned by all the overheated patriotic talk of recovering its territories there, and fueled by all the treasure and blood spilled in the attempt to do so—suddenly vanishes. The Yorkists—who, in the person of Cade, had pretended to consider it an act of treason even to speak French—enter into a set of secret negotiations with France. Nominally, the negotiations aim to end hostilities between the two countries by arranging a dynastic marriage, but they actually spring, as Queen Margaret cynically observes, “from deceit, bred by necessity” (3 Henry VI 3.3.68).

How does the tyrant rule? In a word, badly.

The tyrant’s triumph is based on lies and fraudulent promises braided around the violent elimination of rivals. The cunning strategy that brings him to the throne hardly constitutes a vision for the realm; nor has he assembled counselors who can help him formulate one. He can count—for the moment, at least—on the acquiescence of such suggestible officials as the London mayor and frightened clerks like the scribe. But the new ruler possesses neither administrative ability nor diplomatic skill, and no one in his entourage can supply what he manifestly lacks. His own mother despises him. His wife, Anne, fears and hates him. (84)

Several things seem apparent, both from Greenblatt’s reading of Shakespeare and from the recent American experience. One is that freedom and the rule of law are inextricably entangled. It is not an exaggeration to say that freedom simply is the situation of living in a society in which the rule of law is respected (and laws establish individual rights and impersonal procedures). When strongmen are able to use the organs of the state or their private henchmen to enact their personal will, the freedom and liberties of the whole of society are compromised.

Second, the rule of law is a normative commitment; but it is also an institutional reality. Institutions like the Constitution, the division of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and the codification of government ethics are preventive checks against arbitrary power by individuals with power. But as Greenblatt’s examples show, the critical positions within the institutions of law and government are occupied by ordinary men and women. And when they are venal, timid, and bent to the will of the sovereign, they present no barrier against tyranny. This is why fidelity to the rule of law and the independence of the justice system is the most fundamental and irreplaceable ethical commitment we must demand of officials. Conversely, when an elected official demonstrates lack of commitment to the principles, we must be very anxious for the fate of our democracy.

Greenblatt’s book is fascinating for the historical context it provides for Shakespeare’s plays. But it is even more interesting for the critical light it sheds on our current politics. And it makes clear that the moral choices posed by politicians determined to undermine the institutions of democracy are perennial, whether in Shakespeare’s time or our own.

Emergentism and generationism

media: lecture by Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky on chaos and reduction

Several recent posts have focused on the topic of simulations in the social sciences. An interesting question here is whether these simulation models shed light on the questions of emergence and reduction that frequently arise in the philosophy of the social sciences. In most cases the models I’ve mentioned are “aggregation” models, in which the simulation attempts to capture the chief dynamics and interaction effects of the units and then work out the behavior and evolution of the ensemble. This is visibly clear when it comes to agent-based models. However, some of the scholars whose work I admire are “complexity” theorists, and a common view within complexity studies is the idea that the system has properties that are difficult or impossible to derive from the features of the units.

So does this body of work give weight to the idea of emergence, or does it incline us more in the direction of supervenience and ontological unit-ism?

John Miller and Scott Page provide an accessible framework within which to consider these kinds of problems in Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. They look at certain kinds of social phenomena as constituting what they call “complex adaptive systems,” and they try to demonstrate how some of the computational tools developed in the sciences of complex systems can be deployed to analyze and explain complex social outcomes. Here is how they characterize the key concepts:

Adaptive social systems are composed of interacting, thoughtful (but perhaps not brilliant) agents. (kl 151)

Page and Miller believe that social phenomena often display “emergence” in a way that we can make sense of. Here is the umbrella notion they begin with:

The usual notion put forth underlying emergence is that individual, localized behavior aggregates into global behavior that is, in some sense, disconnected from its origins. Such a disconnection implies that, within limits, the details of the local behavior do not matter to the aggregate outcome. (kl 826)

And they believe that the notion of emergence has “deep intuitive appeal”. They find emergence to be applicable at several levels of description, including “disorganized complexity” (the central limit theorem, the law of large numbers) and “organized complexity” (the behavior of sand piles when grains have a small amount of control).

Under organized complexity, the relationships among the agents are such that through various feedbacks and structural contingencies, agent variations no longer cancel one another out but, rather, become reinforcing. In such a world, we leave the realm of the Law of Large Numbers and instead embark down paths unknown. While we have ample evidence, both empirical and experimental, that under organized complexity, systems can exhibit aggregate properties that are not directly tied to agent details, a sound theoretical foothold from which to leverage this observation is only now being constructed. (kl 976)

Organized complexity, in their view, is a substantive and important kind of emergence in social systems, and this concept plays a key role in their view of complex adaptive systems.

Another — and contrarian — contribution to this field is provided by Joshua Epstein. His three-volume work on agent-based models is a fundamental text book for the field. Here are the titles:

Agent_Zero: Toward Neurocognitive Foundations for Generative Social Science
Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science From the Bottom Up
Generative Social Science: Studies in Agent-Based Computational Modeling

Chapter 1 of Generative Social Science provides an overview of Epstein’s approach is provided in “Agent-based Computational Models and Generative Social Science”, and this is a superb place to begin (link). Here is how Epstein defines generativity:

Agent-based models provide computational demonstrations that a given microspecification is in fact sufficient to generate a macrostructure of interest…. Rather, the generativist wants an account of the configuration’s attainment by a decentralized system of heterogeneous autonomous agents. Thus, the motto of generative social science, if you will, is: If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain its emergence. (42)

Epstein describes an extensive attempt to model a historical population using agent-based modeling techniques, the Artificial Anasazi project (link). This work is presented in Dean, Gumerman, Epstein, Axtell, Swedlund, McCarroll, and Parker, “Understanding Anasazi Culture Change through Agent-Based Modeling” in Dynamics in Human and Primate Societies: Agent-Based Modeling of Social and Spatial Processes. The model takes a time series of fundamental environmental, climate, and agricultural data as given, and he and his team attempt to reconstruct (generate) the pattern of habitation that would result. Here is the finding they arrive at:

Generativity seems to be directly incompatible with the idea of emergence, and in fact Epstein takes pains to cast doubt on that idea.

I have always been uncomfortable with the vagueness–and occasional mysticism–surrounding this word and, accordingly, tried to define it quite narrowly…. There, we defined “emergent phenomena” to be simply “stable macroscopic patterns arising from local interaction of agents.” (53)

So Epstein and Page both make use of the methods of agent based modeling, but they disagree about the idea of emergence. Page believes that complex adaptive systems give rise to properties that are emergent and irreducible; whereas Epstein doesn’t think the idea makes a lot of sense. Rather, Epstein’s view depends on the idea that we can reproduce (generate) the macro phenomena based on a model involving the agents and their interactions. Macro phenomena are generated by the interactions of the units; whereas for Page and Miller, macro phenomena in some systems have properties that cannot be easily derived from the activities of the units.

At the moment, anyway, I find myself attracted to Herbert Simon’s effort to split the difference by referring to “weak emergence” (link):

… reductionism in principle even though it is not easy (often not even computationally feasible) to infer rigorously the properties of the whole from knowledge of the properties of the parts. In this pragmatic way, we can build nearly independent theories for each successive level of complexity, but at the same time, build bridging theories that show how each higher level can be accounted for in terms of the elements and relations of the next level down. (Sciences of the Artificial 3rd edition 172)

This view emphasizes the computational and epistemic limits that sometimes preclude generating the phenomena in question — for example, the problems raised by non-linear causal relations and causal interdependence. Many observers have noted that the behavior of tightly linked causal systems may be impossible to predict, even when we are confident that the system outcomes are the result of “nothing but” the interactions of the units and sub-systems.

How Jim Crow worked

Understanding history is partly about understanding some of the dry facts of social sequence and cause and effect in the making of various periods of historical change. But it is also about coming to a more visceral understanding of the human realities of the events that historians describe.  This is particularly true in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. How can we come to have a more vivid understanding of those events and social unfoldings?

Most white Americans have a very limited understanding of the real social setting in the South of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. We know it was a struggle for equality and freedom, and we know that racism and segregation were key elements of the situation of African Americans in their everyday lives. But mostly we don’t know the systematic violence and racial hatred that served to stabilize those social relations of inequality in cities, towns, and rural areas throughout the South.

And yet a social order based on subordination and degradation of a whole people requires a heavy use of coercion to survive.  This coercion was provided by the local and regional organizations of white supremacists who enforced the social order of the Jim Crow South.

White supremacist organizations are today an extremist fringe in American politics. They are dangerous and violent, but they do not appeal to the great majority of the American population. But in the 1950s white supremacy was a viable and widespread ideology, and white supremacist groups were mass-based and powerful organizations that were very explicitly devoted to maintaining segregation and the subordinate status of African Americans. They were explicitly racist and they were also explicitly committed to using all means necessary to resist integration and the extension of full equality to African Americans. These organizations were key to enforcement of the rules of racial separation and behavior in the South.  Key among these were the White Citizens’ Councils in various southern states. And many southern politicians were open advocates of the ideology and rhetoric of WCC in the 1950s and 1960s — often under the rhetoric of “states’ rights.”  (Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour created a stir in 2010 when he recalled his own perceptions of the WCCs in nostalgic terms; link.)

Here is a description of the WCCs from an encyclopedia on the Civil Rights movement maintained at Stanford:

In response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation, white segregationists throughout the South created the White Citizens’ Councils (WCC). These local groups typically drew a more middle and upper class membership than the Ku Klux Klan and, in addition to using violence and intimidation to counter civil rights goals, they sought to economically and socially oppress blacks. Martin Luther King faced WCC attacks as soon as the Montgomery bus boycott, began and was a target of these groups throughout his career.

(It is interesting that I. F. Stone began writing about the violent and racist nature of the WCC almost as soon as it was formed (link).)

What this shows is that at a relatively recent time in the history of the United States these organizations competed in the full light of day, without embarrassment, and with a rhetoric that encouraged violent enforcement of the racial status quo. To see video of the faces of the young men and women who opposed the integration of the Little Rock schools following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, is to see a kind of widespread, committed hatred of another social group that is more familiar to us from Rwanda or Bosnia. (Here is a short clip of the integration of Central High School from Eyes on the Prizelink.) The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 is just the most extreme example of this kind of murderous hatred and ferocious defense of the racial order. (The murderer of Medgar Evers was a member of the Citizens’ Council.)

There are several hard and important questions raised by this history. How could an otherwise decent society have created the willing participation of so many millions of people in such a cruel and unjust system? Where did the virulence of the emotions of racism and aggression come from? How is it that the moral culture of the American south was such a fertile and welcoming ground for organizations like the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan? And most crucially — can these strands of hated, intolerance, and violence emerge again?

This last question is perhaps the most urgent one.  Are racism and white supremacy once again threatening to become parts of mainstream politics? The NAACP has tracked connections between the modern descendant of the White Citizens Councils, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Tea Party (link). There are some very notable connections. This suggests that white supremacists continue to attempt to achieve their goals through politics and political mobilization.  The anti-immigrant rhetoric of some strands of contemporary conservative thought, the hyperbolic opposition to Federal legislation for equality of rights, and the equation of a politics of equality with “Communism” all have enormous resonance with the racialized platforms of the WCCs of the 1960s.

(The Southern Poverty Law Center does very important work in monitoring these hate-based organizations.  Here is their report on the Council of Conservative Citizens. The Anti-Defamation League also does great work in this area. Here is their report on the role of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1950s and 1960s.)

Durable inequalities

Chuck Tilly was an enormously creative historical sociologist, and he also had a knack for a good title. This is certainly true of his 1998 book, Durable Inequality. The topic is of particular interest today, in the contemporary environment of ever-more visible and widening inequalities that pervade American society.

The contemporary facts in the United States are more clearly understood than ever: an increasing separation between the top decile of income and the bottom forty percent of the income distribution, a low level of social mobility relative to European countries, and a high degree of permanent poverty. The Pew Economic Mobility Project provides an important snapshot of social mobility in the United States; link; in brief, the likelihood of the child of parents from the bottom quintile to remain in the bottom quintile is 43%, while the likelihood of a child born to the top quintile remaining there is 40%.

source: Lane Kenworthy, Consider the Evidence  blog (link)


source: Pew Report, Pursuing the American Dream (link)

So the inequalities we confront in the United States are indeed “durable” and multigenerational.  But how do economic and social inequalities come about?

This is a large part of the agenda of Durable Inequalities. Here Tilly looks at social and economic inequalities from a historical point of view. He is concerned with “categorical inequalities” — that is, inequalities across groups of people defined by relatively rigid social discriminators. “Durable inequality depends heavily on the institutionalization of categorical pairs” (8). Relevant social categories include gender, race, immigrant status, or rural-urban origins.  Tilly begins his book with an astounding statistic about durable inequalities in nineteenth-century England: “poor boys of fourteen averaged only 4 feet 3 inches tall, while aristocrats and gentry of the same age averaged about 5 feet 1 inch” (1).

The central intellectual task of the book is to account for how social categories often result in categorical inequalities.  Not all categorical distinctions among people result in economic or political disparities across the resulting groups — for example, “good sense of humor/bad sense of humor” doesn’t appear to result in income disparities across the humorous and the humorless.  But the male-female wage gap, the black-white wealth gap, and the white-latino education gap all are examples of inequalities that follow from, and are presumably caused by, the categorical status possessed by the two groups.

Categorical inequalities are particularly important because they appear to be wholly indefensible.  The fact that “skilled/unskilled” workers have differential incomes is not surprising on grounds of productivity and value-added work; but the fact that equally well educated women and men have differential incomes is indeed surprising.

The social mechanisms that Tilly identifies as being primarily responsible for inequalities across social categories are exploitation and opportunity hoarding (10).

  • Exploitation, which operates when powerful, connected people command resources from which they draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the efforts of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort.
  • Opportunity hoarding, which operates when members of a categorically bounded network acquire access to a resource that is valuable, renewable, subject to monopoly, supportive of network activities, and enhanced by the network’s modus operandi. (10)

Here are a few summary observations about these two mechanisms and how they work within institutions and organizations.

  • Exploitation rests on unequal distribution of rewards proportionate to value added among participants in the same enterprise.
  • Organizationally installed categorical inequality facilitates exploitation.
  • Organizations whose survival depends on exploitation therefore tend to adopt categorical inequality.
  • Because organizations adopting categorial inequality deliver greater returns to their dominant members and because a portion of those returns goes to organizational maintenance, such organizations tend to crowd out other types of organizations.
  • Opportunity hoarding by collaborative agents complements exploitation.
  • Opportunity hoarding operates more effectively and at lower cost in conjunction with categorical inequality.
  • Seemingly contradictory categorical principles such as age, race, gender, and ethnicity operate in similar ways and can be organizationally combined or substituted within limits set by previously established scripting and local knowledge. (85-86)

What Tilly is trying to accomplish in this work is genuinely ambitious: it is to establish both a natural history and a causal dynamics of socially generated inequalities.  Inequalities are not solely the natural outcome of differences in abilities, talent, and motivation (individual characteristics); instead, they are the result of institutions and social relations that have been strategically crafted over time by individuals and groups for their ongoing advantage. 

Exploitation, opportunity hoarding, emulation, and adaptation that incorporate asymmetrically paired categories have for millennia promoted most of the inequality that historians commonly attribute to individual differences in capacity or enterprise. These causal principles combine with a vast historical record to provide the means of constructing counterfactual accounts of durable inequality: forms of inequality or equality that have existed in some times and places, that could have existed, that could exist now, that could take shape in the future. (230)

And the forms of group discrimination that go along with categorical differences play a key role in these inequalities.

How does this analysis fit with the two graphs provided above of income inequality and slow social mobility in the United States? A careful analysis of the social mechanisms that impede social mobility will certainly include the processes of exploitation and opportunity-hoarding that Tilly discusses; it will include the impact of social categories like race, gender, and ethnicity; and it will include the exclusive social network mechanisms that permit the top segment of the society to retain its place through selection and limited opportunities for the rest of society.  So Tilly’s historical analysis in Durable Inequalities is highly relevant to our current efforts to understand and address the widening inequalities that we see around us.

Power within organizations

Sociologists have been thinking about organizations in a careful, empirical way for decades. Here is a volume edited by Mayer Zald that results from a 1969 conference at Vanderbilt on the topic of “Power in Organizations” (Power in Organizations).  The cross-section of sociologists represented here provides a good snapshot of the ways that organizations were conceptualized in the late 1960s.  There are contributions by quite a few interesting sociologists, including Peter Blau, Richard Peterson, Charles Perrow, and Mayer Zald.

Perrow’s contribution, “Departmental Power and Perspectives in Industrial Firms,”  is particularly interesting.  Here is how Perrow frames his research problem:

It is my impression that for all the discussion and research regarding power in organizations, the preoccupation with interpersonal power has led us to neglect one of the most obvious aspects of this subject: in complex organizations, tasks are divided up between a few major departments or subunits, and all of these subunits are not likely to be equally powerful. In industrial firms … there are fairly clear divisions between the basic units of sales, production, research and development (or engineering), and finance and accounting. Equality of these groups is hardly insured by the fact that there is at least one person, the president, who stands above all these functional groups, and by the fact that each department is stratified into roughly equal levels of authority…. The question of which group dominates in industrial firms, then, will be the subject of this paper. (59-60)

Perrow’s approach to the problem is empirical. His study depends on interviews with dozens of ranking employees in twelve manufacturing companies with at least 1000 employees, with 2633 individuals interviewed in total. 

The study focuses on three primary groups and one “residual” group that could be identified in all the firms: sales and marketing, production and manufacturing, and research and development. The residual group is “staff services”, including finance, personnel, legal, and the executive group.  The research question was to determine which group or unit had the most “power” within the firm.  The interview template asks a series of questions about how the interviewee estimates the power and discretion possessed by various groups within the firm.

Perrow notes that the concept of “power” conceals a range of complexities:

Do we mean actual or potential power, power derives from internal workings of the firm or the market place, power based upon the force of personalities or the logic of group functions, power today or power in the next quarter, and so on? (63)

There is a strong pattern to the results for the fundamental question, which unit has the most power? Perrow finds that “sales” is judged to have the most internal power in 10 out of 12 firms; production is generally second; “finance” is commonly third; and R&D is almost always last. 

Perrow’s next question is “why” — why should sales be the most powerful unit within manufacturing firms? His answer turns on facts about the market economy.  The sales operation of a company is the interface between potential consumers and the product created by the firm.

As a result of this strategic position, sales is in a position either to exploit present company capabilities or force a change in these capabilities. The consequences for the other groups are manifold, but sales — with few sunk costs (capital investment) and little interdependence with other functions that would require major changes in its own structure and operating procedures — is capable of more flexibility. (65)

Perrow finds this result surprising for one category of firm — those where design and production are “non-routine”, or where the product is not yet commoditized. These are what we would today refer to as high-tech firms.

If respondents described their tasks as fairly nonroutine — indicating frequent problems requiring analysis and uncertainty about the outcomes of their efforts — then there would be little edge for sales. (66)

So Perrow expected that R&D — the unit assigned to develop new products and solve problems — would have greater power in an environment of technological uncertainty.  But the importance of R&D within such a firm does not cash out in terms of internal power, in Perrow’s findings based on these twelve firms.  And this fact, in Perrow’s assessment, comes down to a tactical advantage possessed by sales within the firm:

Neither of these [prior] analyses sufficiently takes into account the ability of those who once gain power to manipulate the source of uncertainty, at least over a span of, say, ten or fifteen years. The maintenance people in Crozier’s study augmented their power by removing information from the files that might make their performance more predictable and less uncertain, and by keeping information secret from machine operators and other engineers. Similarly, I think that sales, or production, or R&D can use their power to maintain either a fiction of uncertainty, or to steer the organization into areas where the uncertainty will be in their hands. (67)

So Perrow highlights an important source of power within an organization: the power to shape or hoard information.

The impression we get from reading Perrow’s essay today is that Perrow’s conceptual framework moves back and forth between the business environment within which a firm exists and the tactical intelligence of actors within the firm.  The business environment gives an advantage to one group of actors — those involved in sales; and the tactical actions selected by actors within that unit to maintain their advantage accounts for the persistence of the power of that unit.

What the analysis doesn’t pay any attention to is the internal organization of the firm (beyond the functional division into the four units Perrow highlights).  The analysis doesn’t make any effort to map out the internal working relationships between functional units, or the ways in which performance of actors within units is supervised, or the ways in which communications occur internally, or the ways in which individuals are recruited into roles, or the ways in which decisions are made.  The article does distinguish between levels of managers — upper, middle, and lower — but doesn’t provide an “organizational” account of how these levels fit together.  This is partly, of course, a function of the question that Perrow posed for research: what is the perceived level of power associated with the major functional units in the decision-making of the firm? But perhaps it reflects as well the development of the field.  In his later writings Perrow is much more attentive to the “micro-organizations” and systemic interconnections that exist within large organizations such as FEMA or the NRC.

It is also interesting to highlight the time period in which this conference occurred: at the high-water mark of popular mobilization against the Vietnam War and segregation.  The contrast between organizational power and popular protest was a stark one.  And some of the organizations that are considered in the volume — universities and medical schools, for example — were at the center of this contrast.

CPM in West Bengal

One thing that is interesting about Indian politics is the fact that states have a great deal of autonomy, and there are parties based in various states that are distinct from both Congress and BJP. One of those parties is the Communist Party of India, which has evolved into a pro-poor, anti-capitalist electoral party that has renounced violent revolution, following a split in CPI in the 1960s. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM or CPI(M)) emerged in the 1960s as a serious electoral party, and it has governed directly or through left coalitions in West Bengal and Kerala since the late 1970s. CPM gains between 5% and 6% of the national vote, and currently there are 46 CPM MPs in Parliament (out of 790). (The Wikipedia entry on CPI(M) provides a detailed timeline of the party’s role in India since the 1960s. Here is a link to the People’s Daily, one of CPM’s key publications.)

Here is a table of seats won in elections between 1952 and 1987 in West Bengal:

(source: Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent, p. 274)

Many progressive Bengalis looked at the party as a pro-poor, progressive force in West Bengal during the 1980s. But substantial and rising criticism has developed in the past five years. So where is CPM today?

First, consider the positive view. Distinguished American political scientist Atul Kohli treated West Bengal in detail in his The State and Poverty in India (1989), and he credits CPM for much of the improvement of the status of the poor over a 20-year period in West Bengal.

It is argued that the capacity of the CPM to initiate a systematic attack on rural poverty stems from its political and class characteristics. The type of leadership, ideology, and organization the CPM regime brings to bear on the operation of political power enables it to perform two essential tasks: first, penetration of the countryside without being captured byt he landed classes; and second, controlled mobilization and incorporation of the lower classes to buttress state power as a tool of social reform. … To gain an understanding of the CPM regime in West Bengal, one must begin by analyzing the nature of its leadership, ideology, and organization. The important thing to note about the leadership is that is neither concentrated in the hands of an individual nor, as one might expect, in the party alone. While the party wields great influence, leadership is shared by the three “wings” of the CPM, namely, the party organization proper, the Kisan Sabha (the peasant wing) and the parliamentary wing. (96-97)

Kohli gives an overview of CPM in West Bengal in his 1991 Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability:

The Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), has repeatedly been elected to office in West Bengal since 1977. The party is communist in name only and is essentially social-democratic in its ideology, social program, and policies. The party’s disciplined, effective organization has minimized the debilitating elite factionalism and the related elite-led mobilization and countermobilization so common in some other states. The CPM has also consolidated a coalition of the middle and lower strata by implementing some modest redistributive programs. That systematic incorporation of the poor has reduced the attractiveness of populism and its emphasis on deinstitutionalization. And finally, the CPM has adopted a nonthreatening approach toward property-owning groups, whose roles in production and economic growth remain essential for the long-term welfare of the state. (267)

Here is Kohli’s summary assessment in 1991:

After having been one of India’s most chaotic states in the late 1960s, West Bengal has emerged in the 1980s as one of India’s better-governed states. Surely there are lessons in this turnaround for any study of India’s growing crisis of governability. For purposes of this concluding discussion, these lessons can be broadly divided into prescriptive and analytical.

The prescriptive lessons are limited. What has worked in West Bengal may not work in other states in India — and is even less likely to provide an all-India model. The emergence of the CPM as a disciplined ruling party in West Bengal is a product of an unusual sociopolitical configuration — its long regional traditions of elite radicalism and centralized organization, the weakness of caste as a principle for political organization, and the historical weakness of the Congress party….

In spite of the limited utility of the West Bengal case for generating any direct prescriptions, the analytical implications … are very important. The West Bengal case highlights the significance of a well-organized reformist party for generating political order. The roots of the political chaos between 1967 and 1977, though complex, were mainly two related political conditions: the fragmentation of the state itself, and virulent elite-led mobilization.

The emergence of the CPM as a ruling party tamed many of the conflicts within West Bengal. As a well-organized party with a clear electoral majority, the CPM was able to create a cohesive government and fill the existing power vacuum. Organizational discipline also enabled the CPM to limit elite factionalism and the debilitating elite-initiated political conflicts that often follow. Thus, organizational cohesion at the heart of the state was crucial for taming political chaos.

The CPM’s reformist orientation has enabled it to pursue some redistributive programs without fundamentally alienating property-owning productive groups. The CPM’s performance in West Bengal has by no means been spectacular; it has left quite a few problems unresolved, and it has created some new problems. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that a reform-oriented, disciplined party has generated moderately effective government in West Bengal. (295-96)

So Kohli’s assessment of CPM is quite favorable, at least through the early 1990s. Land reform and policies favorable to landless workers had a significant impact on poverty in West Bengal.  Now move forward to the early 2000’s up to the present. Indian journalism suggests a high degree of discontent with CPM today. There are three large areas of criticism: cronyism and corruption; the use of political violence to silence opponents; and an economic development strategy that is too friendly to international business. And, for the first time in decades, the party is losing electoral support in West Bengal. Here is a fairly representative current critique of CPM in West Bengal (link). Here are a few key criticisms by Pratap Bhanu Mehta:

The governance failures of West Bengal, on virtually every indicator that matters — roads, health, education, nutrition, poverty, infant mortality — have recently been well documented in searing report by my colleague Bibek Debroy and his co-author Laveesh Bhandari. Even the much touted success in growth in agricultural productivity and decline in rural poverty has been tapering off for years. There is no question that West Bengal is ripe for a paradigm shift in its development model.

There is also no question that the local CPM has become a huge obstacle to the progress of the state. No matter how much Bengali intellectuals, out of a sense of misplaced nationalism, sanitise the issue, the CPM’s implication in violence, intimidation and coercion is extensive. It is now deeply implicated in the political economy of petty corruption in the state. It has virtually destroyed intellectual life in main institutions of the state.

One particular point of controversy has to do with the attempt to establish Special Economic Zones in West Bengal (link).  Here is a searing criticism of CPM’s use of political violence against peasants from Mainstream in an effort to push forward with its plans to create a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram, involving largescale land confiscations:

The irony is that even though the CPI-M has become pro-capitalist, it has little respect for democratic norms or rule of law. So, even before the State Government machinery, centred in Kolkata, actually made any formal requests to peasants for taking over of their lands, a local party bigwig and a Member of Parliament from adjoining Haldia (it is a port town and is apparently booming) deemed fit to send out a circular stating that lands of villagers in quite a few villages will be taken over for the purpose of creating an SEZ. That created a furore among the villagers and a resistance started; they vowed that they will not part with their land which they have tilled for generations. The State Police tried to break the peaceful resistance of the villagers on March 14, and the deaths of innocent peasants led to a plethora of protests from the Opposition political parties and groups and also from independent intellectuals of Kolkata and beyond. Even Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the present Governor of West Bengal, found the killings to be a horrific incident and himself tried to visit the place where the deaths happened but was stopped mid-way by the CPI-M cadres.

The criticism is two-fold: that CPM’s current economic policies are too favorable to international businesses; and that the government has been reckless in its use of force against peasants and critics.

Here is a rebuttal to these criticisms from LeftVoice. The document is interesting because it provides a defense of CPM’s current policies and actions (link).

The primary political and developmental strategy of the Left Front had two inter-related components – land reform and decentralisation of political power from the state bureaucracy to institutions of local government (i.e. to panchayats and municipalities in rural and urban areas respectively). Right from the start, it was the contention of the Left Front, that refoming the way land was owned in the rural areas, where the bulk of the poor lived, was crucial to tackling the problems of poverty and under-development in the state. In this article we shall see what kind of property relations existed in the state before the Left Front came to power in 1977, how these relations created conditions of massive rural poverty, how the Left Front attempted to undertake land reforms to alter these property relations, how it realised that decentralisation of political power to local government institutions was the best way to undertake such reforms and how this whole strategy reduced rural poverty and also politically empowered the poor in the state to a degree not seen in other states of India.

So the hard question today is this: has CPM maintained the political commitments and integrity it evidently possessed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that it remains a positive force for social reform in West Bengal?  Or has it devolved into “party politics”, leading to behaviors that have more to do with personal gain and party electoral success than social progress?


Lukes on power

Steven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View was a very important contribution when it appeared in 1974. Lukes emphasized several important points that became landmarks in subsequent discussions of the social reality of power: that power is a multi-dimensional social factor, that power and democracy are paradoxically related, and that there are very important non-coercive sources of power in modern society. In the second edition in 2005 he left the 1974 essay unchanged, but added a substantive introduction and two new chapters: “Power, Freedom and Reason” and “Three-Dimensional Power”.  Also new in the second edition is substantially more attention to several other writers on the social context of power, including James Scott and Michel Foucault.

Lukes offers a generic definition of power along these lines:

I have defined the concept of power by saying that A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B’s interests. (37)

But this definition is too generic, and Lukes attempts to provide a more satisfactory interpretation by constructing a “three-dimensional” account of power.

What are the “dimensions” of power to which Lukes refers? He begins his account with the treatment of power provided by the pluralist tradition of American democratic theory, including especially Robert Dahl in 1957 in “The Concept of Power” (link). This is the one-dimensional view: power is a behavioral attribute that applies to individuals to the extent that they are able to modify the behavior of other individuals within a decision-making process. The person with the power in a situation is the person who prevails in the decision-making process (18).

Thus I conclude that this first, one-dimensional, view of power involves a focus on behaviour in the making of decisions on issues over which there is an observable conflict of (subjective) interests, seen as expressing policy preferences, revealed by political participation. (19)

The second dimension that Lukes discusses was brought forward in rebuttal to this pluralist theory; critics pointed out that it is possible to influence decisions by shaping the agenda, not merely by weighing in on existing decision points. Lukes quotes from Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz in their 1962 “Two Faces of Power” (link): “‘to the extent that a person or group — consciously or unconsciously — creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power'” (20). So shaping the agenda is an important source of power that is overlooked in the pluralist model, the one-dimensional view.

The three-dimensional theory of power turns to a different problem — the fact that people sometimes act willingly in ways that appear contrary to their most basic interests. So the third dimension is the set of ways in which the powerful transform the powerless in such a way that the latter behave as the former wish — without coercion or forcible constraint — for example, by creating a pervasive system of ideology or false consciousness. Both pluralists and their critics overlook an important point, in Lukes’s view:

The trouble seems to be that both Bachrach and Baratz and the pluralists suppose that because power, as they conceptualize it, only shows up in cases of actual conflict, it follows that actual conflict is necessary to power. But this is to ignore the crucial point that the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place. (27)

And again:

What one may have here is a latent conflict, which consists in a contradiction between the interests of those exercising power and the real interests of those they exclude. These latter may not express or even be conscious of their interests, but … the identification of those interests ultimately always rests on empirically supportable and refutable hypotheses. (28-29)

When Lukes returns to the three-dimensional theory in the final essay in the second edition, he shifts the language slightly to refer to “power as domination.” Domination can occur through explicit coercive means, but it can also occur through unconscious mechanisms.  This allows Lukes to address the theories of people like James Scott (Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction).

In hindsight, it seems a little dubious to refer to these as “dimensions” of power, rather than aspects or forms of power. To call them “dimensions” somehow suggests that overall power is a vector of quantities in three or more orthogonal dimensions, each of which can vary independently. The features that Lukes identifies as “dimensions” seem more like tools in a toolkit or strategies in a repertoire: exercise control by doing X or Y or Z. So the language of dimensions seems inappropriate in this context.

But here is a more basic concern that is visible with the advantage of hindsight: there is very little in Lukes’s treatment that sheds light on the social mechanisms of power. What are the social features that enable one individual or group to wield influence in any of these ways? Through what sorts of institutional and individual facts are individuals enabled to exercise power over others? Lukes doesn’t address this question; and yet it seems to be the heart of the matter. We would like to have a way of analyzing social relations that allows us to discern how it is that some groups gain the material and social resources necessary to prevail. Marxism offers one such theory — power derives from class position; but this answer doesn’t really satisfy in the contemporary social world. (Lukes devotes a few paragraphs to the debate between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband on the right way of understanding the exercise of power within a capitalist society; 54-58.) But generally, it seems fair to say that Lukes comes closer to offering a semantic analysis of the use of the term “power” rather than offering a sociological analysis of the causal and structural reality of power.

Race and racism

Race has been a fundamental fact in American society for centuries, since the sixteenth century with the arrival of African slaves.  And many would observe that racism has been a part of that history from beginning to end.  These are distinct statements; it is possible for race to be a factor, without racism being present.  But our history does not suggest this separation.  Instead, the United States has embodied a pretty deep version of racial awareness, extending back to the period of slavery and its aftermath, and it continues to embody behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes that are best described as racist.

So what do we mean when we say that a society contains a substrate of racism? Can we observe and measure the social dimensions of racism?  And can we say with any confidence that there has been change over time?  Most fundamentally, a society is racist if members of one racial group despise, demean, mistreat, and discriminate against members of another racial group.  Assertions of racial superiority and inferiority, patterns of treatment that discriminate across individuals within different racial groups, and outcomes that show a distinct advantage to members of a dominant racial group all represent the markings of racism within a society.

We might say that there are several important social factors that represent different aspects of the social reality of racism: attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes.

The attitudes of racism include a bundle of emotions and beliefs: a belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race relative to another; feelings of hostility, suspicion, or antipathy towards members of a different racial group; a set of stereotypes about the characteristics of the other group; and a readiness to discriminate against members of other groups when one is in a position to assign benefits, opportunities, or hardships.  There is such a thing as an “ideology” of race: a set of beliefs about people and the world that validates the assumptions of superiority and inferiority and the situation of privilege of the dominant group.  It is possible to use survey methodology, focus groups, and individual interviews to probe attitudes of a population, and perhaps it is possible to “map” the variations in racial thinking throughout a society.  So we might have some confidence in the possibility of developing an aggregate measure of “degree of racist attitudes” in a given society, and with effort we could monitor the direction of change of this measure over time.  This might give us a basis for concluding that “racial attitudes are improving (or worsening) during a specific period.”

Behaviors have something to do with attitudes; we generally believe that people’s behaviors derive in some way from their underlying attitudes and ideologies.  But the evidence of racist behavior is more visible than inferences about attitudes.  Particularly visible are facts about the incidence of racially motivated violence; facts about discrimination in employment and housing; and patterns of social behaviors in interactions between members of different racial groups.  A situation in which members of a privileged group express dominance, superiority, and greater self-importance towards members of a different group is one that expresses behaviorally the logic of race relations in that society.  So we can ask the question of a given society: to what extent do members of a privileged racial group engage in harmful and discriminatory behaviors towards members of another group?  And we might attempt to estimate the degree of racism in a society by the relative frequency of racially motivated crimes over time (FBI hate crime statistics; link).  Consider this graph of the frequency of lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1965 (Wikipedia link):

We might speculate that decades in which there is an exceptionally high incidence of lynchings are also peak periods of racism more generally.  (Though we might also explain the frequency of these acts of violence in more political-organizational terms.)

The third factor mentioned above is institutions: to what extent are the basic institutions in a given society “racialized”?  That is, to what extent do the basic institutions automatically and systematically treat members of different races differently?  The practices of real estate “steering” and mortgage redlining are clear examples of a racialized system for assigning home seekers to neighborhoods; and employment practices that disadvantage members of some racial groups are just as critical in the area of employment and wellbeing.  For example, facts about residential segregation and the availability of transportation make it extremely difficult for African-American applicants to pursue job openings in the suburbs. So this is a system that discriminates against one group in favor of another — even though the employer’s personal attitudes may not be the cause of the discrimination.  Here too it is plausible to imagine that we might arrive at some quantifiable judgments about the degree of discrimination and equality of basic institutions at a given time; and this would permit us to make comparisons over time as well.

The fourth factor is outcomes. The degree of racialization of a society might be measured by the breadth of the gap between races with respect to important life outcomes.  If blacks and whites differ significantly in life expectancy, incarceration rates, health status, income, wealth, and education, we have good reason to believe that there are racialized social processes that are leading to these outcomes.  So measuring the race gap with respect to important social outcomes is an important way of assessing the degree to which a given society is racialized; or in other words, to measure the degree to which racism is an important social factor in that society.  Racial gaps with respect to important life outcomes can be measured; and it is meaningful to find that racial gaps have narrowed (or widened) during a given period of time.

The fundamental test of a non-racist society is this: there should be no difference in the availability of opportunities across racial groups, and — given a reasonable assumption about the fundamental equality of human beings — there should be no gap in outcomes across racial groups when it comes to factors like health, education, income, or wealth.  In other words, a non-racist society is one whose basic institutions do not discriminate, consciously or unconsciously, across individuals from different racial groups.

The treatment of attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes offered here suggests that it is indeed possible to chart the degree of racial progress a society has made over a number of decades.  We can measure attitudes and behaviors over time, using rigorous social-science tools (survey methodology).  And we can assess the workings of institutions and the distribution of outcomes using the suite of tools available to the social historian more generally.  What is genuinely surprising, however, is the relative paucity of social-science research on this topic.

There is of course the crucial question of the social dynamics of racist attitudes and behavior.  Are there social or psychological factors that make the appearance of racist attitudes more likely?  Are there features of human nature that lead naturally to a social psychology of “in-group, out-group” discrimination?  Or is racism a purely contingent accident that results from some important historical events in the past — the slave economy, for example?  What are the factors in contemporary American social life that are either conducive or inhibiting to the formation of racist attitudes and behaviors in individuals?

Business interests and democracy

The central ideal of democracy is the notion that citizens can express their political and policy preferences through political institutions, and that the policies selected will reflect those preferences. We also expect that elected officials will act ethically in support of the best interests of the public. This is their public trust.

The anti-democratic possibility is that popular debates and expressions of preference are only a sham, and that secretive, powerful actors are able to secure their will in most circumstances. And in contemporary circumstances, that sounds a lot like corporations and business lobbying organizations. (Here is an earlier post on a report about corrupt behavior at the Department of the Interior.)

The January Supreme Court decision affirming the status of corporations as persons, and therefore entitled to unfettered rights of free speech, is the most extreme expression of the power of business, corporations, and money. As distinguished law professor Ronald Dworkin argues in the New York Review of Books (link), this decision dramatically increases the ability of corporations to influence elections and decisions in their favor — vastly disproportionately to citizens’ organizations. And, as Dworkin points out, corporations don’t need to exercise this right frequently in order to have enormous impact on candidates and issues. The mere threat of a well-financed media campaign against key representatives will suffice to sway their behavior.

There are too many examples of pernicious influence of business interests on public policy. Take a useful policy that many states and cities have tested, pretrial release programs. It appears that the public interest has been defeated by … the bail bondsmen. NPR ran a story on the pretrial release program in Broward, Florida (link). The program was successful, with a high appearance rate for court appearances and annual savings of $20 million for the county. But this program cost the bail bondsmen business. They hired a lobbyist, and in the dead of night the county commission scaled back the program. Here is how the “industry” describes the issue (link).  It is a pretty shocking story:

According to campaign records, Book [the lobbyist] … and the rest of Broward’s bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.

Keechl and several other commissioners declined NPR’s repeated requests for an interview. At the meeting last January, they said they were concerned that Broward’s pretrial program cost more than other counties’ programs, and they vigorously denied that campaign contributions played any role.

Book had his work cut out for him. Broward’s own county attorney wrote a memo warning commissioners that cutting back pretrial could be unconstitutional. But Book worked behind the scenes.

He met with commissioners, and according to county records, he had unusual access. That’s because at the same time he was hired by the bondsmen to lobby commissioners, he was also hired by the commissioners to be their lobbyist. (transcript from NPR report)

The story makes the sequence pretty clear: Through the use of campaign contributions and influence of votes by commissioners, the bondsmen groups have prevailed to abandon the policy which was unmistakably in the public interest.  The commission acted in deference to the narrow financial interests of a business group; campaign contributions by that group played a decisive role; and an overburdened county government was denied a tool that was good public policy from every point of view.  And similar efforts are taking place in many cities.  So where is the public’s interest? 
Or take the largest issues we face today in national politics — cap-and-trade policy, healthcare reform, and the nation’s food system. The influence of large financial interests in each of these areas is perfectly visible. Energy companies, coal companies, insurance companies and trade associations, and large food companies and restaurant chains pretty much run the show. Regulations are written in deference to their interests, legislation conforms to their needs and demands, and elected officials calculate their actions to the winds of campaign contributions. And the Supreme Court reverses a century of precedent and accords the rights of freedom of expression to corporations and unions that are enjoyed by individual citizens. So the influence of financially powerful corporations and industry groups will become even greater.

It would be deeply interesting if we had a sort “influence compass” that would allow us to measure the net deviation created by the private interests of companies and industries for a number of policy areas. How far from the due north of the public’s interest are we when it comes to —

  • Environmental protection
  • Banking regulation
  • Insurance regulation
  • Energy policy
  • Cost-effective military procurement
  • Urban land use policy 
  • Airline safety
  • Licensing of public resources such as gas and coal leases

Of course the metaphor of “north” doesn’t really work here, since there is no purely objective definition of the public good in any of these areas. That is the purpose of open democratic debate about policy issues — what are the facts, what do we want to achieve, and what are the most effective ways of achieving our ends? But when private interests can influence decision makers to adopt X because it is good for the profits of industry Y — in spite of the clear public interest in doing Z — then we have anti-democratic distortion of the process.

Where are the democratic checks on this exercise of power? A first line of defense is the set of regulations most governments and agencies have concerning conflict of interest and lobbying. These institutions obviously don’t work; no one who pays attention would seriously think that agencies and governments are uninfluenced by gifts, contributions, promises of future benefits, and the blandishments of lobbyists. And these influences range from slight deviations to gross corruption.  Moreover, influence doesn’t need to be corrupt in order to be anti-democratic.  If an energy company gets a privileged opportunity to make the case for “clean coal” behind closed doors, this may represent a legitimate set of partial arguments.  The problem is that experts representing the public are not given the same opportunity.

A related strategy is publicity: requiring that decision-making agencies make their deliberations and decision-making processes transparent and visible to the public. Let the public know who is influencing the debate, and perhaps this will deter decision-makers from favoring an important set of private interests. Then-Vice-President Cheney’s refusal to make public the list of companies involved in consultations to the National Energy Policy Development Group (link) is an instructive example; it is very natural to suspect that the recommendations put forward by the NEPDG reflected the specific business concerns of an unknown set of energy companies and lobbyists (link). So greater publicity of process can be a tool in enhancing the fit between policy and the public’s interests. (Here are earlier posts on the capacity of publicity to serve as a check on bad organizational behavior (post, post).)

Another line of defense is the independent press and media. Our newspapers and magazines have historically had the resources and mission to track down the influence of private interests on the formulation of legislation, regulation, and policy. Bill Moyers is a great example (link); for example, his recent story on the role of campaign contributions in the election of judges (link). But the resources are disappearing and the cheerleaders at Fox News are gaining influence by the month. So relying on the investigative powers of an independent media looks like an increasingly long-odds bet.

So we have our work cut out for us to validate the main premise of democracy: that the interests of the public will be served faithfully by government without significant distortion by private business interests.

(Here is a recent post on C. Wright Mills’ analysis of power elites and the influence accorded to corporations in the United States.)

Labor abuses in China

The world press has begun to find ways of documenting the conditions of workers in many of the factories in China devoted to manufacturing goods for export to the United States and other countries (for example, In Chinese Factories, NYT, 1/5/08). The reportage is eye-opening but not surprising.  Reporters have documented excessive hours of work, pay that is lower than what Chinese law requires, working conditions that are chronically unsafe, and persistent exposure to the very dangerous chemicals that American toy consumers have been so concerned about. One of the authorities sometimes quoted in these articles is Professor Anita Chan from the Australian National University, and Professor Chan has been documenting these conditions for years. Her book, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, is a detailed and factual examination of some of these conditions. She documents the fact that the most vulnerable groups of workers — in the range of tens of millions! — are the internal migrants of China, who have left their home regions in search of jobs. Very significantly, Professor Chan bases some of her fact-finding on the slowly emerging field of local investigative journalism in China.

Why do these abuses occur? For several related reasons. First, the motive of generating profits in the context of a rapidly growing economy. Since China’s industrial economy was reformed in the 1990s, permiting private ownership of factories and enterprises, there have been strong incentives to be successful in business and to become rich. There has been tremendous demand for low-cost Chinese-manufactured goods, and great fortunes are being made in consumer electronics, toys, clothing, and dozens of other sectors. And in the downturn of world demand, equally abusive practices have been used to reduce costs.  The profit motive leads factory owners and managers to strive hard to keep wages and factory expenses as low as possible; and the vast population of poor rural people in China who are available for unskilled factory work makes the bargaining position of the factory owner very strong. (Chan documents some of the forms of coercion and intimidation that are used in some Chinese factories to keep workers on the job and to prevent them from leaving or resisting.) And the global purchasers are insistent about cost-cutting and price-cutting on the finished goods. So the result is — a chronic competitive “race to the bottom” in which each factory tries to produce at the require level of quality with the absolutely lowest level of cost; and this means continuous pressure on working conditions, health and safety conditions, and environmental effects.  (C. K. Lee describes the situation of protest and resistance in “sunbelt” and “rustbelt” factories in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.)

So part of the story has to do with the economic incentives and advantages that factory owners have relative to a large working population that has few alternatives. But this part of the story is familiar from other economies as they have developed through intensive industrialization. It has been learned elsewhere in the world that the imperatives of profitability by themselves almost mandate the abuse of labor; so government regulation and inspection are a necessary part of a manufacturing system if it is to succeed in treating all the population fairly and humanely. We might have imagined that the Chinese government would have been prepared to provide the regulatory environment that was necessary to protect the best interests of farmers and workers; it is, after all, governed by the party of farmers and workers. However, this is not the case. China has been so concerned to support economic growth that it has been very slow to implement effective regulatory systems to protect labor and the environment. Moreover, the balance of power between factory owners and local officials seems to be tilted towards the owners; other Times reporting has documented the fact that local officials cannot impose their will upon the owners. And, of course, there is ample opportunity for corrupt collusion between owners and officials.

This failure to regulate has been evident in other areas besides labor; the Chinese government has shown itself to be unwilling or unable to enact effective environmental regulations or to establish an effective regime of inspection and regulation for foods, drugs, and other potentially harmful products. It appears that middle-class Chinese consumers themselves are now expressing anxiety about the absence of this kind of regulation within their food and drug system.
So what other avenues exist for improving the conditions of workers in China?
There are three possibilities — all mutually compatible. First, workers themselves can protect their interests in fair wages, safe working conditions, and limited hours of work — if they are permitted to organize in unions. Woody Guthrie had it right: as individuals, workers are weak, but together they are strong. It seems inescapable that a major part of the problem is the enormous imbalance that exists between the powers associated with ownership and management, and those assigned to workers and their organizations. So a more just China will need to permit the development of real independent labor unions that work hard for the interests of their members.
Second, labor mobility can improve the conditions of labor everywhere. It is not an accident that some of the worst abuses documented by Professor Chan have to do with the forms of coercion that factory owners use to keep workers in their factories. If workers can vote with their feet, then we would expect that they will migrate to factories and other employers who offer better conditions of work and pay. And this will force employers to bid for qualified labor on the basis of improved working conditions.
And finally, there is obviously a role for consumers and companies in North America and Europe in all of this. North American consumers benefit from the low manufacturing costs currently available in China; but these low costs are unavoidably associated with the labor abuses we see today. We have a model for how international companies can take responsibility for the conditions of labor and environmental behavior, in the form of the Fair Labor struggles of the 1990s on university campuses in the United States. Large apparel manufacturers took on the responsibility of subjecting their suppliers to standards of conduct, and they subscribed to third-party organizations that undertook to “audit” the level of compliance with these standards by the supply chain. (Visit the Fair Labor website for an example of such an organization.) As the Times story observes, this is a tricky business, given the substantial degree of sub-contracting that occurs in the manufacturing process in China. But it can have a measurable effect.
China is plainly destined to be a major economic and political power in the coming fifty years. But to succeed in creating a society in which everyone has a continuing stake in a good quality of life and a fair deal from society, it will have to solve the problems of regulation of labor, health, and environment. And this will mean a degree of redistribution of China’s wealth and power towards its poorest people.
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