Explaining GOP behavior

If only Chuck Tilly were still with us … I’d give a lot to hear his interpretation of the behavior of GOP officials throughout large swaths of the country, in state governments and in Congress. But I’d like to hear from Cicero, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt as well. Perhaps only theorists who have witnessed the collapse of a republic can find the words necessary to describe our current condition when it comes to the behavior of our GOP politicians. What has become of a simple and principled dedication to the principles of democracy? What has become of politicians who care more about the wellbeing of our country than about their own political fortunes? What has become of integrity?

Think of the range of extremism from the right to which our country is now subject: extremist elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and other seemingly unhinged political voices channeling QAnon; servile compliance with the lies and authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump by establishment politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Kevin McCarthy; and the concerted efforts by Republican majorities in Red states to restrict access to the right to vote, aimed at communities of color. These seem to be separate manifestations of a broad impulse towards raging, irrational authoritarianism on the part of virtually all segments of GOP leaders and rank and file politicians. There are the small number of anti-Trump Republican leaders like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and others. But they seem to be almost invisible embers in the conflagration of our current crisis. 

So how should we understand the motivations of these various players? The first group seem easiest to understand. These are the political entrepreneurs selling their snake-oil to the extremist fringe, the base, of ideologically disaffected people on the extreme right. They both pander to these emotions of suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and hatred, and they fan them. This is the right wing extremism that Cas Mudde dissects in his books and writings about right wing populism (for example, The Far Right Today and (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction).

The second group seems to fall in the obvious category of cynical, unprincipled, and craven politicians who have no commitments beyond their calculations about retaining their offices and keeping a majority of voters in their districts. His history makes it apparent that Mitch McConnell is nothing more than a cynical political operative in the strict Machiavellian sense. Manipulating outcomes in support of his party and his own personal political fortunes is his entire story. The Twitter hashtag #ProfilesinCowardice is entirely descriptive of this group.

GOP figures in the third group — elected officials holding majorities in legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, … — are also unprincipled, but their motives are clear and goal-directed. They are looking to change the rules of the game, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and new restrictions aimed at reducing the votes going to their Democratic rivals. This effort has been underway for decades and has accelerated in the past two years. Their efforts aren’t about ideology or rhetoric, but instead aimed at securing a permanent grip on power. They are blatantly anti-democratic; they care nothing about the sanctity of the vote and the right to vote for everyone, irrespective of race, wealth, or political preferences. They care only about their own party’s ability to dominate their state’s legislature. And there is a sub-text: the shifting demographics of the US population towards greater diversity is profoundly unsettling to these politicians, and they are doing what they can to stave off the political changes that these shifts seem to imply. (For extended analysis, see Kloos and McAdam, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

The themes that cut across all three groups are insidious: white supremacy, xenophobia, rejection of the legitimacy of government, and a willingness to believe even the most absurd conspiracy theories. These themes contribute to a potent and toxic mix — witness the fantastically unconstitutional effort to enact legislation banning “Critical Race Studies” from schools and universities (link). How can such an effort be understood as anything but a totalitarian effort at imposing thought control on teachers and students? What became of our liberal conviction that independence of mind is a cherished part of a democratic citizen?

What is most worrying about these separate threads is how they converge on a broad and powerful assault on our democracy. And they come together as well in contributing to a broad anti-democratic constituency drawing large numbers of voters. 

Our democracy is at risk, and people of integrity need to speak up for our basic values: the rule of law, the fundamental equality of all, the inviolability of our rights and liberties, and the crucial requirement of neutrality of state institutions across persons and parties. Recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s fears for the trajectory and fate of contemporary American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

How can we find our way back to a shared social understanding — a social compact — about the framework of our democratic society and its crucial importance for the future of our country? How can political leaders and followers alike be helped to see that a democracy depends upon trust, upon dedication to the integrity of our political institutions, and a degree of good will by all for all? How can we reclaim our democracy from those who seem determined to destroy it?

Five easy pieces (for the social sciences)

Social scientists are generally interested in “explaining” social outcomes: why did such-and-so take place as it did? Why did the Indochina War occur, and why did it end in the defeat of two modern military powers? Why did the French fail so miserably at Dien Bien Phu? Why was the Tet Offensive so consequential for US military plans in Vietnam? Here are some fundamental questions surrounding the search for social explanations:

  1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?
  2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?
  3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?
  4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?
  5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

It is tempting to hold that many social events are more akin to the white noise of wind in the leaves than planets moving around the sun. That is, we might maintain that many social events are stochastic; they are the result of local contingencies and conjunctions, with little or no underlying order or necessity. This is not to say that the stochastic event is uncaused; rather, it is to say that the causes that led to this particular outcome represent a very different mix of conditions and events from the background of other similar events, so there is no common and general explanation of the event. 

Why should we think that social events often have this high degree of underlying stochasticity or contingency? One reason is the general ontological fact that social events are the result of the actions, decisions, interactions, and mental frameworks of specific individual actors, from anonymous consumers to business entrepreneurs to “social media influencers” to political leaders. The actors all have their own motivations and circumstances, so the strategies and actions that they choose are likely enough to be highly particular. And yet those strategies and actions eventually aggregate to social outcomes that we would like to understand: for example, why one midwestern town in the 1930s became a thriving manufacturing center, while another became a sleepy county seat with two traffic lights and a diner. William Cronon’s marvelous account in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West of the rise of Chicago as the major metropolis in the middle of the country illustrates the deep level of contingency associated with this history (link).

Beyond the contingencies created by the fact of varying individual motivations and strategies, there is the fact that social outcomes are generally “conjunctural”: they are the result of multiple causal influences, and would have developed differently if any of those influences had been significantly different. The dramatic growth of intercontinental trade in the 1960s and later decades depended on several independent factors — liberalization of trading regimes in many countries and regions, technology change in shipping (containerization), manufacturing companies that were legally able to “off-shore” production of consumer goods, and the like. Each of these factors has its own history, and substantial change in any one of them would presumably have had great consequences for the volume of trade during those decades.

Instead of imagining that all social outcomes should be amenable to simple, general explanations, we should instead take a pluralistic view of the structural and social circumstances that sometimes propel individual actors to one kind of outcome rather than another. It was not inevitable that Chicago would become “nature’s metropolis” in the midwest; but the fact that it had easy access to the Great Lakes for cheap transportation, and to the farmlands of the midwest for ample sources of grain and meat made Chicago a more likely place for opportunistic actors to establish the makings of a great city than Springfield, Illinois. Likewise, once the routes of the great east-west railways were established (reflecting their own forms of contingency and struggle among actors), Chicago emerged as a more promising location for business and trade than Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

I referred to this kind of explanation as an “institutional logic” explanation in The Scientific Marx (link). And this kind of explanation has much in common with the explanatory framework associated with the “new institutionalism” (link).

So let’s return to the questions posed above:

1. What is involved in “explaining” a social event or circumstance?

We explain a social event when we show how it arose as a result of the actions and interactions of multiple social actors, engaged within a specified social, economic, political, and natural environment, to accomplish their varied and heterogeneous purposes. Sometimes the thrust of the explanation derives from discovering the surprising motives the actors had; sometimes it derives from uncovering the logic of unintended consequences that developed through their interactions; and sometimes it derives from uncovering the features of the institutional and natural environment that shaped the choices the actors made.

2. In what sense is there a kind of “order” in the social world?

There is one underlying foundation (unity) of all social outcomes — the fact of the composition of outcomes from the actions and mental frameworks of multiple social actors. However, given the heterogeneity of actors, the heterogeneity of the institutions and natural environments in which they act, and the pragmatic question of whether it is the institutional background or the actors’ characteristics that are of the greatest explanatory interest, there is no basis for expecting a single unified substance and form for social explanations.

3. Can we reconcile the idea that some social events are “explained” and others are “stochastic”?

One way of making this distinction is to highlight the generality or particularity of the set of conditions that were thought to bring about the event. If O was the result of A,B,C,D,E and each of A-E was contingent and unrelated to the occurrence of the other conditions, then it would be natural to say that O was stochastic. If O was the result of A-E and A,B,C were longstanding conditions while D and E were conditions known to recur periodically, then it would be natural to say that O was explained by the joint occurrence of D and E in the presence of A,B,C. To explain an event is to claim that there is some underlying “necessity” leading to its occurrence, not just a chance conjunction of independent events.

4. Are there general and recurring causes at work in the social world?

There are recurring causes in the social world — institutional and natural circumstances that shape actors’ choices in similar ways in multiple settings. Examples include technological opportunities, economic geography, available methods of warfare, available systems of taxation and governance, and the range of institutional variations that are found in every society. It is the work of historical and social research to discover these kinds of factors, and the discovery of a common causal factor is simultaneously the discovery of a causal mechanism.

5. Is there any form of “unity” possible in the social sciences?

The social sciences cannot be unified around a single theory — microeconomics, rational choice theory, hermeneutics, Marxism. Instead, social scientists need to approach their work with a diverse toolbox of theories and mechanisms on the basis of which to construct hypotheses about the explanation of diverse social phenomena; they should expect heterogeneity rather than underlying unity and homogeneity. Theoretical pluralism is necessary for a correct understanding of the workings of the social world.

(This is a topic I’ve returned to a number of times over the past fifteen years. Here is an argument for why we should not expect to find a unified theory of society (link) from 2008, and here are discussions of “what can be explained in the social world” from 2008 (link) and 2016 (link). In 2014 I discussed the idea of “entropic social processes” (link).)

Corporations and the Nazi regime

It is apparent, 90 years after the beginnings of the Nazi period, that large corporations played an important and lamentable role in Nazi power and administration, and the implementation of the atrocities of slave labor and mass murder. This is true for domestic German industries, like I.G. Farben and Siemens; and it appears to be true for some multinational companies with subsidiaries in Germany, including the major automobile companies such as General Motors and Ford Motor Company. In his important book Industry and Ideology: I. G. Farben in the Nazi Era Peter Hayes summarizes the involvement of I.G. Farben in these terms: “By 1943, the concern’s 334 plants and mines across Germany and occupied Europe were turning out more than 3 billion marks’ worth of goods and earning net profits of more than 0.5 billion. Nearly 50% of IG’s 330,000-person work force had come to consist of conscript or slave laborers, among whom were some of the perhaps 30,000 inmates of Auschwitz who eventually died in the company’s new factory and mines near the camp” (xxi-xxii). And one of its subsidiaries was the industrial source of Zyklon B, the extermination gas used to kill more than a million concentration camp victims.

There are two important questions to address here. First is the question of involvement and complicity itself: what was the extent of the involvement of major companies in the Nazi genocide and slave labor system, and were their executives and governors aware of the crimes to which their corporate resources were being devoted? This is an enormously important question, given that the likelihood of significant moral complicity in the crimes of the Nazi period by companies and large organizations. 

But the second question is, if anything, more important and more difficult. What were the features of corporate organization that led to knowing participation in these monstrous crimes by executives, leaders, and other operatives? Is this fundamentally the result of corporate and organizational dysfunction, beyond the reach of individuals within those organizations? Or is it possibly the indication of direct, personal evil-doing by executives, managers, and boards: a knowing and continuing engagement in evil relationships, leading to slave labor and mass murder, for the purpose of corporate business success and profitability? Were corporate leaders of industrial enterprises in Germany themselves fervent Nazis, committed to Hitler’s ideology? Consider Peter Hayes’ assessment of the question of ideological support by corporate leaders in the foreword to the new edition of Industry and Ideology: “Very few studies still posit enthusiasm for or even general acceptance of Nazi economic policy among the nation’s industrial and banking elite during the late 1930s” (x). Perhaps; but certainly there were committed Nazi supporters among German’s executive class, including Willy Heidinger, director of IBM’s German subsidiary Dehomag (mentioned below).

Rather than ideology, Hayes emphasizes “business rationality” as the motivating factor for business executives during the period. And he cautions that these same motivations may recur in many other contexts.

The amoral pragmatism and professionalism that propelled Farben’s executives dwell within all large-scale organizations, whether they be corporate or political, whether they seek to maximize power or profits, whether they claim to serve the individual, a class, or a race. These drives make Farben an instructive case study in the plasticity of private interests and the consequences of permitting any single-minded doctrine to grasp the levers of a state. Lest that point be lost and readers distance themselves too far and easily from Farben’s behavior, I have emphasized here the specious rationality of the concerns’s deeds and largely let the self-evident wickedness of some of them speak for itself. (xxvi)

Hayes argues that there was a parallel organizational motivation at work leading executives to conform their business practices to the will of the Nazi regime a kind of accommodating instrumental rationality:

No one who grapples henceforth with the role of industry in the initiation and intensification of the Nazi forced-labor system will be able to do without the terms devised by Lutz Budrass and Manfred Grieger to describe a “clandestine entrepreneurial ethic,” a “morality of efficiency,” that came to dominate industrial decision making during the war years more than concern for profit or fear of punishment. (xi-xii)

It would appear that this “morality of efficiency” involves a truncated worldview that looks something like this: “We make X (synthetic oil, punchcard machines, automobiles, …); our organizational goal is simply to design and manufacture these goods as efficiently as possible, without concerning ourselves about the uses that others will put them to (and perhaps without regard to the origin of the resources, including labor) that the regime puts at our disposal to facilitate the process”. A “morality of efficiency”, then, is a deliberate form of tunnel vision or myopia, in which the product and process are the sole object of attention, whereas the uses and intentions of the state are not.

Since 1998 there have been numerous investigations of corporate behavior during the Nazi period, stimulated by class-action lawsuits concerning liability for slave labor. These lawsuits have led a number of corporations to open their archives to independent historians for careful scrutiny. One of the fruits of this new wave of research on corporate behavior under Nazi dictatorship is a volume edited by Christopher Kobrak and Per Hansen, European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920-1945. The book confines itself largely to the question of the business environment created by the rise of the Nazi dictatorship and the power of Nazi party organizations in the control of industry, and its editors are cautious about offering normative judgments about corporate behavior during this period. (I will return to this point below.) Currency controls, direct government mandates, and attractive contracts with large German government agencies all served to create a distinctive business environment for multinational enterprises.

In particular, many of the contributors to the volume pay special attention to the degree to which companies doing business in Germany had latitude to make decisions steering their companies away from the increasingly clear goals of the Nazi regime. Mira Wilkins focuses on the separation of ownership and control that was a crucial organizational fact for numerous multinational corporations in this period:

Owners may not (and usually do not) have full control over managers. The principal-agent problem is multiplied many times over within MNEs. Information is asymmetrical. “Control” is always constrained, but in different manners. Increasingly, I find the concept of managerial control in a purely domestic context elusive, but far more so in an international one. Under dictatorship, rules and regulations limited the decision-making of outward and inward MNEs (and domestic enterprises) in varying degrees. Managers of an affiliate within the host country may understand, interpret, or follow the rules and regulations in accord with the parent company’s interests or with their own separate agenda. (23)

Here is Wilkins’ summary of the situation of multinational enterprises with subsidiaries in Germany in the 1930s:

Ford in Germany encountered a similar quandary. Sir Percival Perry, head of the British Ford company and until 1937 chairman of the board of the German Ford affiliate, sent Edsel Ford in the United States in 1933 numerous letters on German government interventions. “The Nationalist Socialist Party — Nazis — interfere with everything and although their interference is not exactly officially Government, yet it is political and very influential,” he reported in June 1933…. Like it or not (and many executives in IG Farben did not like it), IG Farben managers came to recognize that business and politics in Nazi Germany were closely bound. So, too, Ford officials realized that they had to take steps to adjust to certain political realities. What seems increasingly clear are the restraints on corporate choices and the differences that developed within individual MNEs between financial, legal, administrative, and operational strategies and structures. (26)

Wilkins does indeed describe a quandary: Ford (or Farben) would harm or even destroy its business in Germany if it refused to cooperate with German political imperatives. But some of those imperatives should have been refused nonetheless.

Lars Heide explores this “principal-agent” problem between parent and subsidiary in greater detail with regard to the example of IBM and its German subsidiary Dehomag. Heide argues that Dehomag, under the direction of the management of Willy Heidinger, had achieved almost complete autonomy with respect to IBM’s corporate management in the United States. Heide takes this evidence to refute the arguments made by Edwin Black in his controversial book about IBM during the German dictatorship. Heide argues that the US-based executives could do very little to control Heidinger’s decisions and actions. (Heide also documents that available research does not support Black’s claim that IBM punchcard technology was used by German authorities to identify Jews for deportation (171).)

While Heide argues that IBM’s US-based corporate leaders had little effective control over the IBM subsidiary, the company continued to profit from the business success of Dehomag in the Third Reich. Dehomag became “IBM’s most successful affiliate” (150), with a very extensive business involvement in the Nazi war machine. And Heide makes it clear that Heidinger was himself a vocal supporter of the Nazi dictatorship. The issue of control vs. ownership came up again in the case of IBM and Dehomag:

Simultaneously, the German campaign in May-June 1940 provoked pressure on IBM’s relation with its German subsidiary. The conquest of Benelux and France caused Thomas J. Watson of IBM to return a German decoration that he had received in Berlin in 1937 while Chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce working for appeasement with Nazi Germany. From June 1940, this act triggered a Heidinger Putsch to regain majority control of Dehomag, apparently supported by the German authorities. However, the IBM majority ownership was rescued by the introduction of enemy company custodianship when the U.S. entered the war. The custodianship gave Heidinger’s management free hands, which implied that he had regained his company but for the ownership. (168)

A note is needed concerning the stance the editors and contributors have taken towards the question of moral responsibility of corporations:

For a long time, business and other historians, working on the interwar period and dictatorships, have concentrated on the question of what business contributed to the rise of dictatorships and why. For understandable reasons, the ethical and moral questions have had a rather high priority. With a great deal of justification, there has been no shortage of condemnation of companies and business managers who profited from cooperating with the dictatorships of the interwar period. However, moral condemnation of historical actors and events is not really the role of historians. It is more important to try to understand what happened and why. Moreover, we want to extend the analysis of how this period affected the strategies and structures of modern business…. (x)

But contrary to this sentiment, I believe that the moral question is central for historians of this period: in what ways should the current generation hold business organizations of the past to account for egregious actions such as use of slave labor and facilitation of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population? It is of course relevant to know the context of decision-making and latitude that was available to corporate decision-makers. But we also need to be very clear in our judgments of the business decisions that were made: some were perfectly legitimate business decisions, some were regrettable but understandable compromises with an almost impossible situation, and others were wholly unacceptable crimes. Is it too “present-ist” to maintain that multinational corporations like IBM, General Motors, or Ford should have ceased business operations altogether in Germany once Hitler’s crimes became apparent? 

Of interest in this context is a 1962 article by the progressive American historian Gabriel Kolko, “American Business and Germany” (link), published only a few years after the end of the Nazi regime. Kolko offers a detailed treatment of both the US business press and the business behavior of a number of major US corporations with respect to issues of war and dictatorship in the 1930s, and he finds that the “official views” of the business community (the business press) do not align closely with the actual behavior of US corporations. A key point in the article has to do with multinational cartels and agreements:

American business’ functional role in world affairs in the decade or so preceding the war found expression in cartel and contractual agreements between key American firms and German industry. The economic significance of the involved companies is much greater than their numbers. Although only twenty-six of them could be found among the top one hundred industrial corporations fo 1937, together these twenty-six accounted for over 60 per cent of the total assets of the hundred. More important, these corporations generally were the largest in their respective industries, and as such were price and policy leaders. (718)

He also makes several observations about I.G. Farben and its role within the Nazi dictatorship:

The existence of both the Nazi party and I.G. Farben was, from the point of view of the expansionist goals of both, a fortuitous coincidence. The United Steel Works had a strong Nazi group among its top executives, centered about Fritz Thyssen, from its inception. German industry was naturally extremely conservative and alarmed by the growing strength of the Social Democrats and Communists. The unification of I.G. Farben and the cartels with the Nazis was not forced by any means. When the Nazis came to power the essential cartel structure was maintained as the economy was divided into eight major national units, continued under the same leadership, and guided only insofar as unified national production and price policies were concerned. (718-719)

And further:

American companies not only knew of I.G.’s relationship to the Nazis, but to other American concerns as well. This was inevitable, for I.G. made a large number of exclusive agreements with American firms which bound companies not formal partners to their restrictions. Du Pont, to cite one case, was forced to recognize the agreements of I.G. and Union Carbide and Carbon in certain fields and to keep out of them. By making innumerable similar arrangements I.G. was able to prevent many major American chemical and metal firms from following independent commercial and development policies and building the productive facilities which were later to become vital to the prosecution of the war…. It is almost superfluous to point out that the motives of the American firms bound to contracts with German concerns were not pro-Nazi, whatever else they may have been. The arrangements with German firms were stimulated by a fear of international price and market competition and a desire for predictable economic conditions as a basis for business planning. (720)

Kolko concludes the article with these lines:

In their public relations roles the large American corporations inextricably bound to German industry declared their sympathy for the public’s antagonism to strategic aid to Germany after 1936, but in their actual behavior these firms pursued a course whose dominant objective was to satisfy their private interests. The export philosophy of General Motors, the agreements for postwar re-establishment of cartel arrangements, the conscious disinterest in the political implications of strategic materials sales by Dow, Standard Oil, and others, suggest that the guiding values of business were distinctly class values. Such conflicts between the business community’s actions and the business press indicate the limited usefulness of considering only the business press and corporation press releases in attempting to evaluate the historic relationship of American business to foreign affairs. Equally important, the basic policies of large corporations on the international scene in the 1930s were motivated less by the attraction of new trade frontiers and markets than by their desire for the economic stabilization and predictability which only cartels and market agreements could create. The basis of such “anti-imperialism” by American business was not altruism, but its recognition that its aim of profits with stability could best be attained by international business solidarity. (728)

There is much more to be said about the conduct of corporations during the German dictatorship, and later posts will discuss some recent research on Daimler-Benz, General Motors, and other multinational corporations with respect to the use of slave labor and possible involvement in management of the extermination of Europe’s Jewish population.  

Avineri on Marx as social democrat

Shlomo Avineri is one of the interpreters of Marx’s thought for whom I have had a great deal of respect since the publication of Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx in 1968. (I also greatly admire his book on Hegel’s political philosophy, Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State.) Avineri has recently published Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution, and this book constitutes a very useful contribution to the question of Marx’s relevance to our current situation in the twenty-first century. (Here is an earlier post that attempts to assess Marx’s continuing relevance; link.)

The recent book is presented as a fairly brief intellectual biography — an account of the influences and preoccupations through which Marx’s intellectual framework took shape. (A side theme is the role that Marx’s family history of Jewish identity may have played in his own development.) In many ways the current book covers much of the same ground as the earlier Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx — the background in Hegel’s political philosophy, the conception of human beings as homo faber, the idea of the proletariat as the universal class, the “dialectic” of capitalist development, the limits of revolution, even the skeptical view Marx took of the Paris Commune. In effect, one might look at the current book as an updated and streamlined edition of the earlier book. But the current book has a liveliness and readability that distinguishes it. And crucially, the current book is quite explicit in its most striking claim: that Marx is a much more measured and nuanced theorist of socialism and proletarian emancipation than he is usually thought to be. Marx is fundamentally a social democrat and gradualist. Consistent with the intellectual and political interest of twenty-first century readers who want to find a source of new and non-dogmatic ideas on the basis of which to rethink the failures of our contemporary world, Avineri presents Marx as just such a thinker.

In a nutshell, Avineri argues in Karl Marx: Philosophy and Revolution that Marx is not the rigid and uncompromising “revolutionary” activist that he has often been understood to be — both by supporters and critics. “What is usually called ‘Marxism’ is what Engels decided to include in the corpus and the way he interpreted it” (kl 81). Rather, according to Avineri, Marx’s key idea, and the key motivating impetus of critique of modern capitalist society, is the idea of emancipation. And Avineri argues that this is, most fundamentally, an affirmation of radical Enlightenment values that were deeply thwarted in the nineteenth century. Here Avineri makes a complicated and crucial point. Marx’s social location as the son of Jewish parents — and therefore himself a Jew — was not a defining fact for the young Karl Marx (according to Avineri); Marx rarely referred to his Jewish identity. But what was defining was the double earthquake in nineteenth-century Europe, first of the political emancipation of the Jews in the Rhineland following its absorption by France in post-revolutionary France, and then the reversal of this emancipation in 1814-15 when the Rhineland returned to Prussian political control according to the terms of the Congress of Vienna. Revolutionary France was the first European country to emancipate its Jewish citizens, granting them equal political and civic rights. So the Jews of the Rhineland experienced a short two-decade period of emancipation and equal citizenship, followed by a return to juridical and social discrimination. 

After some deliberations, the Prussian authorities in the Rhineland revoked Jewish emancipation and imposed on the Jews in the newly annexed territories the status of Jews in Prussia proper. The major principle, following the precepts of what it meant to be a Christian state, implied that Jews could not be in a situation of authority over Christians: they could not serve as lawyers, judges, civil servants, teachers in schools or universities. In other words, the Rhenish Jews were de-emancipated, thrown back to where they—or their parents—had been a generation ago. (5)

Marx was born in 1818; so this social and political trauma was fresh in the experience of his parents, including the forced conversion to Christianity reluctantly accepted by his father. And Avineri believes that this experience created a unique kind of alienation for a generation of well-educated Jewish intellectuals from this region — including Marx.

In the years between 1815 and 1848 one can discern a deep feeling of alienation and consequent political radicalization among members of the Jewish intelligentsia in the Rhineland and the emergence among them—much more than among the more quietistic Jewish communities in Prussia proper—of radical politics; some did convert under that pressure, but this did not make them more supportive of the system imposed on them; others, while distancing themselves from orthodox Judaism, did try to maintain their Jewish identity in one way or another. (7)

The most striking element of Avineri’s interpretation of Marx’s evolving position is what he takes to be Marx’s preference for a gradual and non-violent transition to a kind of social democracy.

In a significant but somehow neglected passage in Das Kapital, Marx argues that in England there is a distinct possibility for the working class to reach power peacefully, not only because of the extension of the suffrage, but also due to various aspects of factory and social legislation, adding that “for this reason … I have given so large a space in this volume to history, details, and the results of English factory legislation.” (140)

The grounds of this view can be found in Marx’s rejection of Jacobinism and the Terror in the French Revolution.

In a surprising critique of the Jacobins, Marx argues that the Reign of Terror was itself a testimony of the failure of Jacobin politics because of their wrongheaded fascination with classical Rome, encapsulated in Saint-Just’s call to “Let revolutionary men be Romans” or his nostalgic complaint that, since the Romans, “the world is a void, and only their memory fills it and prophesizes liberty.” This to Marx is not only empty romanticism but would also be responsible for the Jacobins’ shift toward terrorism: the Roman republican tradition focused exclusively on political arrangements in the state, whereas modern societies have to grapple with the tension between civil, bourgeois society and the political realm—an issue totally unknown in Roman history. … any attempt to use force when conditions are not ripe for internal change are doomed to the tragedy—and cruelty—of the Jacobin terror. (61)

The closing sentence of this passage can be read as a firm rejection of the impulses that led to the cruelties and intransigence in pursuit of “revolution” of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

Also important in Avineri’s view of Marx’s development as an advocate for revolution is the new direction Marx took following the failures of the revolutions of 1848. In place of the bold and sweeping view of the future for proletarian revolution outlined in the Communist Manifesto, Marx articulates a more nuanced and historically contextualized conception of “class” in his writings of the 1850s. In The Class Struggles in France, for example, Avineri finds this change of perspective:

The detailed study from 1850 suggests a very different picture of a complex, multilayered society, where many conflicting interests crisscross each other, bringing about shifting coalitions among multiple groups and subgroups and thus impeding the emergence of a clear-cut, polarized class warfare. (109)

And in the 18th Brumaire Avineri finds that Marx accords much greater complexity to the relationship between economic interests and political power:

He admits that the relationship between economic interests and political power is much more complex and not as simplistic or linear as he himself had maintained in the Manifesto.

Avineri also gives a good deal of attention to Marx’s rejection of historical determinism and the idea that there is only one path of historical development. He emphasizes Marx’s view, consistent from early to late, that social change must be understood in its particular social context, and that there is great contingency in historical change. Avineri seems to believe that this sensitivity to historical context is one result of Harx’s critique of Hegel’s philosophical methods: rather than looking for a philosophical theory that explains history, it is necessary to look to historical circumstances to explain change. Avineri provides a very interesting discussion (178) of several drafts of Marx’s letter to Vera Zasulich (link) in which Marx denies that his theories have definitive implications for the course of Russian social and political development. (For further discussion of the Zasulich correspondence see an earlier post here.)

Avineri also argues for a reassessment of Marx’s view of the Paris Commune in 1871 (a theme he develops in the 1968 book as well). He describes the published version of The Civil War in France as an official report from the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), and a document that is tailored to the radical working class orientation of IWA; whereas Avineri documents that the drafts that Marx prepared prior to publication of the piece are much more measured, nuanced, and critical. In particular, Avineri argues that Marx viewed the Commune’s rebellion as both ill-conceived and primarily “petty-bourgeois” rather than proletarian:

Yet there is a fundamental difference between the drafts and the final published essay. In the drafts Marx tries to identify the social structure of the Commune and its political aims, and concludes that it was basically a lower-middle-class affair, with scant proletarian input. …

Marx’s drafts clearly and unequivocally identify the rising of the Commune with its petty-bourgeois leadership, and note in great detail the immediate circumstances of the insurrection. During the growing tension between the provisional government in Versailles and the Commune, which controlled Paris, Versailles proclaimed a provisional moratorium on all outstanding bills of payments and rents. The aim of this moratorium was obvious—to get the support of the lower middle class, mainly in Paris, for Versailles, and for a time it worked. The moratorium was to expire on 13th March 1871, and representatives of Paris middle-class associations tried to press for its extension, but the provisional government in Versailles under Thiers refused. Marx recounts that between 13th and 18th March more than 150,000 demands for payment of bills and rents were reactivated, and then on 18th March the insurrection of the Commune broke out. Marx goes on to note that the demand for a further, or definite, extension of the moratorium—obviously an interest of lower-middle-class groups—continued to figure as a major plank of the Commune. The drafts also contain further analysis of the social structure of the Commune leadership, pointing to its petty-middle-class composition. (155)

Avineri finds these same doubts about the Commune expressed by Marx in a letter to Leo Fränckel, a central committee member of the IWA and leader of the Commune, during the final days of the suppression of the uprising (155). Avineri’s view is unequivocal:

Marx never retreated from his view that the Commune was not a socialist uprising and that, by implication, it had set back the chances of the working-class movement in Europe. Ten years later, in a letter of 22nd February 1881 to the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela-Nieuwenhuis, Marx reiterated his view that a socialist government can come into power only if conditions enable it to take all possible measures necessary for transforming society radically, and then, referring to the Commune, added: 

“But apart from the fact that it was merely the rising of a city under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no way socialist, nor could it be. With a modicum of common sense, however, it could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people—the only thing that could have been reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to put an end with terror to the pretensions of the Versailles people, etc.” (161)

This demystification of Marx’s view of the Commune is important because of the iconic role that the Commune played in the drama and rhetoric of Communist rhetoric throughout much of the following century. The heroic proletarian nature of the Commune and Marx’s important role in its origins are both defining myths of the Communist narrative; but Avineri demonstrates that they are fundamentally incorrect.

So what was Marx’s view of “proletarian revolution” in the final decades of his life? In Avineri’s view, it was a fairly moderate view that urged the party of the proletariat to find non-violent, non-terrorist avenues to political power. Avineri offers a great deal of evidence to support this interpretation. For example, he highlights Marx’s speech to the IWA in Amsterdam in 1872, when the IWA was deeply divided between the anarchists (Bakunin) and socialists (Marx):

The speech is a powerful insistence on the need to gain political power but also expresses a highly pluralist approach to the question of how gaining political power would come about—through violent revolution or through peaceful means, shocking the anarchists by maintaining that in some significant cases orderly electoral politics might be the handmaid of socialism. “The workers must one day conquer political supremacy in order to establish the new organization of labor. … But we do not maintain that the attainment of this end requires identical means. We know that one has to take into consideration the institutions, mores [Sitten] and traditions of the different countries, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and if I would be familiar with your institutions, also Holland, where labor may attain its goal by peaceful means.” (163)

Here we find Marx the social democrat — an advocate for proletarian revolution who recommends seizure of power through a gradual process of legal and peaceful means. And it is important to underline, as Avineri does, that this is not the counsel of despair following the failures of 1848 and 1871, but rather a fundamental view of Marx’s, that social change is not a putsch. “A movement based on terror, intimidation, and blackmail will ultimately produce a society based on these methods as well” (165). Here is Marx’s rebuttal to Bakunin’s philosophy in Statism and Anarchy and his derisory term, barracks communism:

What a wonderful example of barracks communism! Everything is here—common pots and dormitories, control commissioners and control offices, the regulation of education, production, consumption—in one word, control of all social activity; and at the same time, there appears Our Committee, anonymous and unknown, as supreme authority. Surely, this is most pure anti-authoritarianism! (165)

Avineri supports this reading of Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune with several relatively little-known statements by Marx in 1867 following enactment of the Second Reform Act in Britain that reinforce this preference for a peaceful transition to socialism:

It is possible that the struggle between the workers and the capitalists will be less terrible and less bloody than the struggle between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie in England and France. Let us hope so. (167)

and:

In England, for example, the way is open for the working class to develop their political power. In a place where they can achieve their goal more quickly and more securely through peaceful propaganda, insurrection would be a folly. (167)

Avineri is a remarkably learned reader of Marx, and a lucid interpreter. The distance is great between his interpretation of Marx as a principled advocate of a peaceful transition to power by the proletarian majority and Marxist orthodoxy since Engels. And yet Avineri’s case is deeply informed by a close reading of a broad swath of Marx’s writings throughout Marx’s career. It is moreover consistent with Marx’s famous statement — “If that is Marxism, then I am not a Marxist!”. Rather, Marx displays a sociological imagination that reflected a nuanced, historically minded theorist, constantly aware of the contingencies and contextual differences of historical settings. Further, Avineri makes a powerful case for believing that Marx regarded a strategy of violent seizure of power as deeply self-defeating. Unlike Communist orthodoxy since Lenin, Marx did not believe that successful social and political transformation could be achieved by fiat, force, and ruthless party discipline; in a word, he rejected the premises of Soviet-style communism. And given the crimes that have been committed in the name of revolution in the past century and a half, that is a good thing.

(Bruce Robbins’ review of the book in The Nation (link) is well worth reading.)

A brief Senecian reflection on the humble kidney stone

A kidney stone is an affliction. It is a source of pain, it makes sleep impossible, it is a misery that makes thought about anything else impossible. And its treatment is … dramatic. It is just the kind of life situation we humans are subject to. But we might shrug it off when it’s all over — it was just an illness, an incident in life’s long and fascinating series of disasters and joys.

It is worth thinking about the situation of the kidney stone a little more deeply. A kidney stone is often also a manifestation of lifelong habits, ways of daily living. Drinking too much coffee, drinking too little water every day — the slow invisible accumulation of calcium deep within the body, until it has the mass needed to block the flow of the body’s fluids and cause insistent pain. This is a disease (sometimes anyway) that stems from habit; it is not mere fate or inexplicable affliction. Live right and you won’t have a kidney stone — or at least you’ll be less likely to do so. 

And yet, for many of us — even knowing the connection between these simple habits and the possibility of pain and suffering in the future — we fail to adjust our habits. We continue, perhaps reasoning that each day’s 24 ounces of water rather than 64 will, by itself, cause no appreciable harm. It is a bodily tragedy of the commons. We are not very rational when it comes to calibrating everyday risks and longterm suffering. And the microscopic condensate deep in the kidney grows over time. I suppose the 8 mm. stone that suddenly causes blockage and pain and needs treatment took several years of silent accretion to become a risk; but it was forming throughout all that time.

I don’t know enough about the history of ancient medicine to be sure, but I doubt there was any effective way of addressing a kidney stone in the time of Seneca. Extended suffering and relatively quick necrosis of the kidney were the path forward; and the consolation of philosophy offered by Seneca is familiar. It is the counsel of courage and endurance: 

Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (Letters from a Stoic, book 67)

There are two bits of philosophy that the fact of kidney stones in a human being suggests. First is the Seneca observation, that malady and misfortune are inevitable in life, and one must be prepared to face them with a degree of equanimity. “Fate will not spare you.” But the other bit is also important, and in my mind is more associated with the ideas about rationality over time offered in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. The happy person is the person who has orchestrated his or her life activities, from day to day, in ways that contribute to longterm wellbeing. Happiness means making choices on a daily basis that are guided by virtue and one’s fundamental values and goals. Translating this idea into the current context, a rational person will think carefully about his or her daily habits and the contributions they make to wellbeing or illness in the future. Drink more water, and no more akrasia!

LaCapra on history, memory, and the Holocaust

Child’s drawing from barracks wall in Auschwitz

Dominick LaCapra’s History and Memory after Auschwitz (1998) is an important contribution to the topic of “history’s responsibility in front of the Holocaust”. His aim in this book, and elsewhere in many of his other writings, is to express his “conception of the relations among history, memory, ethics, and politics” (6). 

Here is an especially arresting sentence from the introduction:

I discuss Heinrich Himmler’s famous Posen speech of October 1943, addressed to upper-level SS officers, for it may be taken as the paradigmatic assertion of the sublimity and “glory” of extreme transgression and unheard-of excess in the Nazi treatment of Jews. Often such features are marginalized or downplayed in the emphasis on factors such as the banality of evil, the well-nigh inevitable consequences of totalization (or totalitarianism), the role of bureaucratic routine and cold duty, the inertial force of social pressure, the effects of depersonalizing and fragmented relations to the other, and the significance of a massive technological framework, instrumental rationality, and industrialized mass murder. (3)

LaCapra draws attention here to the striking contrast between these fairly ordinary causal factors often highlighted in discussions of the Holocaust and the “regression to barbarism” represented by much of the treatment of Jews and the insane “sublime elation” of Himmler’s speech.

LaCapra seeks to address the question of “uniqueness or comparability” of the Holocaust:

The more general point … is that the Holocaust was “unique” in a specific, nonnumerical, and noninvidious sense. In it an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression was crossed, and whenever that threshold or limit is crossed, something “unique” happens and the standard opposition between uniqueness and comparability is unsettled, thereby depriving comparatives (especially in terms of magnitude) of a common measure or foundation. (7)

This is a somewhat paradoxical-sounding statement, but it seems to make sense. The “killing fields” of Pol Pot were also unique, different from the Holocaust, horrific, and “an extreme threshold or outer limit of transgression”. Each such crossing is “non-comparable”, in the sense that each demands its own sorrow, its own lack of comprehension, and its own determination that “never again” will we permit such violations. There is no common measure; each occurrence is evil in its own unique and horrific way.

LaCapra quotes Saul Friedlander on the topic of the uniqueness of the Nazi extermination of the Jews, including especially Friedlander’s view in Memory, History, and the Extermination of the Jews of Europe that “The Nazi regime attained what is, in my view, some sort of theoretical outer limit: one may envision an even larger number of victims and a technologically more efficient way of killing, but once a regime decides that groups, whatever the criteria may be, should be annihilated there and then and never be allowed to live on Earth, the ultimate has been achieved” (quoted in LaCapra, 26). LaCapra approves of this idea: “The essential consideration is that an outer limit was reached and that, once this limit is reached, something radically transgressive or incommensurable has occurred”. But he also fears that this perspective may “normalize” (banalize) the Holocaust “by prompting a dogmatic assertion of absolutes, a grim competition for first place in victimhood or the type of research into similarities and differences that easily becomes diversionary and pointless” (26).

Here is LaCapra’s considered judgment about how to understand the uniqueness and generalizability of the Holocaust:

I would change metaphors and note the role of a tragic grid that achieved a paramount place in the Holocaust but in other ways is also evident elsewhere in history. It is the grid that locks together perpetrator, collaborator, victim, bystander, and resister, and that also threatens to encompass the secondary witness and historian. A goal of working-through should be the better understanding of this grid and the attempt to overcome it toward a more desirable network of relations. (40-41)

And what about the historian in this tragic grid?

The historian must work out a subject-position in negotiating transference and coming to terms with his or her implication in the tragic grid of participant-positions. The conventional stance for the historian is often closest to that of the innocent bystander or onlooker. But this safe position is particularly questionable in the case of the Holocaust and other extreme or limit-events. (41)

Working through the past in any desirable fashion would thus be a process (not an accomplished state) and involve not definitive closure or full self-possession but a recurrent yet variable attempt to relate accurate, critical memory-work to the requirements of desirable action in the present. (42)

One thing that is especially noteworthy about LaCapra’s approach to the topic of history, memory, and trauma is his use of some basic ideas from psychoanalysis. This is an approach that is somewhat foreign to the ideas that analytic philosophers bring to the philosophy of history, but it seems especially relevant to the question of how to confront the evils of the twentieth century. Here is a very interesting description of how LaCapra treats psychoanalysis as a tool of inquiry in history:

My basic premise in this chapter is that the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis (such as transference, resistance, denial, repression, acting-out, and working-through) undercut the binary opposition between the individual and society, and their application to individual or collective phenomena is a matter of informed argument and research…. One should rather call into question the very idea that one is working with a more or less flimsy analogy between the individual and society and argue instead that there is nothing intrinsically “individual” about such concepts as repression and working-through. These concepts refer to processes that always involve modes of interaction, mutual reinforcement, conflict, censorship, orientation toward others, and so forth, and their relative individual or collective status should not be prejudged. (43)

This perspective makes sense in two different ways in the setting the history of the Holocaust or the Holodomor — first, as a means of making sense of the thoughts and actions of perpetrators and victims (for example, in the lengthy Posen speech of Himmler’s that LaCapra treats in detail); and second, as a way of addressing the historian’s own blindspots, aversions, and rationalizations in the telling of the story. The second part of the passage following the ellipsis captures very well the situation of “collective memory” and historians’ collective efforts to uncover a narrative of a complex and horrific period.

This is a good place to draw attention to the current crisis in Holocaust historiography in Poland occasioned by the libel suit successfully pursued against Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking for entirely legitimate assertions they made in Night Without End: The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland (published in 2018, not yet available in English translation) (link). Their work is based on thorough historical research, and aligns with the moral necessity of facing unhappy truths honestly through historical inquiry. Like Jan Gross two decades before (link), their work honestly confronts the involvement of ordinary Polish people in the murder of Poland’s Jews. The government-backed insistence on “historical research supporting the national dignity of Poland” is entirely inimical towards history, truth, and memory, and is rightly opposed by historians and writers throughout the world.

Learning and engagement

John Dewey’s Democracy and Education is over a century old. But it still seems strikingly modern, even avant-garde, when compared to many pedagogical practices currently in place in both secondary and post-secondary schools. Here is one line of thought that is especially insightful: that learning is a constructive and active process for the learner, not a question of passive acquisition of “knowledge”. Learning involves acquiring new ideas, new perspectives, and new questions for oneself. And these processes require an engagement on the part of the learner that is as active and creative as is the learning done by a basketball player with a great coach. A good teacher is one who can motivate and stimulate the student to taking this journey — not one who can supply a full menu of pre-established solutions to the student.

Here is a particularly rich description of Dewey’s conception of learning and the relationship between teacher and student. He formulates his thinking about the learning that children do; but I find the passage entirely applicable to university students as well.

The joy which children themselves experience is the joy of intellectual constructiveness—of creativeness, if the word may be used without misunderstanding. The educational moral I am chiefly concerned to draw is not, however, that teachers would find their own work less of a grind and strain if school conditions favored learning in the sense of discovery and not in that of storing away what others pour into them; nor that it would be possible to give even children and youth the delights of personal intellectual productiveness—true and important as are these things. It is that no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another. When it is told, it is, to the one to whom it is told, another given fact, not an idea. The communication may stimulate the other person to realize the question for himself and to think out a like idea, or it may smother his intellectual interest and suppress his dawning effort at thought. But what he directly gets cannot be an idea. Only by wrestling with the conditions of the problem at first hand, seeking and finding his own way out, does he think. When the parent or teacher has provided the conditions which stimulate thinking and has taken a sympathetic attitude toward the activities of the learner by entering into a common or conjoint experience, all has been done which a second party can do to instigate learning. The rest lies with the one directly concerned. If he cannot devise his own solution (not of course in isolation, but in correspondence with the teacher and other pupils) and find his own way out he will not learn, not even if he can recite some correct answer with one hundred per cent accuracy. We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better. (chapter 12, kl 2567)

What is this process that Dewey is describing, this process of active “learning” on the part of the student? It is one in which the student is led to “engage in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas”; it is a situation of active grappling with a problem that the student does not yet fully understand; it is a situation in which the student develops new cognitive tools, frameworks, and questions through the active and engaged mental struggle she has willingly undertaken. She has grown intellectually; she has the excitement of realizing that her perspective and understanding of something important has changed and deepened. The language of gestalt psychology is suggestive here — the sudden shift of a set of lines on paper into a representation of a smiling face, the rearrangement of one’s thought processes so a confusing set of words and ideas suddenly make sense. It is something like what Kuhn describes as a paradigm shift, except that it is a continual process of intellectual change.

What does Dewey mean here by saying that an idea cannot be conveyed from one person to another? He does not doubt that words, sentences, and paragraphs can be shared, or that the student cannot incorporate those words into sentences. But his key point is profound: knowledge and understanding require more than understanding the grammar of a sentence; instead, the student needs to have an intellectual framework about the question in play and an active inquiring mental curiosity in terms of which he or she “thinks” the idea for herself. I do not understand entropy if I simply parrot the definition of the word; rather, I need a framework of ideas about gases, random motion, kinetic energy, and statistical mechanics within the context of which I can give “entropy” a conceptual place.

Anyone who teaches philosophy to undergraduates must be especially receptive to this challenge. The task, somehow, is to help the student make the problem her own — to see why it is perplexing, to want to dig into it, to be eager to discover new angles on it, to see how it relates to other complicated issues. So in teaching Kant or Arendt, the goal is not to get the student to memorize the list of the antinomies of reason or the three versions of the categorical imperative, or precisely what is meant by “the banality of evil”. Rather, it is to help the student to discover the problem that Kant or Arendt was grappling with, why it was important, why it is difficult, and maybe how it can be solved in a different way. 

The student needs somehow to put himself or herself into the mindset of a person on a journey of discovery, creating his or her own conceptual structures and questions about the terrain, without falling into the complacency of thinking she is simply a tourist with an excellent guide. And, after all, if there is nothing new to think about Aristotle or Nussbaum, then what is the purpose of studying them in the first place? Why would it matter to a student that she has read the Nichomachean Ethics cover to cover if she hasn’t somehow been stimulated through her own efforts of imagination and discovery to think new and original thoughts?

This insight into the learning process is evident in philosophy, but surely it must be essentially the same kind of challenge in teaching literature, sociological theory, thermodynamics, or even advanced accounting. When I read Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespeare — or when I hear him lecture on “racial memory” of Vilnius — I am stimulated to new thinking, new ideas of my own, and a striking lack of interest on Greenblatt’s part in being an “authority”. Greenblatt somehow succeeds in creating a Dewey-like learning environment, both in his writing and in his teaching.

The past year of teaching courses in a synchronous hybrid online mode, preparing lectures for asynchronous use and using Zoom meetings for class discussions, has brought this set of challenges to the top of mind for me. What kinds of “prompts”, questions, topics for discussion, and asynchronous exercises can I use to help students in these courses develop the appetite for taking the intellectual journey themselves? And how can the instructor help the student see that this is an activity of imagination and thinking that she herself wants to involve herself in? How can the instructor help the student to shift perspective from “learning the content of a course about Greek ethics from the professor” to “working my way through some fascinating texts in Greek ethics, seeing some new perspectives, and getting occasional stimulating questions from my professor”? The first is the tourist’s perspective, while the second is the explorer’s perspective.

In a way, we might say that the role of the teacher that Dewey describes is like that performed by Socrates: posing questions — perhaps irritating and persistent questions — but provoking those around him to think much harder about “justice”, “piety”, and “good manners”, and not providing a substantive doctrine of his own. Socrates was sometimes criticized for suggesting that no substantive beliefs about morality could be justified, but that was not his pedagogy. Rather, his commitment was to the idea of hard thinking without pat answers. And one would like to imagine that some of his students eventually came to develop rich, imaginative, and non-dogmatic minds that allowed them to probe new questions and create new solutions. (It is interesting to reflect that Plato was one of those students, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. I think historians of philosophy would judge that both Plato and Aristotle were highly original thinkers, but that Plato’s approach was somewhat more dogmatic, while Aristotle’s was more open-minded and experimental.)

The Antikythera mechanism

image: reconstructed device as created by UCL team

When we think about scientific and technological knowledge in the ancient world, one generally thinks of philosophy and a little bit of pre-scientific musing about the nature of reality. Water? Fire? Flux? The ancient Greeks had knowledge of mathematics and geometry, of course, and a certain level of descriptive astronomy. But nothing really surprising; their scientific and mathematical achievements were limited. Or so it seems. But take a look at this description of the Antikythera mechanism (link), the scientific paper by a research team at University College London (link), and the associated Vimeo video (link), and you’ll feel a jolt of paradigm shift about your assumptions about science and technology in the ancient world. This machine, dating from the second century BCE and discovered by sponge divers in the Mediterranean in 1901, was a corroded and incomplete group of fragments (one-third of the complete mechanism), and astonishingly enough, its workings have been decyphered and reconstructed. It is a geared device permitting the modeling and prediction of the motions of the five known planets, the moon, and the sun. Given that it represented the planetary bodies from the perspective of earth (geocentric model), the motions of the planets were complex and seemingly a bit chaotic. And the device itself is amazingly complex, embodying a layered set of gears with tooth counts permitting representation of the movements of the celestial objects. It was a complex and accurate analog computing device — from a civilization that flourished 2,200 years ago.

credit: Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer 2016, p. 56)

The journey of research that has permitted decyphering the machine is remarkable enough. (The video tells much of that story.) But even more eye-opening is the completely novel insight the reconstruction offers into Greek astronomical mathematics, engineering sophistication, and (as-yet unknown) fabrication capabilities. Metallurgy, gearing, delicate assembly, remarkable design — the device is an amazing achievement demonstrating a background of advanced mathematical and technical expertise, and yet one that does not seem to have clear antecedents in the history of Greek science and engineering. So the discovery and reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems roughly as surprising as it would be to find evidence of a network of electrical communication devices in an excavation of a medieval Frankish village: entirely at odds with our current understanding of the levels of scientific, technical, and engineering knowledge available in the time period.

The device cannot have been the result of a single “genius” inventor (e.g. Archimedes); its design and fabrication plainly required an infrastructure. And yet there are no other known artifacts from the ancient Greek Hellenic world with this level of sophistication. Parmenides comes into the mathematics of the device, and the mathematics of prime factors is crucial for the movements of the gears. A related device, the astrolabe, was invented and fabricated in the ancient Greek world in the second century BCE, which embodied a similar and fairly precise knowledge of planetary movements, but is orders of magnitude less complex. 

There is a great deal of useful background information on the device in Lin and Yan, Decoding the Mechanisms of Antikythera Astronomical Device (Springer, 2016). They summarize the possible history of this device in these terms:

It is confident that the device was not made by Archimedes, but might come from Syracuse in Sicily, the Corinthian colony where Archimedes had devised a planetarium in the third-century BC. Furthermore, it is speculative that the craftsmanship for making Antikythera device might be a heritage of manufacturing technique that originated with Archimedes in Syracuse. However, this attractive idea is waiting for proving. (57)

Lin and Yan also quote two passages from Cicero (d. 43 BCE) which appear to describe a mechanical device with similar functionality. The device described by Cicero is not the same design, however, because the text appears to make clear that the device is spherical in shape. Cicero lived roughly a century after the presumed date of the Antikythera mechanism invention.

Philus: … Listening one day to the recital of a similar prodigy, in the house of Marcellus, who had been his colleague in the consulship; he asked to see a celestial globe, which Marcellus’s grandfather had saved after the capture of Syracuse, from this magnificent and opulent city, without bringing home any other memorial of so great a victory. I had often heard this celestial globe or sphere mentioned on account of the great fame of Archimedes. Its appearance, however, did not seem to me particularly striking. There is another, more elegant in form, and more generally known, moulded by the same Archimedes, and deposited by the same Marcellus, in the Temple of Virtue at Rome. But as soon as Gallus had began to explain, by his sublime science, the composition of this machine, I felt that the Sicilian geometrician must have possessed a genius superior to any thing we usually conceive to belong to our nature. Gallus assured us, that the solid and compact globe, was a very ancient invention, and that the first model of it had been presented by Thales of Miletus. That afterwards Eudoxus of Cnidus, a disciple of Plato, had traced on its surface the stars that appear in the sky, and that many years subsequent, borrowing from Eudoxus this beautiful design and representation, Aratus had illustrated them in his verses, not by any science of astronomy, but the ornament of poetic description. He added, that the figure of the sphere, which displayed the motions of the Sun and Moon, and the five planets, or wandering stars, could not be represented by the primitive solid globe. And that in this, the invention of Archimedes was admirable, because he had calculated how a single revolution should maintain unequal and diversified progressions in dissimilar motions. In fact, when Gallus moved this sphere or planetarium, we observed the Moon distanced the Sun as many degrees by a turn of the wheel in the machine, as she does in so many days in the heavens. From whence it resulted, that the progress of the Sun was marked as in the heavens, and that the Moon touched the point where she is obscured by the earth’s shadow at the instant the Sun appears above the horizon. (Cicero, De republica)

It is not easy to find detailed histories of science and technology for the ancient world. (Where is Needham when we need him?) What appears to be the most important book available on the history of engineering in the ancient Greek world is J. G. Handels, Engineering in the Ancient World, Revised Edition. Here are the topics contained in the revised edition from 2002:

  • Power and energy sources
  • Water supplies and engineering
  • Water pumps
  • Cranes and hoists
  • Catapults
  • Ships and sea transport
  • Land transport
  • Progress of theoretical knowledge

There is no mention in this book of small gauge gearing, metallurgy, or clocks. The astrolab is not mentioned in the book either. Though gears and gear boxes appear in the index, these references appear to have to do with crude largescale applications in cranes or catapults rather than the fine small-gauge gearing required for clockwork or devices like the Antikythera mechanism.

The fascinating reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism seems to have important implications for the telling of ancient history and philosophy: it would appear unavoidable that there were forms of knowledge and technique in the ancient Hellenic world that permitted the design and fabrication of remarkably complex and sophisticated mechanisms; and the mechanism itself reflected a sophisticated mathematical understanding of the movements of the planets. Science, astronomy, metallurgy, engineering, and techniques of metal working and fabrication appear to have been substantially more advanced than currently believed. And this in turn underlines a point that great historians have probably always understood: that the past is more complicated, more multi-faceted, and more surprising than we currently know.

Thinking about evil in history (Kekes)

I am currently grappling with how to bring the horrendous events of the twentieth century into the philosophy of history. After doing a lot of reading about recent thinking about the Holocaust (link), it seems clear that we still have failed to fully comprehend the atrocities of the Nazi period, Stalinist rule before and after World War II, and many other episodes of genocide, mass murder, and enslavement in the past century. Only the idea of radical evil seems to remotely capture these historical atrocities. I’ve added two sections to my article on the philosophy of history in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to address this set of problems; link. But these lines only serve to introduce the subject; much more remains to be done.

The “problem of evil” has a long history of discussion and debate in theology and in philosophy. However, the perspective I take on atrocities is entirely secular and non-religious, so theological debates are not relevant to my analysis. And much philosophical discussion of the topic of evil occurs at a highly abstract and conceptual level, which is likewise not very helpful to my topic. However, a recent book in philosophy that I have found useful is John Kekes’ The Roots of Evil (2007).

Kekes’ book is interesting for three primary reasons. First, he provides six case studies of evil events in history, for which he provides fairly extensive historical detail. Second, he focuses the problem on the question of “why” the perpetrators did what they did. And third, he attempts to present and refute a handful of existing theories of evil actions, all of which he finds wanting.

Kekes offers a precise working definition of what he means by “evil”, a definition that separates it from a religious or theological context. He argues that the idea comes down to three necessary and jointly sufficient conditions:

The evil of an action, therefore, consists in the combination of three components: the malevolent motivation of evildoers; the serious, excessive harm caused by their actions; and the lack of morally acceptable excuse for the actions. (2)

(Parenthetically — I’m generally unpersuaded by overly precise definitions offered by philosophers. Most interesting concepts don’t have “necessary and sufficient conditions” that define and exhaust their meaning. And that seems true in the case of the concept of evil as well. The working definition that I prefer is less precise: “cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, starvation, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings”.)

The cases of atrocity that Kekes presents make for hard reading, because they involve horrific cruelty and human suffering. But, of course, this is why they represent evil. Here are the cases that he presents:

  • The Cathar Crusade (1200)
  • The Terror conducted by Robespierre during the French Revolution (1792)
  • The actions of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka
  • The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and others
  • The “dirty war” conducted by the Argentinean army, navy, and air force
  • The psychopathic violence of convicted murderer John Allen

These cases give Kekes’ discussion a specificity and detail that is often lacking in philosophical discussions of evil.

Kekes focuses on the psychological causes of evil-doing — psychological propensities and motivations:

My aim is to provide a causal explanation of why evildoers do evil. There are excellent recent works giving historical accounts of past explanations, but they are relevant to my aim only insofar as they contribute to the right explanation or illustrate mistakes. The facts I appeal to are psychological propensities familiar to normally intelligent people, not the fruits of research or deep reflection. Common knowledge of them makes it possible for novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians to write about the character, motivation, and actions of people at places and times other than their own and feel confident about being understood. I have in mind such propensities as desiring a meaningful life, needing to be loved, having conflicting motives, deceiving oneself, wanting to appear other than one is, being ignorant of some of one’s motives, resenting injustice, embellishing the past, fearing the unknown, minding defeat, caring about the opinion of others, and so forth. These propensities are commonplaces of human psychology, but they also have moral significance. (7-8)

He considers a handful of theories of the psychological basis of evil actions, which he finds inadequate. And he considers the theological and quasi-theological theories that have been offered in the past — e.g. “the world is an inherently good place” — which he rejects. In place of these traditional theories he offers his own “mixed and multicausal” theory of evil actions:

The explanation of evil has the following general characteristics: it is

  • mixed because it involves the combination of internal-active, internal-passive, external-active, and external-passive conditions;
  • multicausal because the conditions that jointly cause it vary with individuals, societies, times, and places;
  • particular because it involves the detailed consideration of conditions that differ from case to case. (243)

There are two specific points that I find most useful in The Roots of Evil. First, Kekes rejects the relevance of moral relativism in the discussion of evil (as I do):

Slavery, clitoridectomy, blood feuds, assassination, terrorism, mutilating criminals, persecuting religious dissenters, torturing captives, holding innocent people hostage, dooming children to life as prostitutes or castrati are also culturally conditioned practices, but they are evil. The toleration of such evils, the implausible attempts to excuse them, and the reluctance to condemn them endanger civilized life by countenancing the violation of the physical security of their victims. Morally committed people ought to be intolerant of such evils. Those who mouth the catch-phrases of toleration avert their gaze from evil. (214)

The way I would put the point about relativism goes along these lines: In considering terrible events in the past, it is necessary to acknowledge the two perspectives (participant and observer). As became evident in an earlier discussion of the Athenian massacre of the Melians (link), the authors and perpetrators of horrific acts in the past sometimes choose to perform these acts within a moral worldview that they believe justifies their actions. However, we can dispense altogether with the question of moral relativism. It is perfectly reasonable for us in the present to judge that these practices and actions in the past were wrong and unjust (slavery, genocide, deliberate starvation, mutilation, …), whether or not participants at the time found these practices morally acceptable. Their moral frameworks were defective and corrigible.

And second, Kekes places “decency” and “moral imagination” at the center of what is needed if we are to learn from the historical experience of evil.

It is reasonable to conclude, then, that if moral imagination had enabled evildoers to understand better their victims and their own motives and to realize that they had attractive alternatives to evildoing, then they would have been less likely to become or to continue as evildoers…. Moderately intelligent people have the capacity of moral imagination, but like other modes of imagination, it has to be cultivated. (237)

We can cultivate moral imagination by paying attention to the realities of the experience of other human beings — through our personal experience, through literature, and through the horrors of the histories of the Cathar Crusade or the Argentinian “dirty war”. Human beings are not fixed in their moral capabilities; rather, we can gain compassion and resist the impulses towards participating in evil actions.

The cultivation of moral imagination in this way provides not only personal enrichment but also a moral force that can help make lives better and cope with evil. By increasing self-knowledge, presenting attractive alternatives to evildoing, and providing a basis for the comparison, contrast, and criticism of one’s own way of being and acting, moral imagination helps to avoid the falsifications involved in unintentional evildoing. (238)

This observation about the cultivation of moral imagination points in the direction of a view of how it is possible to learn from history. Learning and confronting the horrific circumstances of the massacres of the Cathars, the torture of Argentine leftists, or the deliberate starvation of Ukrainian peasants, unavoidably brings us to a more vivid understanding of the moral evil of those events: the pain, suffering, and loss that these actions created for human beings much like ourselves. The strongest impression I took away from Hannah Arendt’s account of the trial of Eichmann is the utter lack of sympathy, pity, or compassion he showed for the victims of his activities. Atrocities often depend on the total dehumanization of the victims, and compassion makes it more difficult to accomplish that trick.

Frankish kings and Mynyddog’s gold …

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 is a fascinating book to read, if you are interested in how various strands of culture, politics, and economy developed in Europe between the fifth century and the beginning of the eleventh century — that is, between the end of the Roman Empire and the high medieval period. Wickham is an evangelist when it comes to understanding medieval history; he believes that our intellectual culture has seriously misunderstood the nature of society, politics, culture, and religion in the millennium between the fifth century and the fifteenth century. The opening words of the book capture this conviction:

Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood. It has fallen victim above all to two grand narratives, both highly influential in the history and history-writing of the last two centuries, and both of which have led to a false image of this period: the narrative of nationalism and the narrative of modernity. Before we consider a different sort of approach, we need to look at both of these, briefly but critically, to see what is wrong with each; for most readers of this book who have not already studied the period will have one or both in the front of their minds as a guiding image. (3)

His point against “ontological nationalism” is straightforward and entirely accurate: there was no “France” or “Belgium” in the fifth century, and there was no precursor to those national identities either. Rather, the “France” that emerged as a nation a thousand years later was the product of a myriad of contingencies — military, climatic, religious, global, and internal — and, in fact, France even in the twentieth century was not a single unified nation. Alsace and Breton retain regional identities to the present that diverge to various degrees from the notion of “unified French identity”. (See discussions of Emmanuel Todd (link) and Theodor Zeldin (link) on these points.) Wickham is entirely right, then, to object to the teleological idea that various European nations were in the oven in the early medieval period, and just waiting to be born. 

But likewise, Wickham rejects the teleology of inevitable economic and political development as well — the idea that the continent was making its way towards modernity, extensive trade, and modern production techniques. As readers of the blog have seen in discussions of the “breakthrough debate”, it is evident that European economic development was both more heterogeneous than this conception would permit, and also much more subject to contingency and path-dependency than the modernization paradigm would suggest (linklinklink). Against these teleological frameworks for historical understanding, Wickham insists on something different:

I am in favour of most of these final ends myself; but to me as a historian the storyline still seems ridiculous, for every period in history has its own identity and legitimacy, which must be seen without hindsight. The long stretch of time between 400 and 1000 has its own validity as a field of study, which is in no way determined by what went before or came after. To attribute values to it (or to parts of it, as with those who, with the image of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, want to attach the ninth and perhaps tenth centuries to the grand narrative of ‘real’ history, at the expense, presumably, of the sixth to eighth) is a pointless operation. And to me as a historian of the early Middle Ages, the ‘othering’ of the period simply seems meaningless. The wealth of recent scholarship on the period gives the lie to this whole approach to seeing history; and this book will have failed if it appears to support it in any way. (6)

Or in other words, we need to treat the developments that unfolded between the boot of Italy and the north of Scotland in their own terms, recognizing heterogeneity, multiple actors, path-dependency, surprising events, and the deep and persistent fact of contingency. “The third aim has been to look at the period 400–1000, and all the sub-periods inside that long stretch of time, in their own terms, without considering too much their relationship with what came before or after, so as to sidestep the grand narratives criticized above” (p. 11). Wickham refers to a new emerging paradigm for medieval history:

That paradigm sees many aspects of late Antiquity (itself substantially revalued: the late Roman empire is now often seen as the Roman high point, not an inferior and totalitarian copy of the second-century pax romana) continuing into the early Middle Ages without a break. More specifically: the violence of the barbarian invaders of the empire is a literary trope; there were few if any aspects of post-Roman society and culture that did not have Roman antecedents; the seventh century in the West, although the low point for medieval evidence, produced more surviving writings than any Roman century except the fourth and sixth, showing that a literate culture had by no means vanished in some regions; in short, one can continue to study the early medieval world, east or west, as if it were late Rome. This position is explicit in much recent work on the fifth-century invasions, but it affects the study of later centuries, into the ninth century and beyond, in much more indirect ways. It is rare to find historians actually writing that Charlemagne, say, was essentially operating in a late Roman political-cultural framework, even when they are implying it by the ways they present him. This is a problem, however; for, whether or not one believes that Charlemagne was actually operating in such a framework, the issue cannot properly be confronted and argued about until it is brought out into the open. And it can be added that historians have, overall, been much more aware that catastrophe is a literary cliché in the early Middle Ages than that continuity – accommodation – is one as well. (8-9)

An important part of the historiography of Wickham’s work is his recognition that archaeology and the documentation of material culture is progressing rapidly, even as the available texts from the period have come close to exhaustion. Moreover, he recognizes that the study of material culture — the architecture of manors, rural homes, and fortifications, for example — provides a different kind of insight into the history of the period than do the available documents. This isn’t a new idea in history; Mommsen recognized the importance of material artifacts and inscriptions in his History of Rome in 1871. but it continues to be an important reminder for historians who tend to continue to be primarily interested in texts and archives. His treatment of architecture during the period — great and small — is especially interesting and revealing, and the photographs that accompany the exposition are outstanding.

The intervisuality of architectural style is one of the most powerful conveyors of meaning and visual effect. As remarked at the start of this book, archaeology, and the study of material culture in its widest sense in art history and architectural history, tends to tell us different sorts of things from the study of narrative and documentary texts. Material culture tells us more about the use of space, the function of spatial relationships, as well as, of course, stylistic and technological changes; written culture tells us more about human relationships, choices, conscious representations of the world around us. But the construction of visual meaning, by emperors and peasants alike, links these two worlds: it is material culture, not words, which tells us about the choices of al-Walid, or Paschal, or Julian and Domna in Serjilla. That is why this chapter is the central one in this book; it offers a way to compare the strategies of every actor in the early Middle Ages, rich or poor, and not – for once – just those who had access to the written word. And the audiences of buildings such as these were also far wider than those of any written text, save of the sections of the Bible and Qur’an most often read out in religious ceremonies, and these latter tended not to change much across time and space. The whole population of Europe was thus involved in the communication discussed in this chapter, and could even, if they chose, participate as communicators, not just as audiences. Indeed, as archaeology makes its inevitable advances in the future, this is a sector of historical knowledge which, for a change, we shall know progressively more about. (250-251)

Another noteworthy aspect of Wickham’s approach to the history of this millennium of change is that he is interested in considering the actors’ points of view — including at least occasionally the points of view of peasants, women, traders, and other non-elite participants in medieval society. Here is a complicated story involving legal institutions, the daughter of a lesser landowner, and an exercise of the woman’s creative agency to achieve her goals:

In 721 Anstruda of Piacenza in northern Italy made an unusual charter. She sold her own legal independence to the brothers Sigirad and Arochis, because she had married their unfree dependant (servus). She and they agreed that her future sons should remain the brothers’ dependants in perpetuity, but her daughters could buy their independence at marriage for the same money, 3 solidi, that Anstruda herself had received. Although Lombard Italy was a relatively legally aware country (and Piacenza is not far from the capital), this charter breaks at least three laws: the law forbidding free–slave marriages; the law, or at least assumption, that the unfree were not legal persons, so Anstruda’s daughters could not be assigned future rights; and the law prohibiting female legal autonomy. Anstruda’s father Authari, a vir honestus or small landowner, consented to the document, but the money for Anstruda’s legal rights went to her directly, and she is the actor throughout. There is an ironic sense in which this account of a young peasant woman, even though she was selling her own freedom, shows how she could make her own rules, create her own social context, even in as restrictive a society for female autonomy as Lombard Italy. This may say something about Anstruda as a person; it also says something about the fluidity of peasant society in Italy. (203)

Consistently with Wickham’s emphasis on contingency and heterogeneity across space, many of the regions he discussions from the sixth and later centuries display an extreme degree of political fragmentation. “Kings” were often monarchs of very limited domains indeed, and especially so in Britain:

The post-Roman British in the lowlands probably operated on a smaller scale still. The only lowland powers who can be traced in any detail are the kings of Ergyng, Gwent, the Cardiff region and Gower, all in lowland south-east Wales, some documents for whom, land-grants to churches, survive from the late sixth century onwards: these kings ruled perhaps a third of a modern county each, and sometimes less. This was the Romanized section of Wales, and this sort of scale may well have been normal in the whole of lowland Britain. It probably derived from the first generations after the end of Roman rule, in which local landowners had to look to their own self-defence, and even the Roman city territories, the traditional units of government in lowland Britain as elsewhere, soon fragmented into rather smaller de-facto units. (152-53)

It is not easy to tell what Welsh kings did. They evidently fought a lot, and their military entourage is one of their best-documented features. They were generous and hospitable to their dependants, and (at least in literature) got loyalty to the death in return, although where they got their resources from is not so clear. They took tribute from subject and defeated rulers, and also tribute or rent from their own people, but the little we know of the latter implies that only fairly small quantities were owed by the peasant population to their lords; Mynyddog’s gold, silver and glass were a literary image, too. (154)

Frankish kings operated on a vastly larger scale. They controlled more territory, they gathered more significant armies, and they gathered taxes and resources on a much larger scale.

The lasting importance of the Merovingian royal courts was in large part due to the huge wealth that every king or maior could dispose of. Kings owned very large tracts of land; they had access to commercial tolls and judicial fines. They also for long controlled the surviving elements of the Roman land tax. These are described (and complained about) by Gregory of Tours, and they seem to have been most firmly rooted in the south-west, the Loire valley and Aquitaine. Even in Gregory’s time, as noted in Chapter 4, the tax system was not very systematically maintained: registers could go without updating for a generation, tax levels were far lower than under Rome, and royal cessions of tax immunity to whole city territories were beginning. Indeed, an organic fiscal structure of a Roman type could not still have existed if kings moved cities between each other so easily. By the mid-seventh century tax liabilities seem to have become fixed tributes, taken from smaller and smaller areas. In the north, this process may well have started earlier, and Chlotar II formally renounced the right to new taxes in 614; by 626–7 a church council at Clichy near Paris regarded taxpayers as an inferior category, to be excluded from the ranks of the clergy. It is likely that the tax system had already decayed so much that Chlotar could regard it as worth abandoning, for political effect; it only survived regionally after that (it is documented in the Loire valley into the 720s at least). (120)

Of particular interest is Wickham’s treatment of the nature and extent of trade during the sixth and seventh centuries. This is interesting because of the light it sheds on the question of the degree of social integration that existed across regions. But it is also interesting in light of Henri Pirenne’s assessment of the dynamics of trade in those centuries (link). Significantly, Wickham goes into a fair amount of detail in addressing Pirenne’s account, which he finds to be incorrect in several important ways.

Wickham concurs with Pirenne that trade became substantially more limited and localized in the early medieval period (fifth century) than during the Roman Empire. (He also notes that there is evidence of population decline in absolute numbers and density, though he suggests that the reasons for this decline are not yet well understood.) 

The early medieval period was also one in which exchange became much more localized. We have already observed that the fifth century saw the weakening of the great Mediterranean routes when the Vandals broke the Carthage–Rome tax spine in 439. These routes by no means vanished overnight, however. (218)

The evidence that Wickham believes to be most important today — though not available to Pirenne at the beginning of the twentieth century — is archaeological: excavations that have uncovered pottery, metal goods, and other routine and ordinary products used in everyday life and that permit historians to document trading networks with some exactness. Pirenne’s account depends on written records that mention items such as spices, precious metals, and papyrus. But as Wickham points out, these are luxury goods, and are poor “markers” for the networks of trade that existed in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries. And this is a crucial problem for an account that attempts to provide an accurate economic history of the period.

Early Anglo-Saxon England is the best-documented example of a really simple exchange system. Its archaeology shows us that all English pottery before around 720 was handmade, and mostly very locally produced, not necessarily by professional potters, and not even in kilns. Nor did the Anglo-Saxons import much wheel-turned pottery from the Continent (most of it is found in Kent). The frequent presence of weaving tools in house-compounds and female graves shows that cloth was made inside individual households, as well…. It would be difficult, however, to say that England had much of a market economy before the eighth century; the huge bulk of production of artisanal goods was at the level of the single village. England can here stand for Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where much the same was true. (218)

England was at the low end of economic activity in the early medieval period; the most extensive trading systems existed across the English Channel:

The largest-scale economy in the early medieval West was the Frankish heartland. Here the networks of late Roman ceramic productions, based on supplying the Rhine army but extending across the whole of northern Gaul, in the Argonne forest above Verdun for terra sigillata tableware, in the Mayen industrial kiln complex near Trier for coarse-ware containers and tableware, continued after the army vanished, a little reduced in scale but still available over wide areas. Argonne ware had gone by 600, and Merovingian carinated fine wares were generally made on a rather smaller scale, but the Badorf ware of the kiln sites near Cologne, which replaced them after 700, was a new centralized production which could be found throughout the middle and lower Rhine valley, and further afield, and Mayen ware continued to be available over similar areas without a break. (220)

Here the archaeological evidence is extensive, and most so in the case of ceramics (plateware). The system of manufacturing and trade that Wickham describes is certainly large in scope and implies developed systems of traders, markets, and money.

The core of the evidence presented here is the production and distribution of pottery, always the best evidenced product in archaeological excavations. Metal and also glass seem to have had similar patterns, generally showing distribution networks a little wider than those of ceramics, though they are less clearly visible (one can often tell from petrological analysis of potsherds where they came from; metal and glass are too often melted down for this to be possible, and we are reliant on stylistic analysis, which can be misleading, as there was much local copying of successful styles in our period). Cloth, the most important of all, is the great unknown out of such artisanal productions, for it so seldom survives on sites, but it would be reasonable to argue that the scale of its production often matched that of ceramics, and this seems relatively clear in England at least. These were the major artisanal products of the early Middle Ages, and they are the essential markers of economic complexity, along with more occasional agricultural specializations for sale, like the vineyards of northern Francia and also of parts of the south Italian coast. It is reasonably clear from this evidence that northern Francia had a much more complex and active exchange system than anywhere else in the West before 800, that the Mediterranean lands were more fragmented, with pockets of greater complexity and greater simplicity; and that Britain and the rest of the North was as a whole far simpler in exchange terms than almost anywhere further south. The difference between the two sides of the English Channel was particularly acute, and certainly not overcome by imports into England, which were anyway not so very numerous. (pp. 221-222)

This reconstruction of medieval trade differs from that provided by other historians, and differs from Pirenne’s account in particular. In addition to the fact that the archaeological evidence now available was not available to Pirenne, Wickham believes that Pirenne’s analysis made two large mistakes of historical interpretation:

The first was that it laid far too much stress on long-distance exchange, between the East (sometimes the Far East) and the West, which was always marginal to the main lines of trade; these latter operate above all inside regions or between neighbouring regions, and only very exceptionally extend beyond them (as with the African hegemony over the late Roman Mediterranean, which was, precisely, a product of the needs of an exceptionally powerful state). The second was that most of Pirenne’s arguments concerned luxuries: the availability of gold, spices, silk and papyrus in the West (the last of these was certainly not a luxury in Egypt – it was an industrial product – but arguably had become so in the West by the seventh century). This was perhaps forgivable, as luxuries are almost all the examples of traded goods that are mentioned in early medieval written sources. But luxuries, too, are marginal to economic systems; they are defined by their high price and restricted availability, so that only the rich can possess them, and they therefore represent wealth, power and status. (p. 223)

And just in case the reader is wondering about King Mynyddog of Gododdin, here’s a snippet:

Our earliest poetic texts in Welsh date from the seventh century to the ninth, and these contain a number of laments on dead kings, including Marwnad Cynddylan, the earliest, for King Cynddylan, based in or near modern Shropshire, who died in the mid-seventh century, and Y Gododdin, the longest, for King Mynyddog of Gododdin, who supposedly took his army from his capital at Edinburgh to Catraeth, perhaps modern Catterick, where they all died around 600. These show a homogeneous set of ‘heroic’ values, which were clearly those of the Welsh aristocracy by 800 at the latest: ‘The warrior . . . would take up his spear just as if it were sparkling wine from glass vessels. His mead was contained in silver, but he deserved gold.’ Or: ‘The men went to Catraeth, swift was their host. Pale mead was their feast, and it was their poison.’ It is not unreasonable to suppose that these values were already shared in the sixth century. Whenever they developed, however, they were a world away from those of Rome. This is important as a reflection of the political crisis we began with, for these military élites were lineal descendants of British Romans, unconquered by invaders; all the same, all their points of reference were by now different. They were quite parallel, however, to those of the Anglo-Saxons. (p. 154)

Is medieval history cumulative? Do contemporary historians build on the tracks laid down by the historians of the period who came before? That is a complicated question, and one can justify “no” as well as “yes”. It is of course true that earlier historians of the early medieval period have discovered and presented much that is accurate and interesting about the period. But it is also true that history changes over time: historians come to see the blindspots of their predecessors, they come to conceptualize the past differently, and they come to understand that some aspects of the story have not been investigated at all. Wickham’s history does some of all of that: reconceptualization, highlighting of new questions, and discovery of ways in which distinguished historians in the past century or so have both discovered their own important insights into the material, and made substantial errors of interpretation or reconstruction.

There is much more to Wickham’s book than has been mentioned here. In a later post I expect to treat his reconstruction of the Muslim conquests of these same territories.

*****

As I’ve felt many times in reading complex histories, I wish that authors and publishers would catch up to the basic possibilities of computer animation as companion materials for a history book like this one. It would be enormously helpful to have a handful of animated maps the reader could follow as he or she reads the text, watching (for example) the spread of Arab conquerers over a fifty-year period from Spain into France and Italy, or the rise and fall of small and medium-sized kingships around the Rhine, or the advance and retreat of the armed power of the pope and bishops. These are historical dynamics that are difficult to express or grasp fully in text, but would be visible at a glance with a well-constructed animation showing stages of change in 25-year increments. A resource that provides some of this capability is the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, maintained at Harvard University (link), which allows the user to locate places and a number of relevant historical events on a single ESRI digital base map. Here is a screenshot of a display including medieval towns across the continent.

And once we are thinking about computer graphics to accompany a work of historical exposition, it would also make sense to have a large number of reproductions of the existing paintings, sculptures, buildings, fortifications, roads, fields, ploughs, and granaries that are still available. This is one reason I collected a number of basic maps in a recent post on new thinking about the medieval period (link). (I made a similar suggestion in my discussion of Steve Pincus’s new history of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688: The First Modern Revolution (link).)