An allegory for the philosophy of history

What is the role of history and narrative for human beings and peoples? What do we gain by learning of “our” past and the often horrendous crimes that we human beings have committed? Consider this parable.

*        *        *

Imagine that you are a different kind of human being. You are of a species that lives for a thousand years. You have a capacity for memory, moral reasoning, purposiveness, and reflection. But your capacities are bounded, and there are whole decades that you no longer recall. You have what we might describe as a persistent but intermittent personal identity; you know who you are, but not always who you have been. After passing the age of 800 you have reckoned that you are in the autumn of your years and you would like to collect the materials for an autobiography. You begin collecting documents and markers and newspapers and personal recollections from other people, and gradually you begin to form a more complete picture of yourself over time. It is not a happy picture.

It turns out that your younger years were turbulent. In your 100s you were impulsive and violent, sometimes attacking people for no reason, sometimes threatening and attacking them to take their property. Towards the end of this period you found tranquility, an excellent psychiatrist, and a yoga mat, and you were able to put your aggressiveness and percolating violence aside. Things went well for a century or so, you formed a family, you were a good father for at least a hundred years, and you practiced meditation in a disciplined way. Your life was orderly and kind. 

Your researches have informed you, however, that this tranquility and peace did not last forever. In your fourth century you took up politics, you developed strong opinions, and you became intolerant. You were a charismatic person, and others followed you, and in that century you had a lot of influence. One of your passions was patriarchy — you became committed to the idea of the natural and moral superiority of men over women. By seizing the power of the state you sought to create a system of law in which women were permanently subordinated to men. With your followers at your side, you mostly succeeded. This period too didn’t last for ever. Instead, the women of the empire you had created rebelled, and they were successful. You left the palace in your fully charged Tesla, and you never looked back. It took another century for the state you had left behind to recover its equanimity, but eventually a decent liberal democracy was restored. 

You felt you had learned a lesson, some kind of lesson, though you quickly forgot many of the details of this bad political episode. Anyway, your research tells you that things went better for you in your sixth century. You cultivated friends, had another family, and practiced the calming arts of meditation once again. 

But then, once again, bad times. Petty disagreements with your friends led to breaches, to distrust, and eventually to active enmity. You broke your friendships, you broke promises and allegiances that had seemed permanent, you betrayed the trust of the men and women who had been your community. In fact, your own resentments and anger led you to do things you shouldn’t have done — you let slip embarrassing information about one friend to the newspapers, you denounced another friend to the political authorities for her disloyalty to the state, and you actively connived in presenting evidence against a third former friend to support a spurious allegation of business fraud. Once again, despicable behavior for a moral human being — “how could I have done those things?”.

Tranquility and peace came once again, as it always has. And this brings you more or less up to date. You have now filled in the gaps. You “know” yourself over time. And because you have been exhaustive in your search for evidence about your past, and because you have been unflinching in confronting the truth about yourself over the centuries as exposed by these researches, you now know that you have been a very long-lived person who has embodied both good and evil, both benevolence and hatred, both temperance and unbounded aggression. You have, you are now ashamed to realize, harmed a great many people who deserved only kindness and respect from you. The story of your life is now collected in eight compact volumes in a small library in your current palace. And you ask yourself this question: in the remainder of my centuries of life, how shall I live, given what I now know about my past and my potential for doing evil?

You realize a number of things all at once. (You spent a fruitful century studying philosophy with one of the great sages only a century or so ago. On balance, you preferred the philosopher to the psychiatrist, but more than both of them you preferred Seinfeld.) First, you realize that you have not consistently been a good person, a virtuous person, a person of integrity and courage. Second, you realize that the people you harmed are now dead and gone. You cannot make up your debt to them, you cannot undo the evil you inflicted upon them. You cannot, at the moment, even fully understand why you did those things. And yet, you now believe that you are a more fully moral person, a person who wants to act justly and well in the remainder of your years. Your overriding wish is to act as a virtuous human being for the time left to you, and to make the world a better place. You return to the philosopher-sage for more advice.

What advice can the sage offer this long-lived, flawed, but aspiring human being? 

The sage, who seems to be a latter-day Stoic with a bit of Martin Buber included in the mix, has only five things to offer. To be humble. To seek to understand the deficiencies of character that led to the bad behavior over the centuries. To find ways to correct these flaws of character. To seek to rebalance the evils you have created. And most fundamentally, to dedicate your strength, talents, wisdom, and years, to the task of contributing to a better future for humanity. This will be enough, given that you cannot live your life over and undo the evil you have done.

*        *        *

Here is my question: Does this story about a limited, erratic, and forgetful human being provide an analogy for how we might think about long stretches of human history? Does the parable provide some means for understanding the history of humanity and the ways that we understand ourselves as human beings over time? Does it shed light on how we human beings, a historical species, must feel our way into an understanding of our past, our present, and our future? Is knowing history a form of self-discovery of often-forgotten truths about ourselves, and developing the strength to honestly acknowledge those truths, learn from them, and move beyond them? Can humanity deal with its blemished history in the same ways that the nameless ancient one in the parable is advised to deal with his own personal history and actions?

Orwell on revolutionary Spain

Barcelona barricade, 1937

Spanish Civil War poster (UC San Diego Library)

It is very interesting to reread George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) after a gap of about forty years or more. I remember reading the book in the 1970s with a sense of great admiration for Orwell’s moral and personal commitment to the Republican and anti-fascist cause. I read it primarily as an anti-fascist book, by a writer who eventually gained fame for novels about totalitarianism. Like several thousands of American leftists who volunteered to fight against fascism in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln brigades, Orwell made the choice to travel to Spain and to join a POUM militia unit near Barcelona. I did not pay a lot of attention to Orwell’s detailed descriptions of the “political lines” taken by the various factions of anarchists, socialists, Trotskyists, Stalinists, and syndicalists whose militias constituted the primary opposition to Franco’s forces — POUM, CNT, … But now those passages seem perhaps more interesting than the description of day-to-day life on the line in Catalonia and street fighting in Barcelona. And they are interesting in part because they demonstrate a more “revolutionary” Orwell than we have generally come to expect.

The issue dividing the factions was what to do about social revolution in Spain. The anarchists, syndicalists, and Trotskyists believed that the struggle must involve war against the fascist opposition and consolidation of revolution in Spain. The Communists (Stalinists) held for a common front with many groups in Spain — including the bourgeoisie and liberal landed classes. They advocated for a united front, and attempted to restrain or roll back revolutionary actions like land seizures and collectivized factories, and flew the flag of “War against Fascism first, revolution later”.

What comes across from Orwell’s comments about the Communists, the anarchists, and the POUM activists is that Orwell is more radical than expected. He appears to believe — along with the Spanish anarchists — that fundamental social revolution is necessary in Spain, and that any other outcome will be one form or another of class dictatorship. He faults the Soviet-backed Spanish Communists for many things, but most fundamentally for their willingness to compromise with landlords and the bourgeoisie against dispossessed peasants and workers.

Orwell had joined a militia group affiliated with POUM; but he had no special allegiance to POUM. “I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with I.L.P. papers, but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties” (kl 698). The Spanish civil war might have been perceived abroad as an anti-fascist struggle between defenders of the republic and a rogue fascist general; but Orwell perceived it as a revolutionary struggle between peasants and workers, on the one hand, and the landlords and owners of wealth who dominated them, on the other. The Church, as defender of the system of property that constituted this system of domination, was the natural antagonist of the peasants and workers.

The Spanish working class did not, as we might conceivably do in England, resist Franco in the name of ‘democracy’ and the status quo’, their resistance was accompanied by — one might almost say it consisted of — a definite revolutionary outbreak. (kl 719)

The men and women who rose up in anarchist militias to fight Franco’s troops did not do so on behalf of “liberal capitalist democracy,” but on behalf of revolution. The Spanish Communist Party’s “United Front” strategy (foisted upon them by the Soviet Communist Party and the military assistance offered by the USSR) was antithetical to the project of consolidating and furthering the gains that peasants and workers had already achieved through land seizures, workers’ control of factories, and parallel military and police systems. “Outside Spain few people grasped that there was a revolution; inside Spain nobody doubted it. Even the P.S.U.C. newspapers, Communist-controlled and more or less committed to an anti-revolutionary policy, talked about ‘our glorious revolution’.” (kl 762)

The Spanish Communists and their Soviet masters strove to eliminate their rivals, including the major anarchist parties (and their arms) and the POUM. POUM was denounced as a Trotskyist organization and a pro-fascist “fifth-column” seeking to undermine the defense of the Spanish state against Franco’s uprising. Orwell goes into great and convincing detail about the mendacity of the Communist press during those struggles, including especially the lies told during the May 1937 street fighting in Barcelona. Meanwhile, the revolutionary goals of the anarchists’ struggles were extinguished:

A general ‘bourgeoisification’, a deliberate destruction of the equalitarian spirit of the first few months of the revolution, was taking place. All happened so swiftly that people making successive visits to Spain at intervals of a few months have declared that they seemed scarcely to be visiting the same country; what had seemed on the surface and for a brief instant to be a workers’ State was changing before one’s eyes into an ordinary bourgeois republic with the normal division into rich and poor. (kl 821)

Here is how Orwell encapsulated the POUM “line” on revolution, for which he plainly had deep sympathy:

‘It is nonsense to talk of opposing Fascism by bourgeois “democracy”. Bourgeois “democracy” is only another name for capitalism, and so is Fascism; to fight against Fascism on behalf of “democracy” is to fight against one form of capitalism on behalf of a second which is liable to turn into the first at any moment. The only real alternative to Fascism is workers’ control. If you set up any less goal than this, you will either hand the victory to Franco, or, at best, let in Fascism by the back door. Meanwhile the workers must cling to every scrap of what they have won; if they yield anything to the semi — bourgeois Government they can depend upon being cheated. The workers’ militias and police-forces must be preserved in their present form and every effort to “bourgeoisify” them must be resisted. If the workers do not control the armed forces, the armed forces will control the workers. The war and the revolution are inseparable.’ (kl 895)

This is what I mean above that Orwell is more of a revolutionary at this period in his life than he is normally thought to be: he appears to believe that this assessment of the social situation in Spain is largely correct, and that retreating on these convictions means subordinating Spain’s peasants and workers once again to the chains of property, poverty, and repression that they have suffered for centuries. True, he also concedes the point that the Communist United Front line was a more practical way of pursuing the war against Franco; but he seems to believe that the result will be some form of class-based dictatorship. Orwell’s disgust with Communism seems to derive most deeply from its profound dishonesty and willingness to lie and murder in pursuit of Stalin’s wishes rather than its revolutionary or anti-democratic “line”. In this respect it is difficult to classify Orwell as a kind of democratic socialist.

It is also apparent from the book that Orwell was deeply affected by the ordinary men and women (as well as children) whom he met in Catalonia who were throwing everything in their lives into the flames of civil war in order to better their lives and support their revolutionary gains. His sympathies throughout his life were in favor of equality and for the ordinary men and women who must make do in a class-ordered society, and he had great contempt for the “bosses” and elites who profited from the exploitation of these ordinary people and exercised unconstrained power over them.

The dramatic end of Orwell’s time in Spain and the Civil War comes quickly. Within days of his return to the front lines with his militia unit after leave in Barcelona during the street-fighting in May 1937, he was shot through the throat by a sniper’s bullet, a wound that was thought to be inevitably fatal. He survived and spent weeks recuperating in hospitals, eventually making his way back to Barcelona in June 1937. During June the government, under the direction of the Soviet Communists, undertook a major repression of the POUM and its militia and supporters, with arrests throughout the city and the arrest and execution of its leader, Andreu Nin Pérez. Orwell himself was under danger of arrest and returned to England only hours ahead of Spanish secret police intent upon arresting him as a POUM spy. Orwell regarded the repression of POUM leaders and ordinary followers that subsequently occurred in Catalonia as a continuation of the purge trials that were underway in the Soviet Union itself. Here are an evocative few sentences by Orwell about the atmosphere in Barcelona in June 1937:

It is not easy to convey the nightmare atmosphere of that time — the peculiar uneasiness produced by rumours that were always changing, by censored newspapers, and the constant presence of armed men. It is not easy to convey it because, at the moment, the thing essential to such an atmosphere does not exist in England. In England political intolerance is not yet taken for granted. There is political persecution in a petty way; if I were a coal-miner I would not care to be known to the boss as a Communist; but the ‘good party man’, the gangster-gramophone of continental politics, is still a rarity, and the notion of ‘liquidating’ or ‘eliminating’ everyone who happens to disagree with you does not yet seem natural. It seemed only too natural in Barcelona. The ‘Stalinists’ were in the saddle, and therefore it was a matter of course that every ‘Trotskyist’ was in danger. The thing everyone feared was a thing which, after all, did not happen — a fresh outbreak of street-fighting, which, as before, would be blamed on the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchists. There were times when I caught my ears listening for the first shots. It was as though some huge evil intelligence were brooding over the town. Everyone noticed it and remarked upon it. And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place — it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere. The Duchess of Atholl writes, I notice (Sunday Express, 17 October 1937): “I was in Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona . . . perfect order prevailed in all three towns without any display of force. All the hotels in which I stayed were not only ‘normal’ and ‘decent’, but extremely comfortable, in spite of the shortage of butter and coffee.” It is a peculiarity of English travellers that they do not really believe in the existence of anything outside the smart hotels. I hope they found some butter for the Duchess of Atholl. (kl 2800)

The worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late. When you sleep out of doors you always wake about dawn, and none of the Barcelona cafes opens much before nine. It was hours before I could get a cup of coffee or a shave. It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out. I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Gataluna the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath. Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line. It was a queer situation that we were in. At night one was a hunted fugitive, but in the daytime one could live an almost normal life. (kl 3019)

It seems evident that much of Orwell’s understanding of — and loathing of — the methods of totalitarianism, with its lies, violence, and betrayal, was much deepened by his experiences in Spain and especially in Barcelona in May and June 1937. Orwell died in 1950 at the age of 46.

Also interesting in this context is Franz Borkenau’s The Spanish Cockpit (1937), which was published a year earlier than Homage to Catalonia. Orwell had read The Spanish Cockpit before completing Homage to Catalonia and describes it as “the ablest book that has yet appeared on the Spanish war”. Borkenau himself is an interesting leftist intellectual of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Austria and educated in Leipzig, Borkenau became a member of the German Communist Party in 1921 and worked as a Comintern agent through 1929. He left the party in 1929 out of disgust for the activities of Soviet secret police. He was a tireless anti-Nazi and also anti-Stalinist, and he was a vigorous critic of various intellectuals of the left whom he regarded as apologists for the Soviet regime, including Isaac Deutscher. In many respects his evolution and political position resembled that of Arthur Koestler, though Koestler’s disillusionment with Soviet Communism came a decade later. Borkenau visited Spain for several months, beginning in September 1936 and again in 1937, and wrote a penetrating analysis of the politics and revolutionary struggles that were underway in Spain at that time. One of the more interesting aspects of The Spanish Cockpit is Borkenau’s effort to explain the social and ideational basis of the power of anarchist ideas in Spain rather than Britain, France, or Germany. He attributes this willingness of Spanish peasants and workers to accept the political theories of anarchism to their clear and unmistakeable recognition of the need for a revolution in the relations of power and property that governed their lives. “Bakunin, for his part, regarded social revolution and socialism as the result of the revolutionary action of people prompted by the moral conviction of the immorality, the hideousness, the human inacceptability of the capitalist world.” Marxist socialism, by arguing for the slow historical inevitability of capitalist development, counseled patience in waiting for the crises that would allow the radical working class to seize power. Borkenau argues that the appeal of anarchism is its voluntarism: “The [anarchists] saw socialism as possible at any moment, provided there was revolutionary conviction and decision. But this conviction and decision, according to Bakunin’s idea, could not be put at the disposal of the masses simply by a small group of professional revolutionaries; they must emerge from a revolutionary spirit in the people itself.”

Revolutionaries by heart and instinct, according to Bakunin, were first and foremost those nations who did not admire the blessings of civilization; who were not in love with material progress; where the masses were not yet imbued with religious respect for the property of the individual bourgeois; revolutionary were the countries where the people held freedom higher than wealth, where they were not yet imbued with the capitalist spirit; and particularly his own people, the Russians, and, to a still higher degree, the Spaniards.

Here is how Borkenau describes the political power of the Communists with Republican Spain in 1936 and 1937:

Communist influence [in Spain], after all, works neither through a dominating organization nor through dominating personalities, but through a policy which is welcome to the republicans and the Right-wing socialists and which has the backing of such supremely important factors as the international brigades, the command of General Kleber in Madrid, and Russian help in general. Neither the republicans nor the Right-wing socialists are strong political forces in themselves. In fine, increasing communist influence today is a symptom of the shifting of the movement from the political to the military and from the social to the organizational factor. It is military and organizing, not political, influence which gives the communists their strength, and indirectly makes them the politically dominant factor. (kl 3718)

Borkenau himself was arrested and jailed by Communist-backed secret police in Valencia for the thought-crime of being critical of communist policies and of suspected Trotskyist sympathies. 

The inferences from which they drew this conclusion were twofold: first, I had been highly critical of the type of bureaucratic tyranny towards which the communists are driving in Spain, and have achieved in Russia, as others have achieved it in Germany and Italy. Second, among many friends and acquaintances, I had some who were Trotskyist. What else but a Trotskyist could a man be, if he is opposed to the totalitarian state and talks to Trotskyists? (kl 4469)

Once again — Borkenau’s account provides a clear portrayal of a Stalinist police state as it was manifest in Spain in 1937. 

The parties and militias

FAI         Federación Anarquista Ibérica (anarchist party)
CNT       Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (anarcho-syndicalist trade union)
POUM   Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification)
UGT      Unión General de Trabajadores (General Union of Workers) i
JCI         Juventud Comunista Ibérica (Iberian Communist Youth) (youth wing of POUM
JSU        Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (Unified Socialist Youth)
AIT        Asociación Internacional de Trabajadores (International Laborers’ Association)
PSUC     Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia
PCE        Partido Comunista de España (Communist Party of Spain)
PSOE     Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party)

(Philip Bounds has written a very interesting book, Orwell and Marxism: The Political and Cultural Thinking of George Orwell, on Orwell’s relationship to English Marxism. Bounds is primarily interested in the question of cultural studies, but he offers a great deal of information about the English Communist intellectuals whom Orwell studied and with whom he sometimes interacted in print.)

Theories of authoritarian personality

A key problem faced today by liberal democracies throughout the world is the fact that millions of citizens in those democracies seem to support parties and candidates who are fundamentally anti-democratic. The authoritarian tendencies of Prime Minister Modi of India, President Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Trump of the United States are evident in their speeches and their actions, in varying ways and degrees. And each of these national leaders is supported by millions of citizens in their countries, who apparently endorse and support their inclination towards authoritarian rule and the suppression of the rights of minorities and critics. What explains the willingness of ordinary citizens to support these populist strongmen in their open contempt for the norms, values, and institutions of constitutional democracy?

John Dean and Bob Altemeyer have offered a summary of a theory of authoritarian psychology that has long roots in the discipline of personality psychology, extending back to efforts by psychologists to understand popular support for fascism and Nazi dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Their book Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and His Followers summarizes these theories and offers a warning: Trumpism will survive the presidency of Donald Trump. They argue that a very large number of supporters of Trump’s variety of populist authoritarianism score high on psychological measures for intolerance (racism, xenophobia) and support for authoritarian leaders, and that these psychological characteristics account for the fervent and unwavering support that the President gains from his base. In a word, many men and women in Trump’s base continue to support him because they appreciate his impulses towards authoritarian language and action, and they approve of his apparent comfort with white supremacy and racism. Dean and Altemeyer propose a psychological theory of Trump’s base and the base that supports other right-wing xenophobic populists in other countries as well: a certain percentage of citizens have been subject to social, cultural, and familial circumstances that enhanced features of intolerance, hierarchy, and authoritarianism in their personality structure, and these individuals constitute ready ground for supporters of xenophobic authoritarian populism. And, very importantly, Dean and Altemeyer were able to make use of a highly reputable survey research organization (the Monmouth University Polling Institute Survey, Autumn 2019) to measure personality characteristics of a sample of voters (link). The surveys found that Trump supporters do indeed show high levels of intolerance and prejudice, and high levels of authoritarian attitudes.

There is an extensive field of research on the topic of personality characteristics of “liberals” and “conservatives”. Carney, Jost, Gosling, and Potter (2008) review this literature and current developments in the field (link). They affirm that there are persistent differences in the personality characteristics of conservatives and liberals, writing that:

We obtained consistent and converging evidence that personality differences between liberals and conservatives are robust, replicable, and behaviorally significant, especially with respect to social (vs. economic) dimensions of ideology. In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized. (808)

And they quote an important conclusion by Jost et al. (2003) (link):

We regard political conservatism as an ideological belief system that is significantly (but not completely) related to motivational concerns having to do with the psychological management of uncertainty and fear…. Although resistance to change and support for inequality are conceptually distinguishable, we have argued that they are psychologically interrelated, in part because motives pertaining to uncertainty and threat are interrelated…. (814)

The analysis offered in Authoritarian Nightmare is based on two distinct psychometric measures developed by different traditions of social psychologists that have been used and refined over several decades. The first is a scale measuring “social dominance orientation” (SDO) and the second is a scale measuring “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). Social dominance orientation is the psychological characteristic of expecting and valuing inequalities of worth and status in society, manifest for example in racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-homosexual attitudes, and anti-Muslim bigotry. The psychological characteristic identified in the measure of RWA is a willingness to accept a political system based on domination and one-person or one-party rule, without institutional protections of the rights of minorities.

Bob Altemeyer is a respected and accomplished academic psychologist who is one of the founders of RWA theory. He spent his career (in Canada) studying the emotional and motivational characteristics of authoritarian citizens, and was the author of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in 1986. Through his research Altemeyer developed an instrument for measuring an individual’s propensity for authoritarian thoughts and actions. This is the RWA scale, and the method has received widespread adoption and use. Saunders and Ngo provide a brief explanation of Altemeyer’s construction of the scale in “The Right-Wing Authoritarianism Scale” in Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences (link).

The right-wing authoritarianism scale measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities, show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression, and support traditional values endorsed by authorities. (1)

Saunders and Ngo note that this line of research derived from studies of “the authoritarian personality” initiated by Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is their summary of the RWA scale:

Right-wing authoritarianism, as currently measured by the RWA scale (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 2006), is an individual difference variable that assesses attitudes concerning three covarying facets derived from Adorno et al.’s (1950) nine original dimensions: Authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, and conventionalism. In other words, RWA measures the degree to which people defer to established authorities (i.e., authoritarian submission), show aggression toward out-groups when authorities sanction that aggression (i.e., authoritarian aggression), and support traditional values, particularly those endorsed by authorities (i.e., conventionalism). (2)

The “social dominance orientation” (SDO) scale was introduced by James Sidanius and colleagues in the 1990s, and is presented in a research article entitled “Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes” (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, Malle, 1994; link). Here is the abstract to the article:

Social dominance orientation (SDO), one’s degree of preference for inequality among social groups, is introduced. On the basis of social dominance theory, it is shown that (a) men are more social dominance-oriented than women, (b) high-SDO people seek hierarchy-enhancing professional roles and low-SDO people seek hierarchy-attenuating roles, (c) SDO was related to beliefs in a large number of social and political ideologies that support group-based hierarchy (e.g., meritocracy and racism) and to support for policies that have implications for intergroup relations (e.g., war, civil rights, and social programs), including new policies. SDO was distinguished from interpersonal dominance, conservatism, and authoritarianism. SDO was negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. The ramifications of SDO in social context are discussed.

They explain the central idea of social dominance ideology in these terms:

The theory postulates that societies minimize group conflict by creating consensus on ideologies that promote the superiority of one group over others (see also Sidanius, Pratto, Martin, & Stallworth, 1991). Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimize discrimination. To work smoothly, these ideologies must be widely accepted within a society, appearing as self-apparent truths; hence we call them hierarchy-legitimizing myth…. For example, the ideology of anti-Black racism has been instantiated in personal acts of discrimination, but also in institutional discrimination against African-Americans by banks, public transit authorities, schools, churches, marriage laws, and the penal system . (741)

Saunders and Ngo observe that the RWA scale and the SDO scale are often used together to predict the political affinities and behavior of different groups, and that the two measures are correlated with each other.

What appears to be left unexplained in the psychometric literature on the SDO and RWA measures is the developmental question: why do different individuals develop in such a way as to manifest important differences on each of these scales? Why do some individuals become intolerant and authoritarian adults, whereas other adults are tolerant and democratic? Are these two aspects of personality linked, or are they independent from each other? What facts of social context, family relations, education, and other social and political factors are most important for giving rise to the social psychology of social dominance and right-wing authoritarianism? The most plausible theory mentioned by Saunders and Ngo is a social-cognitive theory (motivated social cognition) derived from Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, and Sulloway (link): “people adopt RWA attitudes to meet psychological needs such as the reduction of fear (i.e., existential needs), uncertainty and loss (i.e., epistemic needs), as well as meeting related needs for structure and cognitive closure.” Jost et al summarize their approach in these terms in the abstract to this article: “Analyzing political conservatism as motivated social cognition integrates theories of personality (authoritarianism, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity), epistemic and existential needs (for closure, regulatory focus, terror management), and ideological rationalization (social dominance, system justification).” On this approach, conditions of insecurity, fear, and threat are thought to encourage the personality psychology of intolerance and authoritarianism. 

The developmental question is important, but the empirical fact is alarming enough: tens of millions of American citizens rank highly on both scales, and these individuals tend to support right-wing populists with xenophobic and racist inclinations. And the two scales are correlated. “In large adult and student samples, for example, right-wing authoritarianism positively predicts anti-Black prejudice and did so more strongly than several other correlates of prejudice” (Saunders and Ngo 2017:4).

In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos make use of this body of theory and research in their analysis of the influence of racism within grassroots conservative movements in the United States, including the Tea Party movement. In particular, they make use of survey research to assess the level of Social Dominance Orientation in different voting groups.

Abamowitz’s analyses of the 2010 ANES data yield results that are very consistent with the Parker/Barreto findings. In particular, Abamowitz finds three variables to be especially strong predictors of attitudinal support for the Tea Party. Two of the three—“dislike of Obama” and “racial resentment”—essentially mirror the first two variables in the Parker/Barreto study. Abramowitz’s conclusion echoes that of Parker and Barreto: “these results clearly show that the rise of the Tea Party movement was a direct result of the growing racial and ideological polarization of the American electorate. The Tea Party drew its support very disproportionately from Republican identifiers who were white, conservative, and very upset about the presence of a black man in the White House.” Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (p. 353)

It seems, then, that researchers in personality psychology have developed theories and measurement tools that contribute to answering part of the anti-democratic populism puzzle. The prevalence in a significant percentage of citizens of the personality attributes of social dominance orientation and right-wing authoritarianism may explain the dramatic and surprising upsurge of support that anti-democratic populist politicians are able to draw upon. The difficult questions of “why now?”, “why in this generation?” are as yet unanswered, though the cognitive theory of personality formation above may give the clue. The precariousness of certain parts of the populations in Western Europe and North America — terrorism, fear of shifting demographic balance, fear of the consequences of globalization — may be all it takes to trigger this toxic and intolerant form of personality in an extensive proportion of the population of these countries. This suggests that the theories of authoritarian personality at the individual level and political entrepreneurship at the political level — in an environment of rapid change and perceived threats to various groups — may go a long way to explaining the scope and depth of right-wing populism in liberal democracies today.

Marc Bloch’s phenomenology

Marc Bloch’s Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It is challenging to read, in part because it is not exactly what it seems to be. The English title suggests it is a handbook of sorts on the art and practice of historical research. But this is not quite right. In fact, the suggestion is partly the result of an unfortunate choice by the translator; the French title Apologie pour l’histoire, ou Métier d’historien might with equal justice be translated as “A discourse on history: The historian’s calling”. It is not a finished manuscript, as Lucien Febvre explains in a preface to the English edition. But it is certainly not organized as a treatise on methods. Instead, it is an extended reflection by Marc Bloch about his own thought processes as a creative, imaginative historical researcher. It includes many examples from Bloch’s own research as a medieval historian, and it illustrates the ways in which he interrogates and contextualizes these “tracks” of medieval historical life.

Throughout the text Bloch questions some of the most basic assumptions that both historians and educated readers often make about the past — periods, social systems, the significance of centuries (twelfth century, nineteenth century history); historical categories such as serfs and servitude; and many other fascinating assumptions that are shattered by Bloch’s careful dissection of the examples he considers.

I am inclined to think of this book as a “phenomenology” of the practice of historical research — a careful, detailed reflection on the particular thought-processes and question-posing that Bloch undertakes in investigating a particular historical problem. It is analogous to the reflections of a great biologist, reflecting upon and analyzing her efforts over decades to solve empirical puzzles in the laboratory and in the field, and to make sense of the phenomena under study. It is as if Darwin had used his notebooks to reveal to the reader the thought processes through which he arrived at various fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution. Brilliant!

The intellectual activities that Bloch illustrates through his phenomenological self-reflection are both “skills”, learned through the training associated with becoming a historian, and “creative acts”, exercised by an innovative and intelligent inquirer who is probing history to uncover some of its processes, mechanisms, and anomalies. Here is just one small example:

I have before me a Roman funerary inscription, carved from a single block, made for a single purpose. Yet nothing could be more variegated than the evidences which there await the probing of the scholar’s lancet. (145)

And Bloch proceeds to identify the numerous angles we can take on understanding and situating this inscription: linguistic, beliefs, political history, economics and trade, …

Some of the particularly important topics that Bloch considers in the later chapters of the book include: identifying and evaluating historical evidence; arriving at appropriate and useful historical concepts and classifications; making appropriate selections of aspects and topics for study within the infinite texture of the past; and synthesizing the phenomena that have been studied into comprehensible statements about the past.

On the topic of historical evidence Bloch is especially emphatic in casting doubt on the primacy of documents as sources of definitive historical truth. He discusses a number of strikingly contemporary issues — the perennial possibility of lies and deception, the cognitive limits of direct participants and observers, the common fact of “fake news” and rumors (yes, he was concerned with fake news!), and the likelihood that some of the documents one considers are deliberate fabrications. The “critical methods” of historians of the previous several generations are specific and logical techniques for evaluating the truthfulness of documents: comparing with other documents, considering spelling and orthography, considering the paper and ink of the document, and considering the consistency of dates and persons mentioned in the documents. Documents certainly have their role in the “epistemics” of historical knowledge. But Bloch emphasizes that many other sources of historical knowledge are equally valuable from an epistemic point of view: monuments, place names, urban geography, excavations, and garbage dumps. All these sources can provide the historian with important traces of the social and economic realities of the past.

But Bloch suggests that these problems concerning historical evidence are less difficult than a second group of problems confronted by the historian, the problem of arriving at a vocabulary for classifying and analyzing the past. He emphasizes that the use of familiar concepts can seriously mislead the historical researcher. The familiar concept may involve the importation of background assumptions that are profoundly misleading about the social and institutional realities of the past. His example of “family law” (148 ff.) is illustrative.

Take the family — whether it be a question of the small matrimonial family of today in a state of perpetual expansion and contraction or of the great medieval house, that community consolidated by such a lasting network of feelings and interests … (148)

These two instances are dramatically different, and the historian needs to reflect upon these differences. The “family” is not the same social entity or arrangement in the two settings. Bloch makes a similar point about the names of things that are used in historical documents. For example, he comments on the use of “aratrum” (“unwheeled plow”) and “farruca” (“wheeled plow”) (159), a pair of terms whose use is often confused in medieval documents and is highly consequential for anyone studying technological change in agriculture. Likewise, he comments upon the changing associations that the Latin term “servus” has had, leading eventually to the French term “serf” (159). Bloch notes that similar language implies similar social realities, but that this is fundamentally misleading in this case; “the differences between the serves of ancient Rome and the serf of the France of St. Louis far outnumber the similarities” (160). 
Another set of concerns in a similar vein bridge between language and social ontology, when Bloch underlines the problem of identifying large social systems in history. 

Even among historians, custom tends to confuse the two expressions, “feudal system” and “seigneurial system,” in the most troublesome manner. This is arbitrarily to equate the complex of dependent ties characteristic of a warrior aristocracy with a type of peasant subjection which not only was very different by nature but had arisen very much earlier, lasted much longer, and was far more widespread throughout the world. (171)

Bloch also casts doubt on the historian’s common predilection for identifying distinctive historical periodization, presupposing a qualitative and substantively important difference between the activities, processes, and institutions of the distinct periods. Against this presupposition he shows that “the Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” are arbitrary constructions. Here is what he has to say about the “Middle Ages”:

In truth, the term “Middle Age” has no more than a humble pedagogical function, as a debatable convenience for school curriculums, or as a label for erudite techniques whose scope is moreover ill-defined by the traditional dates. A medievalist is a man who knows how to read old scripts, to criticize a charter, to understand Old French. Unquestionably that is something. It is certainly not enough to satisfy a real science in its search for accurate periodization. 181

Even centuries are a misleading historical construct. There is no distinctive historical content or explanatory importance in the designation of “eighteenth-century culture” or “twelfth-century urbanization”; the fact that an event or process occurred between 1700 and 1799 is completely irrelevant from an explanatory point of view.

These kinds of observations add up to a theory of “cognition of historical reality”, or what we might call a “philosophy of historical language”.

Careful re-reading of The Historian’s Craft makes it seem that the real importance and significance of Bloch’s book have not been fully understood. The book deserves a monograph of its own, to unpack the many threads of commentary that are relevant to the philosophy of history today. The book is a rich expression of the intelligence and mental processes of this great historian. It is an important contribution to the philosophy of history, and to the philosophy of language in the context of historical analysis.

Marc Bloch’s philosophy of history

Marc Bloch wrote The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It. after the defeat of France in 1940. The title suggests that the book is a “how-to” manual for doing historical research, authored by one of the great historians of the twentieth century. But this would be to misunderstand the book. It is something better, more ambitious, and more important than a “users’ guide” to becoming a historian. Instead, it is a thoughtful, innovative historian reflecting on fundamental questions in what we can correctly describe as a philosophy of history. It is a reflective book that considers and reflects upon some of the great historians of France and Belgium, often praising but also often criticizing and correcting.

Bloch begins with a fundamental question: what is history? And of course, this is not an easy question to answer. Is history no more nor less than “the past” — everything that happened? This is not a particularly informative answer. Or more selectively, is history the sequence of important events, kingdoms, leaders, wars and revolutions, inventions, literary innovations, all set within a chronological framework? Even more abstractly, is history the study of great epochs — feudalism, ancient Rome, the absolutist French state, the Industrial Revolution? 

Bloch does not like any of these answers to the fundamental question. Instead, he offers a simple answer of his own: history is “human beings in time”. He chooses this answer for several reasons. History is not simply “temporal sequence”; rather, it is the actions, creations, meanings, and life experiences of concrete human beings. Further, human beings are themselves historically conditioned; medieval serfs were different in deep ways from American farmers or contract software coders. They are different, in particular, in their mentalities, their mental frameworks through which they understand themselves and their relations to others. These differences are profound; they involve differences in beliefs, dispositions, ways of framing the world, attitudes towards neighbors, strangers, the gods, and their families. Their “histories” have shaped them into different sorts of human beings.

So for Bloch, the study of history is the study of individuals and groups in social settings in the past, striving, interpreting, and cooperating or competing with each other. Further, it is the study of some of the practices, structures, institutions, belief systems, and inventions that emerged from these forms of human action and interaction. There is no fundamental break between “the past” and “the present” — rather, human beings and their actions and social relations create and propel change, whether in the year 1000 or the year 1940. And distinctively, Bloch underlines the fact that human actions influence the physical environment; for example, the silting of the river port of Bruges changed the nature of water-born commerce in that great market town.

If human beings and their actions are the key stuff of history, then Bloch is also dismissive of the importance of traditional “periods” of history. Periods are created by historians, not by the ebb and flow of historical events themselves. In Bloch’s view of history, change is of fundamental interest to the historian; words change their meanings, place names change, patterns of habitation change, social relationships change, and it is a central task of the historian to chart and seek to understand these various processes of change.

Also of special interest are the creations of human beings throughout our histories. Ideas and ideologies; religious beliefs; social practices; technologies and scientific methods; social structures; and even wars and revolutions are all creations of human beings that the historian is especially interested in probing and investigating.

Bloch links the past and the present in an especially intimate way. The historian needs to be deeply immersed in the ordinary processes and activities of the present, if he or she is going to be ready to understand the actions and thoughts of the actors of the past. Bloch’s own experiences of war in 1917 and 1940 provided him with forms of knowledge and understanding that enhanced his ability to understand the medieval world.

Another key question posed by Bloch is whether history is “useful”. Can we “learn from history”? Can the study of history improve our chances for a happy and peaceful future? Bloch’s view is that the central value and use of history is its intellectual interest for us as human beings, and the significance we human beings attach to our histories. We are historical beings, in the sense that we understand ourselves in terms of the stories and narratives we tell about ourselves. We understand ourselves in the present in terms of the ways that we have constructed and interpreted the steps of human action and meaning that led us to this point. So the key values of history include the intellectual interest we take in understanding the past and the meanings we create for ourselves by discovering and interpreting aspects of our history.

We want to understand the past. And in fact, this is what Bloch regards as the central challenge for the scientific historian: to understand and explain aspects of the past. Historians should discover the pathways and causes through which various historical features came to be. Why did the actors behave as they did in the circumstances? What were they trying to accomplish? What social structures or circumstances influenced their choices, and thereby caused some aspects of the outcomes we are interested in?

Bloch’s philosophy of history is an inclusive and open-ended one. He encourages the historian to be multidisciplinary; not confined by periods or places; not focused on “great events and great persons: and to focus historical research on the circumstances of ordinary human beings. His approach is a “human-centered history”. And of particular importance, Bloch argues for a wide range of kinds of evidence that are relevant to historical inquiry. He doubts the privileged position of “contemporary documents and narratives,” and points as well to the value of non-text sources of historical insight — ruins, inscriptions, monuments, archeological discoveries, place names, and other apparently mundane and unremarkable “markers” of historical meaning.

Bloch was a founder, along with Lucien Febvre, of the Annales school of historical writing and research. It is not surprising that The Historian’s Craft captures eloquently some of the most important and innovative commitments of the Annales school in this important testament of the great historian.

The Uyghurs and cultural genocide

In the last several weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about the twentieth century and its unimaginable crimes against humanity on an almost inconceivable scale. The Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, the mass starvation of prisoners of war, the executions and murders of vast numbers of innocent people; the reckless, unbounded cruelty of totalitarian states against their own citizens and innocent people who fell within their grasp; and largely, the world’s indifference and willful ignorance of these state-authored crimes while they were underway. These are nightmares from the twentieth century, and a central thrust of the posts in the past two months has been the urgent need for honest, careful study of these periods of human history. (Quite a long time ago I wrote a post called “Koestler’s nightmares” that described Arthur Koestler’s personal integrity in trying to see and record honestly the horrors that surrounded him in the 1930s; link. Here was my summary opinion of Koestler: “I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings — in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.”)

We might like to think that deliberate state policies to extinguish a whole ethnic population within its borders is thankfully a thing of the terrible past. But today the world is forced to contemplate the systematic and brutal efforts the Chinese government is making to subdue, confine, and reduce the Muslim population of western China, the Uyghurs. Using mass surveillance, forced sterilization, confinement in “reeducation camps”, and other tools of repression, the Chinese government is engaged in an all-out effort to suppress the Uyghur population of Xinjiang. This campaign has been called a policy of “cultural genocide” — an effort to erase the culture and identity of this people. Sean Roberts’ forthcoming book The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Internal Campaign against a Muslim Minority promises to provide a great deal of detail about China’s illegal campaign of persecution against its Muslim citizens. (Here is an interview with Roberts in The Diplomat (link).)

Human Rights Watch curated a major report on the war against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2018 (link). Here is a haunting summary:

This report presents new evidence of the Chinese government’s mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and details the systemic and increasingly pervasive controls on daily life there. These rampant abuses violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy, and protections from torture and unfair trials. More broadly, governmental controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other minorities, in violation of international law’s prohibitions against discrimination.

Mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment; pervasive controls on daily life; violation of fundamental rights to freedom of expression, religion, and privacy … these are horrific conclusions by a world-respected voice in support of human rights worldwide. And their conclusions are supported by interviews and other direct empirical evidence.

A few lines later the report provides more summary devastating observations:

The human rights violations in Xinjiang today are of a scope and scale not seen in China since the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. The establishment and expansion of political education camps and other abusive practices suggest that Beijing’s commitment to transforming Xinjiang in its own image is long-term.

It is also evident that China does not foresee a significant political cost to its abusive Xinjiang campaign. Its global influence has largely spared it from public criticism. And its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council means that it can deflect international action, whether sanctions imposed by the council or criminal prosecutions brought at the International Criminal Court, to which China is not a party.

This is a detailed, rigorous, and evidence-based report about China’s “Strike Hard Campaign”. It presents a devastating picture of China’s brutal repression of Uyghur people.

Since 2018 it has been widely reported that China holds at least one million Uyghur and Turkic Muslim people in detention and re-education camps (link). In February 2019 Freedom House issued a joint appeal calling for urgent investigation of these reports, representing 19 human rights organizations around the world (link). Here are the opening paragraphs of that appeal:

We, a diverse set of human rights and civil society organizations, urge the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently adopt a resolution establishing an international fact-finding mission to investigate credible allegations that up to one million Turkic Muslims are being arbitrarily detained in “political education” camps across Xinjiang, a region in northwest China.

Over recent months, UN officials, human rights organizations, and independent journalists have painted an alarming picture of the conditions endured by ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. According to these reports, the Chinese authorities have detained people outside any legal process in “political education” camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party. In these camps they are subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture. They are denied contact with family members.

It is important to notice what is in common between this twenty-first century war against a large ethnic minority and those of the 1930s and 1940s: an all-powerful authoritarian state with ample ability to impose its will against powerless men, women, and children within its reach. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, China today is an authoritarian communist state. But it is its authoritarianism and unrestrained single-party rule rather than its communism that fosters its lawless treatment of the Uyghur minority. Communism has little meaning in China today. But authoritarian rule is alive and well. The regime has political goals, and there are virtually no limits on its use of the power of the state in pursuit of those goals. In some ways its powers of repression are greater than those available to Stalin or Hitler — constant electronic and video surveillance, control of the internet, inspection of communications and social media, …. Crimes against humanity and repression of its own people are the result. The Chinese state is not murdering the Uyghurs in vast numbers; but it is repressing and controlling them in a completely remorseless, tyrannical, and purposeful way. It is endeavoring to extinguish the culture, freedoms, and identity of this minority population. The world must take notice.

The Human Rights Watch report quoted above closes with detailed recommendations to the Chinese government, other governments, and businesses and non-profits that have relationships in Xinjiang. Here are the recommendations from Human Rights Watch to the Chinese government:

To the Government of the People’s Republic of China

  • Close immediately all political education camps in Xinjiang, and release all individuals held;
  • Cease immediately the “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang, including the “fanghuiju” teams, “Becoming Family” and other compulsory programs aimed at surveilling and controlling Turkic Muslims;
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and culture to ensure that Turkic Muslims are able to engage in peaceful activities and raise concerns and criticisms;
  • Impartially investigate Party Secretary Chen Quanguo and other senior officials implicated in alleged abusive practices associated with the Strike Hard Campaign, and appropriately hold those responsible to account;
  • Review all cases of those detained or imprisoned on state security, terrorism, or extremism charges and drop all wrongful charges, and seek fair retrials in cases in which those convicted did not receive trials that met international due process standards;
  • Suspend the collection and use of biometrics in Xinjiang until there is a national and comprehensive law that protects people’s privacy; delete biometric and related data that has already been collected under current policies;
  • Refrain from the collection and use of biometrics unless according to law and demonstrated as necessary and proportionate for legitimate government aims;
  • Cease the operation of the big data program, Integrated Joint Operations Platform;
  • Return immediately passports to Xinjiang residents and cease the policy of recalling passports;
  • Stop pressuring Turkic Muslims abroad to return or collecting information about them. Stop pressuring host governments to forcibly return Turkic Muslim nationals abroad unless pursuant to an extradition request for legitimate law enforcement purposes;
  • Provide prompt and adequate compensation, including medical and psychological care, for people arbitrarily detained and mistreated under the Strike Hard Campaign; and
  • Grant access to Xinjiang as requested by several United Nations special procedures.

These recommendations have direct parallels with the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China is a signatory to the UDHR and participates in United Nations human rights organizations; but it shows little evidence of conforming its behavior to the principles expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his review of Ann Kent’s China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance Greg Moore offers a very careful summary of China’s history of relationships with the United Nations and international human rights regimes; link. This 2012 Chatham House report by Sonya Sceats with Shaun Breslin provides insight into China’s relationship to the UN human rights regime; link.

Are randomized controlled trials the “gold standard” for establishing causation?

The method of randomized controlled trials (RCT) is often thought to be the best possible way of establishing causation, whether in biology, or medicine or social science. An experiment based on random controlled trials can be described simply. It is hypothesized that

  • (H) X causes Y in a population of units P.

An experiment testing H is designed by randomly selecting a number of individuals from P into Gtest (the test group) and randomly assigning a different set of individuals from P into Gcontrol (the control group). Gtest and Gcontrol are exposed to X (the treatment) under carefully controlled conditions designed to ensure that the ambient conditions surrounding both tests are approximately the same. The status of each group is then measure with regard to Y, and the difference in the value of Y between the two groups is said to be the “average treatment effect” (ATE).

This research methodology is often thought to capture the logical core of experimentation, and is thought to constitute the strongest evidence possible for establishing or refuting a causal relationship between X and Y. It is thought to represent a purely observational way of establishing causal relations among factors. This is so because of the random assignment of individuals to the two groups (so potentially causally relevant individual differences are averaged out in each group) and because of the strong efforts to isolate the administration of the test so that each group is exposed to the same unknown factors that may themselves influence the outcome to be measured. As Handley et al put the point in their review article “Selecting and Improving Quasi-Experimental Designs in Effectiveness and Implementation Research” (2018): “Random allocation minimizes selection bias and maximizes the likelihood that measured and unmeasured confounding variables are distributed equally, enabling any differences in outcomes between the intervention and control arms to be attributed to the intervention under study” (Handley et al 2018: 6). Sociology is interested in discovering and measuring the causal effects of large social conditions and interventions – “treatments”, as they are often called in medicine and policy studies. It might seem plausible, then, that empirical social science should make use of random controlled trials whenever possible, in efforts to discover or validate causal connections.

The supposed “gold standard” status of random controlled trials has been especially controversial in the last several years. Serious methodological and inferential criticisms have been raised of common uses of RCT experiments, and philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has played a key role in advancing these criticisms. Cartwright and Hardie’s Evidence-Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing It Better (link) provided a strong critique of the use of RCT methodology in areas of public policy, and Cartwright and others have offered strong arguments to show that inferences about causation based on RCT experiments are substantially more limited and conditional than generally believed.

A pivotal debate among experts in a handful of fields about RCT methodology took place in a special issue of Social Science and Medicine in 2018. This volume is essential reading for anyone interested in causal reasoning. Especially important is Deaton and Cartwright’s article “Understanding and misunderstanding randomized controlled trials” (link). Here is the abstract to the Deaton and Cartwright article:

ABSTRACT Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are increasingly popular in the social sciences, not only in medicine. We argue that the lay public, and sometimes researchers, put too much trust in RCTs over other methods of investigation. Contrary to frequent claims in the applied literature, randomization does not equalize everything other than the treatment in the treatment and control groups, it does not automatically deliver a precise estimate of the average treatment effect (ATE), and it does not relieve us of the need to think about (observed or unobserved) covariates. Finding out whether an estimate was generated by chance is more difficult than commonly believed. At best, an RCT yields an unbiased estimate, but this property is of limited practical value. Even then, estimates apply only to the sample selected for the trial, often no more than a convenience sample, and justification is required to extend the results to other groups, including any population to which the trial sample belongs, or to any individual, including an individual in the trial. Demanding ‘external validity’ is unhelpful because it expects too much of an RCT while undervaluing its potential contribution. RCTs do indeed require minimal assumptions and can operate with little prior knowledge. This is an advantage when persuading distrustful audiences, but it is a disadvantage for cumulative scientific progress, where prior knowledge should be built upon, not discarded. RCTs can play a role in building scientific knowledge and useful predictions but they can only do so as part of a cumulative program, combining with other methods, including conceptual and theoretical development, to discover not ‘what works’, but ‘why things work’.

Deaton and Cartwright put their central critique of RCT methodology in these terms:

We argue that the lay public, and sometimes researchers, put too much trust in RCTs over other methods of investigation. Contrary to frequent claims in the applied literature, randomization does not equalize everything other than the treatment in the treatment and control groups, it does not automatically deliver a precise estimate of the average treatment effect (ATE), and it does not relieve us of the need to think about (observed or unobserved) covariates…. We argue that any special status for RCTs is unwarranted. (Deaton and Cartwright 2018: 2).

They provide an interpretation of RCT methodology that places it within a range of strategies of empirical and theoretical investigation, and they argue that researchers need to choose methods that are suitable to the problems that they study.

One of the key concerns they express has to do with extrapolating and generalizing from RCT studies (3). A given RCT study is carried out in a specific and limitation set of cases, and the question arises whether the effects documented for the intervention in this study can be extrapolated to a broader population. Do the results of a drug study, a policy study, or a behavioral study give a basis for believing that these results will obtain in the larger population? Their general answer is that extrapolation must be done very carefully. “The ‘gold standard or truth’ view does harm when it undermines the obligation of science to reconcile RCTs results with other evidence in a process of cumulative understanding” (5). And even more emphatically, “we strongly contest the often-expressed idea that the ATE calculated from an RCT is automatically reliable, that randomization automatically controls for unobservables, or worst of all, that the calculated ATE is true [of the whole population]” (10).

In his contribution to the SSM volume Robert Sampson (link) shares this last concern about the limits of extending RCT results to new contexts/settings:

For example, will a program that was evaluated in New York work in Chicago? To translate an RCT into future actions, we must ask hard questions about the potential mechanisms through which a treatment influences an outcome, heterogeneous treatment effects, contextual variations, unintended consequences or policies that change incentive and opportunity structures, and the scale at which implementing policies changes their anticipated effects. (Sampson 2018: 67)

The general perspective from which Deaton and Cartwright proceed is that empirical research about causal relationships — including experimentation—requires a broad swath of knowledge about the processes, mechanisms, and causal powers at work in the given domain. This background knowledge is needed in order to interpret the results of empirical research and to assess the degree to which the findings of a specific study can plausibly be extrapolated to other populations.

These methodological and logical concerns about the design and interpretation of experiments based on randomized controlled trials make it clear that it is crucial for social scientists to treat RCT methodology carefully and critically. Is RCT experimentation a valuable component of the toolkit of sociological investigation? Yes, of course. But as Cartwright demonstrates, it is important to keep several philosophical points in mind. First, there is no “gold-standard” method for research in any field; rather, it is necessary to adapt methods to the nature of the data and causal patterns in a given field. Second, she (like most philosophers of science) is insistent that empirical research, whether experimental, observational, statistical, or Millian, always requires theoretical inquiry into the underlying mechanisms that can be hypothesized to be at work in the field. Only in the context of a range of theoretical knowledge is it possible to arrive at reasonable interpretations of (and generalizations from) a set of empirical findings.

So, what about it? Should we imagine that randomized controlled trials constitute the aspirational gold standard for sociological research, in sociology or medicine or public policy? The answer seems to be clear: RCT methodology is a legitimate and important tool for sociological research, but it is not fundamentally superior to the many other methods of empirical investigation and inference in use in the social sciences.

Tony Judt on memory and myth in the twentieth century

One of the historians whose work I greatly appreciate is Tony Judt. I’ve posted about his seminal book about Europe after World War II (Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (linklink)) and his history of the French left in Marxism and the French Left: Studies on Labour and Politics in France, 1830-1981) (link). Some of his most penetrating reflections about twentieth century European history are developed in his essay, “The Past is Another Country: Myth and Memory in Postwar Europe”, published in Deák, Gross, and Judt, The Politics of Retribution in Europe (lightly revised from original publication in Daedalus in 1992). Judt’s premise is that postwar “Europe” as a complex of values and common identities cultivated since World War II is founded on a grave self-deception and amnesia in the representation upon which it depends concerning issues of responsibility for atrocity, genocide, and collaboration. And Judt believes that these comfortable “mis-tellings” of the story of the 1930s-1950s unavoidably lead to future contradictions in European politics and harmony.

The new Europe is thus being built upon historical sands at least as shifty in nature as those on which the postwar edifice was mounted. To the extent that collective identities—whether ethnic, national, or continental—are always complex compositions of myth, memory, and political convenience, this need not surprise us. From Spain to Lithuania the transition from past to present is being recalibrated in the name of a “European” idea that is itself a historical and illusory product, with different meanings in different places. In the Western and Central regions of the continent (including Poland, the Czech lands, Hungary, and Slovenia but not their eastern neighbors), the dream of economic unity may or may not be achieved in due course. (317) 

Further, Judt believes that the self-deceptions and false memories created during and especially after the Second World War are a key part of this instability.

I shall suggest that the ways in which the official versions of the war and postwar era have unraveled in recent years are indicative of unresolved problems that lie at the center of the present continental crisis—an observation true of both Western and Eastern Europe, though in distinctive ways. Finally I shall note some of the new myths and mismemories attendant upon the collapse of Communism and the ways in which these, too, are already shaping, and misshaping the new European “order.” (294) 

 Memories matter, and false memories matter a great deal. Consider the matter of “resistance to Nazi oppression”. Judt finds that the romantic stories of resistance are greatly overstated; they are largely false.

Another way of putting this is to say that most of occupied Europe either collaborated with the occupying forces (a minority) or accepted with resignation and equanimity the presence and activities of the German forces (a majority). The Nazis could certainly never have sustained their hegemony over most of the continent for as long as they did had it been otherwise: Norway and France were run by active partners in ideological collaboration with the occupier; the Baltic nations, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and Flemish-speaking Belgium all took enthusiastic advantage of the opportunity afforded them to settle ethnic and territorial scores under benevolent German oversight. Active resistance was confined, until the final months, to a restricted and in some measure self-restricting set of persons: socialists, communists (after June 1941), nationalists, and ultramonarchists, together with those, like Jews, who had little to lose given the nature and purposes of the Nazi project. (295)

 Judt believes that the grand myths of the Second World War must be confronted honestly:

At this point we leave the history of the Second World War and begin to encounter the myth of that war, a myth whose construction was undertaken almost before the war itself was over. (296)

Here are the exculpatory myths that Judt believes to be most pervasive:
There is space here to note only briefly the factors that contributed to the official version of the wartime experience that was common European currency by 1948. Of these I shall list just the most salient. The first was the universally acknowledged claim that responsibility for the war, its sufferings, and its crimes lay with the Germans. “They” did it. There was a certain intuitive logic to this comforting projection of guilt and blame. After all, had it not been for the German occupations and depredations from 1938 to 1945, there would have been no war, no death camps, no occupations—and thus no occasion for the civil conflicts, denunciations, and other shadows that hung over Europe in 1945. Moreover, the decision to blame everything on Germany was one of the few matters on which all sides, within each country and among the Allied powers, could readily agree. The presence of concentration camps in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and even France could thus readily be forgotten, or simply ascribed to the occupying power, with attention diverted from the fact that many of these camps were staffed by non-Germans and (as in the French case) had been established and in operation before the German occupation began. (296)So everyone is innocent; everyone is a victim.

Italy’s experience with fascism was left largely unrecorded in public discussion, part of a double myth: that Mussolini had been an idiotic oaf propped into power by a brutal and unrepresentative clique, and that the nation had been purged of its fascist impurities and taken an active and enthusiastic part in its own liberation. Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium were accorded full victim status for their wartime experience, and the active and enthusiastic collaboration and worse of some Flemings and Dutch stricken from the public record. (304)

This deliberate forgetting of national and citizen culpability all across Europe seems to be a part of contemporary Polish politics, coming to a head in the abortive 2018 Holocaust law (link). But Poland is not alone. Judt makes it clear that a very similar process of myth-making and forgetting has been a deep part of the narrative-making in the collapsed Communist states of eastern and central Europe.

The mismemory of communism is also contributing, in its turn, to a mismemory of anticommunism. Marshal Antonescu, the wartime Romanian leader who was executed in June 1945, defended himself at his trial with the claim that he had sought to protect his country from the Soviet Union. He is now being rewritten into Romanian popular history as a hero, his part in the massacre of Jews and others in wartime Romania weighing little in the balance against his anti-Russian credentials. Anti-communist clerics throughout the region; nationalists who fought along- side the Nazis in Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary; right-wing partisans who indiscriminately murdered Jews, communists, and liberals in the vicious score settling of the immediate postwar years before the communists took effective control are all candidates for rehabilitation as men of moderate and laudable convictions; their strongest suit, of course, is the obloquy heaped upon them by the former regime. (309-310)

If I were to distill Judt’s points into a few key ideas, it is that “history matters”; that oppressors and tyrants are invariably interested in concealing their culpability, while “innocent citizens” are likewise inclined to minimize their own involvement in the crimes of their governments; and that bad myths give rise eventually to bad politics — more conflict, more tyranny, more violence. So the work of honest history is crucial to humanity’s ability to achieve a better future.

Is there a lesson for us in the United States? There is indeed. We must confront the difficult realities of racism, nationalism, bigotry, and authoritarianism that have simmered throughout the decades and centuries in the United States, and that have broken into a boil under the Trump presidency. Tony Judt is right here: the myths of one decade become the action principles of the next.

Experimental methods in sociology

An earlier post noted the increasing importance of experimentation in some areas of economics (link), and posed the question of whether there is a place for experimentation in sociology as well. Here I’d like to examine that question a bit further.

Let’s begin by asking the simple question: what is an experiment? An experiment is an intervention through which a scientist seeks to identify the possible effects of a given factor or “treatment”. The effect may be thought to be deterministic (whenever X occurs, Y occurs); or it may be probabilistic (the occurrence of X influences the probability of the occurrence of Y). Plainly, the experimental evaluation of probabilistic causal hypotheses requires repeating the experiment a number of times and evaluating the results statistically; whereas a deterministic causal hypothesis can in principle be refuted by a single trial.

In “The Principles of Experimental Design and Their Application in Sociology” (link) Michelle Jackson and D.R. Cox provide a simple and logical specification of experimentation:

We deal here with investigations in which the effects of a number of alternative conditions or treatments are to be compared. Broadly, the investigation is an experiment if the investigator controls the allocation of treatments to the individuals in the study and the other main features of the work, whereas it is observational if, in particular, the allocation of treatments has already been determined by some process outside the investigator’s control and detailed knowledge. The allocation of treatments to individuals is commonly labeled manipulation in the social science context. (Jackson and Cox 2013: 28)

There are several relevant kinds of causal claims in sociology that might admit of experimental investigation, corresponding to all four causal linkages implied by the model of Coleman’s boat (Foundations of Social Theory)—micro-macro, macro-micro, micro-micro, and macro-macro (link). Sociologists generally pay close attention to the relationships that exist between structures and social actors, extending in both directions. Hypotheses about causation in the social world require testing or other forms of empirical evaluation through the collection of evidence. It is plausible to ask whether the methods associated with experimentation are available to sociology. In many instances, the answer is, yes.

There appear to be three different kinds of experiments that would possibly make sense in sociology.

  1. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about features of human motivation and behavior
  2. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of features of the social environment on social behavior
  3. Experiments evaluating hypotheses about the effects of “interventions” on the characteristics of an organization or local institution

First, sociological theories generally make use of more or less explicit theories of agents and their behavior. These theories could be evaluated using laboratory-based design for experimental subjects in specified social arrangements, parallel to existing methods in experimental economics. For example, Durkheim, Goffman, Coleman, and Hedström all provide different accounts of the actors who constitute social phenomena. It is feasible to design experiments along the lines of experimental economics to evaluate the behavioral hypotheses advanced by various sociologists.

Second, sociology is often concerned with the effects of social relationships on social behavior—for example, friendships, authority relations, or social networks. It would appear that these effects can be probed through direct experimentation, where the researcher creates artificial social relationships and observes behavior. Matthew Salganik et al’s internet-based experiments (20062009) on “culture markets” fall in this category (Hedström 2006). Hedström describes the research by Salganik, Dodds, and Watts (2006) in these terms:

Salganik et al. (2) circumvent many of these problems [of survey-based methodology] by using experimental rather than observational data. They created a Web-based world where more than 14,000 individuals listened to previously unknown songs, rated them, and freely downloaded them if they so desired. Subjects were randomly assigned to different groups. Individuals in only some groups were informed about how many times others in their group had downloaded each song. The experiment assessed whether this social influence had any effects on the songs the individuals seemed to prefer. 

As expected, the authors found that individuals’ music preferences were altered when they were exposed to information about the preferences of others. Furthermore, and more importantly, they found that the extent of social influence had important consequences for the collective outcomes that emerged. The greater the social influence, the more unequal and unpredictable the collective outcomes became. Popular songs became more popular and unpopular songs became less popular when individuals influenced one another, and it became more difficult to predict which songs were to emerge as the most popular ones the more the individuals influenced one another. (787)

Third, some sociologists are especially interested in the effects of micro-context on individual actors and their behavior. Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel offer detailed interpretations of the causal dynamics of social interactions at the micro level, and their work appears to be amenable to experimental treatment. Garfinkel (Studies in Ethnomethodology), in particular, made use of research methods that are especially suggestive of controlled experimental designs.

Fourth, sociologists are interested in macro-causes of individual social action. For example, sociologists would like to understand the effects of ideologies and normative systems on individual actors, and others would like to understand the effects of differences in large social structures on individual social actors. Weber hypothesized that the Protestant ethic caused a certain kind of behavior. Theoretically it should be possible to establish hypotheses about the kind of influence a broad cultural factor is thought to exercise over individual actors, and then design experiments to evaluate those hypotheses. Given the scope and pervasiveness of these kinds of macro-social factors, it is difficult to see how their effects could be assessed within a laboratory context. However, there are a range of other experimental designs that could be used, including quasi-experiments (link) and field experiments and natural experiments (link),  in which the investigator designs appropriate comparative groups of individuals in observably different ideological, normative, or social-structural arrangements and observes the differences that can be discerned at the level of social behavior. Does one set of normative arrangements result in greater altruism? Does a culture of nationalism promote citizens’ propensity for aggression against outsiders? Does greater ethnic homogeneity result in higher willingness to comply with taxation, conscription, and other collective duties?

Finally, sociologists are often interested in macro- to macro-causation. For example, consider the claims that “defeat in war leads to weak state capacity in the subsequent peace” or “economic depression leads to xenophobia”. Of course it is not possible to design an experiment in which “defeat in war” is a treatment; but it is possible to develop quasi-experiments or natural experiments that are designed to evaluate this hypothesis. (This is essentially the logic of Theda Skocpol’s (1979) analysis of the causes of social revolution in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China.) Or consider a research question in contentious politics, does widespread crop failure give rise to rebellions? Here again, the direct logic of experimentation is generally not available; but the methods articulated in the fields of quasi-experimentation, natural experiments, and field experiments offer an avenue for research designs that have a great deal in common with experimentation. A researcher could compile a dataset for historical China that records weather, crop failure, crop prices, and incidents of rebellion and protest. This dataset could support a “natural experiment” in which each year is assigned to either “control group” or “intervention group”; the control group consists of years in which crop harvests were normal, while the intervention group would consist of years in which crop harvests are below normal (or below subsistence). The experiment is then a simple one: what is the average incidence of rebellious incident in control years and intervention years?

So it is clear that causal reasoning that is very similar to the logic of experimentation is common throughout many areas of sociology. That said, the zone of sociological theorizing that is amenable to laboratory experimentation under random selection and a controlled environment is largely in the area of theories of social action and behavior: the reasons actor behave as they do, hypotheses about how their choices would differ under varying circumstances, and (with some ingenuity) how changing background social conditions might alter the behavior of actors. Here there are very direct parallels between sociological investigation and the research done by experimental and behavioral economists like Richard Thaler (Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics). And in this way, sociological experiments have much in common with experimental research in social psychology and other areas of the behavioral sciences.

A new social ontology of government

After several years of thinking about the nature of government as a network of organizations, I am happy to share the news that Palgrave Macmillan has published my short book, A New Social Ontology of Government: Consent, Coordination, and Authority (Foundations of Government and Public Administration). Thanks to Jos Raadschelders for proposing the book, and thanks to friends and colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Duisburg-Essen, the University of Milan, and Nankai University for helping me think through these new ideas. (What a great way to spend a year of sabbatical!)

My goal in this research was to approach the problem of analyzing the workings of government — decision-making, regulation, knowledge-gathering, enforcement, coordination — by making use of recent ideas about the nature of the social world in several disciplines. The result is an actor-centered social ontology that aims to take full advantage of recent frameworks of theory in sociology, political science, organizational studies, and philosophy.

Here is the brief description of the goals of the book:

This book provides a better understanding of some of the central puzzles of empirical political science: how does “government” express will and purpose? How do political institutions come to have effective causal powers in the administration of policy and regulation? What accounts for both plasticity and perseverance of political institutions and practices? And how are we to formulate a better understanding of the persistence of dysfunctions in government and public administration – failures to achieve public goods, the persistence of self-dealing behavior by the actors of the state, and the apparent ubiquity of corruption even within otherwise high-functioning governments?

I’ve tried to combine recent work in the philosophy of social science on the topic of social ontology (the nature of the social world), on the one hand, with recent developments in sociological theory about how to think about social entities. How do organizations and institutions work, from an actor-centered point of view? What do these features of ontology imply about the dynamics that governments are likely to display in routine times and moments of crisis? What is government, really?

Here is what I mean by “ontology” in this context.

What kind of things are we talking about when we refer to “government”? What sorts of processes, forces, mechanisms, structures, and activities make up the workings of government? In recent years philosophers of social science have rightly urged that we need to better understand the “stuff” of the social world if we are to have a good understanding of how it works. In philosophical language, we need to focus for a time on issues of ontology with regard to the social world. What kinds of entities, powers, forces, and relations exist in the social realm? What kinds of relations tie them together? What are some of the mechanisms and causal powers that constitute the workings of these social entities? Are there distinctive levels of social organization and structure that can be identified? Earlier approaches to the philosophy of the social sciences have largely emphasized issues of epistemology, explanation, methodology, and confirmation, and have often been guided by unhelpful analogies with positivism and the natural sciences. Greater attention to social ontology promises to allow working social scientists and philosophers alike to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the nature of the social world. Better thinking about social ontology is important for the progress of social science. Bad ontology breeds bad science. (2)

These are empirical questions; but they are also conceptual and philosophical questions. And when we consider the scope, complexity, and fluidity of government agencies and institutions, it is clear that we need to make use of illuminating theories from sociology, organizational studies, and philosophy if we are to come to an adequate understanding of “government” as an extended social organization.

What I offer in the book is an approach to analyzing the ontology of government that proceeds from an actor-centered point of view. Government officials, functionaries, and experts are actors within organizations and institutional cultures; and government itself is a network of organizations that often proceed on the basis of independent and contradictory priorities and goals. Here is a brief description of the actor-centered approach to ontology that I have taken in this book:

Another important truth about government is that it is made up of actors—individuals who occupy roles; who have beliefs, interests, commitments, and goals; who exist within social relations and networks involving other individuals both within and outside the corridors of power; and whose thoughts, intentions, and actions are never wholly defined by the norms, organizational imperatives, and institutions within which they operate. Government officials and functionaries are not robots, defined by the dictates of role responsibilities and policies. So it is crucial to approach the ontology of government from an “actor-centered” point of view, and to understand the powers and capacities of government in terms of the ways in which individual actors are disposed to act in a range of institutional and organizational circumstances. Whether we think of the top administrators and executives, or the experts and formulators of policy drafts, or the managers of extended groups of specialized staff, or the individuals who receive complaints from the public, or the compliance officers whose job it is to ensure that policies are followed by insiders and outsiders—all of these positions are occupied by individual actors who bring their own mental frameworks, interests, emotions, and knowledge to the work they do in government. (3)

Fortunately, there are a number of important new theoretical tools and frameworks that assist in the project of analyzing the ontology of government. Fligstein and McAdam’s formulation of the theory of strategic action fields is deeply helpful (A Theory of Fields). But so are the ideas associated with assemblage theory, synthesized by Manuel DeLanda (Assemblage Theory). And new contributions to organizational theory, including especially work by Scott and Davis (Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open System Perspectives), shed a great deal of light on aspects of government action and functioning that are otherwise obscure.

The question of collective agency is an important topic to consider when analyzing the ontology of government. I argue that governments do indeed have a form of collective agency along the lines of the ideas expressed by List and Pettit (Group Agency: The Possibility, Design, and Status of Corporate Agents); but it is a conception of group agency that depends on the organized activities and plans of the actors who constitute various units of the organization. Moreover, I argue that the disconnects, inconsistent priorities, principal-agent problems, and conflicts of interest that arise within organizations pretty much ensure that governments and other mega-organizations are myopic and unsteady.

Now think of the possibilities of overlap, interference, and inconsistency that exist among the functionings and missions of diverse agencies. Each agency has its mission and priorities; these goals imply efforts on the part of the leaders, managers, and staff of the agency to bring about certain kinds of results. And sometimes—perhaps most times— these results may be partially inconsistent with the priorities, goals, and initiatives of other governmental agencies. The Commerce Department has a priority of encouraging the export of US technology to other countries, to generate business success and economic growth in the United States. Some of those technologies involve processes like nuclear power production. But other agencies—and the Commerce Department itself in another part of its mission—have the goal of limiting the risks of the proliferation of technologies with potential military uses. Here is the crucial point to recognize: there is no “master executive” capable of harmoniously adjusting the activities of all departments so as to bring about the best outcome for the country, all things considered. There is the President of the United States, of course, who wields authority over the cabinet secretaries who serve as chief executives of the various departments; and there is the Congress, which writes legislation charging and limiting the activities of government. But it is simply impossible to imagine an overall master executive who serves as symphony conductor to all these different areas of government activity. At the best, occasions of especially obvious inconsistency of mission and effort can be identified and ameliorated. New policies can be written, memoranda of understanding between agencies can be drafted, and particular dysfunctions can be untangled. But this is a piecemeal and never-complete process. (5)

The book pays attention to the forms of dysfunction that can be seen to arise within organizations and networks of organizations, given the nature of the actor-centered activity that they encompass. (Other experts on organizational dysfunction include Charles Perrow (Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies) and Diane Vaughan (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA).) So the occurrence of corruption, failure of execution, short attention span, inadequate communication, and inconsistency of effort across related agencies are dysfunctional, but can be seen to be as natural to organizations as friction is to mechanical devices. Here is the general view of dysfunction that is developed in the book:

This chapter focuses on a key consequence of the social realities of government presented to this point: the fact that agencies and bureaucracies represent loosely-linked groups of actors who have a variety of different interests, only imperfectly subject to control by the central executive. This is the key theme of the “natural systems” approach to organizations described in Chapter 4. This unavoidable looseness of bureaucratic organization creates the possibility of several kinds of lack of coherence between government’s intentions and the actual activities of agencies and departments. The chapter introduces the idea of a principal-agent problem and demonstrates that this is an unavoidable feature of organizational functioning. It also applies the idea of “loose coupling” to the challenges associated with inter-agency collaboration. And it touches on an important problem at the level of the actor, the problem of conflict of interest and commitment. The chapter considers a range of organizational mechanisms aimed at enhancing internal controls and compliance. (92)

Government is essential to preserving and enhancing the public good in a complex, interdependent society. In order to bring about effective formulation and implementation of public policy, regulation, enforcement, and protection of the health and welfare of the public, it is crucial to have a realistic understanding of how organizations work, and what can be done to make them as effective as possible. And we need to have an honest understanding of the features of organizational behavior that lead to dysfunction if we are to have any hope of creating governmental (and private) organizations that can truly be described as “high-reliability organizations” (link). Fundamentally this book offers a conception of government as a network of organizations, loosely coupled and subject to imperfect executive management. The key challenge for elected leaders and government officials and experts is how to navigate the limitations of large organizations while achieving the larger part of an agenda for the public good.