New thinking about European genocide and the Holocaust

Image: names of Holocaust victims

It sometimes seems that some questions in history are resolved, finished, and understood. At various times the industrial revolution, the outbreak of World War I, and the French war in Indochina fell in this category. And then a new generation of historians comes along and questions the assumptions and certainties of their predecessors, and offers new theories and interpretations of these apparently familiar historical happenings. the narrative changes, and we understand the historical happenings differently. Sometimes it is a matter of new evidence, sometimes it is a reframing of old assumptions about the time and place of the happening, and sometimes it is a shift from agency to structure (or the reverse). And sometimes it is the result of new thinking about the concepts and methods of history itself — how historians should proceed in researching and explaining complex events in the past.

The occurrence and causes of the Holocaust seem to fall in this category of important historical realignment in the past twenty years. After a period of several decades in which the central facts of Nazi war against Europe’s Jews were thought to be understood — horrible as those facts are — but beyond any serious doubt about causes, extent, and consequences. Perhaps Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, captured that postwar historical consensus; Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975) falls in that early wave of scholarship as well. But recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination, and important new insights have emerged.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

One of those groundbreaking historians is Tim Snyder, with his books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood — too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands”; largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the  Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. And perhaps most striking, Snyder links the mass killings of Jews with the almost equally numerous mass killings by the Soviet state of peasants, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians in the same region. Here is Snyder’s delineation of the bloodlands and the re-centering that he proposes for the way that we think about the Holocaust:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century. (kl 444)

Here is a map in which Snyder indicates the scope of the bloodlands of slaughter.

Snyder’s approach to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews in Bloodlands is striking and original, but the approach it takes is not unique. Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933-1945 in much the same geographical terms. Here is the abstract of Prusin’s book:

ABSTRACT The book traces the turbulent history of the borderlands that before World War constituted the frontier‐zones between the Austro‐Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and in the course of the twentieth‐century changed hands several times. It subscribes to the notion that internal socio‐economic cleavages and ethnic rivalries — the most common patterns to the East European landscape — were at the root of conflicts in the borderlands. However, its dominating thrust is predicated upon the notion that the borderlands’ ethno‐cultural diversity was in basic conflict with the nationalizing policies of the states that dominated the region. In peacetime, when the state’s control over all forms of social relations was unchallenged, it acted as the highest arbitrator, manipulating the conflicting claims of rival groups and maintaining relative stability in its domain. But in the time of crisis, when the state’s resources became strained to the limit, suspicions of the groups deemed less loyal to the state blurred the concept of internal and external enemies and entailed the persecution of allegedly ‘corrosive’ ethnic elements. Simultaneously, state‐violence was sustained and exacerbated by popular participation and acquired its own destructive logic, mutating into a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Christian Gerlach reviews the two books together in American Historical Review (link).

Large factors that have been overlooked

In Black Earth Snyder offers another kind of re-centering of the Holocaust, this time by attempting to identify the consistent worldview through which Hitler came to put the extermination of the Jews (of the entire world) as his most important goal. Snyder refers to this as Hitler’s anti-scientific “ecological” theory of race, in which Hitler attributes everything bad in the world to the Jewish people. He places Hitler’s ideas about “Lebensraum” into the context of this batty ecological thinking. So Snyder makes a point about anti-Semitism: was Hitler just another instance of a European anti-Semite, carried to a lunatic extreme? And Snyder’s view is that the truth is much more horrible. Hitler’s war on the Jews derived from a deeply held worldview, not a superficial cultural attitude.

Snyder also introduces a new line of interpretation of the causes of the Final Solution by emphasizing that mass murder by the Nazi regime depended crucially on destroying the state institutions of other countries that might otherwise have interfered with the mass murder of their Jewish citizens.

In 1935, German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens. In 1938, some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state. Any legal discrimination would be complicated by its unforeseen consequences for other aspects of the law and in bureaucratic practice. Even matters that might seem simple, such as expropriation and emigration, proceeded rather slowly in Nazi Germany. When Austria was destroyed, by contrast, Austria’s Jews no longer enjoyed any state protection and were victimized by a majority that wished to distance itself from the past and align itself with the future. Statelessness opened a window of opportunity for those who were ready for violence and theft. (Black Earth, pp. 84-85). 

Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a conclusion: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse. Referring to the Red Army photographs and films of German concentration camps that reached the West, he writes: “Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction” (Bloodlands, kl 476). 
Both of Snyder’s books have been controversial in the field of Holocaust studies. Some critics are concerned that Snyder diminishes the significance of Nazi extermination of the Jewish people by intermingling his treatment with Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder against peasants, Poles, and other enemies (e.g. Thomas Kühne’s excellent review in Contemporary European Historylink). Kühne also faults Snyder for subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of history, while paying little attention to the agency of ordinary people in the conduct of mass murder. Kühne writes, “The two Great Men who made the history of the ‘bloodlands’ are Hitler and Stalin, of course.” Others have criticized Black Earth for a leaving a sort of disjunct between the theoretical claims of the opening chapters and the actual historical narrative in the substantive center of the book (e.g. Mark Roseman’s review in American Historical Reviewlink).

Ordinary perpetrators

Kühne’s point about “agency” within mass murder identifies another important theme in Holocaust scholarship since 1980 or so — the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A number of historians and sociologists who have asked fundamental questions: who were the “front-line workers” of the machinery of murder? What were their motives? Were they Nazi ideologues? Were they coerced? Was there some other basis for their compliance (and eagerness) in the horrible work of murder? Kühne’s own book The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century takes up this theme. And a major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Thomas Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and came to fairly shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments; but the great majority did not.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost. As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. (74)

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) used mostly the same materials but came to even more challenging conclusions — that a deep and historically unique kind of anti-Semitism in Germany underlay the entire structure of mass murder.

It is my contention that [explaining their actions] cannot be done unless such an analysis is embedded in an understanding of German society before and during its Nazi period, particularly of the political culture that produced the perpetrators and their actions. This has been notably absent from attempts to explain the perpetrators’ actions, and has doomed these attempts to providing situational explanations, ones that focus almost exclusively on institutional and immediate social psychological influences, often conceived of as irresistible pressures. (7)

There is not a very large difference in substance between the books by Browning and Goldhagen: ordinary men did horrible things, knowing that they were horrible. But these books created a large debate among historians. (Here is a symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum including extensive contributions by Goldhagen and Browning; link.)

Another important example of research on “ordinary people committing mass murder” is Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross provides a case study of a single massacre of Jews in a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, it was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a barn, and burned the barn, killing about 1600 Jewish men, women, and children. What were their motives? Gross refers to a culture of anti-Semitism at the local level; but he also refers to an eagerness on the part of non-Jewish townspeople to expropriate the property of the Jewish victims. (Here is a valuable article in Slavic Review by Janine Holc (link).) Gross raises the question of individual responsibility, but as Hole observes, he is ambiguous about how he views individual, collective, and national responsibility in this case, or in the larger tragedy of the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population (456).

So what do these new contributions to the historical study of the Holocaust matter? For all of us, they matter because they promise to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how this horrific part of our recent past came to be — the institutional, political, ideological, and local circumstances that facilitated the mass murder of the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. And there are contemporary consequences that should be considered: does the extremism that is found in radical populism in so many countries, including the United States, create the possibility of horrific actions by states and peoples in the twenty-first century as well? Snyder apparently believes so, at least insofar as a slide from democracy into authoritarian government based on nationalistic ideologies is a possibility (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

These new developments in the field of Holocaust history also create an important reminder for historians: historical events are large, complex, multifaceted, and conjunctural. This means that our understanding of these events, both large and small, can always be improved, and sometimes progress in our understanding involves large shifts in perspective and analysis. We see things differently after reading some of these historians. For example, we may be led to think of the occurrence in different spatial or temporal terms. Was the story of the extermination of Europe’s Jews a German story or a story located on a large, multinational map? Is it best told through national histories or a more synthetic approach? Are extermination camps the most important parts of the story, or are the many thousands of sites at which organized killing occurred more important? Can the story be told in broad strokes at a high level, or does it depend crucially on the micro-processes through which it came about? How much do we need to know about the motivations of participants at the high level and the street level?

Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) undergo paradigm shifts, following which we view the natural world differently and investigate it with different tools. Current developments in historical research on the Holocaust support the idea that historical thinking too undergoes paradigm shifts.

(An interesting resource on the topic of new research on the Holocaust is the Defending History website (link). Based in Lithuania, this site is dedicated to maintaining high-quality historical understanding of the Holocaust and resisting the resurgence of new forms of extremist rightwing anti-Semitism.)

Rational life plans and the stopping problem

Image: a poor solution to the stopping problem

In earlier posts I discussed the question of “rational plans of life” (linklinklinklink) and argued that standard theories of rational decision making under uncertainty don’t do well in this context. I argued instead that rationality in navigating and building a life is not analogous to remodeling your kitchen; instead, it involves provisional clarification of the goals and values that one embraces, and then a kind of step-by-step, self-critical direction-setting in the choices that one makes over time in ways that honor these values.

Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’ Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions provides a very interesting additional perspective on this problem of living a life. The authors describe the algorithms that computer science has discovered to handle difficult choice problems, and they make an effort to both explain (generally) how the problem is solved formally and how it finds application in ordinary situations of human decision-making over an extended time — such as the challenging question of where to stop for a meal on a long road trip, or which candidate to hire as an executive assistant.

The key features of decision-making that drive much of their discussion are time and uncertainty. We often have to make decisions and choices among options where we do not know the qualities of the items on offer (restaurants to consider for a special meal, individuals who are prospective friends, who to hire for an important position), the likelihood of success of a given item, and where we often cannot return to a choice we’ve already rejected. (If we are driving between Youngstown and Buffalo there are only finitely many restaurants where we might stop for a meal; but once we’ve passed New Bangkok Restaurant at exit 50 on the interstate, we are unlikely to return when we haven’t found a better choice by exit 55.)

The stopping problem seems relevant to the problem of formulating a rational plan of life, since the stream of life events and choices in a person’s life is one-directional, and it is rare to be able to return to an option that was rejected at a prior moment. In hindsight — should I have gone to Harvard for graduate school, or would Cornell or Princeton have been a better choice? The question is literally pointless; it cannot be undone. Life, like history, proceeds in only one direction. Many life choices must be made before a full comparison of the quality of the options and the consequences of one choice or another can be fully known. And waiting until all options have been reviewed often means that the earlier options are no longer available — just like that Thai restaurant on the Ohio Turnpike at exit 50.

The algorithms that surround the stopping problem have a specific role in decision-making in ordinary life circumstances: we will make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty and irreversibility if we understand something about the probabilities of the idea that “a better option is still coming up”. We need to have some intuitive grasp of the dialectic of “exploration / exploitation” that the stopping problem endorses. As Christian and Griffiths put it, “exploration is gathering information, and exploitation is using the information you have to get a known good result” (32). How long should we continue to gather information (exploration) and at what point should we turn to active choice (“choose the next superior candidate that comes along”)? If a person navigates life by exploring 90% of options before choosing, he or she is likely to do worse than less conservative decision-makers; but likewise about the person who chooses after seeing 5% of the options.

There is a very noticeable convergence between the algorithms of stopping and Herbert Simon’s theory of satisficing (link). (The authors note this parallelSimon noted that the heroic assumptions of economic rationality are rarely satisfied in actual human decision-making: full information about the probabilities and utilities associated with a finite range of outcomes, and choice guided by choosing that option with the greatest expected utility. He notes that this view of rationality requires an unlimited budget for information gathering, and that — at some point — the cost of further search outweighs the probably gains of finding the optimal solution. Simon too argues that rational decision-makers “stop” in their choices: they set a threshold value for quality and value, initiate a search, and select the first option that meets the threshold. “Good enough” beats “best possible”. If I decide I need a pair of walking shoes, I decide on price and quality — less than $100, all leather, good tread, comfortable fit — and I visit a sequence of shoe stores, with the plan of buying the first pair of shoes that meets the threshold. But the advantage of the search algorithm described here is that it does not require a fixed threshold in advance, and it would appear to give a higher probability of making the best possible choice among all available options. As a speculative guess, it seems as though searches guided by a fixed threshold would score lower over time than searches guided by a balanced “explore, then exploit” strategy, without the latter being overwhelmed by information costs.

In one of the earlier posts on “rational life plans” I suggested that rationality comes into life-planning in several different ways:

We might describe this process as one that involves local action-rationality guided by medium term strategies and oriented towards long term objectives. Rationality comes into the story at several points: assessing cause and effect, weighing the importance of various long term goals, deliberating across conflicting goals and values, working out the consequences of one scenario or another, etc. (link)

The algorithms of stopping are clearly relevant to the first part of the story — local action-rationality. It is not so clear that the stopping problem arises in the same way in the other two levels of life-planning rationality. Deliberation about longterm objectives is not sequential in the way that deciding about which highway exit to choose for supper is; rather, the deliberating individual can canvas a number of objectives simultaneously and make deliberative choices among them. And choosing medium-term strategies seems to have a similar temporal logic: identify a reasonable range of possible strategies, compare their strengths and weaknesses, and choose the best. So the stopping problem seems to be relevant to the implementation phase of living, not the planning and projecting parts. We don’t need the stopping algorithm to decide to visit the grandchildren in Scranton, or in deciding which route across the country to choose for the long drive; but we do need it for deciding the moment-to-moment options that arise — which hotel, which restaurant, which stretch of beach, which tourist attraction to visit along the way. This seems to amount to a conclusion: the stopping problem is relevant to a certain class of choices that come as an irreversible series, but not relevant to deliberation among principles, values, or guiding goals.

(Christian and Griffiths describe the results of research on the stopping problem; but the book does not give a clear description of how the math works. Here is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the solution to the stopping problem in American Scientistlink. Essentially the solution — wait and observe for the first 37% of options, then taken the next option better than any of those seen to date — follows from a calculation of the probability of the distribution of “best choices” across the random series of candidates. And it can be proven that both lower and higher thresholds — less exploration or more exploration — lead to lower average payoffs.)

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 and Tim Snyder on the twentieth century

Timothy Snyder helped Tony Judt to create a “spoken book” during Judt’s final months of illness through a truly unique series of conversations about biography and history. The book is well worth reading. Snyder is the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, and the spoken book he created with Judt is Thinking the Twentieth Century. This work deserves recognition both as a contribution to the philosophy of history as well as to the task of making sense of Europe’s often horrible complexity and darkness throughout much of the twentieth century. The book is a mix of Judt’s reflections about his own intellectual and personal development (biography), and the complicated back-and-forth that the twentieth century embodied between thinking and history — between ideologies and philosophies of society, and the large schemes of social and political systems that dominated the twentieth century — fascism, totalitarianism, liberal democracy, conservative democracy, capitalism, and communism. Each system had its theorists, from Marx to Lloyd George to Keynes to Pareto to von Mises to Stalin; and the theories had important effects on the evolution of the systems and the movements of resistance that sometimes arose within them. So “thinking the twentieth century” is meant very literally: Judt believes that the large movements and shifts that occurred during the century were importantly influenced by ideologies and philosophies, often in pernicious ways. And, of course, both he and Snyder have spent their careers as historians “thinking the twentieth century” through their efforts to make sense of its enormous tides, storms, and seismic realignments.

There is a deep reason why it makes sense to pay attention both the the supra-individual events of the century as well as the theories that were debated in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Budapest, and Warsaw. This conjunction emphasizes the intimate relationships that exist between thinking, doing, and historical change. As Marx observed, “men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” By giving emphasis to the ideas and theories that occupied activists, philosophers, economists, and revolutionaries, Judt and Snyder offer their own affirmations of agency in history. For better, and often for worse, the great events of the century flowed fairly directly from theories and ideas.

Snyder and Judt spend a good deal of time on several large historical features of the twentieth century: the trajectory of Marxist thinking — both communist and non-communist — in western and central Europe; the complexities and contradictions of liberalism, in both western and eastern Europe; the rise of Soviet domination of eastern and central Europe; the critics of Communism whose voices became audible in the decades following World War II (Kolakowski, Koestler, Orwell, Havel, Kundera, Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, …), the internal national dynamics of Soviet-installed regimes in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other central European countries from 1946 to 1989, the Cold War, and the vicissitudes of liberal democracy. It is not exactly intellectual history; rather, it is a history that is sensitive to the ways in which intellectuals — theorists, philosophers, poets — influenced events in very profound ways.

The Marxist left often regarded the intellectuals who renounced their loyalty to the Communist movement as turncoats and reactionaries. Judt and Snyder make it clear that this frequently is not the case. Many critics of Communism in the 1950s retained their progressive beliefs and values, but saw clearly the oppression and tyranny that Soviet Communism had come to embody.

It’s best to think of the Cold War liberals [Raymond Aron, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler] as the heirs to American Progressivism and the New Deal. That’s their formation, in the French sense of the word, that’s how they were molded, that’s what shaped them intellectually. They saw the welfare state and the social cohesion it could generate as a way to avoid the extremist politics of the 1930s. That is what fueled and informed their anti-communism: the latter was also driven by a background many of them shared in anti-fascist activities before 1939. The anti-fascist organizations, the fronts, the movements, the journals, the meetings, the speeches of the thirties have their counterpart in the anti-communist liberalism of the fifties. (228)

The “aggressively socialist” is crucial. There’s nothing reactionary about Sidney Hook. There’s nothing politically right-wing about him, though he was conservative in some of his cultural tastes—like many socialists. Like Raymond Aron, he was on the opposite side of the barrier from the sixties students. He left New York University disgusted with the university’s failure to stand up to the sit-ins and occupations—that was a very Cold War liberal kind of stance. But his politics were always left of center domestically and a direct inheritance from the nineteenth-century socialist tradition. (227)

And here is a very good statement by Judt of what these “Cold War liberals” defended:

What made the West a better place, in short, were its forms of government, law, deliberation, regulation and education. Taken together, over time, these formed an implicit pact between society and the state. The former would concede to the state a certain level of intervention, constrained by law and habit; the state, in turn, would allow society a large measure of autonomy bounded by respect for the institutions of the state. (229)

One of the themes that Snyder pursues is how Judt’s identity as the child of working class immigrant Eastern European Jewish parents affected — or did not affect — the development of his interests as a historian. This is all the more important in consideration of the facts of the Holocaust and the central role that Nazi extermination had in virtually all of the historical developments of the period.

Like my mother, my father came from a Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe. In his case, though, the family made two stopovers between the Russian Empire and Britain: Belgium and Ireland. My paternal grandmother, Ida Avigail, came from Pilviskiai, a Lithuanian village just southwest of Kaunas: now in Lithuania, then in the Russian Empire. Following the early death of her father, a carter, she worked in the family bakery. Sometime in the first decade of the century, the Avigails decided to make their way west to the diamond industry in Antwerp, where they had contacts. There in Belgium Ida met my paternal grandfather. Other Avigails settled in Brussels; one started a dry-goods store in Texas. (2)

And his ordinary sensibilities as a boy and adolescent:

Even the very car in which we drove suggests a certain non-Jewish Jewishness on my father’s part. He was a big fan of the Citroën car company, though I don’t believe he ever once mentioned to me that it had been established by a Jewish family. My father would never have driven a Renault, probably because Louis Renault was a notorious wartime collaborator whose firm had been nationalized at the Liberation as punishment for his Vichyite sympathies. Peugeots, on the other hand, got a favorable pass in family discussions. After all, they were of Protestant extraction and thus somehow not implicated in the Catholic anti-Semitism of Vichy-era France. No one ever said a word about the background to all this, and yet it was all somehow quite plain to me. (7)

Judt was named “Tony” in remembrance of his father’s cousin Antonia in Brussels, who was known as “Toni” and was murdered in about 1943 along with her sister at Auschwitz. It is also interesting to learn that Judt spent the better part of two years as a teenager on a kibbutz in Israel before returning to Britain to attend Cambridge University. The Holocaust was a direct and living reality for the young Tony Judt in England — “I cannot recall a time when I did not know about what was not yet called the Holocaust” (6).

The world of my youth was thus the world that was bequeathed us by Hitler. To be sure, twentieth-century intellectual history (and the history of twentieth-century intellectuals) has a shape of its own: the shape that intellectuals of right or left would assign to it if they were recounting it in conventional narrative form or as part of an ideological world picture. But it should be clear by now that there is another story, another narrative that insistently intervenes and intrudes upon any account of twentieth-century thought and thinkers: the catastrophe of the European Jews. A striking number of the dramatis personae of an intellectual history of our times are also present in that story, especially from the 1930s forwards. (11)

And yet Judt did not become a historian of the Holocaust. He did not focus his studies, as so many young intellectuals did, on the question of how the Holocaust could have occurred.

If I have any special insight into the history of the historiography of the Holocaust, it is because it tracks my life quite closely. As I mentioned earlier, I was unusually well-informed on this subject for a ten-year-old child. And yet, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1960s, I have to confess that I was remarkably uninterested in the subject—not only the Holocaust, but Jewish history in general. Moreover, I don’t believe that I was in the least taken aback when we studied, e.g., the history of occupied France without any reference to the expulsion of the Jews. (31)

The more one looks back on the twentieth century, the bleaker it becomes. Mass killings, tyrannical states, deliberate starvation of millions of peasants in Ukraine, war without end; and following the end of the Second World War, a protracted Cold War, more state-sanctioned mass starvation in China, colonial wars in Indochina, and the murderous, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Where in this story does one find grounds for hope for the future? Both of Tim Snyder’s books — Bloodlands and Black Earth — are awesome and admirable demonstrations of honest, unblinking historical research into unspeakable human catastrophe. Consider just a paragraph from Bloodlands:

The twenty-second of June 1941 is one of the most significant days in the history of Europe. The German invasion of the Soviet Union that began that day under the cryptonym Operation Barbarossa was much more than a surprise attack, a shift of alliances, or a new stage in a war. It was the beginning of a calamity that defies description. The engagement of the Wehrmacht (and its allies) with the Red Army killed more than ten million soldiers, not to speak of the comparable number of civilians who died in flight, under bombs, or of hunger and disease as a result of the war on the eastern front. During this eastern war, the Germans also deliberately murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and more than three million prisoners of war. (155)

It was, indeed, the “beginning of a calamity that defies description.” And it is a history that all of us need to confront more honestly than we ever have, if we are to create a better world.

Where today is a practical vision of a world that is just, humane, and peaceful? Where are the leaders who can help steer a global world of dozens of armed powers to a stable, peaceful future? Where are the institutions that can help navigate through the challenges our century will face? What in fact have we learned from the horrors of the twentieth century that will help us navigate to a world that permits the full and free development of all human beings?

It is not quite true to say that we altogether lack a set of ideas that might constitute the core of such a vision: nations that embody secure institutions and values of liberal democracy, full equality of opportunity, ample provision of social services, and a reasonable range of economic inequalities; and international institutions that ensure equitable economic relations among states, robust conflict-resolution mechanisms, and effective ability to solve problems of the global commons, including especially global climate change. It is a liberal, social democratic, and internationalist worldview that depends on a simple theory: a just and equitable world is a peaceful world. If our mood today is gloomy, it is because so many features of this vision for the future are under attack by the extreme right, including the frenetic lurches of the current president. Liberal democracy, social welfare policies, economic equality, and international institutions are all under attack from some of the same forces of hate that led to such destruction in the previous century. The platforms of hate and division seem more powerful than ever, amplified by seemingly ubiquitous social media. And our leaders of all stripes seem to have only myopic vision when it comes to the problem of navigating through the turbulent waters we now find ourselves in. We want a world that is more free, more just, more peaceful, and more sustainable than the one we find today.  Is this too much to ask?

*****
Here is an excellent lecture by Tim Snyder on Bloodlands (link).

Judt on “A Clown in Regal Purple”

There is an intriguing paragraph in Tony Judt and Tim Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that made me curious. Judt says to Snyder:

My own tenure case at Berkeley proceeded under the shadow cast by a long article I published in 1979 criticizing popular trends in social history, under the title “A Clown in Regal Purple.” Various colleagues in the history department pompously advised me that, on account of this notorious essay, they would have to vote against me. As one of them explained it to me, this was not because of the essay’s controversial content, but rather because it had “named names.” In particular, William Sewell, one of those whom I had listed as a perpetrator of the more misguided sort of social history, was a Berkeley graduate. For a young assistant professor like myself to dismiss the work of his colleagues’ students was lèse-institution, and unforgivable. Lacking both institutional loyalty and prudential instincts, I of course had never understood the extent of my offense. Thanks to that essay, the tenure vote in my department was split, albeit with a positive majority. Whatever my long-term prospects, the atmosphere felt poisoned. (157)

What was this “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) that stirred up such passions when it was published in 1979? And why would one gifted historian (Judt) take such animus to another gifted historian (Sewell)? The article is worth reading, but frankly — not to Judt’s credit.

The article begins ominously: “This is a bad time to be a social historian.” Surprising — many might say rather that the 1970s and 80s were a particular good time for social history. And Judt’s answer to his own question is also surprising: “Social history is suffering a sever case of pollution.” The pollution in question? It is the intrusion of several pernicious influences into the field: feminism, ethnography, sociological theory, and Chuck Tilly. Ha! Here is Judt’s diagnosis:

Why, it may be asked, do we need a critique of modern social history? The response is that a whole discipline is being degraded and abused; a few more years of the work currently published in certain European and American journals, and social history will have lost all touch with the study of the past. Certain areas of historical investigation, notably the history of women, of revolutions, of industrialisation and its impact, have proved especially vulnerable. (67)

Who does Judt have in mind with his critique of “social history”? He names names — many, many names — which seems to be what particularly annoyed his Berkeley colleagues. But he also paints in broad strokes about the discipline as a whole. In a footnote to this passage he writes:

I have in mind in particular the following: Annales Economies-Societes-Civilisations (cited here as Annales ESC); Comparative Studies in Society and History (cited as CSSH); Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH); Journal of Social History (JSH); and, occasionally, Past and Present. (90)

Judt is generally dismissive of the research, rigor, intelligence, historical acumen, and general competence of the social historians whom he considers. The overall impression that he gives — they are self-inflated dunderheads.

The obsession with structures and demography, with what people ate and how many chairs they owned, is a feature of the pages of Annales, much altered since the halcyon days of Bloch and Febvre. Similar ‘static’ obsessions inform the pages of certain English-speaking journals as well. Such concerns are not laudable in themselves. They represent the mindless scraping of the historical dustbin, with no question or problematic behind them. (72)

Mindless scraping of the historical dustbin — what hubris!

Judt has particular scorn for Chuck Tilly:

Here, as elsewhere in his work, one must choose between a megahistorical theory without explanatory value, and a re-description in pretentious terms of a particular process which could better be described in its empirical detail. The model offered is simultaneously overblown and redundant. (69) 

Tilly divides protest into pre-modern and modern, Sewell divides artisans from proletarians on pre-selected criteria of adaptability to bourgeois attitudes, and so forth. This is rubbish — the changing character of rural protest in late nineteenth-century France has nothing to do with definitions of modernity, any more than we have any reason to expect workers in Marseilles to desire upward mobility. (70)

One key thread of Judt’s screed is his view that social history has forgotten about politics — “the means and purposes by which civil society is organised and governed” (68). This is an odd claim in two ways. First, I don’t think that politics is absent in the writings of Sewell or Tilly, so it is an unfair caricature of their work to suggest that it is. But more important — the claim is categorical: “History is about politics”. But surely history is about many things, not just politics. Judt’s own work illustrates the point: in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he gives much attention to film, consumer habits, the educational system, the automobiles people drive, and many other interesting topics that reflect the multidimensionality and heterogeneity of “history”. And, on the other hand, Judt can be faulted for giving little attention to the details of ordinary life in France, Romania, or the USSR — a key topic of concern for the social historians of the 1970s and 1980s. Judt shows in Postwar that he is very aware of the importance of ordinary culture and social roles in historical settings — and these topics are complementary to issues of “politics” rather than subordinate.

It is very interesting that Judt’s diatribe coincides roughly with the point in time at which the Social Science History Association was founded in 1976. The association was founded to create an alternative voice within the history profession, and to serve as a venue for multi-disciplinary approaches to research and explanation in history. It is very interesting that many of the earliest advocates for this new intellectual configuration — including some of the founders of the association — continued their involvement for decades. Chuck Tilly, Bill Sewell, Andrew Abbott, Myron Gutmann, and Julia Adams all illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary work in their own research and writing, and these social researchers have all brought important innovations into the evolving task of understanding the social world. Here is the SSHA mission statement:

The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.

The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.

In my view these impulses have been enormously valuable for the writing of social history in North America and Europe, and increasingly influential in Asia. And yet it seems entirely clear from the Purple Clown essay that Judt would have fully rejected both the premise of the organization and its work.

What is Judt’s summary judgment about social history as a discipline in the 1970s? It is glum:

One should not be over-sanguine. A return to the study of politics and ideology, a willingness to criticise and condemn where appropriate, an improvement in the level of scholarship and literacy are none of them very likely in the near future. Newcomers (the history of women, the history of the family) might yet force some rethinking on the profession, in order to avoid being stillborn. But that, too, is unlikely. The pessimistic prognosis is much the more realistic. We are witnessing the slow strangulation of social history, watching while a high fever is diagnosed as blooming good health. If the deity who watches over the profession did indeed desire the death of the past, what better way than to drive its high priests mad? It is quite disconcerting to be associated with this scene of progressive dementia. Now is truly a bad time to be a social historian. (89)

This is certainly not a fair, balanced, or intellectually generous assessment of the research of hundreds of young scholars at work in the 1970s and 1980s. The tone of the article from beginning to end is needlessly polemical and disrespectful — editors “pontificate”, social historians show “their inability to write the English language”, the historians are “academic juveniles”, their arguments are “ludicrous”, they place their “ignorance on display”. The only unambiguously positive remark that comes to mind is about Lefebvre and Soboul on the French Revolution (87) — and actually, Lefebvre and Soboul can only be loosely classified as “social historians”.

What is fundamentally disappointing about Judt’s article is not that it is devoid of legitimate intellectual criticism. It is rather that Judt has adopted such an aggressive, combative, and derogatory tone that it is impossible to take seriously the weightier criticisms that are embedded. The article gives the impression of an extremely dogmatic thinker who is unable to see the purpose or value of the other person’s work. It is a bridge-burning manifesto. In an odd way it finds echoes in comments that Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century about his one-time colleagues at Emory University, whom he described as “rather dowdy”, “mediocre”, and “unforgiving” about his end-run to the dean over a hiring decision. (His comments about his several wives are sometimes just as derogatory.) So maybe the Berkeley faculty members made the right call after all — Judt’s collegiality quotient was low enough to suggest that he was likely to harm the intellectual culture of the department.

Is there a better way of doing “critique” of a whole field? There is. For example, Peter Perdue is an accomplished historian of China who recently wrote a valuable and penetrating assessment on the achievements of the Social Science History Assocation and its journal, Social Science History, over several decades, “From the Outside Looking In: The Annales School, the Non-Western World, and Social Science History” (link). Perdue’s assessment is measured and critical, and it is a valuable contribution to scholars interested in contributing to future research in the field. Perdue’s essay presents a superb point of contrast with Judt’s article. It is critical but not polemical, and it leaves plenty of room for scholars from various points of view to learn and improve their understandings of the challenges facing social history. Significantly, Perdue dismisses Judt’s “vitriolic diatribe” against the Tilly school in a single sentence. Perdue attests to the importance of Tilly’s work in shaping Perdue’s own approach to understanding Chinese social and economic history, including especially China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, and notes the important and constructive influence that Tilly’s writings have had in the China field more broadly. (Here is an appreciation of Tilly’s contributions to the China field; link.) Perdue offers a number of criticisms of the way that research within this community has unfolded over the forty years since 1976. He finds that the Annales school had surprisingly little influence within the SSHA research community. He is disappointed to find that environmental history did not find a secure foothold in SSHA or Social Science History. And he finds that SSHA has a relatively poor record of dealing with transnational and non-European history, including Asian historical topics. These are fair comments, and can serve as valuable navigation points for editors of Social Science History and program organizers of the SSHA. This is useful and constructive commentary and can lead to better and more insightful research in the future. In all these ways Perdue’s critique is fundamentally different from Judt’s “diatribe”: it provides helpful guidance for future directions in the research field.

(Here is an insightful assessment of Judt’s intellectual character in StrangeHistory; link.)

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.

Mounk on the crisis of democracy

Yascha Mounk’s recent The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is one of several important efforts to understand the crisis that right-wing populism is creating for liberal democracies in many countries. (An abbreviated version of Mounk’s analysis is published in his contribution to the Atlantic in March 2018 (link).) Mounk shares with Madeleine Albright (Fascism: A Warning), John Keane (The New Despotism), and Levitsky and Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) the concern that the political realities that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States have the potential of profoundly undermining our democracy. I share that concern (linklinklinklink). And yet after reading the book, I’m not entirely convinced that Mounk has hit the target quite right. In the end, he sometimes seems to be more of a critic of liberal democracy than of radical authoritarian populism.

To begin, Mounk makes a determined effort to separate “democracy” from “liberalism”, where the former concept refers to any system in which the “people” rule and the latter refers to any system that embodies legal and institutional protections of the rights and freedoms of all — majority as well as minority. In this way he gives credence to the claim by Viktor Orbán in Hungary to have created the basis of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary (link). Here are the definitions that Mounk offers:

  • democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy. 
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).
  • liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.
  • Democracies can be illiberal. (27)

But democracy is not a single-stranded political conception. It is an “ideal type” that draws together several important ideas: self-rule, of course; but also the rule of law, constitutional protection of citizens’ rights, and a commitment to the neutrality of political institutions. Democracy is anti-authoritarian; and this means that there need to be principles, rules, laws, and institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. Therefore the only system worthy of the name as “democracy” is in fact what Mounk refers to as “liberal democracy”. And what Orbán describes is not democracy — any more than a counterfeit coin is a coin.

Mounk details the large decline in public confidence in the political institutions of liberal democracies across Europe and North America. He sees this as an especially worrisome feature of our current political realities: a rising percentage of citizens are willing to look with favor on “strong man” government or even rule by the military. And he recites the evidence of contempt for democratic values and institutions expressed by President Trump since 2016, and by the Republican Party for decades before that.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics. He promised to jail his political opponents. He refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He bullied the press and threatened to expand libel laws. He invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor. He incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and promised to take unconstitutional action against them. (119)

What Mounk does not do is trace the connection between conservative Republican activists, their deliberate strategies aimed at discrediting and demeaning the institutions of government, and the resulting decline in public opinion that he documents. These shifts of public support for democratic values and institutions are not self-generated; they are at least in part the result of deliberate anti-government strategies of the right, in the United States and other countries. Figures such as Grover Norquist (“I simply want to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”), Newt Gingrich (“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty” (link)), and the Tea Party had a very consistent and extended political message: government is not to be trusted, and the institutions and values of our political system are bankrupt. Surely this propaganda offensive — fueled by Fox News, talk radio, and social networks — has played an important role in the decline of trust (and adherence) in the institutions and values of liberal democracy. On this topic I find more to learn from McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (linklink).

In fact, chapter 2 of Mounk’s book (“Rights without Democracy”) could serve as the letters of indictment of a fairly cerebral right-wing populist propaganda specialist. Much of the chapter seems intended to show that liberal democracy is a sham: “As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule” (53). Bureaucrats, judges, international lawyers, and the wealthy make the major decisions, in Mounk’s telling of the tale. Mounk gives the impression that the “founding myth” of American democracy (or British democracy) is exactly that — a myth. And here Mounk is unfair. It is of course true that citizenship was limited in the first century of the US democracy; but it is also true that, through struggle by African-Americans, women, and other excluded minorities, the political system and constitution expanded. We are not the political system we were in 1776 or 1789 or 1861. Nor is it obvious that representative democracy is less democratic than direct democracy — unless we take it as a definitional matter that democracy means direct decision-making by the population.

Mounk’s narrative here gives some credence to the radical populists’ claim that “elites are running the country” (in Britain, in Germany, in the EU, in the US), based on the extensive bureaucracies involved in modern government. He discusses bureaucrats and civil servants, judges, independent agencies, and international treaties and organizations as examples of “unelected elites making basic decisions”. But this claim is itself far too sweeping and simplistic. The fact that public health specialists offer scientific advice about wearing masks during pandemic — and governors act on this advice — is not elitism; it is the result of the principle that “good public policy should be guided by the best scientific understanding of the problems we face.” Yes, governments in liberal democracies deploy legions of “technical experts” or “technocrats”, and these men and women help to formulate public policies in directions that are often hard to sell on Fox News. But this is how governments should act; and it is part of the shameful performance of the Trump administration that Trump and his cabinet have done everything in their power to silence and ignore the advice of qualified scientists, from climate change to atmospheric science to global pandemic.

Mounk emphasizes the very substantial increase in “bureaucratization” that state agencies have undergone in western democracies — the creation of large agencies with substantial regulatory authority such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (64). And he seems to suggest that this process gives some truth to the populist refrain that “elites are running our lives without control by the people”. But, as Mounk obviously agrees, a large bureaucracy is unavoidable in the administration and regulation of complex activities like the broadcast spectrum, nuclear power plants, food safety, or pollution. This is not an indication of elitism; it is rather a necessary consequence of highly complex and extended economic and social processes that serve to ensure the health, safety, and security of the public — the people. A democracy requires regulatory agencies, under the broad charter of legislative action. Government is “big” — big government exercises a great deal of decision-making authority. Of course! Democratic legitimacy requires that we make these processes more transparent to the public, but the fact of bureaucracy is not a legitimate complaint against liberal democracy.

Mounk gives an extended example from Switzerland to illustrate the way he divides “democracy” from “liberalism”. A local community sought to prevent a local mosque from building a minaret; the Federal Supreme Court declared in favor of the rights of freedom of worship of these individuals, including the right to build a minaret; and the populist right took up the issue, brought it to a national referendum, and were able to incorporate a restrictive clause  against Muslims into the Swiss constitution: “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed … The construction of minarets is prohibited” (48). Mounk describes this as a case in which “democracy” and “liberalism” parted ways: “That is why I prefer to say that the controversy over minarets epitomizes the disintegration of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism” (48). But the justices of the FSC are not elite technocrats substituting their judgment for the “will of the people”; this is exactly what a Supreme Court is charged to do within a constitutional democracy. How else are the rights and freedoms of minorities to be defended against the will of the majority?

Mounk notes that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: “In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press” (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press (including, of course, Donald Trump) is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists’ policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace “freedom of thought and speech” with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape “knowledge” and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again — democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

Mounk is of course right in noticing that populists claim to advocate for democracy, by proclaiming to their followers that they are the true “people” and that their will is the political program of the populist movement. But this is charade, as Mudde and Kaltwasser (Populism: A Very Short Introductionlink) and other scholars of populism have shown. When Sarah Palin claims that the “real Americans” are those who live in small racially homogeneous towns in the Midwest, she is making an appeal to a minority segment of the American population. Her “real Americans” do not include people of color, liberals, urban people, gay people, or legal immigrants. This is not an appeal to democracy; it is an appeal to an exclusionary view of “good Americans” and “bad people living in the country”.

In brief, Mounk’s mid-semester grade for the American democracy is pretty low:

At a minimum, I suggest, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In the United States, these mechanisms are now significantly impaired. The country’s commitment to liberal rights remains deeply ingrained. But the form this liberalism takes is increasingly undemocratic. (92)

This is a C- when it comes to evaluating a set of political institutions; it suggests that perhaps the student should choose a different major. But actually, we have more to work with in our liberal democracy than Mounk believes. And there is a certain amount of risk of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy here: part of the problem in our democracy is a declining level of confidence in political institutions and the worth of government — a decline very specifically and deliberately orchestrated by the right for the past forty years — and the C- hits us where it hurts.

This is not to suggest that liberal democracy does not need reform. The role of money in politics; the disproportionate influence of big business on public policy; the persistent and deliberate racism involved in voter suppression strategies of gerrymandering and discouragement of minority participation in elections — these are the fundamental flaws of our existing political institutions, and they clearly demand solution.

And yet — liberal democracy is the best we have to offer. Modern democratic institutions of government are not the key risk to human freedom in the twenty-first century; the real enemy of individual freedom and dignity is the sustained rise of powerful populist parties and bosses. Levitsky and Ziblatt are closer to the truth than Mounk.

Mounk has a response to these criticisms:

High-minded defenders of liberal democracy believe that there is something uniquely legitimate about the political system to which they are committed. 

Its democratic element, they claim, ensures citizens’ equality. In a monarchy, the king is elevated above his subjects by the accident of his noble birth. In a democracy, by contrast, all citizens get one vote without regard to the color of their skin or the station of their ancestors. 

Its liberal element, meanwhile, ensures citizens’ freedom. In a totalitarian regime, the government can regulate the lives of its subjects in the most minute detail and punish them at whim. In a liberal polity, by contrast, the reach of the law is limited, and citizens are protected against arbitrary interference in their lives. The peculiar genius of liberal democracy is that it is able to honor both of these values at the same time. 

This account of democratic legitimacy is a little too blithe. (129)

Really? Are we wrong to be “high-minded”? In its essence, this is precisely the defense that is needed for the institutions of a liberal democracy: it is a complex of institutions and values aimed at assuring a population of equal citizens the full exercise of their rights and liberties within a system in which they are guaranteed equal rights of political participation. The hard task is to reform, perfect, and preserve those institutions in the face of the forces of reaction.

The rhetorical structure of the book is “diagnosis, causes, remedies.” The remedies that Mounk explores include three major areas of progress that are needed for a multiethnic, multiracial democracy: a solution to the problem of “nationalism” (or more generally, of divided cultural identities); a more just set of economic institutions and opportunities for all citizens; and the rebuilding of what he calls “civic faith”. Interestingly, these areas of recommended reform align rather well with the list I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

The most substantial practical advice that Mounk offers as a strategy for lending strength to our liberal democracy (and resisting authoritarian impulses of some of our leaders) is popular protest and expression of our values in the public space — real, active political engagement on behalf of a just liberal democracy.

Thankfully, there is a lot that those of us who want liberal democracy to survive the dawning age of populism can do: We can take to the streets to stand up to the populists. We can remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of both freedom and self-government. We can push established parties to embrace an ambitious program capable of renewing liberal democracy’s promise of a better future for all. And if we do win—as I very much hope we shall—we can muster the grace and the determination to bring our adversaries back to the democratic fold. (265)

I find much to admire and learn from in Mounk’s book. The complaints offered here are aimed, really, at the lawyerly effort that Mounk makes to build the case against liberal democracy. Much of the narrative provided in the “diagnosis” part of the book is an impassioned argument aimed at demonstrating the correctness of many of the populists’ key complaints against the liberal state. And a lawyerly defense of the legitimacy of the institutions of contemporary liberal democracies is lacking. But this concedes too much to right-wing populists. Liberal democracy and right-wing populism are not on the same moral plane. And illiberal democracy is no kind of democracy at all; it is despotism.

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.

Conditions for a resilient diverse democracy

Under what conditions can a modern mass society embodying differences of race, religion, wealth, and political ideology maintain a functioning commitment to democracy and its institutions?

The past fifteen years in Western Europe have witnessed an increasingly virulent threat to democracy in the form of the rise of right-wing extremism. Racism, hatred, and violence have come to play increasing roles in the politics and governance of a wide range of western democracies. And the experience of Trumpism in the United States since 2017 makes anyone who is paying attention rightfully alarmed at the future of democratic institutions in the US as well. Trump’s attacks on the Federal courts, his efforts to remove or stifle internal government accountability processes, his explicit politics of division and white supremacy, his demonization of the press, his open admiration of autocrats in other parts of the world, and his celebration of the use of police violence and military force against peaceful protesters make the security of the institutions of liberal democracy increasingly at risk.

Most fundamentally Trump has worked systematically to undermine respect, adherence, and confidence with regard to the institutions of government, and has consistently cultivated his “base” of extremist supporters through a rhetoric of anti-government slogans and racist antagonism. The gun-toting demonstrators against governors who had established sensible policies of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are the most recent example (link), and their Boogaloo networks of violent partisans deepen the threat. And only a tiny number of legislators from the president’s party are willing to express their opposition to the key Trump messages.

So the situation in Trump’s America is alarming. But Trump is merely the spark. What were the circumstances that created an environment where his brand of toxic populist, racist extremism would find substantial political support? And what can be done to help bring the American public back to a strong adherence to our shared political and legal institutions?

John Keane examines the worrisome rise of authoritarianism within western democracies in The New Despotism. His basic thesis is that authoritarian leaders and parties have learned to mimic the language of democracy for their own purposes. Here is William Scheuerman’s description of Keane’s basic theory in his review of the book in The Boston Review (link):

John Keane’s illuminating study of what he dubs the new despotism persuasively argues that its momentum in China, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and many other countries offers evidence both for its viability today and its longevity in times to come. A novel political formation, the new despotism impersonates democracy as it feeds leech-like on its shortcomings. Perhaps most ominously, it threatens to make inroads even in long-standing democracies, where the political decay celebrated by Putin and others represents more than a debased, self-congratulatory fantasy. (Boston Review (link))

Here I would like to examine the symmetrical question: what kinds of activism, social reform, alliance building, and civil communication can work to build durable civic identity across groups? What concrete strategies are available, at a range of levels, to enhance the loyalty and commitment of all groups to the fundamental institutions of a liberal democracy? How can the United States — 330 million people, with huge regional, racial, religious, and social differences to potentially divide them — how can this highly diverse country build a common identity involving commitment to democratic institutions, the equal worth of all persons, and the rule of law?

There is a great deal of evidence to believe that Trump will lose the November election, and perhaps the Republicans will lose their majority in the Senate as well. Our democracy may be saved by the bell, just in time. But a successful transition to a Democratic president, though a crucial next step, will not suffice. We need to find substantial ways of reinforcing and reinvigorating a broad public consensus about the values of democracy and the crucial role that government plays in securing the conditions of justice and wellbeing for all our population. And this means finding ways of addressing the persistent underlying sources of discontent for a sizable part of our population. We must find effective ways of addressing racial inequalities, including the structural facts about our society that lead to police brutality and violence against people of color. We must address the very great inequalities of opportunity and wellbeing that exist in our society in the twenty-first century. Most persistently, we must find a political consensus around the urgency of addressing global climate change. And above all, we must reaffirm the crucial expectations and commitments that all citizens in a democracy need to share concerning the role of government in our public lives.

The elements of political culture that appear to be needed for a stable democracy seem to include things like these:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

Robert Putnam has something important to contribute to a theory of successful multicultural democracy, including especially his analysis of civic organizations, cross-community collaborations, and cultivation of shared civic values (Better Together: Restoring the American Community). And John Rawls addresses the problem of a liberal democracy with competing conceptions of the good through his idea of overlapping consensus (Political Liberalism). Fundamentally Rawls’s view endorses pluralism across multiple conceptions of the good, unified by a common commitment to the fundamental values of equal worth, equal rights and liberties, and constitutional fidelity. He refers to these core commitments as “a political conception of justice,” and he believes that individuals who grow up in a “well-ordered society” will share such a conception.

Let us say that a political conception of justice (in contrast to a political regime) is stable if it meets the following condition: those who grow up in a society well-ordered by it – a society whose institutions are publicly recognized to be just, as specified by that conception itself – develop a sufficient allegiance to those institutions, that is, a sufficiently strong sense of justice guided by appropriate principles and ideals, so that they normally act as justice requires, provided they are assured that others will act likewise. (Rawls, “The domain of the political and overlapping consensus,” Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, 165)

So we might say that a liberal democracy will be stable when it exists in a society embodying a limited range of inequalities, substantial equality of opportunity, equal rights and liberties for all citizens, communication and collaboration across different groups, and a political culture of shared commitment to the institutions of democracy that is cultivated by these enduring conditions. Under these circumstances perhaps we might have confidence that most citizens will come to possess “sufficient allegiance to those institutions” to allow democracy to continue to function.

This implies that our first task is to seriously address the inequalities and injustices that our society still embodies — racial inequalities, mistreatment of minority groups, lack of health insurance for millions of Americans, and extreme and growing inequalities of income and wealth. Second is to imagine and implement real economic changes that increase the opportunities that exist for the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum in this country. Third is to find concrete, impactful forms of collaboration across groups in ways that allow for progress on the challenges that we all face. The broad representation across race, age, and class that is found in the massive peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country provides an excellent model for this kind of collaboration around common demands for change.

The really hard problem is the fact that there seems to be a significant percentage of the American citizenry that rejects the “political and overlapping consensus” that Rawls postulates. The postulate of the moral and political equality of all people is inconsistent with the racism and white supremacy that Trump has encouraged, and many of his followers are receptive to these values. And yet the worldview of white supremacy is completely incompatible with democracy. Further, the appeal of the language of division and hate finds a ready audience with many of his supporters; so extremist organizations are able to build support through racist appeals. It is difficult to see how to build a democratic consensus that incorporates the 30-40% of voters who support the right-wing extremist agenda. And this seems to take us back to the dynamics of anti-democratic authoritarianism described by John Keane above.

We need a new generation of political leaders and political theorists who can offer new ideas about how to build an American consensus in favor of democracy. Here is how an earlier post on this topic closed back in January (link):

Perhaps the identity that has the greatest potential for success in the U.S. is a movement based on “reasserting the values of democracy and equality” within the context of a market economy and a representative electoral democracy. This movement would demand tax policies that work to reduce wealth inequalities and support a progressive state; environmental policies that align the U.S. with the international scientific consensus on climate change; healthcare policies that ensure adequate universal insurance for everyone; immigration policy that made sensible accommodations to the realities of the current U.S. population and workforce, including humane treatment of Dreamers; and campaign funds restrictions that limit the political influence of corporations. The slogan might be, “Moving us all forward through social justice, economic innovation, and good government.” This might be referred to as “centrist progressivism”, and perhaps it is too moderate to generate the passion that a political movement needs to survive. Nonetheless, it might be a form of progressivism that aligns well with the basic pragmatism and fair-mindedness of the American public. 

*          *          *
In a different vein, here are several performances of Aaron Copland’s 1942 powerful and moving Lincoln Portrait (linklink). Lincoln’s words begin at about the 8:00 minute mark.