Explaining GOP behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forced labor and multinational corporations

What role did American multinational auto companies play in the rearmament of Germany during the early period of Nazi rule? And to what extent did these companies participate in Nazi practices like forced (slave) labor and Aryanization for which they should have been held morally responsible?

An early discussion of the responsibility of American corporations for their conduct in Nazi Germany was provoked by Bradford Snell’s testimony to Congress in 1974 (link, pp. 16-23). Snell, a specialist Congressional staff member, argued that the auto companies played a crucial role in supplying the German state with the vehicles and equipment needed for its conduct of war in Europe:

In Germany, for example, General Motors and Ford became an integral part of the Nazi war efforts. GM’s plants in Germany built thousands of bomber and jet fighter propulsion systems for the Luftwaffe at the same time that its American plants produced aircraft engines for the U.S. Army Air Corps. (17)

Snell makes clear the economic and business cost of non-cooperation by the auto companies:

Refusal to aid in prewar preparations, of course, was unthinkable. It would have resulted in confiscation and irreparable economic harm to GM and Ford stockholders. In any event, due to their concentrated economic power in both economies, they were able to shape the conflict to their own private corporate advantage. Whether in fact their profit-maximization determinations were also in the best interests of international peace or, more specifically, in accord with the national security objectives of the United States at that time is entirely unclear. (17)

It was, of course, in the best interests of GM and Ford to cooperate in the Axis war effort. Although GM, for example, was in complete management control of its Russelsheim warplane factory for nearly a full year after Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 11, 1941, its refusal to build warplanes at a time of negligible demand for automobiles would have brought about the economic collapse of its Opel plant. (22)

Here is Snell’s summary conclusion: “In sum, they maximized profits by supplying both sides with the material needed to conduct the war” (16). Importantly, however, Snell does not provide detailed evidence or analysis of the degree to which the US-based corporate headquarters of these companies were in a position to exert management control over their German subsidiaries. And he does not address the question of internal management decision-making at these companies and their use of forced labor. In fact, significant data about forced labor in these plants only became available to researchers in the 1990s.

In 1974 there was only limited documentation of the decision-making and management structure of the auto companies in their German subsidiaries. However, a series of class-action lawsuits emerged in the 1990s that prompted the auto companies to open their private business archives to inspection, and several books have been written since 1998 that document the kinds of collaboration that occurred between multinational companies and the Nazi regime. Two in particular are of special interest here: Billstein, Fings, Kugler, and Levis, Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany during the Second World War (2000), and Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., General Motors and the Nazis: The Struggle for Control of Opel, Europe’s Biggest Carmaker (2005). Also important in this context is Neil Gregor’s book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich (1998), which provides a great deal of documentation of Daimler-Benz’s willing use of forced (slave) labor in its factories. 

These books are important for our concerns because they address the issue of how to understand the evils of the twentieth century, including mass killings, slave labor, and the destruction of human lives and dignity on a grotesque and massive scale. There is the question of evil state action to consider; the question of the evil deeds of particular individuals, from Rudolph Hoess to the ordinary policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101 described by Christopher Browning (link), to the question of the public that accepted these horrendous actions. But along the way, there is the question of the actions and decisions of business firms that continued to operate in Germany, supplying the crucial war materials needed for blitzkrieg and operating according to Nazi principles. Those principles included official anti-Semitism and the use of forced labor of civilians and prisoners of war. There are many important questions that need to be addressed in this field, but the most important is the question of responsibility and culpability. To what extent were the US-based corporate executives aware of these practices, and to what extent did the company have effective control over their German subsidiaries?

The use of forced labor in auto and truck manufacturing plants

Labor shortages were a critical problem throughout wartime Germany, and at the Russelsheim Opel plant in particular. (Extensive documentation of Nazi use of forced and slave labor between 1933 and 1945 is provided by Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich.) Billstein et al and Turner provide a good deal of detail about the practices of Opel with regard to forced labor. Skilled workers were drafted into the armed forces from the GM-owned Opel ranks in large numbers, and plant managers were unable to persuade the labor control authorities Arbeitsamt to exempt skilled workers from further conscription cohorts. Conscription then broadened to include unskilled workers. A possible solution was seen in enemy prisoners of war. The first Opel Russelsheim prison camp was built in July 1940 and was soon occupied by 600 French and Belgian prisoners (Billstein et al, 47). In October 1941 the state authorized the use of Soviet POWs as industrial workers under severe conditions of oversight and confinement, but few of the several million POWs taken during the Barbarossa operations survived to be deployed as industrial slave workers (Billstein et al, 54). In February 1942 the SS central agency approved the Ostarbeiterlasse permitting the conscription of Soviet civilians (and later other civilians from Eastern European conquest zones), and Opel Russelsheim was the first location to receive a consignment of forced workers from the East. A report from September 1942 lists 2449 forced laborers, including Russian civilians, French POWs, and other foreign civilians (Billstein et al, 56). Opel did not make use of concentration-camp labor, according to Billstein et al:

Opel was the only large German vehicle producer not to employ KZ camp prisoners in the period that followed, at either of its two production plants. The company’s tradition was conservative, and not at all anti-Semitic. Opel’s forced laborers, both prisoners of war and civilians, were guarded by company Werkschutz. Concentration camp prisoners were guarded by SS henchmen. (Billstein et al, 63)

What about Ford Motor Company and the extensive use of forced labor in Ford Werke Cologne? More insight into this question has emerged as a result of the same class-action lawsuits initiated in 1998 by former forced workers. In 2001 Ford Motor Company completed a very extensive review of its corporate archives as well as those of Ford Werke and German and US government sources (link), in a report supervised and validated by Simon Reich, a well known scholar of the period. The findings of this review are quite different from those offered by Billstein et al. The Ford Archive Report provides a fairly extensive set of facts about the use of forced and slave labor at Ford Werke Cologne. Here is an overview:

The use of foreign and forced labor at Ford-Werke began in 1940, and generally followed the same pattern as at other industrial facilities in Germany. Foreigners from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as Italian and French POWs were put to work at Ford-Werke. These men and women lived in barracks constructed by Ford-Werke adjacent to its plant site, in what became known in Cologne as the “Ford camp.”[308] After the Reichsbahn [the German railways], Ford-Werke was the next largest employer of forced workers in Cologne.[309] Late in the war, men from the concentration camp Buchenwald worked at Ford-Werke as slave laborers. (See Section 7.7.) (49)

Postwar reports indicate that the first civilians from Eastern Europe began working at Ford-Werke in the spring of 1942. An internal Ford-Werke memorandum written in June 1945 stated, “As far as we can remember, the first Russian men and women came to us in March 1942.”[319] Other postwar documents reported that the Eastern[320] workers arrived in April 1942.[321] In oral history interviews conducted during the 1990s, several Russian and Ukrainian former workers recalled arriving between April and June 1942.[322] Wartime financial records from Ford-Werke reported 320 Eastern workers in May 1942, with the numbers increasing each month to a maximum of 900 workers in October 1943. Between November 1943 and August 1944, the number of Eastern workers indicated in these records varied between 777 and 882.[323] (50)

Forced and foreign workers were a sizable percentage of the total workforce at Ford Werke. The Archive Report indicates that “the highest number of foreign and forced workers at any point during the war was approximately 2,000. This peak occurred in August 1944” (51). This is roughly 40% of the workforce. Here is a graph of the composition of the Ford-Werke labor force from 1941 to 1944 (52):

The report makes an attempt to assess pay rates and living conditions, and notes consistently that conditions and pay were substantially worse for eastern workers than western workers. Food rations for Russian and eastern European workers were especially poor:

Statements from denazification files report that Russians – children as well as adults – received poor food rations.[439] In an interview conducted in the 1990s, one former Eastern worker recalled that her rations typically consisted of three slices of bread and unsweetened coffee for breakfast, soup made from turnips and flour siftings for lunch, and bread and coffee again for dinner. (64)

This is clearly a starvation diet for an adult worker, amounting to perhaps 700-800 calories per day.

The report also provides clear documentation that Ford Werke made use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp:

On the same day that Schmidt and von Gusmann attended the Schaaf meeting [8/1/1944], the main Buchenwald concentration camp prepared a list of 50 prisoners to send to Ford-Werke.[467] Included in the group of prisoners deployed to Ford-Werke were Russian and Czech political prisoners, Poles, and two Germans, one of whom was described as a “criminal” and the other as “work shy.” Among them were carpenters, bricklayers, a painter, a tailor, a cabinet maker, plumbers, electricians, agricultural workers, shoemakers, a barber and a nurse.[468] Their first day of work was August 13, 1944.[469] … Buchenwald transfer lists show that at least 65 different men were assigned to the Ford-Werke satellite camp at one time or another, and that several were transported elsewhere or fled from Ford-Werke and new prisoners brought in to replace them.[470] Most documentation from the period indicates that there were 50 or fewer Buchenwald inmates at Ford-Werke at any given time from August 1944 through the end of February 1945.[471] A 1944 list of Buchenwald satellite camps designates “Ford-Köln” with a capacity of 50 prisoners. (68-69)

This is a long list of moral wrongs committed by Ford Werke — extensive use of forced labor, including POWs and civilians from occupied countries; some use of slave labor from the Buchenwald concentration camp; and a pervasive and dehumanizing differentiation across groups of workers concerning their treatment, housing, and food, with harsh and meager conditions for eastern workers and more moderate conditions for workers from France, Belgium, and other countries of western Europe. It would seem evident that the corporate directors of those companies in Germany bear significant moral and legal responsibility for these actions. In a later post I will turn to the question of the possible culpability of the parent companies, General Motors and Ford Motor Company. It will emerge there that careful review of company archives by independent researchers strongly suggests that the US-based corporate leaders had neither knowledge nor control over events in their German subsidiaries after 1940.

Five easy pieces (for the social sciences)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s return to the questions posed above:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great threat to democracy

Democracies have fallen to strongmen, tyrants-in-waiting, bullies, thugs, spewers-of-bombast. But these powerful personalities are not the greatest threat to democracy today. The greatest threat is a loss of trust in the institutions and offices of a democratic society, on the part of the citizens of the democracy. And what are these institutions? Courts, judges, police; legislatures, representatives, agencies; election officials and procedures; tax authorities; presidents and governors.  

Here is a recent Pew survey on trust in government that provides disturbing reading (link).

As the report emphasizes, the current period is a low point in public confidence in government since the 1950s, with over 75% of the public expressing trust and confidence in government during the Johnson administration and under 30% expressing trust in government during the Trump administration. (At present only 9% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters express trust in government.) Here is a similar report from the OECD reflecting 2019 data (link), indicating a similar but less drastic fall in trust in European democracies as well.

In 2014 John Tierney undertook to analyze variations in trust in government across the states of the United States (link). The variation across the states is striking, from North Dakota and Wyoming showing levels of trust in excess of 75% and Illinois at about 28%. And Tierney tries to identify some of the factors that would help explain this variation. (It would be very interesting to re-examine Tierney’s analysis and the Gallup data for the past several years; it would seem likely that the data will have changed substantially since 2014.)

Why has there been such a precipitous decline in trust in our democratic institutions? This is not a mystery. Right-wing media, cynical politicians, lying youtubers, passionate conspiracy theorists … anti-democratic activists and opportunists have taken every opportunity to undermine, discredit, and subvert our political institutions. Right-wing politicians, cable news pundits, and social media voices actively seek to further their own careers and fortunes by actively generating suspicion, doubt, and mistrust of virtually everyone they can. Tucker Carlson is only the most visible example of this cynical and dishonest approach.

Why is the odious and deliberate strategy of cultivating mistrust so invidious to the future of democracy? Because our democracy depends crucially on the endurance and fairness of our institutions; but it is clear that institutions have no underlying, enduring source of stability. There is no solid granite underlying the judiciary or the system of voting; an institution lacks a “skeleton”. Unlike a towering modern building which maintains its integrity of steel girders long after its external architectural elements have degraded, an institution is more like a collective but real illusion. When we stop believing in the institution, it immediately begins to die. Institutions depend upon the continuing support and adherence of the individuals who fall within their scope. In a sense, institutions have more in common with the social reality of “money” than with that of a coral reef. In order for a paycheck for $1,000 to be real for me, I must also believe and understand that it is also real for other people — and that 1/100 of that check will buy a meal for two at Wendy’s and 1/4 of it will be accepted by my landlord as payment for a week’s rent. Without that collective ongoing belief in money, the currency has no social reality whatsoever. But likewise — citizens will engage in a system of voting only if they believe that the votes will be counted honestly and the candidate with the most votes will be sworn into office. 

What does it take to sustain trust in an institution? One favorable feature supporting trust is institutional transparency. “Blind” trust is hard to sustain; trust is more stable when it is based on a continuing ability for participants to see how the institution is functioning, how its actions and outcomes are brought about, how its officials and staffers conduct their work. This is the reason for “sunshine” laws about public institutions. And the less gap there is between private and public reasons for action, the more reasonable citizens will have confidence in their government.

A related feature of a trustworthy institution is the reputation for integrity possessed by its officers. If most citizens in a state have a fairly direct personal relationship with a handful of legislators, and if they believe, based on their acquaintance, that these legislators are honest and committed to the public good, then they are more likely to have confidence in the institution as well. (This is one of the arguments made by Tierney in the 2014 Atlantic article mentioned above.) Conversely, if legislators engage in behavior that makes the citizen doubt their integrity (corruption, lying, conflict of interest), then citizens’ trust in the institution is likely to fall.

A third feature of governments that instills trust in their citizens (highlighted by the OECD report above) is competence and effectiveness by government in performing the tasks needed to secure the common good. The OECD report summarizes its recommendations in these terms: 

OECD evidence shows that government’s values, such as high levels of integrity, fairness and openness of institutions are strong predictors of public trust. Similarly, government’s competence – its responsiveness and reliability in delivering public services and anticipating new needs – are crucial for boosting trust in institutions.

When governments fail in crucial tasks affecting the health and safety of large numbers of citizens — for example in managing COVID vaccination programs, or administering disaster relief after natural disasters — it is understandable that public trust in government would fall.

Several earlier posts (linklinklink) have explored the “moral emotions of democracy” and how to enhance them. Plainly, cultivating trust in our democratic institutions is an urgent need if our democracy is to survive. And, like a house of cards or a carefully balanced pile of field stones, our institutions will only be stable if there is a persistent pattern of mutual reinforcement among institutional rules, official behavior, and citizen awareness and trust in government.

(Pew has also done some important survey work on the challenge of regaining trust in democracy; link. Also of interest is a very interesting 2011 research conference paper by Juan Castillo, Daniel Miranda, and Pablo Torres exploring the connections that appear to exist between Social Dominance Orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarian Personality, and the level of trust individuals have in government; link. SDO and WRW are explored in an earlier post.)

(See Paul Krugman’s very ominous diagnosis of the state of our democracy; link.)

Corporations and the Nazi regime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And further:

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

Kolko concludes the article with these lines:

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

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

Does Seneca have a system of philosophy?

Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius in Letters from a Stoic represent a huge contribution to Stoic philosophy, filled with examples and aphorisms that illuminate both common life situations and a consistent “Stoic” attitude towards them. Can we say more than this? Is Seneca fundamentally an aphorist, or is he a philosopher with deep and extended theories and ideas? Is it fortune cookies or a tractatus, a mantra or a rich, textured, and open-ended philosophical program?

I’m tempted to think that it’s closer to the former rather than the latter of these pairs of dichotomies. There are flashes of insight on many aspects of ordinary life throughout the epistles, but they all reflect a fairly simple and consistent set of maxims: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage. These are simple ideas, perhaps not requiring the kinds of long and difficult debate and analysis familiar from philosophers like Plato, Hume, or Rousseau.

Consider a few topics that Seneca addresses — all topics that almost every human being must confront one day. Does Seneca offer “philosophy” with respect to these difficult existential moments?

Illness and hardship:

3. You ask me whether every good is desirable. You say: “If it is a good to be brave under torture, to go to the stake with a stout heart, to endure illness with resignation, it follows that these things are desirable. But I do not see that any of them is worth praying for. At any rate I have as yet known of no man who has paid a vow by reason of having been cut to pieces by the rod, or twisted out of shape by the gout, or made taller by the rack.” 4. My dear Lucilius, you must distinguish between these cases; you will then comprehend that there is something in them that is to be desired. I should prefer to be free from torture; but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire that I may conduct myself therein with bravery, honour, and courage. Of course I prefer that war should not occur; but if war does occur, I shall desire that I may nobly endure the wounds, the starvation, and all that the exigency of war brings. Nor am I so mad as to crave illness; but if I must suffer illness, I shall desire that I may do nothing which shows lack of restraint, and nothing that is unmanly. The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships. (book 67)

On planning:

There is an old adage about gladiators,—that they plan their fight in the ring; as they intently watch, something in the adversary’s glance, some movement of his hand, even some slight bending of his body, gives a warning. 2. We can formulate general rules and commit them to writing, as to what is usually done, or ought to be done; such advice may be given, not only to our absent friends, but also to succeeding generations. In regard, however, to that second question,—when or how your plan is to be carried out,—no one will advise at long range; we must take counsel in the presence of the actual situation. 3. You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity. (book 22)

Personal loss:

1. You desire to know whether Epicurus is right when, in one of his letters, he rebukes those who hold that the wise man is self-sufficient and for that reason does not stand in need of friendships. This is the objection raised by Epicurus against Stilbo and those who believe that the Supreme Good is a soul which is insensible to feeling. 2. We are bound to meet with a double meaning if we try to express the Greek term “lack of feeling” summarily, in a single word, rendering it by the Latin word impatientia. For it may be understood in the meaning the opposite to that which we wish it to have. What we mean to express is, a soul which rejects any sensation of evil; but people will interpret the idea as that of a soul which can endure no evil. Consider, therefore, whether it is not better to say “a soul that cannot be harmed,” or “a soul entirely beyond the realm of suffering.” 3. There is this difference between ourselves and the other school: our ideal wise man feels his troubles, but overcomes them; their wise man does not even feel them. But we and they alike hold this idea,—that the wise man is self-sufficient. Nevertheless, he desires friends, neighbours, and associates, no matter how much he is sufficient unto himself. 4. And mark how self-sufficient he is; for on occasion he can be content with a part of himself. If he lose a hand through disease or war, or if some accident puts out one or both of his eyes, he will be satisfied with what is left, taking as much pleasure in his impaired and maimed body as he took when it was sound. But while he does not pine for these parts if they are missing, he prefers not to lose them. 5. In this sense the wise man is self-sufficient, that he can do without friends, not that he desires to do without them. When I say “can,” I mean this: he endures the loss of a friend with equanimity. (book 9)

The loss of friends by death:

4. Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting. 5. For, as my friend Attalus used to say: “The remembrance of lost friends is pleasant in the same way that certain fruits have an agreeably acid taste, or as in extremely old wines it is their very bitterness that pleases us. Indeed, after a certain lapse of time, every thought that gave pain is quenched, and the pleasure comes to us unalloyed.” 6. If we take the word of Attalus for it, “to think of friends who are alive and well is like enjoying a meal of cakes and honey; the recollection of friends who have passed away gives a pleasure that is not without a touch of bitterness. Yet who will deny that even these things, which are bitter and contain an element of sourness, do serve to arouse the stomach?” 7. For my part, I do not agree with him. To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. (book 58)

Rational suicide:

Few have lasted through extreme old age to death without impairment, and many have lain inert, making no use of themselves. How much more cruel, then, do you suppose it really is to have lost a portion of your life, than to have lost your right to end that life? 35. Do not hear me with reluctance, as if my statement applied directly to you, but weigh what I have to say. It is this, that I shall not abandon old age, if old age preserves me intact for myself, and intact as regards the better part of myself; but if old age begins to shatter my mind, and to pull its various faculties to pieces, if it leaves me, not life, but only the breath of life, I shall rush out of a house that is crumbling and tottering. 36. I shall not avoid illness by seeking death, as long as the illness is curable and does not impede my soul. I shall not lay violent hands upon myself just because I am in pain; for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured, I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living. He who dies just because he is in pain is a weakling, a coward; but he who lives merely to brave out this pain, is a fool. (book 58)

What are the threads raised by these short passages? Here are several: the priority of virtue over other desirable things; the propriety in preferring health over disease and affluence over penury, while recognizing that these goods are inconsequential in relation to virtue; the self-sufficiency of the soul; the rationality of endurance and equanimity; the lack of terror we should feel for death; the need for reflection about one’s reasons for living. And we might say that Seneca’s views on these questions add up to a philosophy of ethics, a philosophy of a life lived well, a contribution to phronesis (link). At the same time, it is striking that Seneca illustrates his philosophy through examples and discussion of hard cases, rather than a systematic exposition with labelled headings, principles, antinomies, unresolved issues, and sustained arguments. It more closely resembles the method of the sailing master who teaches his pupil about sailing by taking him or her on many trips, exposing the student to the hazards of the sea and the wind, than the method of a writer of handbooks on handling radioactive materials or washing machine repairs.

Katja Vogt has contributed an excellent article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Seneca that addresses the question of Seneca’s philosophical contributions squarely; link. She offers some sympathy for the idea that it is hard to identify an explicit philosophical theory in Seneca; but she suggests that this reflects a misunderstanding and misreading of Seneca.

Readers who approach Seneca as students of ancient philosophy—having acquired a certain idea of what philosophy is by studying Plato, Aristotle, or Chrysippus—often feel at a loss. To them, Seneca’s writings can appear lengthy and merely admonitory. Partly, this reaction may reflect prejudices of our training. The remnants of a Hegelian (and Nietzschean, and Heideggerean) narrative for philosophy are deeply ingrained in influential works of scholarship. On this account, the history of ancient philosophy is a history of decline, the Roman thinkers are mediocre imitators of their Greek predecessors, and so on (Long 2006; see Griffin 2018 for a collection of Griffin’s work on politics and philosophy in Rome). Such prejudices are hard to shake off; for many centuries watered-down versions of them have shaped the way students learnt Latin and Greek. In recent years, however, many scholars have come to adopt a different view. They find in Seneca a subtle author who speaks very directly to modern concerns of shaping ourselves and our lives.

Seneca does not write as a philosopher who creates or expounds a philosophical theory from the ground up. Rather, he writes within the track of an existing system that he is largely in agreement with. A reconstruction of Seneca’s philosophy, if it aimed at some kind of completeness, would have to be many-layered. At several points, it would have to include accounts of earlier Stoic philosophy, and discuss which aspects of these earlier theories become more or less prominent in Seneca’s thought. At times Seneca’s own contribution consists in developing further a Stoic theory and adding detail to it. At other times, Seneca dismisses certain technicalities and emphasizes the therapeutic, practical side of philosophy.

Seneca thinks of himself as the adherent of a philosophical system—Stoicism—and speaks in the first person plural (‘we’) in order to refer to the Stoics. Rather than call Seneca an orthodox Stoic, however, we might want to say that he writes within the Stoic system. Seneca emphasizes his independence as a thinker. He holds Stoic views, but he does not see himself as anyone’s disciple or chronicler.

Thus Vogt is unambiguous: Seneca is a fully-fledged philosopher; but he approaches the task of philosophy differently from the systematic theorizing found in other ancient philosophers. Nonetheless, she finds a developed philosophy in Seneca’s writings.

Vogt proposes that Seneca’s approach is more akin to therapy than to analytical theory-building: Seneca’s letters appear to be designed to help the reader recognize his own situation, his own virtues, the temptations of ordinary life that get in the way of good choices, and the navigation of impulse and self-direction that leads to “stoic” living in the face of challenges and misfortune. Vogt writes, “We need precisely what Seneca offers: someone who takes us through the various situations in life in which we tend to lose sight of our own insights, and fall victim to the allurements of money and fame, or to the violence of emotions evoked by the adversities of life.” And rather than providing didactic proofs of Stoic ethical principles, Vogt suggests that Seneca prefers that his friends and readers should “live and practice” those principles to make them their own: “it is important to think through the implications of the Stoic thesis in a variety of practical contexts, so as then to be able to live by it, for example, when one is or is not elected to office, has more or less money than others, and so on. One needs to think one’s way through these issues repeatedly—and ultimately, thinking about them in the right way must become a way of life.” And her implication is that Seneca advocates this “practical” stance towards ethics, not simply because it creates good habits, but because it ultimately validates and vindicates the rules or principles that are adopted.

Vogt spends a good deal of effort on the question of the classic Stoic doctrine of the “monism of the soul” and their dissolution of the emotions. Is the soul a unity or are there contending parts of the soul? Is there a non-rational component of the soul (e.g. the emotions) that opposes reason? Vogt tries to show that Seneca defends the idea that there is nothing in the soul but reason. But here is an interesting realization: when Seneca’s thought turns to this kind of highly abstract topic, it is substantially less compelling and interesting. The question of the unity of the soul seems like a scholastic question, leading to dogmatic philosophy. It is tempting to say that Aristotle’s view of psychology and the self is more immediate and “phenomenologically” accurate than the Stoic view: that the emotions are real, that they incline us to do things that reason would oppose, and that “self-control” is a real psychological state, requiring the person to recognize and manage his or her emotional impulses. So this element of Stoic philosophy perhaps fails the test of “offering genuine insight into the circumstances of human life”.

Another issue that Vogt finds to be both deep and crucial in Seneca’s philosophy is the distinction between the valuable and the good (mentioned in the first quotation above). In the category of the valuable she holds that Seneca includes health and wealth — these she characterizes as “preferred indifferents”; but only virtue is good. Further, according to Vogt, the attainment of “valuable” states such as good health, comfortable living circumstances, and accumulated wealth is completely irrelevant to happiness; only the pursuit of virtue contributes to happiness. Vogt doesn’t make this point, but it seems clear that this position stands in striking contradiction to the philosophy of Epicurus, for whom good health, friendships, decent conditions of life, and leisure are all components of a happy life. Here is Epicurus on prudence, the art of wise choices among desirable things (The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia):

Prudence is the principle of all these things and is the greatest good. That is why prudence is a more valuable thing than philosophy. For prudence is the source of all the other virtues, teaching that it is impossible to live pleasantly without living prudently, honourably, and justly, and impossible to live prudently, honourably, and justly without living pleasantly. For the virtues are natural adjuncts of the pleasant life and the pleasant life is inseparable from them. (31)

Running throughout Seneca’s epistles — and throughout Vogt’s treatment of his philosophy — is the theme of the importance of “case studies” and practical application of moral ideas, the application of philosophical ideas to complex situations. The implication is that it is the examination of cases rather than the discovery of convoluted principles that constitutes wisdom or insight, dissection of complexity rather than discovery of new moral laws. Seneca appears to believe that the hard work of philosophy is in the task of sorting out the details of particular life situations, and how to behave. Vogt writes, “As students of virtue, we will benefit from thinking our way through a variety of situations that one might encounter in life, contemplating how the different features of these situations matter to appropriate action, and so developing a sharpened sense of the particular value of the various things that do have value or disvalue for a human being.”

Parenthetically, there is an interesting convergence in Seneca’s philosophical style of exposition and some of John Dewey’s ideas about learning that were discussed in an earlier post (link). According to Vogt, Seneca wants to draw the reader along in the process of philosophical thinking — not to merely absorb a set of doctrines:

Seneca thinks that in order to benefit from philosophy, one cannot passively adopt insights. One must appropriate them as an active reader, thinking through the issues for oneself, so as then to genuinely assent to them (Letter 84.5–10; Wildberger 2006).

So what about the question posed above: does Seneca have a system of philosophy? I’m inclined to give a mixed answer. Seneca does in fact have a developed view of phronesis — a conception of what is involved in living a good human life. The opening paragraph above captures this conception reasonably well: live simply, gain clarity about the values you truly espouse, value virtue over other goods, don’t expect life to be kind, face adversity with equanimity and courage, do not fear death. This is indeed a philosophy of living. But it is a simple view of the human condition that doesn’t require elaborate philosophical theories and arguments. 

Second, I’m persuaded by Vogt’s splendid analysis that Seneca also shared a theory of metaphysics and theology with earlier Stoics, and this theory has many of the features of abstraction and logical analysis that we associate with philosophical theories. But those theories, to this reader anyway, do not seem especially important or consequential, and they have only a minor relationship to the theory of living well that Seneca advocates.

Avineri on Marx as social democrat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and:

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

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

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

A brief Senecian reflection on the humble kidney stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffy the existentialist vampire slayer

Here is a hard question. Can the creators of television shows and other kinds of pop culture be understood sometimes to pose fundamental and important questions about human life and morality? We probably all believe that great novelists are able to confront and explore hard human moral predicaments and life contradictions — often in ways that are more penetrating than the most astute philosophical writings on these subjects. Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, Alice Walker in The Color Purple — all of these writers have complex moral imaginations and they confront and question some of the profound issues of real human lives. Can the same be said of the creators of television series? Is there an existential or moral side to Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy? And what about Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

I suppose the conventional answer is that there is a sharp and uncrossable line between great literature and popular television culture — the former can be profound and insightful, whereas the latter is unavoidably shallow and empty, from a philosophical or moral point of view. Shakespeare was great in ways in which Steven Bochco could never attain. And yet this seems not to be so clearly the case as one might imagine. Many viewers of The Wire, for example, have felt that the series has some very important sociological insights about race and urban life in America today, and David Simon is credited for a genuine artistic achievement in the five seasons of the show (link). 

This brings me to Buffy. At first glance the series looks like pure adolescent fodder, with a dollop of horror show stirred into the mix. The show is the creation of Joss Whedon, who has earned a great deal of praise for his creativity and also some harsh criticism for his style and behavior with the cast in production.

The concept of the show is fairly simple. Buffy is a high school sophomore in California, a new arrival after her expulsion from another school for unexplained absences. As it turns out, her absences and other forms of weird behavior all stem from the fact that she is a “slayer” — the unique young woman of her generation who is specifically ready to confront and slay the vampires and other demons that most of the normal world fails to see. The series rolls out a handful of high school kids as main characters, as well as a growing roster of horrible and long-lived demons and vampires just seeking a way to overturn the dominion of humans on earth. The high school side of the story is roughly as engaging (or unengaging) as Community, another television series about young people who are students at a community college — pure sitcom. But the secret world of demons and vampires that makes up the dramatic thrust of the plot of Buffy is complex and involving. And this fictional world is involving because of the issues of evil, freedom, personal identity, responsibility, and “soul” that it raises. (Here is an appreciation of the show in Vox by a pair of talented television critics; link.)

Two characters in particular carry a great deal of the moral and existential weight of the series — Angel and Spike. Both are vampires who have managed to regain their souls, while retaining their memories of their horrible actions as soulless vampires over a thousand years. Each of them has committed terrible acts against humans, without conscience. Having regained their “souls”, they are able to reflect on these acts in the past, and to reflect on their personal responsibility or culpability for these past actions.

These are philosophical issues; if only there were a philosophical tradition within which they might be discussed. It turns out that there is such a discourse. The Whedon Studies Association was formed a few years ago by a number of individuals with a serious interest in Whedon’s corpus, and it has attracted a number of very interesting discussions and commentaries on Buffy. One contribution that I find especially valuable is an article written by Dean Kowalski, a philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, titled “Visions of the Soul: Looking Back on Buffy and Angel” (link). Kowalski approaches the topic in a rigorous philosophical way: What is the soul? What different interpretations of “soul” have been offered in explication of Whedon’s fictional universe? How do these theories help to shed light on the moral situation of the various characters in the drama? Kowalski considers an ontological theory of the soul — “the soul is a thing that a person possesses; when he or she is infected by a demon he loses his soul and becomes a vampire”. And he considers an existential theory — “the soul is a metaphor for our capacity for moral choice”. A vampire regains his soul when he or she chooses to act in a deliberate and free way. A vampire is a soulless monster; but he or she or it can become good by exercising a capacity for choosing to act in a morally good way; she can regain her soul. Kowalski quotes Scott McLaren, an early contributor to the Whedon Studies Association:

Scott McLaren acknowledges that “soul-talk” on Buffy and Angel can be interpreted metaphorically. He writes, “The soul can also be defined existentially: Angel resists temptation not simply because he ‘has’ a soul… but rather because, existentially, he makes a deliberate moral choice” (McLaren 13). McLaren further claims that “soul-talk” is also “an existential metaphor for a particular moral orientation” (13). Thus, the soul as metaphor can apply to any one ethically significant choice or a concerted effort to continue making similar choices. Due to the emphasis upon altering one’s own existence via the choices one makes, let us call this the existentialist interpretation of the soul. 134

Like a good literary critic, Kowalski and the other authors he discusses make substantial use of the details of the dialogue and plot to provide evidence for their claims; and like a good philosopher, Kowalski engages in careful conceptual analysis and analytical probing to attempt to gain clarity about difficult moral questions. It is therefore a little difficult to identify Kowalski’s own genre. His article is a careful philosophical essay on freedom, identity, and the concept of the soul; and it is also a detailed analysis of the thought-world involved in a seven-season drama about supernatural creatures who do massive evil. This may be confusing; but it is also very stimulating and challenging, in exactly the way that a philosophy essay ought to be. It is good philosophy on a non-orthodox topic.

So what about Buffy? Does the series over its seven seasons have “literary or philosophical” value? Here is a very interesting quote about Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (quoted in the Vox article linked above):

[1999] was a year when I was not yet a professional TV critic, just a woman, standing in front of a television show, begging everyone to love it. Every week, I watched The Sopranos and Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I was an avid fan of both, convinced that [Sopranos creator] David Chase and [Buffy creator] Joss Whedon were turning television into something radical and groundbreaking, the former by deconstructing the mob genre (as well as capitalism and psychotherapy), the latter by forging a mythic, feminist-inflected meld of horror, comedy, and teen drama.

What this implies to me is that there is no clear line between those genres that provide real insights and those that do not — Madame Bovary on one side of the line, The Young and the Restless on the other. Rather, talented creators take up their tools in many locations and in many genres, and it is possible to find substantive, important discussions of large human questions across a very broad range of cultural products. And along the way, it is possible that some of the toughest moral questions that we face may find some degree of clarification as a result of the dramatic and creative work done by people like David Simon and Joss Whedon.

One reason I find the hidden world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer of interest is the unexpected convergence it seems to create with the allegory I wrote in the blog a few months ago (link) — without any knowledge of Buffy. In that entry I imagined a thousand-year-old man attempting to uncover and come to terms with the sometimes awful things he had done in earlier centuries — which sounds a lot like the situation of Angel in the series. And my reason for writing the allegory was to consider whether there is a serious insight we can learn from this imaginary story that helps us make sense of the evils of the twentieth century — certainly one of the toughest moral questions we can pose for ourselves. But in a way, it seems as though Joss Whedon has something equally ambitious in mind as well for his teen-oriented horror show.

Technology and culture in antiquity

image: survey instruments, 1728

The history of technology was sometimes approached as a self-contained field of study. A more fruitful approach in the past thirty years has involved a broader perspective, placing technology change within a broader context of social change and cultural values. A good example is Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change, where he places historical analysis of the plough and the stirrup within the social and political arrangements of late antiquity, and the emergence of new systems of military organization in the medieval period. A key insight has emerged that complicates the picture further: cultural and social arrangements influence the direction of change of technologies in use, but further, those cultural and social facts and practices are themselves affected by the emergence and adoption of new technologies. So technology and technology change are interwoven with social and cultural history, all the way down. (Here is an earlier post on the relationship between technology and culture; link.)

Serafina Cuomo’s Technology and Culture in Greek and Roman Antiquity (2007) provides this kind of orientation to the nature and role of technology in antiquity. Her central goal is to place the several ideas of “technology” that can be found in Greek and Roman letters and artifacts into a semiotic place: what did the Greeks think about machines? How did they define and evaluate “technicians”? What is the relation between an ability to build and use artifacts and the possession of theoretical and mathematical knowledge? In what ways was techne a morally laden concept? Cuomo’s general view is a radical one: we cannot treat the history of ancient technology without first and fundamentally addressing these questions of meaning and value.

She also pinpoints an important idea about the nature of an artifact or machine and the attitudes and representations that the users and observers brought to it. The definition of the technology itself is culturally specific, and we should not imagine that there is a universal “meaning” associated with a catapult or a medical treatment. The history of military technology, for example, cannot be correctly understood without investigating the “Greek way of war” and the valuations that Greek elites and philosophers brought to their understanding of the practices of war. 

Cuomo is especially critical of the idea that the history of technology is about the progress of a set of tools or machines, proceeding from invention through refinement to final form. On that line of interpretation, machines become more productive and useful through innovation; technological change is progressive; and the aim of the history of technology is to identify moments of invention and pathways of diffusion. Against these views — which she fundamentally rejects — she offers what she describes as the “scatter” theory of technology. (She sometimes uses the idea of a Creole technology to describe a cluster of innovations that occurred in a single locale but did not lead to broader diffusion. This idea is evidently borrowed from David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.) Here is her description of the “scatter” model of technological change:

The term ‘scatter’ model refers both to the fact that there was a variety of ‘older’ and ‘newer’ catapults, or more generally siege engines, being employed at the same time, and to the fact that these technologies were geographically scattered. I imagine a situation where we have a number of points or clusters of technology with varying accompanying circumstances — so with, for instance, a greater concentration of financial resources, some with a smaller number of available experts, some with easy access to some materials, some not in a position to take their own decisions when it came to war policy. A linear model would seek a way to connect the dots, as it were, which can only be done … by making a number of problematic assumptions, whereas a scatter model may choose to accept the fact that the evidence is scattered and insufficient, and leave the dots unconnected. (56)

And she draws an interesting analogy with Darwin’s observations of variation of finch species across the Galapagos islands: 

Darwin’s avian populations developed in very different ways — adapting to the individual environment of their island or part of island. Similarly for catapults: no matter how catapults got to a certain place … changes were introduced at the local level, or not, in different ways and depending on different circumstances, so that at any given time we find catapults that seem to belong to different phases of development cohabiting. (56)

What is a little disappointing about this book is the lack of attention it provides to the details of the various technologies that are mentioned. It is a very “meta” book — it is about “thinking about technology” rather than about the technologies themselves. Chapter 4 concerns itself with “boundary disputes in the Roman Empire”. Land surveying is plainly key to this topic, and one would like to know in detail how geometry (a field of mathematics that was well understood in the ancient world) was applied to the gnarly realities of delineating plots of land. What tools were available for measuring distances and elevations? Cuomo makes it clear that “surveying” took place in the Roman world (103); but how was it done? Some of the tools depicted in the 18th-century diagram above are based on simple Euclidean principles, and it is natural to ask whether some of these instruments were available to Roman engineers and surveyors. Cuomo does not tell us. Rather than addressing these technical questions, Cuomo focuses instead on the question of dispute resolution. Her summary is distinctly uninformative:

In sum, the knowledge of the land-surveyors when it came to dealing with disputes, was characterized epistemically as a reading of signs, supported by mathematical knowledge, and in terms of practice as a complex negotiation between old and new, pre-Roman and Roman, natural and artificial, general rule and individual case. (113) 

For a historian who argues that we cannot separate “history of technology” from history more generally, she gives remarkably little attention to the technologies themselves. She is more interested in how people of the time, both elite and non-elite, conceived of “machines” and “artifacts”, and the practical skills of the technical experts, than she is in the nuts and bolts of how the machines worked. The most detailed discussion offered in the book centers on several varieties of catapult; but even here, the technical details about how these variants worked are not provided. Lynn White’s writings about medieval technology in Medieval Technology and Social Change get this balance much better, in my view. For example, White permits the reader to form a fairly clear understanding of the ecological, material, and social circumstances within which the heavy plough was adopted. 

The third advantage of the heavy plough derived from the first two: without such a plough it was difficult to exploit the dense, rich, alluvial bottom lands which, if properly handled, would give the peasant far better crops than he could get from the light soils of the uplands. It was believed, for example, that the Anglo-Saxons had brought the heavy Germanic plough to Celtic Britain in the fifth century; thanks to it, the forests began to be cleared from the heavy soils, and the square, so-called ‘Celtic’ fields, which had long been cultivated on the uplands with the scratch-plough, were abandoned, and generally remain deserted today…. The saving of peasant labour, then, together with the improvement of field drainage and the opening up of the most fertile soils, all of which were made possible by the heavy plough, combined to expand production and make possible that accumulation of surplus food which is the presupposition of population growth, specialization of function, urbanization, and the growth of leisure. (43-44)

This is perhaps an illustration of the “progress of technology” mindset that Cuomo criticizes; but in the context of medieval social and political life and in the circumstances of the ecologies of north and west Europe, White’s account makes eminent good sense. Likewise, the essays on agriculture and metalworking in John Peter Oleson’s Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World provide a clear understanding of the craft and technique involved in cultivation and land preparation, in the first instance, and refining and shaping of metal objects, in the second. Research in the history of technology requires at least this level of technical detail for it to be genuinely insightful.

Cuomo’s emphasis on discovering the mentality and conceptual geography through which the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome thought about technology, craft, and machines is certainly important and valuable, and her discussion of classical texts and inscriptions is vastly learned. But this does not supplant the need to look carefully at the details of the technologies themselves.