Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

Shakespeare on tyranny

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

Here is how Greenblatt frames his book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New perspectives on Chinese authoritarianism

The question of China’s political future is an important one and a difficult one. Will China evolve towards a political system that embodies real legal protections for the rights of its citizens and some version of democratic institutions of government? Or will it remain an authoritarian single-party state in which government and the party decide the limits of freedom and the course of economic and social policy?

Two recent books are worth reading in this context, and they seem to point to rather different answers. Ya-Wen Lei’s The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China makes the case for a broadening sphere of public discourse and debate in China, which seems to suggest the possibility of a gradual loosening of governmental control of thought and action. Wenfang Tang’s Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability on the other hand makes the case for a distinctive version of populist authoritarianism in China that may have the resources it needs to retain power for a very long time. Neither scholar is dogmatic about his or her findings, but they give rather different pictures of the evolution of China’s polity in the next several decades.

The two books use rather different kinds of data. Tang relies primarily on various surveys of Chinese public opinion, whereas Lei’s research relies on a range of qualitative and observational data about the contents of China’s legal system, media, and social media. She makes use of newspaper archives, legal texts, interviews, online texts from Internet forums, and survey data (lc 466).

Tang’s book begins with several paradoxical facts. One is that the Chinese state already embodies a kind of democratic responsiveness, which he refers to as “Mass Line” politics. According to this political ideology, the Party represents the interests of the masses, and it must be responsive to the interests and demands of workers and peasants. So the CCP is sometimes responsive to demands expressed through public demonstrations and protests. Here are a few of Tang’s comments about the Mass Line ideology: “Some observers see the totalitarian nature of the Mass Line…. Other scholars, however, see the empowerment of society under the Mass Line…. Others describe the Mass Line as a democratic decision-making process” (kl 357-388). But Tang’s own view appears to be that the Party’s adherence to the ideology of the Mass Line makes for a compelling imperative towards paying attention to the attitudes and interests of ordinary peasants and workers, and towards improving their material conditions of life.

The other paradoxical fact in Tang’s account is that China’s government commands support from a remarkably high percentage of its citizens. Using survey research, Tang reports that there are issues of concern to the Chinese public (corruption, environment, land use policy), but that the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party government of the CCP.

The 2005–2008 5th wave of the WVS [World Values Survey] coordinated by the University of Michigan further indicated that Chinese respondents expressed the strongest support for political institutions including the military, the police, the legal system, the central government, the Communist Party, the national legislature, and the civil service. (kl 712)

But Tang also notes that surveys indicate a low level of “happiness” and satisfaction by Chinese citizens. In the WVS 2005-2008 survey “China ranked at the very bottom of this happiness index (65). Above China were eastern Germany (65.5), Slovenia and South Korea (66), India (67), Taiwan and Spain (68), Italy and Chile (69),” along with many other countries. This presents a third paradox in Chinese political realities; low citizen satisfaction is often associated with low approval of government, but this is not the case in China at present. Tang observes, “there seems to be a contradiction between the low level of happiness and the high level of regime support” (kl 774).

Here is how Tang characterizes China’s particular version of “populist authoritarianism”. China’s particular version involves …

the Mass Line ideology, strong interpersonal trust and rich social capital, individual political activism and political contention, weak political institutions and an underdeveloped civic society, an often paranoid and highly responsive government, and strong regime support. (kl 240)

What strategies and mechanisms permit an authoritarian state to maintain its stability over time, beyond the exercise of force? Tang supports the “political culture” strand of thinking about politics; he believes that the beliefs, identities, and attitudes that citizens have are crucial for the way in which politics unfolds in the country. One factor that Tang rates as particularly favorable for regime stability in China is the high degree of nationalism that Chinese people share, according to survey data. Survey data support the finding that Chinese people have a high level of identification with the value and importance of China as a nation. And, significantly, the central government makes explicit efforts to reinforce popular nationalist sentiment.

While Chinese civilization is an ancient concept, Chinese nationalism is a relatively new idea in contemporary China. It is constructed by the CCP to incorporate a multi-ethnic state that was inherited from the Qing dynasty. It has been used by the CCP to justify its resistance to liberal democracy which is often associated with Western imperialist invasion of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, nationalism is an inseparable component of contemporary Chinese political culture that provides the soil for the CCP to nurture its legitimacy. (kl 1364)

So Tang’s conclusion about regime stability in China is tentative, but he leaves open the possibility that the CCP and single-party government has enough resources available to it to survive as a popular and populist government in China for an extended period of time. He suggests that populist authoritarianism is potentially a stable system of government — anti-democratic in the traditional western sense, but responsive enough to the demands and interests of ordinary citizens to permit it to maintain high levels of legitimacy and acceptance by the broad public over an extended period of time.

Now let’s look at the political dynamics described in Ya-Wen Lei’s very interesting 2018 book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. Lei too regards China as an authoritarian state. And yet Chinese society possesses a surprising degree of public contestation over important social issues.

Authoritarian states, by definition, undermine civil society—the basis on which the public sphere is built—thus conventional wisdom tells us that the conditions for political life and a public sphere in such contexts are likely to be quite bleak and suffocating (Habermas 1996, 369). Yet, when I looked at what was going on in China, I saw lively political discussion, contention, and engagement—in short, the emergence of a vibrant public sphere, against all apparent odds. (kl 264)

In describing this “unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state” (kl 278) Lei is primarily referring to the cell-phone supported social media world in China, within which Weibo is the primary platform. And Lei takes the position that the emergence of this public sphere in the early 2000s was an unintended consequence of “authoritarian modernization”.

I argue that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the Chinese state’s campaign of authoritarian modernization. The government desperately needed to modernize in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. To do so, the state institutionalized the double-edged instruments of modern law, marketized media, and the Internet. It sought to utilize but also contain these instruments, recognizing the potential risk each posed of empowering professionals and citizens and destabilizing political control. Nonetheless, the state’s choices set in motion complex and interconnected processes beyond its control. Building legal and media institutions and adopting information technologies, paired with political fragmentation and marketization, increased the capabilities of citizens and professionals, encouraged the formation of multiple overlapping social networks of collaboration, engendered widespread legal and rights consciousness, and created a space for contentious politics. Through everyday practices and the production of so-called public opinion incidents (yulun shijian), media and legal professionals, public opinion leaders, activists, NGOs, and netizens translated individual grievances into collective contention—and in so doing, facilitated the rise of a contentious public sphere. (kl 290)

Lei maintains that the state was aware of this risk and has taken measures to ameliorate it; but she also believes that the forces leading to open debate and social networks that are relatively free to engage in these kinds of discussions are more numerous than authoritarian censorship can manage to control. President Xi’s current crackdown on ideological deviation is the most recent version of the state’s effort at control; but the logic of Lei’s argument suggests that these repressive measures will not succeed in eliminating the emerging public sphere. She refers to this situation as the “authoritarian dilemma of modernization”:

Yet the Chinese state’s authoritarian modernization project has encountered what I call an “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” On the one hand, the state has to build economic, legal, and political institutions to pursue socioeconomic development. The state also needs capable professionals and citizens to make institutions work, produce economic growth, and ultimately achieve the goal of modernization. These capable agents need to be educated and have knowledge, information, and even some autonomy to participate in the tasks designated by the state. (lc 354)

New legal institutions and new forms of information technology create opportunities for increasingly well-educated people to find new ways of pursuing debates and advocating for policies that the state would prefer not to have to consider.

In contrast to Tang’s “populist authoritarianism”, Lei refers to a “fragmented and adaptive authoritarianism” in China. And she argues that this fragmentation (through new institutions, new legal frameworks, and new ways of communicating and disseminating divergent opinions) has led to the possibility of social changes emerging that were not intended or sanctioned by the governing elites.

In an interesting way Lei’s view of fragmented authoritarianism has some themes in common with Fligstein and McAdam’s ideas of organizations as “strategic action fields” (link); different actors within the Chinese polity are able to gain resources and leverage to pursue their own concerns. Lei’s analysis emphasizes the shifting resources available to various actors within the field of politics, including new legal institutions and new opportunities for communications and interaction through the Internet. The strategic-action-field theory does not presuppose that “governors” or “insurgents” automatically have the upper hand; instead, it posits that change within a strategic action field is highly contingent, with a variety of possible outcomes. And this indeed seems like a very good description of Chinese politics.

(Here is an earlier post on Martin Whyte’s research on public opinions about social justice in China in Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; link.)

Hofstadter on the American right

Richard Hofstadter opened his 1963 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford with these prescient words:

Although American political life has rarely been touched by the most acute varieties of class conflict, it has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. (3)

This lecture became the title essay of The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Its emphasis on “uncommonly angry minds” is of obvious relevance to the politics of the right in the United States today. There is more that has a great resonance today:

But there is a vital difference between the para noid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggres sive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others…. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation. (4)

Hofstadter mentions the particular objects of paranoid wrath in the 1950s and 1960s: gun control, fluoridation of municipal water, and international Communist conspiracy. Most especially, the paranoid philosophy is nativist; it directs fear and hostility against “others” (in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Masons, Catholics, and Mormons, for example; 9). We can hear these same strands of thought to be expressed in current political bigotry against immigrants, Muslims, and transgendered people.

Hofstadter offers perspective on this strand of American political thought from an historian’s point of view. He takes up the American campaign against Illuminism and Masonry in the early part of the nineteenth century as an example.

The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820’s and 1830’s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first blush, this movement may seem to be no more than an exten sion or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the earlier outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati–and, indeed, the works of writers like Robison and Barruel were often cited again as evidence of the sinister character of Masonry.  But whereas the panic of the 1790’s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultra-conservative argument, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States and was altogether congenial to popu lar democracy and rural egalitarianism. (14)

So what about the content of paranoid politics in the twentieth century?

If we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing. we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country–that they were fending off threats to a still well-established way of life in which they played an important part. But the mod ern right wing. as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old Amer ican virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been de stroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states men seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home. (23-24)

Hofstadter believed that mass media had a lot to do with the deepening influence of paranoid politics in the 1960s; it isn’t difficult to argue that social media takes that influence to an even greater pitch in the current environment.

He closes the essay with yet another astute observation very relevant to contemporary right-wing rhetoric:

In American experience, ethnic and religious conflicts, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest–perhaps because of the very un realistic and unrealizable nature of their demands–cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of deci sions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power–and this through distorting lenses–and have little chance to observe its actual machinery. L. B. Namier once said that “the crowning attain ment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resist ance of his own, of course, to such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him. We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well. (39-40)

This is brilliant diagnosis of the political psychology of reaction, very much in line with Fritz Stern’s analysis of the politics of cultural despair in the context of Weimar Germany (link). What Hofstadter does not clearly distinguish here is the political psychology of followers and leaders.  But much about mass political mobilization turns on this point. Much of what seems to have transpired in the current political season is the artful orchestration of messages of fear, resentment, and antagonism along the lines of paranoid politics that Hofstadter describes. Antagonism and suspicion appear to be powerful motivators in a mass movement, and scapegoating of minority groups is a familiar and repugnant strategy. These messages have succeeded in motivating followers and voters in support of candidates espousing these messages. What is unclear is what political values actually motivate the candidates; and it is fair enough to speculate that there is a substantial degree of cynical manipulation at work in the message mills of the right in creating a movement around these hateful and suspicious themes.

These are important historical observations by Hofstadter, and they seem to shed a great deal of light on the political rhetoric and successes of the right in the United States over the past fifty years. They capture important insights into the mentality and rhetoric of the political passions that have animated a lot of political activity, both electoral and social, throughout the past half century. They point to the underpinnings of suspicion, hatred, and alienation which seem to drive the bus on the extreme right. And what was on the “extreme” right a decade ago has become mainstream conservatism today. It seems crucial for the future of our democracy to reawaken the political values of trust, mutual acceptance, and equality which are so fundamental to stable and sustainable civic peace within a mass democracy. Significantly, this was the core political message of Barack Obama in 2008.

(There is a thread here that I haven’t mentioned but may also be illuminating — Hofstadter’s analysis of American political consciousness seems to shed some indirect light on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon as well. Hofstadter notes several times above that class conflict has not been a prominent theme in American politics. But perhaps part of the appeal of the Sanders candidacy is exactly his ability to speak about the one percent in ways that resonate with younger voters; and this is a class-based message. Wouldn’t it be interesting if large numbers of young and poor voters in the United States became active in support of their longterm economic interests.)

High modernism and expert knowledge

James Scott is one of the really exceptional social scientists of his generation.  His contributions to peasant studies have been transformative — his ideas of the “moral economy of the peasant” and “weapons of the weak” are now part of the tool set that we all use in trying to make sense of agrarian societies (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant ResistanceDomination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts).  And his historical and ethnographic accounts of peasant life and struggle have given us a strong basis for understanding these movements that were so important during the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century.  (I’ve treated several of these contributions in earlier posts here, here, here, and here.)

What is particularly striking about Scott’s work is the range of his sociological imagination.  He is a genuinely creative thinker when it comes to making sense of some of some very complex human phenomena — peasant mobilization, agricultural modernization, and large-scale efforts to transform the world.  Each of his books introduces something new (for example, his treatment of Gramsci and hegemony in Weapons of the Weak, or his use of “hidden transcripts” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance).  He is a master at coming up with a concept, theory, or metaphor that can help to explain complex forms of social behavior, from the points of view of the actors.  And he does a great job of overcoming the dichotomy between “material circumstances” and “culture”; the peasant communities and movements that he treats are both materially situated and culturally specific.

A more recent book that makes a number of important new contributions is Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).  Here Scott shifts focus in two ways.  His analysis here differs from his earlier books in that it is both more macro — he examines the ways that states think; and more micro — he also examines the nature of individually situated expert local knowledge.  Both parts of the analysis are interesting and novel.

The book explores what Scott calls “high modernism” — essentially, the effort to use science and theory to order and regularize the social world, and to use theories of the future to remake the present.  Scott defines high modernism in these terms:

It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its core was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature. (89)

Initially he puts the point in terms of the modern state’s agenda of “sedentarianization” — reducing the mobility and anonymity of nomadic peoples and organizing them into “legible” formations.

The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion. (2)

Much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format.  The social simplifications thus introduced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription but also greatly enhanced state capacity. (Introduction)

The core thesis of the book is the damage that states have done when they have attempted to implement antecedent theories of social change:

I believe that many of the most tragic episodes of state development in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries originate in a particularly pernicious combination of three elements.  The first is the aspiration to the administrative ordering of nature and society, an aspiration that we have already seen at work in scientific forestry, but one raised to a far more comprehensive and ambitious level….  The second element is the unrestrained use of the power of the modern state as an instrument for achieving these designs.  The third element is a weakened or prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. (88-89)

High modernism was evident in agriculture; but it was also visible in urban planning.

Le Corbusier had no patience for the physical environment that centuries of urban living had created. He heaped scorn on the tangle, darkness, and disorder, the crowded and pestilential conditions, of Paris and other European cities at the turn of the century … He was visually offended by disarray and confusion. (106)

The French-inspired urban design of colonial-era Saigon is pictured above.

Scott’s view is that the central development disasters of the twentieth century derived from this toxic combination of epistemic arrogance and authoritarian power, including especially an excessive confidence in the ability of principles of “scientific management” to order and organize human activity.  He provides case studies of the creation of Brasilia as a completely planned city; Soviet collectivization of agriculture in 1929-30; villagization in Tanzania; and the effort to regularize and systematize modern agriculture (266).  And we could add China’s Great Leap Forward famine to the list.  In each case, the high-modernist ideology led to a catastrophic failure of social development.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for largescale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build. (5)

A constant contrast in the book is between the objectifying knowledge of modernist science — social and natural — and the particular knowledge systems of practitioners and locals about the nature of their local environment — what he calls “metis”.  “Throughout this book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisation in the face of unpredictability” (6).  A particularly clear instance of these two perspectives comes in through Scott’s discussion of scientific forestry and the local knowledge of forest ecology possessed by villagers.  Beekeeping, traditional farming, and the cultivation of the mango tree (333) are other good examples.  Two forests are pictured below; the first is an old-growth forest, and the second is the result of scientific forestry. And Scott documents the ecological destruction that resulted when these principles of scientific forestry were exported from Germany to Southeast Asia.

Scott’s perspective here is not anti-scientific or anti-modern.  Instead, it is fundamentally anti-authoritarian: the high-modernist impulse coupled with the power of the modern state has led to massive human disasters.  And confidence in comprehensive, abstract theories — whether of forests, bees, or cities — has been an important element of these destructive endeavors.  So the conclusion is a moderate one: pay attention to local knowledge, be suspicious of totalizing experiments in transforming society or nature, and trust the people who are affected by policies to contribute to their design.

Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State provide some resonance with two other insightful writers discussed in earlier postings: Michael Polanyi (on the importance of tacit knowledge) and Karl Popper (on the hazards associated with comprehensive social engineering).

(Scott’s most recent book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  Here is a very interesting working paper by Grant Evans reviewing Scott’s contributions; From moral economy to remembered village: The sociology of James C. Scott (Working paper / Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University).)

Who invented the totalitarian state?

The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck’s Prussia, Napoleon III’s France, Czar Alexander’s Russia, and Victor Emmanuel’s Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking — the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state “total” — an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,

The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)

Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society — the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice — grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups — including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly’s discussion of “trust networks” is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion — police and other armed state forces such as militias — were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state’s imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  — and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century — thus making the state’s goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the “reach of the state” increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann’s findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn’t much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries — scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society — requires research that doesn’t appear to exist at present. )

Koestler’s nightmares

Image: book burning by National Socialist paramilitaries, 1933

Image: Ukraine peasants fleeing famine

Image: street battle, Spanish Civil War

Arthur Koestler was an articulate witness of the atrocities of the twentieth century; and much of what he witnessed was terrible.  Reading his books gives one an intense and personal vision of fascism, dictatorship, mass murder, starvation, and cruelty on a monstrous scale.  As George Orwell wrote of Koestler’s books in 1944, “The subject-matter of all of them is similar, and none of them ever escapes for more than a few pages from the atmosphere of nightmare” (link).  Koestler worked as a Communist journalist in Berlin in the early 1930s during the rise of the brown shirts; he was the first European journalist to travel through the Ukraine to witness the results of famine in Stalin’s war against the Kulaks (Lynne Viola, The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside); and he observed the Spanish Civil War, where he was arrested after the fall of Malaga, imprisoned, and sentenced to death as a Red.  (Here is an earlier post on Koestler.)

These experiences are described in his autobiography, The Invisible Writing, and the narrative of his experiences in Spain is presented in Dialogue With Death.  But Koestler’s best known book is a novel, Darkness at Noon, which is the story of the final weeks of life of the fictional Soviet revolutionary Rubashov in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and the Moscow show trials.  After a life as leader, theorist, and agent in service of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, Rubashov is arrested for fictitious crimes of conspiracy and betrayal against the State.  He is arrested before dawn; it takes him quite a while to find his pince-nez.  He is thrown into a Soviet political prison — it is reminiscent to him of the fascist prisons in which he had suffered beatings and torture years earlier.  He is brought to confess to these crimes and others under interrogation by his former comrade-in-arms, Ivanov, and the new Soviet thug, Gletkin.  Ivanov is psychologically manipulative; Gletkin is brutal; but both strive to break Rubashov and compel his confession.  They are successful; Rubashov confesses to betraying the Revolution; and like Bukharin, he is convicted and summarily shot in the back of the neck.  Along the way there is quite a bit of debate about history, the individual, the Party, and the Future of Humanity.  The key question of the novel is the puzzle: why did Rubashov confess rather than following the secret advice of the prison barber — “die in silence!”?

Koestler himself was a committed Communist agent in Berlin in the 1930s; so his descriptions of Rubashov’s activities in eastern Europe have the ring of truth — including Rubashov’s betrayals of Richard and Little Loewy in the name of socialism.  The novel recreates the Moscow show trials of 1937 with uncanny insight.  Rubashov is loosely based on Nikolai Bukharin, one of the intellectual and political leaders of the Russian Revolution.  Koestler’s novel was written only two years after the trial and execution of these leaders of the Russian Revolution at the hands of Stalin’s functionaries.  Here is what he says about the central character:

The characters in this book are fictitious.  The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real.  The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials.  Several of them were personally known to the author.  This book is dedicated to their memory.  Paris, October, 1938-April, 1940

But here is what I find fascinating.  Koestler’s fictional recreation of the arrest and trial of the top Party officials, in the person of Rubashov, and the background assumptions and rationalizations assumed by the prosecutors and interrogators, is remarkably close to the historical reality.  Here is Koestler’s description of his own arrest and arrival in a Spanish fascist prison in Malaga:

It is a unique sound.  A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside; it cannot be shut except by being slammed to.  It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired.  But this report dies away without an echo.  Prison sounds are echo-less and bleak.

When the door has been slammed behind him for the first time, the prisoner stands in the middle of the cell and looks round. I fancy that everyone must behave in more or less the same way.

First of all he gives a fleeting look round the walls and takes a mental inventory of all the objects in what is now to be his domain:

  • the iron bedstead,
  • the wash-basin,
  • the W.C.,
  • the barred window.

His next action is invariably to try to pull himself up by the iron bars of the window and look out.  He fails, and his suit is covered with white from the plaster on the wall against which he has pressed himself. (Dialogue with Death, 59)

And now turn to Rubashov’s first few minutes in Stalin’s jail cell:

Rubashov walked up and down in the cell, from the door to the window and back, between bunk, wash-basin and bucket, six and a half steps there, six and a half steps back.  At the door he turned to the right, at the window to the left.  It was an old prison habit; if one did not change the direction of the turn one rapidly became dizzy. ….  Rubashov stood hesitantly in the middle of the cell, then put his pince-nez on again and propped himself at the window. (Darkness at Noon, 14, 18)

Much of the drama of Darkness at Noon is the series of interrogations Rubashov undergoes, and the mental transformation that they bring about in this courageous man to bring him to confess to the most farfetched and unbelievable crimes.  The transcripts of Bukharin’s prosecution exist; Robert Tucker and Stephen Cohen’s THE GREAT PURGE TRIAL provides extensive transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin and other show trial victims.  It is striking to compare the interrogation of Bukharin with the interrogation of Rubashov.  Consider this bit of interrogation of Rubashov, beginning with the voice of prosecutor Ivanov:

“To return to more tangible things: you mean, therefore, that ‘we’ — namely, Party and State — no longer represent the interests of the Revolution, of the masses or, if you like, the progress of humanity.”

“This time you have grasped it,” said Rubashov smiling.  Ivanov did not answer his smile.
“When did you develop this opinion?”

“Fairly gradually: during the last few years,” said Rubashov.

“Can’t you tell me more exactly? One year? Two? Three years?”

“That’s a stupid question,” said Rubashov. “At what age did you become adult? At seventeen? At eighteen and a half? At nineteen?”

“It’s you who are pretending to be stupid,” said Ivanov.  “Each step in one’s spiritual development is the result of definite experiences.  If you really want to know: I became a man at seventeen, when I was sent into exile for the first time.” (69)

And now a similar moment in the actual transcripts of the interrogation of Bukharin.

Vyshinsky: Allow me to begin the interrogation of the accused Bukharin. Formulate briefly what exactly it is you plead guilty to.

Bukharin: Firstly, to belonging to the counter-revolutionary “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.”

Vyshinsky: Since what year?

 Bukharin: Roughly since 1928. I plead guilty to being one of the outstanding leaders of this “Bloc of Rights and Trotskyites.” Consequently I plead guilty to what directly follows from this, the sum total of crimes committed by this counter-revolutionary organization, irrespective of whether or not I knew of, whether or not I took a direct part, in any particular act.  Because I am responsible as one of the leaders and not as a cog in this counter-revolutionary organization.

Vyshinsky: What aims were pursued by this counter-revolutionary organization?
Bukharin: This counter-revolutionary organization, to formulate it briefly …

Vyshinsky: Yes, briefly for the present.

Bukharin: The principal aim it pursued, although, so to speak, it did not fully realize it, and did not dot all the “i’s” — was essentially the aim of restoring capitalist relations in the U.S.S.R. (Tucker, 328)

And now, back to Darkness at Noon and Rubashov; the porter’s daughter reads aloud the newspaper account of the last minutes of Rubashov’s testimony:

“Asked whether he pleaded guilty, the accused Rubashov answered ‘Yes’ in a clear voice.  To a further question of the Public Prosecutor as to whether the accused had acted as an agent of the counter-revolution, he again answered ‘Yes’ in a lower voice ….”

Here seems to be Koestler’s own explanation of the puzzle of the confessions:

Some were silenced by physical fear, like Hare-lip; some hoped to save their heads; others at least to save their wives or sons from the clutches of the Gletkins.  The best of them kept silent in order to do a last service to the Party, by letting themselves be sacrificed as scapegoats — and, besides, even the best had each an Arlova on his conscience.  They were too deeply entangled in their own past, caught in the web they had spun themselves, according to the laws of their own twisted ethics and twisted logic; they were all guilty, although not of those deeds of which they accused themselves.  There was no way back for them.  Their exit from the stage happened strictly according to the rules of their strange game.  The public expected no swan-songs of them.  They had to act according to the text-book, and their part was the howling of wolves in the night…. (DN, 105)

Fiction and reality are deeply intertwined here.  I don’t believe that Koestler had access to transcripts of the show trials at the time he wrote Darkness at Noon in 1940, though he had read accounts of the trials.  So the convergence of the fictional Rubashov and the historical Bukharin is remarkable.  And the transformation of Koestler’s own experiences — in Communist activism and in fascist prison under sentence of death — into the fiction of Rubashov is very striking.

The state prosecutor who conducted the show trial of Bukharin was Andrei Vyshinsky.  Following his success in the show trials, Vyshinsky became a prominent diplomat under Stalin.  And after World War II he served as permanent representative to the United Nations during the period that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was drafted and adopted.  He led the Soviet Bloc nations in abstention from the vote adopting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  Here is a fragment of the outrageous speech he gave on this occasion:

Human rights could not be conceived outside the State; the very concept of right and law was connected with that of the State. (The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, 21-22)

I am drawn to Koestler’s writings — both his fiction and his autobiographical writings —  in part because he provides such a powerful example of an engaged mind attempting to make sense of the history around him. Much of his work is a first-person effort to “understand society” — to make sense of the social forces and individual behavior that the twentieth century presented.  George Orwell is another of my favorites in this aspect of literature, including especially Homage to Catalonia and A Collection of Essays; so it is very interesting to me that Orwell wrote the short essay about Koestler mentioned above.  It is also interesting that they were both published in England by Victor Gollancz, along with E. P. Thompson.

(Louis Menand has an interesting profile of Koestler in the New Yorker this month.)

What is the Burmese junta doing?

Burma has been a cauldron of surprising news in the past two years or so. The generals have taken a series of actions in a number of areas: brutal repression of the monks’ demonstrations in 2007, prosecution and conviction of Aung Sun Suu Kyi (ASSK) in a bizarre show trial, a major rainy season assault on the Karen militias and villages, increasing pressure on the Kachin Independence Organization, brutal assault on the Kokang cease-fire group on the Chinese border. And don’t forget the mystery tunnel construction (link) and the phantom North Korean ship (link) a few months ago. (Here is a list of recent news items concerning events in Burma and the rest of southeast Asia, and here is a map displaying some of those items. Follow the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed for updates.) Is there an underlying logic to these actions? What is the junta’s strategy? What are they trying to accomplish, and how do these actions fit into any sort of rational plan? (See an earlier post on the Burmese dictatorship.)

Here’s a sketchy analysis about the junta’s goals: to maintain the decisive military and political power of the Burmese army; to gain full control of national territory, including particularly the states with independence movements and armed militias; to retain the ability to crush any possible opposition movement; to keep the wealth-production machine going for the benefit of the generals and the military system; and to preserve diplomatic support from China. And one important date is looming: the junta’s promise to conduct elections in 2010. The elections are plainly designed to leave decisive control in the hands of the army and to present a thin semblance of “democracy”. And the junta is determined to manage this process so as to lead to an outcome that leaves their power unchallenged.

So what do they need in order to accomplish these goals? They need arms; they need trading partners; they need on-the-ground control of the population; and they need to retain control of Burma’s resources and economy. How do recent actions conform to these goals? Is the junta merely reactive, or is it following a longterm strategy?

The trial of Aung San Suu Kyi fits into this set of goals fairly obviously. ASSK is the most charismatic leader that Burmese society possesses. She leads the National League for Democracy (NLD), the most persistent opposition group in Burma today and the overwhelming winner of the elections of 1990 (link). And her name is one of the most celebrated in Burma’s post-colonial history. Her father Aung San was the hero of Burmese independence and his assassination in 1947 was a turning point in Burma’s modern history. ASSK has the potential to mobilize a powerful pro-democracy movement, and the generals fear her. Moreover, there seems to be a streak of emotion in the generals’ attitudes toward her; there seems to be a powerful hatred of ASSK that goes beyond rational fear. But the evident determination of the junta to keep ASSK under house arrest and out of politics through the 2010 elections makes a cruel kind of sense.

The recent military campaigns against the Karen and Kokang groups and the increasing pressure on Kachin and Shan movements also fit fairly clearly into the goals mentioned here. The generals appear to have come to the conclusion that they have a realistic opportunity to change the balance of forces between the army and the ethnic organizations. They appear to have undertaken a determined effort to do so, beginning with the Karen. This seems to be motivated by both the long-standing effort to control the non-Burmese populations and the goal of managing the 2010 elections.

The international trade strategies of the junta also appear to be directly linked to the commercial interests of the regime. Gas contracts, timber and jade sales, and exploitation of Burma’s other economic assets show an aggressive but strategic effort at increasing Burma’s foreign exchange revenues. The relationship with North Korea appears to represent a source of military technology not otherwise available to Burma (the mystery ship?). And western economic sanctions don’t seem to dampen Burma’s trade opportunities significantly. In other words, the junta appears to have created an alternative world trading system that leaves it fairly immune to western criticism and sanctions.

Burma’s foreign relations also seem fairly successful in the realpolitik sense. Burma has managed to avoid much pressure from ASEAN nations; it has preserved the diplomatic support of China in the United Nations; and it maintains acceptable relations with India and Bangladesh. Its assault on the Karen areas has ruffled relations with Thailand because of the influx of refugees across the Thai border their military campaign created. And the assault on the Kokang group had strained relations with China because of the large number of refugees into Yunnan province and the mistreatment of Han people in Shan State. But so far the Chinese haven’t offered much pressure to the Burmese junta either.

So it seems that there is actually a fairly coherent underlying set of goals and strategies that appear to be driving the junta’s actions. The common view in the western media of the junta as mysterious, secretive, reactive, paranoid, and ineffective doesn’t seem to be accurate. The junta seems to be a more dangerous enemy to the people of Burma than this description would suggest. The generals have developed bureaucracies and plans that allow them to pursue their aims fairly effectively. And this is bad news for a democratic Burma. The junta has entrenched a brutal, violent, and exploitative regime that is fundamentally unconcerned about the welfare of the people of Burma; and their military government seems pretty effective in preserving its power and pursuing its political goals.

It is interesting to note how many areas of the social sciences need to be consulted in order to deal with this question: political science (how can we explain the regime’s behavior?), organizational behavior (how do the bureaucratic agencies of the Burmese state function?), military sociology (how is the army recruited and managed?), and social movements theory (how do the various oppositional groups in Burma seek to mobilize?). So Burma represents something of a laboratory for social science research and theory formation.

Labor protest in China

C.K. Lee’s book, Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt, is a very important contribution to the sociology of contemporary China. The field needs this kind of innovative and theoretically adept work. And one of the great strengths of the research is the fact that it takes the Chinese context seriously in a profound way; it is “China-centered” sociology. This stands in opposition to work that brings a theoretical perspective (often inspired by European experiences and theorists) and then attempts to “apply” the theory to the data of Chinese experience. C.K. does not make this mistake. The book is a major empirical and theoretical contribution to the effort to better understand current social realities in China. But it is also an important and innovative example of how to use sociological theories more generally to arrive at a sociology of urban 21st-century society and social change.

The book looks at the rising incidence of labor protests in post-reform China. Abrupt and profound social changes are occurring that have had a great impact on the condition of working people: privatization, dissolution of state safety net, new export factory system with labor supplied by rural immigrants. C.K. looks at two regions and two “situations”: Rustbelt (Liaoning in the northeast, where protests are stimulated by the loss of employment, unemployment benefits, medical care, unpaid pensions) and Sunbelt (Guangdong in the south, where protests are stimulated by discrimination, exploitation, and horrendous working conditions). These are conditions that Anita Chan documents in China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy. Towards the end of the book C.K. summarizes the two locales as representing “The death of socialism and the birth of capitalism” or words to that effect. The title is important: “Against the Law” captures both the central theme of protest – workers appealing to agencies and the central state for their legal rights – but also to the insurgent and often repressed status of their protests.

C.K. is interested in exploring the sociology of these labor worlds in an appropriately “local” way: what are the specific features of the Chinese economy, Chinese production, Chinese policy and law, and Chinese culture that produce two rather different patterns of protest and contention in two segments of the Chinese manufacturing economy?

Lee emphasizes the contingency of these developments and their dependency on rather proximate causal / social factors. She believes that the nature of the mobilizations and protests is affected by the way in which they are framed. Writing about Rustbelt protest: “My main concern … is to analyze how the characteristics and limits of worker protests are linked to the mode of state regulation of labor and the social reproduction of labor power” (71). Elsewhere she makes the point that Sunbelt protests have less mobilizational “staying power” because of the living situation of migrant workers: they return to their villages in times of distress, and their movement collapses. She distinguishes sub-types of Rustbelt protests by their underlying issue: nonpayment protests, neighborhood protests, bankruptcy protests. In other words, rather specific circumstances that set the context for life and work in the two regions and sectors have substantial effects on the nature of dissent and protest that results.

She also highlights the nuance and heterogeneity of the social realities she studies. “What strikes an outside observer as a homogeneous group confronting common economic predicaments growing out of structural reform is experienced from within the group as fragmented interests, unequal treatment, and mutual suspicion” (84). So she doesn’t make the mistake of assuming homogeneity of “workers” or other social categories.

So a particular strength of her approach is that it emphasizes the contingency, variation, and internal heterogeneity in social processes that we should expect. “Theory” is a help but not a blueprint.

A substantive and important point that C.K. arrives at is the “cellular” nature of labor protest in China today. She refers almost all of these protests as “cellular” – meaning they lack a larger regional base of organization. Also they are fairly spontaneous; not much local organization or planning is needed or provided. This cellularity derives from specific features of the social environments in which labor protests emerge in China today. “A confluence of institutional factors produce the prevailing pattern of cellular activism. State work units provide the physical sites of communication and coordination, organize workers’ interests, and define the boundary of the aggrieved community” (112). But state surveillance and repression prevents the incubation of organizations – such as independent labor unions – that might convey local activism to a broader regional level.

A second substantive point – perhaps her most fundamental point, and the inspiration for the title of the book – is the unusually central role that appeals to legal rights play in current examples of labor protest. Kevin O’Brien refers to this strategy as “rightful resistance” (Rightful Resistance in Rural China). C. K. makes the point clearly at the end of the book: “The centrality of the law and legalism is salient, and is perhaps a unique Chinese way of popular contention, triggered by the regime’s decentralized legal authoritarianism. Even without formal or conscious cross-class alliance against the state, the common and ferocious charge of ‘against the law’ is a powerful and haunting chorus to the Chinese regime” (261).

A third important characteristic of C. K.’s analysis is her insistence on the agency and subjectivity of the workers whose actions she considers. She pays attention to their consciousness and ideas and their need for self-respect and dignity – these all play important roles in the movements and activism she describes. She insists on seeing workers as agents, not victims: “Like the making of class, we cannot predict the outcome but can explain the trajectory of when and which ideological interpellation underlies what collective action” (122). And she emphasizes the “moral indignation” aspect of many protests. “I seek to understand the indigenous meanings, relations, and institutional context that come packaged with these terms when they are invoked in the rustbelt, often simultaneously” (114). This means that it is a sociologically important area of research, to attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the consciousness of the men and women who make up this history.

I am also appreciative of the methods of investigation and research that Lee uses. She makes skillful use of her sophisticated understanding of various relevant pieces of sociological theory and analysis; her deep and expert knowledge of the chronology of legal reforms and policy shifts that have affected industry and labor in China since 1980; and an expert command of the macro-level economic and political data that are available about industrial change and labor unrest. But these forms of theoretical and empirical knowledge constitute a foundation for a more qualitative kind of research: careful case studies of particular factories and disturbances based on her own fieldwork, along with interviews of participants that bring the book into the range of a kind of industrial ethnography. In other words, the arguments of the book are situated within a strong theoretical and empirical understanding, and are moved forward through synthesis of many of her own observations and interviews with participants. This combination gives the book a particularly acute flexibility when it comes to understanding the complexities of the social situations in Guangdong and Liaoning. Her analysis of the two situations is not merely an expression of her underlying theories; rather, it is a sensitive “portrait” of the nuanced series of developments that are found in the two regions.

Is publicity an important source of power?

What is publicity in the sense intended here? It is shared public knowledge of a given state of affairs. It stands in contrast to secrecy and deception, and it is cognate to transparency. Public knowledge is shared knowledge. And philosophers such as Rawls and Habermas have given great moral importance to this circumstance of publicity within their conceptions of a good democratic society. The Internet, with its ubiquitous voices and constant growth, is a particularly salient embodiment of the idea of publicity. But is publicity a resource of power and influence for ordinary people?

I begin with a simple observation: Powerful agencies in global society pursue their interests using the many forms of power available to them. Corporations, states, and powerful individuals exercise various kinds of power over ordinary people and groups. Coercion, deception, concealment, and intimidation rest in the portfolio of the powerful. What forms of self-defense are available to ordinary people against the misuse of power through coercion, intimidation, or the corruption of other wielders of power?

Amartya Sen’s answer to a part of this question is a famous one. He poses the question, why did major famine occur in post-Revolution China but not in post-Independence India? And his answer is, the existence of electoral institutions and a free press in India but not in China. The publicity of an emerging famine gave the Congress Party in India a major incentive to take steps that would prevent full-blown famine conditions. By contrast, the opacity of China and the non-accountable power of the Communist Party permitted the famine of the Great Leap Forward to continue through two harvest seasons and to accumulate to 20 to 30 million excess deaths. Publicity and public accountability of government played a decisive role in the different experiences, according to Sen and his co-author, Jean Drèze (Hunger and Public Action).

So, in suitable political circumstances, a free press involving independent investigative journalists can be a check on power, both in the hands of the state and for non-state actors. (Several earlier posts comment on the limits of this mechanism in authoritarian states; see entries under the label repression.)

What about the web and the blogosphere? Can these decentralized and non-official forms of publicity serve as an effective check on the abuse of power by the powerful?

There are several reasons for thinking they can, but there are also several countervailing factors. On the positive side, the web provides a broad and diffuse platform through which people with concerns or grievances can express their ideas and observations. Web pages and blogs provide everyone with a platform from which to make a case and present evidence. We can all be investigative journalists; we can all speak truth to power. And thanks to the power of search engines, these voices aren’t doomed to the oblivion of cacaphony. People concerned about a particular issue can find each other and pool information. And they can coordinate their actions into organized collective action. Whistle-blowers can publish their knowledge on the web — often behind a screen of anonymity that protects them from retaliation.

But we have to ask this question: to what extent does public knowledge of an abuse lead to effective actions or processes that remedy the abuse? What social mechanisms transform public knowledge into power? Sen’s argument about famine identifies one such mechanism: voters care about famine, and parties or candidates who are known to be ineffective in response to famine will be unsuccessful at the polls. So public opinion, energized by knowledge of disturbing facts, can lead to action by elected officials. But this mechanism isn’t available in all social settings or for all forms of bad behavior by powerful agencies, for several reasons. First, some forms of bad behavior by the powerful are largely outside the control of democratic processes — for example, business practices. Second, there are recognized strategies of “spin control” that allow bad actors to obscure their actions from public view. Finally, it is all too often that it is difficult to capture enough public attention to an abuse to gather a significant political force. (Think about how relatively ineffective public knowledge and revulsion about the violence in Darfur has been; and think about how little effect public knowledge of ineptitude and racial bias in governmental responses to Hurricane Katrina had on the actual policies and remedies that have been offered. The public knows quite a bit about both situations; but this knowledge hasn’t actually changed very much.)

Consider a hypothetical example. Suppose the XYZ mining company is developing a major gold mine in an underdeveloped part of the Amazon. And suppose that its practices of land acquisition, environmental effects, and labor relations are in fact highly abusive, coercive, and destructive. (Here’s a summary of a report documenting just this sort of behavior in Guyana.) For example, suppose the company has hired a private security company to evict local farmers, and evictions have taken place through the use of a significant amount of coercion; and suppose that the operations of the mine are creating significant and permanent environmental destruction. Now suppose, finally, that travelers and reporters have unearthed some of the details of these bad behaviors. How can that information be used to compel the company to improve its practices, or to lead to some form of punishment for the company that might deter similar practices in the future?

It would appear that there are only a few avenues of influence that exist. First, reporting the behavior to the national government that has jurisdiction might result in enforcement of national regulations about labor and environmental practices. Second, widespread global exposure of the practices might prove to be sufficiently embarrassing for the XYZ company that it has an incentive to reform its practices. And third, widespread exposure of the practices to potential customers of the XYZ company might lead these customers to purchase their gold from a competitor.

It is apparent that all of these remedies are very weak. National governments often lack either the will or the capacity to enforce regulations — even when they exist. Multinational corporations have thick skins, and public embarrassment may be a relatively small price to pay for profitable practices. And they have deep pockets when it comes to communicating their side to the story. And influencing consumers using this kind of information is possible but limited. The effort to discourage consumers from buying “conflict diamonds” falls in this category, and in the case of diamonds it may be moderately effective. But it is not likely to affect the purchasing behavior of anonymous companies buying raw materials whose business interests are defined by price, reliability, and quality.

So it seems that two things are true: first, that the internet has created a channel for the gathering and sharing of information that greatly increases the likelihood that bad behavior by powerful actors will be noted in some detail; and second, that this degree of publicity is only weakly to moderately effective in discouraging or punishing bad behavior by powerful actors. So publicity is a resource for the powerless; but it is a resource with fairly limited effects.

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