Explaining fascism

Kevin Passmore’s short introduction to fascism comes out at a good time (Fascism: A Very Short Introduction). Passmore does a great job of framing the problem. He poses a definitional question — what is fascism — and demonstrates that this apparently semantic issue requires careful historical and theoretical analysis. Arriving at a good definition of fascism is itself an empirical and historical task. Passmore asks a set of causal questions: How do the fascisms of Europe relate to important social forces in the early twentieth century (for example, the role of great social classes in conflict)? And he addresses the issue of saying what is involved in explaining fascism (the role of analysis and theory). Passmore also presents a very sophisticated treatment of the variety and diversity of human institutions — issues raised elsewhere under the topic of “heterogeneity”.

Of special interest for us is the question, Is fascism a particular social system (dictatorship with such-and-so attributes)? Or was it first and foremost a historically distinctive political and social movement with characteristic values and ideology (violence, nationalism, anti-communism)? Is it a historically specific moment, or is it a systemic development stimulated by some structural feature of modern society (deadlocked conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie)? Crudely — is fascism a social formation, an ideological complex, a social movement, or a type of government apparatus? And our efforts of explanation will depend on what sort of answer we give to these ontological questions.

These alternative definitions of fascism would give rise to very different explanatory challenges. And in fact, there is a wide variety of explanatory and causal questions that can be considered: Why did the fascist movements arise? Why did they gain a mass following? How did the social realities of capitalism affect the emergence and form of fascism? How important were the particular qualities and ideas of Hitler, Mussolini, or Franco in the evolution of fascism as a social system? Why did fascist dictatorships take the form they did? Why did official and affiliate group violence take the virulent forms that it did? How did fascist governments maintain power? Did these governments gain “legitimacy” and support in their populations? Is there a characteristic “pattern of development” for fascist regimes, or are their political histories deeply contingent on events and persons? Are Germany, Italy, and Spain variants of one social form, or are they simply independent social systems possessing some family resemblances in ideology, propaganda systems, and propensities for violence?

We might also consider whether explanation needs to occur at a lower level — not “why fascism?” but rather, “why the Iron Guard in Romania”, “why this or that feature of Italian fascism”, “why this particular feature of Spanish state-military relations in Franco’s fascism?”. Here the point might be that there are no general or comprehensive explanations of the emergence and development of fascism in all the places it occurred; no common causes that were always or usually instrumental; but rather that each national history needs to be treated in its own terms. But, as Passmore demonstrates, this would be somewhat too skeptical; there certainly were some large international and national forces that facilitated fascist mobilization and seizure of power in many different countries.

The historical phenomena of fascism are interesting and important, because they represented powerful social forces (movements and governments that had great influence on events in the twentieth century). We would like for historical social science to have something substantive and illuminating to say about the causes and trajectory of fascism. And, of course, we would be well advised to notice the warning signs if there are any!

(Another excellent very short introduction from Oxford that is relevant to this topic is Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction.)

Social structures as causal factors

The continuing question here is this: how and through what mechanisms do various social entities exercise causal influence with respect to social outcomes? (This will also be relevant to the question: how does power work in a given society?) We think the Gulf Stream wields influence with respect to weather and climate change, but not the circulation numbers of the NYT. And we can specify a lot of detail about the climate-system micro-mechanisms through which this influence is conveyed. We need comparable insight into social causation and various putative social causes or influences.

In that spirit — do social structures wield causal powers, and through what mechanisms do they do so?

Let’s take one specific example — a mid-size social structure such as the higher-education system found in various countries. This is a complex of institutions, funding arrangements, internal practices and organizational forms. Can the higher-ed system be called a structure? And can it exercise causal influence on the society in which it is embedded?

First, is it a social structure at all (as opposed perhaps to simply an agglomeration of miscellaneous lower-level institutions)? There is no doubt that this system is “heterogeneous” in the sense discussed in prior posts. There are many varieties of public universities, many types and strata of private universities, and many distinctive variations across individual universities. Moreover, these institutions are only somewhat loosely connected together. Nonetheless, British, Russian, French, Mexican, and US universities are different from each other, they have different institutions, values, and philosophies, and they serve in different ways to educate the post-high school populations of their countries. And these institutions have very important distributive consequences in their settings: the credential of baccalaureate gives the young graduate different opportunities than he or she would have otherwise. So it seems justified to describe these systems as “structures”.

The causal influence of the higher education system in a given country is fairly easy to address. The features of the higher education system in a country determine the skill level of the educated population and the “culture” of educated people. Schooling systems that favor technical and vocational education will have one sort of influence on economic development, different from a system that favors a broader “general” education. Systems that provide broad and affordable access across social classes have an effect on the inequalities that the society will embody in the future; and these effects are different from those of systems that are class-exclusive. Universities are places where young people learn a lot of their political culture; so a system that embodies a culture of left-ism will have different political consequences than one that embodies quietism or consumerism.

The causal mechanisms of these influences are also easy to discern: effects on individuals (skills and political values) leading to the creation of new economic and political opportunities for society in the next iteration. Other effects are a bit more subtle — for example, the influence that universities have through creation of a variety of social networks (on Wall Street, in Washington, in the military or intelligence world). In each case the causal powers of the institution are readily disaggregated into the microfoundations through which the institution shapes and constrains the individuals who pass theory the institution.

And we can also reason on first principles (to be tested through comparative research) that different national complexes of institutions, practices, and values in higher education will make for observable differences in those societies’ institutions, performance, and collective behavior. This is the central point of the new institutionalism: different institutional complexes doing the same social work will have different outcomes for behavior and the further development of institutions.

So here is one medium-scale example that responds in the affirmative: concrete social structures do possess causal properties; these powers work through the features of constrained agency that they guide; and that we are likely to observe the different workings of these causal properties in different country settings.

(I believe we could work out similar analysis for other social institutions, such as social-property systems, kinship systems, or systems of media ownership and control.)

Social properties: Persistence, change, and stochastic social processes

How can we explain social change and social persistence?

Society is a complex, compositional entity. Both persistence and change require explanation in such entities. Because there is a third alternative condition of such an entity: chaos, randomness, and Brownian motion of individuals in interaction with each other. Succinctly — the current state of the ensemble is simply the sum of the states of the lower-level units, and their states are in turn determined by a stochastic set of encounters with other individuals in the prior period. Both persistence and patterned change are non-random outcomes for a compositional system, and each demands explanation. (It is as if crystals formed periodically in boiling water among the micro-particles observed in the solution.) So if we observe either persistence or patterned change in spite of underlying stochastic processes, there must be causes of these non-random outcomes; so we want to be able to discover the causes of both.

To consider change and persistence, we need to answer a prior question: change and persistence of what? Logically, an ensemble demonstrates change and persistence with respect to some set of characteristics: features of organization, patterns of distribution of lower-level properties (e.g. income, attitudes), characteristics of “meso”-level behavior. In biological terms, the ensemble possesses structures, functions, and dynamics of development. And we need to be able to explain each of these gross features in a way that is consistent with the compositional nature of social entities.

We can easily produce examples of each type of condition in social life.

  • Persistence: The Federal Reserve Board retains its institutional form and its functional role within the US economy over a 50-year period. Baseball is still governed by the same basic rules as it was in the nineteenth-century (with minor variations).
  • Change: American attitudes about race shift measurably over 50 years. The percentage of workers in labor unions falls dramatically from 1970to 2000.
  • Stochastic: The frequency of the name “Harry” falls dramatically from 1950 to 1990. Traffic on Skype fluctuates from minute to minute.

Given that the ensemble is composed of lower-level elements (individuals), we want to know what it is that constrains, impels, and conditions the behavior of the individuals, such that the ensemble comes to have the observed features of persistence and change.

In order to explain either persistence or change in social arrangements, what do we have to work with? Only two sorts of things, fundamentally. We have the behavioral characteristics of the individuals who constitute the society; and we have the behaviorally relevant features that are embodied in current social institutions and practices (rules, incentives, opportunities, forms of social cooperation and social punishment). The latter “social” facts are themselves embodied in the behavioral characteristics of the persons who constitute them; but at any given time they function with apparent autonomy with respect to particular actors.

Fundamentally, then, the explanation of both persistence and change in society requires that we uncover the features of individual motivation that guide their behavior (interests, values, preferences, identities, practices); the features of the current social environment that empower and limit individual strategies; and the processes of aggregation through which the individuals’ actions come together into collective behavior in either reinforcing or disrupting the social facts of current interest. This intellectual model for social explanation is what I refer to as “methodological localism.”

(See “The Heterogeneous Social” for more on methodological localism.)

What is a social structure?

Are there such things as “social structures”? In what do they consist? What sorts of social powers do they exercise?

Consider a few candidates: the global trading system, the Federal government, the Chinese peasantry of the 1930s, the English class system, the Indian marriage system, race in the United States, the city of Chicago. Are these items examples of “social structures”?

What are the central assumptions we make in designating something as a social structure? (Note that the term “social structure” can be used in at least two important senses: first, as a causally operative institutional complex (the state or the market as causal social structures), and second, as a description of facets of the organization of society (demographic structure, urban-rural structure, structure of race and ethnicity, income structure). Here I will focus on the first sense of the term.)

Several ideas appear to be core features in our ordinary understanding of this concept. A social structure consists of rules, institutions, and practices. A social structure is socially embodied in the actions, thoughts, beliefs, and durable dispositions of individual human beings. A social structure is effective in organizing behavior of large numbers of actors. A structure is coercive of individual and group behavior. A social structure assigns roles and powers to individual actors. A social structure often has distributive consequences for individuals and groups. A social structure is geographically dispersed. Social structures can cause social outcomes involving both persistence and change.

We might try to reduce these intuitions to a definition: a social structure is a system of geographically dispersed rules and practices that influence the actions and outcomes of large numbers of social actors.

Now back to our original question: do such things exist? Before proceeding to a answer, a few points are evident. Any social entity must possess microfoundations in human mentalities and actions. There is no such thing as a social entity that lacks human embodiment–any more than there are works of art that lacks material embodiment. Social entities “supervene” upon human individuals.

This point also applies to any statements we might make about the putative causal powers of a social entity. So claims about the causal properties of social structures must be supplemented by a theory of the microfoundations of those powers. How does an extended social structure exert influence over the actions of located individuals?

And there is a final parallel point about claims about the geographical scope and coherence of a social entity. If we want to maintain that an entity exercises influence as a coherent and extended entity, we need to be able to specify the mechanisms through which this takes place. How does the Federal state exert its control and influence over the vast scope of the United States and its population?

So, with these qualifications about the unavoidable need for providing microfoundations–are there social structures?

Several of the instances offered above fit the terms of our provisional definition. They are large complexes of rules and practices that influence behavior and outcomes. And it is straightforward to begin to provide a description of the microfoundations upon which they exist: the social components through which these structures are embodied and through which they exercise influence on individuals and groups. The US Federal Government functions as a system of branches of government, each with its own departments governed by formal and informal rules. And the “reach” of the state down to the local and individual level is secured by the socially implemented forms of power that are locally expressed (bank inspectors, law enforcement agencies, tax auditors, …).

This is an example of a large social structure that operates through a high degree of formal institutionalization. But some of the examples mentioned above depend primarily on informal mechanisms — the workings of widespread beliefs and attitudes, along with a diffused willingness of individuals to “enforce” the requirements of the structure. Structures relying primarily on informal mechanisms include the Indian marriage system or the English class system.

Is “race” a structure in American society? Plainly it possesses some of the key elements identified above. The reality of race leads to an uneven distribution of opportunities and outcomes, so “race” is a social fact with distributive consequences. It has the element of coercion: racial prejudice and patterns of discrimination are imposed on individuals without an “opt-out” possibility. And we can identify many of the social mechanisms through which race and racial discrimination work; so the category possesses microfoundations. Today many of those mechanisms are “informal” rather than “formal”; but of course the legal institutionalization of racial discrimination is a recent fact in American history. So “race” is a structural feature of American society.

Several of the examples mentioned above appear to fall outside the category of social structure, however; for example, “Chinese peasantry”. These examples appear to be large factors that play a role in large social structures, but are more akin to elements than systems. So the structure that defines “Chinese peasantry” is the system of property, agriculture, and kinship that defines the peasant’s role and opportunities in society; the category of “peasant” identifies one node within that system or structure.

What about “the city of Chicago”? Is this a structure or some other category of social entity? I am inclined to say that the city of Chicago is a complex social entity, not a structure. It falls within a variety of structures in America and the world–the global trading system, the electoral process, and the politics of national funding for large cities; and it embodies within it a variety of smaller structures–the public school system, lending practices, nepotism. But the city itself does not function as a regulative system coordinating the activities of large numbers of individuals. Rather, it is a complex social entity composed of a mix of social practices, behaviors, systems, and relationships.

Are there historical structures?

The French Revolution began in 1789. It was caused by conflict between the aristocracy and the monarchy. Eventually it developed into violent conflict in every region of France. It created more lasting change in French society than did the Russian Revolution.

These statements purport to refer to an extended but unified historical thing, the French Revolution. This thing is assigned a place within a causal system, being caused by one set of factors and having causal consequences for other factors. It is considered a suitable topic for comparison with other such things (the Russian Revolution).

But what does the historical reality of the French Revolution consist in? Notice, to begin, that the revolution comprises a huge constellation of events and actions, both small and large. Were any of these events “the definitive moment” in the revolution–the decisive event that constituted the constellation as a revolution rather than a “period of unrest”? Is it possible to distinguish clearly between core events and peripheral, minor events–not to speak of events that are wholly unrelated to the revolution? Most radically, would it be possible to construct the events of 1789 in such a way that no revolution occurred at all?

One possible answer to these questions is to reply that the events directly associated with the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a different form of political power constituted the essence of the revolution. But what if later historians were to conclude that the transfer of power was illusory, and that the same interests in society continued to govern? In fact, if the monarchy had been restored in 1830 we might reasonably say that “no revolution occurred, only an interruption of monarchy.” Would either of these possibilities represent a refiguring of the historical picture in which the seizure of power is minor and background rather than major and foreground? And would this not be a basis for doubting that “a revolution occrred in 1789”?

It seems best to understand “the French Revolution” as an intellectual construction–one possible way of knitting together the congeries of events that occurred during this time in France. Some constructions of these facts are more plausible than others, so it is possible to have rational dispute about the alternative construals of the constellation of events. But there is no essential fact of the matter that a revolution occurred in France in 1789. This doesn’t derogate the status or facticity of the constituent events. But it does assert that the historian’s act of composing events and actions into a large historical structure is an act of construction rather than recognition.

The heterogeneous social: institutions

Populations and groups are inherently diverse; virtually any property that might be attached to an individual shows variance across the group. So we have to pay special attention to specifying what we mean when we ask for a “measurement” of a property of a group. This is the basic ontological fact that undergirds a critical approach to quantitative social and behavioral science. And it means that we need always to be considering the variance within the group with respect to the property, the shape of the distribution, as well as the mean value of the property.

It turns out that social phenomena are heterogeneous at the level of institutions, mentalities, practices, and causes as well. Later posts will consider other forms of social heterogeneity. The topic here is institutional heterogeneity. An institution is a system of rules through which a set of social behaviors are mediated. Rules may be enforced through clear third-party enforcement powers (formal institutions) or diffuse participant enforcement practices (informal institutions). Examples of institutions include contract law (formal), cooperative labor-sharing (informal), marriage systems (formal and informal), and tenure systems (formal). Institutions are embodied in the beliefs, values, attitudes, and motivations of socially constructed individuals at various levels of action; they act to constrain and incentivize individual behavior in ways that are to some extent independent of the actions and preferences of those individuals. (That is, the individual is rarely in a position to directly change the rules of the institution so as to serve his/her goals better.) So institutions are both caused by (embodied in) the social consciousness of an extended set of social actors, and are causal in shaping the future behavior of an extended set of social actors.

Institutions have origins — they come into being at a time and place. So we can ask the question, “what explains the fact of the emergence of the institution and the particular characteristics it possesses at that point?” And institutions undergo processes of development over time — they undergo change in some characteristics, incorporate new scope and function, and gain new coalitions of supporters and opponents. So we can ask the question, “what factors explain the processes of change that the institution undergoes?” (Kathleen Thelen’s How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan provides a very good account of the ways in which we need to investigate the origins and development of various important social institutions.)

Institutions are sometimes grouped together into broad categories or classes in terms of social function (what does the institution do?), observable characteristics (what does the institution look like?), and social functioning (how does the institution work?). So, for example, we might want to study institutions of marriage-partner selection, irrigation management, or institutions that regulate common property resources such as forests or wetlands; Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In each case the group of institutions is defined in terms of the common social problem that they solve.

Now we can frame the task of one important area of sociology and political science research: to undertake careful comparative research concerning the instances of institutions included within a category. In what ways are different examples similar and different from each other? How have parallel or divergent institutional complexes emerged to solve broadly similar social problems? What causal processes can be observed in the workings of these several examples? How do these institutional matrices influence and constrain the forms of behavior that flow through them? (So, in the book by Kathleen Thelen mentioned above, the author considers the national-level institutions of skilled-labor training that have evolved in Germany, UK, USA, and Japan; she considers the effects that these different regimes have on the flow of skilled workers; and she analyzes the political coalitions that were relevant in establishing a particular configuration of the institution.)

Here, finally, we can address the issue of institutional heterogeneity. Given the ways that institutions are formed, changed, and embodied, we should expect that there will be two forms of diversity among institutions. First, it is clear that there are normally multiple ways of solving a particular social problem (training workers for industry, managing prisoners, administering social welfare subsidies). So we should expect that there will be a range of institutional matrices that have emerged across societies to handle these challenges, and we can learn quite a bit about social causation by examining these differences and how they work. And second, given that institutions are “malleable” and dynamic, we should expect that institutions will show diversity within their own life courses. As powerful agents and coalitions shift in their powers and needs, as other constituents acquire more or less influence in setting the agenda for the institution, we should expect an ongoing process of modification of the institution over time.

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