Sunday, June 28, 2009

China's inequalities

China’s Communist Revolution was founded upon the idea of equality. It was a basic principle of the early Communist Party that inequalities ought to be eradicated and the power and privilege of elite groups should be dismantled. Today in China the situation is very different. Farmers and rural people no longer have the support of the central state in their grievances against powerful forces — land developers, factory owners, power companies. And economic and social inequalities have increased dramatically in China — inequalities between the rural population and the city population, between manual workers and professionals, between eastern-coastal regions and western regions (link). Small numbers of elites are able to capture wealth-creating opportunities; the separation between wealthy and poor widens; and often the political power of office permits self-aggrandizement within China’s burgeoning economy. The situation of small farmers and of internal migrant factory workers is particularly bad, by all accounts; see Anita Chan, China's Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy.

Paradoxically, these facts about widening inequalities serve to point out something surprising: the sometimes narrow limits to the power of central state and party institutions -- a point that Vivienne Shue made in The Reach of the State Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Regional and local officials are often able to undertake actions and policies that are directly harmful to poor people and directly contrary to central policies — and the central government is unable to reign them in. There are some deliberate policy efforts from the central state to improve the conditions of rural people — as a class and as a region of disadvantaged population. But those policies have often had little effect; the benefits that were intended to redress inequalities wind up in the hands of more elite actors -- often private developers rather than public officials (link).

So how do Chinese people think about these facts — facts that are even more visible to them than to outsiders? Recent research seems to point out a generational difference with regards to the “sense of justice” that Chinese people bring to their perceptions of the society. Older people appear to have shaped a set of ideas about social justice under the Mao years that lead them to judge today’s visible inequalities very unfavorably. Younger people seem to be more accepting of inequalities — if they are earned. What is most morally offensive to younger people seems to be the fact that privilege of position allows some people to do much better than others -- from access to education to access to high-paying jobs. Whether this is a function of corruption, cronyism, or the use of state and party power for personal gain — younger people seem to be very offended at these sorts of inequalities. Here is a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey released in July 2008; inequality and corruption rank high among sources of dissatisfaction in this survey. (C. K. Lee’s pathbreaking work on the sociology of law and justice makes these points very clearly. See some of her related work in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt; here is a link to a recent article by Lee on "rights activism in China".)

What should we think about China’s social future if these sorts of inequalities of opportunity and outcome continue to widen? Several points are worth considering.

First, persistent deprivation and inequality is certainly a contributing cause of social contention. So China’s current inability to redress these inequalities probably suggests a continuation of the pattern of social protest in China. (Tens of thousands of incidents of collective protest and resistance take place every year in China — and the rate appears to be rising; link.)

Second, the fact that China’s state institutions haven’t been able to regulate the local mechanisms of abuse of poor people (through property confiscations, for example) also suggests the likelihood of rising social contention. Confiscations are a leading cause of protest.

And third, a set of meaningful reforms in legal protections for all members of society, including secure property rights for farmers and labor rights for workers, would surely create an environment that is more acceptable to the younger people who are accepting of inequalities if they have arisen through processes that are procedurally fair and legitimate. So a more law-governed future for China, in which economic activity is regulated by a fair system of law, and a set of opportunities are available to make something like a level playing field, would appear to be the most sustainable course for China’s leaders to attempt to achieve.

Interestingly, these are exactly the sorts of reforms that are front and center in the recent Charter '08 petition.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Wartime China

Photo: Robert Capa's photograph of The Boy Soldier, Hankou, China, late March 1938 © Cornell Capa / Magnum International Centre of Photography

China's experience of World War II (1937-1945) was in some ways as destructive and horrific as that of the Soviet Union. Japan's occupation of many parts of China was extremely brutal, with terrible massacres in Nanjing and other cities, the use of chemical and biological weapons, and extreme mistreatment of civilians and prisoners of war. And the violence deployed against civilian populations in cities -- both air attack and ground forces -- produced vast numbers of refugees surging towards safer destinations in the interior of the country. Estimates indicate that tens of millions of Chinese people, perhaps as many as one hundred million people, of all social strata, were forced into painful and dangerous migration. (The photo above suggests the chaos and suffering this implies.) Casualty figures are somewhat imprecise, but estimates range from 10 to 20 million deaths, with the great majority being civilian deaths. (The Wikipedia entry offers a number on the higher end: 3.8 million military and and 16.2 million civilian, for a total of 20 million deaths.) So the experience of war for China's population must have created a searing, formative experience for the several age cohorts who were caught up in it.

Stephen MacKinnon's recent book Wuhan, 1938: War, Refugees, and the Making of Modern China casts a bright light on the great suffering that China experienced during the war years (1937-1945). MacKinnon focuses on the strategically and historically crucial role that Wuhan played in the unfolding of Japan's war of conquest over China. Wuhan is a tricity on the upper Yangzi, including Hankou, Hanyang, and Wuchang in close proximity at the juncture of the Han and Yangzi rivers. In 1938 it had a combined population of roughly two million, and hundreds of thousands of refugees soon crowded into the city. The location of Wuhan along the Yangzi placed the city in a central position from the point of view of Japanese war planning: capturing Wuhan would leave central China open to rapid conquest.

The story of Wuhan is one of the more positive episodes in China's military efforts to resist Japanese occupation. After the rapid fall of Shanghai and other coastal cities, it was expected that Wuhan would fall quickly as well. In fact, the defense of Wuhan was much more effective than previous efforts had been, and the Chinese military was successful in delaying Japan's offensive into the interior by a crucial ten months. When it eventually fell, Republican forces were able to fall back to Chongqing, and though the Japanese subjected the wartime capital to intensive bombing, they did not succeed in capturing the city. So the prolonged defense of Wuhan set the stage for a turning point in the Chinese resistance to Japan.

MacKinnon offers an analogy that was current in 1938: Wuhan is China's Madrid. The analogy implies several things -- a place where republican forces took a major stand against their enemies; a place where there was a flowering of expression, politics, and literature; a place where desperation and hope intermingled to produce courage, resistance, and endurance. Wuhan became a focus for intellectuals, artists, and political activists throughout China and the world in these months. Much as western writers and artists made their way to Madrid in 1936, they also came to Wuhan in 1938. Robert Capa, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood traveled to Wuhan and added their creative voices to the mix. Auden and Isherwood published many of their observations about China's experience in Journey to a War, and Robert Capa's photographs from this period capture much of the pathos and destruction that the city's defense involved. (MacKinnon reproduces a number of Capa's photographs in the book.)

MacKinnon's book provides a schematic military history of the Japanese assault on Wuhan. But the book is not primarily an exercise in military history; instead, MacKinnon also gives focused attention to the civilian part of the story: the burst of journalism and political debate that took place in the city, the great expansion of social services for orphans and displaced persons, and the mobilization of students and other young people in support of the war effort. The cultural experience of Wuhan is as important a part of the story as the military events.

And in fact, MacKinnon thinks that part of the significance of the defense of Wuhan in these months was the flourishing of mobilization of the mass population in social and cultural affairs, as well as in dedicated defense of the city and the war effort. "Wuhan in 1938 became a laboratory for cultural experimentation. The intellectuals who gathered at Wuhan -- a group that included the nationally prominent figures in most fields -- shared a consensus that their nation needed to turn culture into a potent weapon in the war against the Japanese. They sought to reshape arts and letters to reach the masses -- especially the rural masses -- and persuade them, at the least, to cease cooperating with Japanese occupying forces" (115). (This is pertinent to the issue of "nationalism" discussed in the mention of Chalmers Johnson's treatment of the Chinese Revolution in a prior posting.)

The topic of Wuhan and wartime China is inherently interesting and important. But it is also valuable from the point of view of historiography. Consider the choices that an historian must face in setting out to write a history of an event of the scope of Wuhan 1938. This event is more localized and limited than "the French Revolution" or "British colonialism in South Asia." At the same time, it is far more complex and multi-stranded than events such as "the assassination of President Lincoln" or "MacArthur's decision to cross the Yalu". The Wuhan story involves millions of people, military organizations of great complexity, movements of population, rapidly changing political circumstances, the creation of dozens of newspapers, and shifts in popular culture. And the consequences of the Wuhan episode are complex and unexpected as well. So the historian is forced to decide which threads he or she will focus on; what she wants to explain; and how much of the story to attempt to tell.

Consider the wide range of questions that could be posed about this piece of China's history: What were the actions and deployments of the Japanese and Chinese military forces in the middle Yangzi region during 1938? What was the nature of the human experience of civilians in Wuhan during the period of assault, bombardment, and destruction? How did circumstances of Guomindang leadership and power relationships influence the behavior and deployment of the Chinese military? What role did Communist forces and leaders play in the defense of Wuhan? What influence did the defense of Wuhan have on later events in the conduct of the war? How was the battle of Wuhan captured in popular memory in China? What influence did this historical moment have on future developments of politics or culture?

So one could try to use available historical sources to tell a fairly straightforward factual narrative; one could give an interpretation of the actions and choices of the leaders and generals; one could attempt to reconstruct the experiences and memories of ordinary Chinese people who lived through these events; and one could offer an analysis of historical causation: X led to Y, Y had important consequences Z. The point here is a simple one: each of these approaches is a different kind of historical reasoning and presentation, and each involves a somewhat different kind of historical reconstruction. It is possible to interweave these approaches; but their foundations in evidence and reasoning are fairly distinct.

Wuhan is one episode in a long and painful period of warfare against the Chinese people. But MacKinnon believes that this episode may have had important effects on the political psychology of China as a whole for the decades that followed. He closes his book with these sentences: "Finally, the most important impact of the wartime refugee experience on the history of modern China ... may be psychological. The scars on the national psyche are a deeply tragic legacy... In China the Great Anti-Japanese War produced a survivor mentality -- a kind of psychic numbness to violence and ability to endure oppression without protest -- that continued well after 1945 and possibly laid the groundwork for sullen acceptance of the horrors of the late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s" (118).

(Another book worth reading in this general area is Poshek Fu's Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration: Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937-1945.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Theories of the Chinese Revolution

Let us consider a question fundamental to twentieth century world history: why did the Chinese Communist Revolution succeed? Was it the result of a few large social forces and structures? Or was this a case of many small causes operating at a local level, aggregating to a world-historical outcome? (See an earlier posting on "small causes.")

It should first be noted that the CCP's path to power was rural rather than urban. The Guomindong (GMD) had effectively expelled the CCP from the cities in 1927 and had detached the Communist Party from urban workers. (Note that this runs directly contrary to the expectations of classical Marxism, according to which the urban proletariat is expected to be the vanguard of the revolution. A massive contingency intervened -- Chiang Kai-shek's ability to wipe out the urban Communist movement in the Shanghai Massacre.) Further, the turning point in the fortunes of the CCP clearly occurred in the "base areas" during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45): the areas of rural China where the CCP was able to establish itself as the dominant political and military force opposed to the Guomindong and the Japanese Army. The success of the revolution, therefore, depended on successful mobilization of the peasantry in the 1930s and 1940s. How are we to account for its success?

This question has naturally loomed large in Western discussions of the Chinese Revolution since 1949. Two influential theories offer political culture and class conflict as causes of revolution, and neither of these high-level theories appears to be altogether satisfactory. A more plausible analysis refers to the local politics of class. Rather than postulating a single large causal factor, it is more plausible to understand CCP success as a concatenation of a number of small causes and advantages, deployed with skill and luck to a successful national victory.

Consider first a theory based on political culture. In a celebrated book in 1962 Chalmers Johnson argued that the CCP succeeded in mobilizing peasant support during the Sino-Japanese War because (a) peasants were nationalistic and patriotic, and determined to expel the Japanese, and (b) the CCP was the organization that showed the greatest military and organizational ability to oppose the Japanese military presence in China (Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945). Johnson maintained that the CCP downplayed its social program (class conflict, land reform, etc.) during the war, in the interest of a united front against the Japanese, and that its social goals played little or no role in its mobilizational successes. Peasants therefore supported the CCP out of nationalism, and were, perhaps, unpleasantly surprised at the social program that emerged after the defeat of the Japanese. This theory made a feature of political culture -- nationalist identity -- the central determinant of largescale collective action.

Mark Selden, an American Marxist sociologist, advanced a very different view of the CCP's success in The Yenan Way in Revolutionary China (1971). He offered a class-conflict model, according to which Chinese rural society possessed an objectively exploitative class structure in opposition to which the CCP successfully mobilized support. Landlords, moneylenders, and the state exploited the peasantry by extracting rent, interest, and taxes. The CCP provided a program of social revolution aimed at overthrowing this exploitative order, and peasants followed this program, and supported the CCP, in order to pursue their class interests.

Johnson's theory hasn't stood the test of time very well because there is a dearth of evidence to support the idea that ordinary Chinese people did in fact possess the nationalistic identity and political commitments that the theory postulates. The chief failings of Selden's model are substantial as well, however. Selden assumed that the realities of exploitation and class are relatively transparent, so that peasants more or less immediately perceive their class interests. And he assumed that collective action follows more or less directly from a perception of class interests: if there is a plausible strategy for furthering class interests through rebellion (i.e., the CCP), then peasants will be disposed to do so. However, the social reality of China was much more complex than this story would allow, with region, lineage, and village society existing as a more immediate social reality for most rural people than class and exploitation. So neither Johnson nor Selden provide a framework within which a fully satisfactory theory of the revolution can be constructed.

A more convincing view has been offered by a third generation of historians of the Chinese Revolution. One of those historians is Yung-fa Chen in Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937-1945 (1986). Chen offers an explanation of the CCP's mobilization successes that depends upon a micro-level analysis of the local politics created in Eastern China as a result of local social arrangements and the Japanese occupation. Methodologically his approach is microfoundational and localistic rather than sweeping and mono-causal. And Chen's main findings disagree in some important ways with both Johnson and Selden.

The main elements of Chen's analysis are these. First, he confirmed the Marxist view that the CCP had a coherent social program (land reform and fundamental alteration of rural property arrangements), and that the CCP made this program a central part of its mobilization efforts. This program implicitly defined a forms of class analysis of rural Chinese society into poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants, and landlords, and endeavored to sharpen conflicts among these. Second, though, Chen rejected the view that these rural class relations and oppositions were fully transparent to participants, needing only the appearance in the village of a few ideologically correct cadres to mobilize peasant support. Rather, Chen held that the wide variety of rural social relations--lineage, family, religious organization, patron-client, friendship--worked as powerful brakes on the emergence of class consciousness. So a determined program of class-consciousness raising was needed, which the CCP attempted to provide through its "speaking-bitterness" sessions.

And, Chen maintained, peasants were highly skeptical of the ability of outside organizations to protect them against the wrath of local powers (landlords, officials) once the military threat had disappeared. A central problem of mobilization, then, was to create a local organization and militia that was capable of fending off Japanese and GMD military attack; that was sufficiently stable as to lend confidence that peasants could rely on it in the future; and to put forward a social program that would leave it well-positioned to begin the process of socialist reform through land reform, reform of credit institutions, and ultimately collectivization of agriculture and industry.

The heart of Chen's analysis depends on the assumption that peasants are rational political actors, and will support a political organization only if they judge that (a) it will support their local interests and (b) it will be powerful enough to support its local followers. (This has a lot in common with Samuel Popkin's arguments in The Rational Peasant: The Political Economy of Rural Society in Vietnam (1976).) Chen then considers available data on a large number of local communities in Eastern China during the war years in the base areas of the revolution, and finds that the CCP did a skillful job of satisfying both requirements. It was effective in creating military and political organizations capable of protecting local interests; and it was effective in communicating its class analysis to peasants in sufficient degree to lead to support for its revolutionary social program. But, contrary to the nationalist thesis offered by Chalmers Johnson, he argues that the CCP was very skillful in avoiding direct military confrontation with the Japanese Army.

Another impressive effort to provide a new reading of aspects of the Chinese Revolution is provided by Odoric Wou in Mobilizing the Masses: Building Revolution in Henan (1994). Focused on Henan Province, Wou attempts to uncover the complex set of factors that permitted the Communist Party to mobilize mass support for its program. He emphasizes organizational and political factors in his account: the strategies and organizational resources through which the CCP was able to move ordinary workers and peasants from concern with local interests to adherence to a national program. Wou provides fascinating detail concerning Communist efforts to mobilize miners and workers, Red Spears and bandits, and peasants in Henan Province.

Wou makes plain the daunting challenges confronting Communist cadres in their efforts to mobilize support at the village level: mistrust of outsiders, the entrenched political power of elites, and the localism of peasant interests in the region. Wou describes a social-political environment in the countryside that is reminiscent of Philip Kuhn’s account of the situation of local militarization during the Taiping Rebellion in eastern China—one in which elite-dominated militias had evolved as an institution of self-defense against bandits and sectarian organizations (Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864).

One of the most interesting and surprising findings that Wou puts forward is his contention that mobilization in Henan was not centered in remote and backward border areas, but rather included both remote and commercialized peasant villages (p. 129). This is somewhat inconsistent with Chen's analysis, who focuses precisely on the tactical advantages of remoteness offered by the base areas.

Wou also makes an effort to crack the riddle of peasant mentality in China. Are peasants inherently conservative? Are they latently revolutionary, awaiting only the clarion call of revolution? Both, and neither, appears to be Wou’s assessment (p. 161). Wou finds a popular equalitarianism within Chinese peasant culture that provides a basis for Communist mobilization around an ideology of redistribution (p. 151); but equally he finds an entrenched hierarchicalism within Chinese popular culture that made subversion of elite power more difficult for Communist cadres (p. 135). (See an earlier post on the Chinese peasant on this subject.)

Wou also considers the political environment created for the CCP by the Sino-Japanese War. (This is the period treated by Chen's book.) Guomindang power virtually collapsed in Henan Province, and the Japanese occupied eastern Henan in 1938. The three-way struggle between the Japanese, the Guomindang, and the Communist Party gave the Party new opportunities for mobilization against both its enemies. Here Wou makes the important point that structural circumstance—military fragmentation of society, in this case—only provides the opening to successful mobilization, not its sufficient condition. The organizational and strategic competence of the CCP was needed in order to make effective use of these new opportunities for mobilization. Successful play of the game of coalition politics gave the CCP important advantages during this period, and created a position of strength that contributed substantially to post-war success of the movement.

A central tenet of Wou’s analysis is the importance of Communist efforts to improve material conditions of life for the populations it aimed to mobilize. Famine relief, formation of production cooperatives, and revival of the silk industry represented efforts by the Party to demonstrate its ability to provide tangible benefits for local communities (pp. 314-326). These efforts had at least two beneficial effects: they provided material incentives to prospective followers, and, less tangibly, they enhanced confidence among villagers in the competence and endurance of the Party.

Both Chen and Wou make important contributions within a third generation of historical scholarship and interpretation of the Chinese Revolution. Their accounts are to some extent complementary and to some extent inconsistent -- as one would expect in detailed efforts to answer profound questions about causation. And both accounts share an important historical insight: it is crucial to push down into the local village circumstances of social life and mobilization that the CCP faced as it attempted to generate commitment and support for its movement if we are to understand why it succeeded in mobilizing support from millions of rural people.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Marx's theory of political behavior

Marxism is concerned with the politics of class: the success or failure of working class organizational efforts, the occurrence of collective action in defense of class interests, the logic of working class electoral politics, and the occurrence of revolution. Marx attempted to analyze and explain a variety of political phenomena--e.g., the forms that working class political action took in 1848 in France, the reasons for Napoleon III's overwhelming electoral victory in 1849, and the efforts by organizations of the English working class to achieve the Ten Hours Bill. What assumptions underlie Marx's analysis of the political behavior of class? I would say that his theory comes down to three elements: a theory of individual means-end rationality, a theory of ideology, and a theory of class consciousness.

I believe, surprisingly, that there is much in common between Marxism and the rational-choice model of political behavior. (So does Adam Przeworski; Capitalism and Social Democracy.) The rational-choice approach postulates that individuals' political behavior is a calculated attempt to further a given set of individual interests--income, security, prestige, office, etc. One might suppose that such an approach is unavoidably bourgeois, depending upon the materialistic egoism characteristic of market society. However, I maintain that Marx's theory of political behavior, like his theory of capitalist economic behavior, is ultimately grounded in a theory of individual rationality. Roughly, Marx's fundamental postulate of political analysis is that:
Agents as members of classes behave in ways calculated to advance their perceived material interests; these interests are perceived as class interests (i.e., interests shared with other members of the class); and class organizations and features of class consciousness permit classes to overcome implicit conflicts of interest between private interest and class interest.
Second, Marx’s theory of political behavior incorporates the concept of ideology. Ideologies, or "false consciousness", are systems of ideas that affect the worker's political behavior by instilling false beliefs and self-defeating values in the worker. An ideology may instill a set of values or preferences that propel individual behavior in ways that are contrary to the individual's objective material interests. Further, ideologies modify purposive individual action by instilling a set of false beliefs about the causal properties of the social world and about how existing arrangements affect one's objective interests. Rational individuals, operating under the grip of an ideology, will undertake actions that are contrary to their objective material interests, but are fully rational given the false beliefs they hold about the social world they inhabit and their mistaken assumptions about their real interests and values. An ideology is an effective instrument, then, in shaping political behavior within a class system; it induces members of exploited classes to refrain from political action directed at overthrowing the class system. And this is indeed Marx's use of the concept; an ideology functions as an instrument of class conflict, permitting a dominant class to manipulate the political behavior of subordinate classes. It is an important task to try to identify the institutions and mechanisms through which an ideology is conveyed to a population.

A third important component of Marx’s theory of political behavior is his concept of class consciousness. The term refers to a set of motivations, beliefs, values, and the like, that are specific and distinctive for a given class (peasantry, proletariat, petty bourgeoisie). Marx holds that these motivational factors serve to bind together the members of a class and to facilitate their collective activities. Class consciousness takes the form of such motives as loyalty to other members of one's class, solidarity with partners in a political struggle, and commitment to a future social order in which the interests of one's class are better served. Marx describes such a complex of psychological properties, and their social foundation in The Eighteenth Brumaire.
"A whole superstructure of different and specifically formed feelings, illusions, modes of thought and views of life arises on the basis of the different forms of property, of the social conditions of existence. The whole class creates and forms these out of its material foundations and the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives these feelings, etc. through tradition and upbringing, may well imagine that they form the real determinants and the starting-point of his activity." David Fernbach, ed., Surveys from Exile. Political Writings Volume II., pp. 173-74.
A class is supposed to develop its own conscious identity of itself as a class. Insofar as a group of people who constitute a structurally defined class fails to acquire such attitudes, Marx denies that the group is a class in the full sense at all (a class-for-itself as well as -in-itself). Marx does not provide an extensive analysis of the process through which class consciousness emerges, even within capitalism, but he suggests that it takes form through a historical process of class struggle. As workers or peasants come to identify their shared interests and as they gain experience working together to defend their shared interests, they develop concrete ties within their political groups which provide motivational resources for future collective action. Here again, we need to have a sociology of the institutions that contribute to the formation of this feature of social psychology -- perhaps along the lines of the analysis offered by E. P. Thompson in Making of the English Working Class (link).

A central function of class consciousness in Marx's political theory is to explain the moral capacity of members of exploited classes to join in prolonged, risky struggles in defense of their material interests. The concept of class consciousness thus functions as a bridge between individual interests and collective interests in classical Marxist analysis of political behavior. It gives workers effective motivation to undertake actions and strategies that favor their group interests, and it gives them motivational resources allowing them to persist in these strategies even in the face of risk and deprivation (i.e., in circumstances where the collective strategy imposes costs on the individual's interests). This treatment of class consciousness shows a sensitivity to the point that political behavior is often driven by a set of motives that are richer than a narrow calculus of self-interest. Ralph Miliband's work illustrates this point; State in a Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power.

Here, then, we have an austere model of political behavior that can legitimately be attributed to Marx: Members of groups form beliefs about their material interests, and they act intelligently to further those interests. Members of groups form beliefs about their social world that are sometimes seriously misleading about how the social world works (ideologies). And members of groups sometimes gain a social psychology of solidarity and loyalty that gives them a degree of capacity to act as a group (class consciousness). The eventual behavior of an economic group is the aggregate result of the group’s perceptions of its interests, its mental map of how the social world works, and the resources of solidarity that it possesses. It is a materialist theory; it is an agent-centered theory; and it is a theory that invites serious investigation of the processes through which the social psychology of a group are formed.

See prior postings on class, power, and mobilization: link, link, link. An important finding of much discussion of political mobilization since Marx's time is that a purely economic and materialist account of political motivation leaves out a great deal of contemporary political behavior -- for example, ethnic mobilization, identity politics, and political protest (Teheran today).

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Understanding Southeast Asia

Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma -- I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web -- blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I've come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors' own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying "Thai" identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take "red shirts" and "yellow shirts". These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it's at least worth posing the question: does this "interest"-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai "guest workers" in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities -- modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)

Friday, June 12, 2009

A spatial twitter feed for Southeast Asia

View Southeast Asia in a larger map

Quite a few of the items included in the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed currently refer to events and conditions in Southeast Asia -- especially Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand. This posting introduces a dynamic map that I'll try to update with new feed items as they occur when it is possible to identify a specific location. It is possible to change the frame and scale of the Google map, and if you click on the pointers you'll find a link to the associated news item. Here is a direct link to the map, and it will remain accessible in the sidebar as well.

I have also provided static maps that indicate the provinces and cities of Burma and Thailand.

The integrative power of Google Maps is pretty striking in this example. If you go to the "larger map" through the link above, it is possible to turn on several other layers of the map, including photos, videos, wikipedia articles, and webcams. These are photos and videos that users have posted with geo-tags, so that they are associated with their locations on the Google map. This resource will become vastly deeper over time, as more and more users tag their photos and videos spatially. There are currently very dramatic photos available on the web of Karen refugees passing across the Burma-Thai border near the village of Noh Bo. These photos aren't geotagged at present, but one would expect that it won't be long before the user could expand the map around this key area of conflict; zoom in to find the geo-tagged photos and videos that are associated; and gain a much more vivid understanding of the current reality in the region.

This effort at linking a selected stream of news stories about Southeast Asia with their locations across the region contributes to the overall goal of UnderstandingSociety in a fairly basic way: it's an experiment in trying to organize and synthesize the hundreds of news items and events that can be observed through the twitter stream, into something that is a more structured presentation of part of the social reality of a country or region.

Several important issues are in the twitter feed at present:
  • Burma -- the Junta's trial of Aung San Suu Kyi; the army's assault on Karen areas; the plight of Karen refugees fleeing into Thailand; the conduct of army units in Kachen; massive corruption and theft of resources by the army.
  • Thailand -- aftermath of the Red Shirt demonstrations of March and April; political activities of the emerging parties; the southern insurgency and government efforts to control the southern states.
  • Malaysia -- protests against discrimination directed at ethnic minorities (Indian, Chinese, Christian); jockeying among political parties.
Is this a good way of making spatial sense of the news items about what is happening in Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cultural authenticity and the market

Images: cover illustration from Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House; Chinese neolithic pot c. 1500 BC

People often return from their travels with objects they've purchased to represent the culture and traditions of the place they've visited -- Alsatian pottery from Betschdorf, masks from Kenya, or Navajo pots from Arizona. And sometimes they purchase such artifacts at home in Cleveland or Sacramento to gain a little resonance from a distant culture -- Tibetan temple bells, Chinese funeral figures, Mayan woven goods. And there is generally a desire that these goods should be "authentic" -- that is, they should have been produced by artisans situated in a continuous tradition with the culture the artifact represents. Imagine the traveler's disappointment to find that his beautiful artisanal Alsatian vase was mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong.

Here I'd like to dwell a bit on this idea of authenticity. The idea seems to have two somewhat distinct components: expression and artisanship. The first involves the idea that the artifact is to be valued because it somehow expresses and reveals some of the meaning, symbols, and practices of the other culture. This relates the idea of authenticity to one of Clifford Geertz's most famous statements about culture: that a culture is a web of significance (The Interpretation Of Cultures). The "authentic" cultural object is valued because it reveals some of those meanings and relationships; it fits into this web of signification.

The second dimension here involves the idea that the artifact is the material product of social practices embedded within or deriving from that culture. Here the idea is that the actual human, practical history of the object makes all the difference between authentic and inauthentic -- the way it was made, the human communities and practices within which the artisan performed his or her work in creating the object. We might imagine a fishing net created by a team of anthropologists who have painstakingly reproduced the techniques of knot-tying, braiding, and decorating that were characteristic of a certain human community at a certain point in time. The product may be highly "accurate" from the first point of view, in that it accurately depicts the results and signification of the product within its historical setting. But it is nonetheless not "authentic" because it is an a posteriori simulation of the culture's fishing net -- not a direct product of the culture.

Take a few examples at the extremes. At one extreme are the African dolls one might buy in the Disney store in conjunction with the latest cartoon adventure about Africa. No one would imagine that these dolls are authentic in their correspondence to any real African culture or artisanal tradition, past or present. (Though perhaps they are authentic expressions of Disney culture!) At the other extreme, consider the objects on display from Benin at the Chicago Art Institute recently, representing local society and Portuguese colonialism (Benin--Kings and Rituals; Court Arts of Nigeria; link). No one would doubt the authenticity of these beautiful and engaging artifacts -- even though they embody a deep and complex collision and mingling of western and African modalities. Or consider the sculpture that Kwame Anthony Appiah used as the cover illustration of his important book, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. It looks highly traditional and "African" -- until we look closely and discover the old bicycle parts incorporated into the design. Is this sculpture an authentic expression of African culture? Or is it "contaminated" by the intrusion of western technologies and products? Appiah's view is a nuanced one: it is an authentic expression of something, but not of a hypostasized essential "African cultural identity."

And the story only gets more complicated. What could be more authentic to the native American cultures of North America than Inuit carvings and Navajo blankets? Surely each emerged from the material cultures and aesthetic sensibilities of Inuit and Navajo people. But there are two complications here. First, there certainly are workshops in China and elsewhere industriously turning out soapstone bears and woolen Navajo rugs. And their products may be very persuasive imitations indeed. But they aren't "authentic" -- they are simply well executed fakes. They lack the second characteristic mentioned above; they don't have the right lineage of production.

But here is the deeper problem. The genres themselves are deeply intertwined with external market forces and consumer tastes. The Navajo blankets of the 1850s existed; but they were utilitarian, drab productions, intended for use rather than display. It was the tastes of eastern consumers, conveyed through brokers, traders, and trading posts, that shifted the design and coloration of the rug to its current "traditional" form. (Here is a rough and ready summary of the history of Navajo rugs.)

And the tradition of Inuit carving is even more market-driven.
While Canada’s Inuit do have a rich visual history that dates back more than a millennium, Inuit carvings, prints and jewelry are actually the product of a relatively recent transformation in the Arctic, beginning with the emergence of an “outside” market during the whaling years, which gave rise to the birth of the contemporary Inuit art movement starting in 1949. (link)
So the practice of animal carving in soft stone perhaps did not even exist in Inuit culture prior to the arrival of traders. So we might say that blankets and soapstone polar bears are inauthentic in the first sense above: they don't correspond to deep and abiding features of the other culture, but are rather informed by the tastes and preferences of the consumer market. (This fits the history of Chinese export porcelain as well; I'm sure there are endless additional examples that could be provided.) Are either of these artifact traditions "authentic"? Do they express Navajo or Inuit culture and tradition? Or does the fact that an indigenous artisanal tradition has been self-consciously directed towards creating products that "fit" with the tastes of a distant public undermine the authenticity of the work?

The issue is more difficult than it might appear, because there is one interpretation of "authentic" that will not stand up, cultural essentialism. This interpretation depends on the idea of a cultural essence underlying a given people at a certain time -- a pure form of Hopi, Navajo, Alsatian, Tokugawan, or Armenian culture in terms of which we might define the authenticity of cultural products. Here the misguided idea would be that a product is authentic if it corresponds accurately to the cultural essence to which it refers -- a strict interpretation of the first characteristic mentioned above. This won't do, however, because cultures are not fixed, uniform realities, but rather ongoing, dynamic processes of creation and change. So the story told by the Benin exhibition above is very illustrative; the cultural content and depictions of the two communities -- Benin and Portugal -- interpenetrate each other in the next moment in time, and neither is unchanged as a result. So we cannot understand authenticity as "correspondence to a cultural essence"; there are no such essences.

There is, however, a weaker form of correspondence that remains a valid characteristic of "authenticity" -- the idea that an artifact is itself a meaningful object, and its meaning needs to be fitted into the meanings and practices of the broader culture from which it emanated. The Chinese neolithic pot depicted above is dated from about 1500 BC. The distinctive crosshatching pattern can be found on many of the pots of this period, and it is striking. Why does the culture incorporate this decorative feature into many of its small pots? It is hypothesized that clay pots replaced an older container technology of tightly woven baskets; and the artisan was offering a representation of quality and continuity by decorating the pot to resemble a woven basket. This may or may not be a valid explanation; but plainly the decorations of the pot are meaningful, and -- if historically authentic -- the pot can provide content for an interpretation of various elements of the contemporary culture and its artisanal practices. (See the Minneapolis Institute of Arts page on Chinese neolithic ceramics.)

Perhaps the reason that market influences on artisanal traditions are unsettling and "inauthentic" goes back to a tension between the first and the second criterion mentioned above (expression and artisanship). A market-shaped artisanal tradition satisfies the second criterion; it results in products that are created by an artisanal tradition linked to the other culture (blankets, carvings, export porcelain). But there is the nagging fear that the influence of external consumer demand has deformed the artifact with respect to the first criterion -- fit with the culture's own values and meanings. The influence of consumer tastes may have driven the product and the tradition far away from more genuine expressions of local culture. Here, we might say, authenticity requires that the product be created according to the values and meanings of the indigenous culture -- not the profit-seeking adaptive behavior of skilled artisans aiming to create the "traditional" product that will sell best with the tourists.

If forced to answer my own question here, I think I would focus on the second criterion -- the concrete historical relationship between the product, the artisan, and the tradition. And I would then look at it as an open question for hermeneutic investigation to attempt to determine the complex and fluid ways in which the product corresponds to, expresses, contradicts, or invades the meanings of its background culture.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What cities have in common

Images: Beijing (1900), Mexico City (2000), London (1600), Chicago (1930)

The "city" is a pretty heterogeneous category, encompassing human places that differ greatly with each other and possess a great deal of internal social heterogeneity as well. Size, population structure, economic or industrial specialization, forms of governance, and habitation and transportation structure all vary enormously across the population of cities. And so New York (2000), Chicago (1930), Rome (200), Mumbai (2008), Beijing (1800), Lagos (1970), London (1600), and Mexico City (1990) are all vastly different human agglomerations; and yet all are "cities". Ancient, modern, medieval, developed, and underdeveloped -- each of these places represents an urban concentration of population and habitation. (Here is an earlier posting that is relevant to the current topic.)

Given these many dimensions of difference, we can reasonably ask whether there are any shared urban characteristics or processes. Is there anything that a scientific or historical study of cities can discover? Is there a body of observation and discovery that might constitute the foundation for a sociology of cities?

Several points emerge quickly when we pose the question in these terms. First, a city is by definition a dense concentration of human inhabitants in a limited space. Human beings have material needs that must be satisfied daily: fresh water, food, shelter, clothing, and fuel, for example. Rural people can satisfy many of these needs directly through access to land, farms, and other natural resources. Urban populations are too dense to support individual or family self-sufficiency. So cities have this in common: they must have developed logistical systems for supplying residents with food, clean water, sanitation, and other basic necessities. This is the insight that motivated von Thünen in the development of central place theory (Isolated State: an English Edition of Der Isolierte Staat); equally it underlies William Cronon's analysis of Chicago in Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West and G. William Skinner's analysis of urban hierarchies in China (link).

A second feature of cities is the unavoidable need for value-adding, non-agricultural production within the city. This means activities such as manufacturing, artisanal production, and the provision of services for pay. The residents of the city need to gain income in order to have "purchasing power" to acquire the necessities of life from the countryside. This implies a social organization that supports employment and occupations. So cities share this characteristic as well: they are grounded systems of production and exchange, permitting labor, production, circulation of commodities, and consumption. (Reasoning something like this underlay the analysis of Chicago into "ecological zones" pioneered by Chicago School sociologists Park and Burgess in The City: Suggestions for Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment.)

Given that cities are inherently spatial, the economic characteristics just mentioned also imply a circulation of persons throughout the city. And this implies that cities must possess some organized system of transportation. This may be walking pathways, roads for carriages, streetcars, buses, or subways and railroads. But economic activity and production requires circulation of people, and this implies urban transportation. But, as Sam Bass Warner showed in Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900, transport systems in turn create new patterns of residence and work in their wake.

A third common urban characteristic has to do with inequalities of power, influence, and property. Human populations seem always to embody significant inequalities along these lines. But advantages of power and wealth can be almost automatically transformed into facts of urban geography by the nomenklatura, the elites. So cities are likely to bear the signature of the social inequalities of wealth and power that are interwoven in their histories. The attractive locations for homes and gardens, preferred access to amenities such as water and roads, even locations favored from the point of view of pest and disease -- these locations are likely to be stratified by wealth and power. (Engels' description of the habitation patterns of bourgeoisie and proletariat in Birmingham and Manchester are illustrative; The Condition of the Working Class in England. Here's a more developed discussion of Engels' sociology of the city.)

Fourth, cities require formal systems of governance and law. Village society may succeed in establishing stable social order based on informal norms and processes. But cities are too large and complex to function as informal arrangements. Instead, there need to be ordinances for public health and safety, maintenance of public facilities, land use processes, and rules of public safety. Absent such governance, it is inconceivable that a city of one hundred thousand or a million would succeed in maintaining the delicate patterns of coordination needed for the continuing wellbeing of the residents.

So cities can be predicted to possess a variety of forms of social, political, economic, and geographical organization. Cities are not formless concentrations of humanity; rather, they are functional systems that can be investigated in depth. And here is the historical reality that permits this analysis to escape the charge of functionalism; the social systems that cities currently possess are the result of designs and adaptations of intelligent, strategic actors in the past. This means that they may be markedly non-optimal; they are likely to be skewed towards the interests and comfort of elites; but they are likely to work at some level of success.

These observations don't exactly answer the original question in a tidy way; they don't establish specific forms or characteristics that all cities share. But they do define a set of existential circumstances that cities must satisfy, and they pose in turn a series of questions about social organization and function that are likely to shed light on every city. We might look at this discussion as suggesting a matrix of analysis for all cities, corresponding to the large social needs mentioned here. How does a given city handle logistics, provisioning, local economic activity, transportation, land use, governance, public order, sanitation and health, and inequalities? What are the organizations and systems through which these central and inevitable tasks are accomplished? And then, perhaps, we may find a basis for classifying cities into large groups, based on the similarities that exist at this level of structure and organization. (For example, reasoning something like this leads G. William Skinner to distinguish between administrative and commercial cities in late Imperial China.)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Modest predictions in history

Image: the owl of Minerva

In spite of their reputations as historical determinists, Hegel and Marx each had their own versions of skepticism about "learning from history" -- in particular, the possibility of predicting the future based on historical knowledge. Notwithstanding his view that history embodies reason, Hegel is famous for his idea in the Philosophy of Right: "When philosophy paints its grey in grey then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey in grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk." And Marx puts the point more sardonically in the Eighteenth Brumaire: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Both, then, cast specific doubt on the idea that history presents us with general patterns that can be projected into the future. Marx's remarks to Vera Zasulich about the prospects for communist revolution in Russia are instructive: "I thus expressly limited the 'historical inevitability' of this process to the countries of Western Europe."

This is a view I agree with very profoundly: history is contingent, there are always alternative pathways that might have been taken, and history has no general plan. So -- no grand predictions in history.

But then we have to ask a different sort of question. Specifically -- what kinds of predictions or projections are possible in history? And what is the intellectual base of grounded historical predictions? Here are a few predictions that seem to be supportable, drawn from recent postings on UnderstandingSociety:
  • The Alsatian language is likely to disappear as a functioning medium of communication in Alsace within the next fifty years.
  • Labor unrest in China will intensify over the next ten years.
  • Social unrest will continue to occur over the next decade in Thailand, with a gradual increase in influence to dispossessed groups (red shirts).
  • Large and deadly technology failures will occur in Europe and the United States in the next decade.
  • Social movements will arise more frequently and more adaptively as a result of the use of social media (twitter, blogs, facebook, email).
  • Conflicts between Arabs and Jews in East Jerusalem will continue to deepen in the next ten years as a consequence of the practical politics of land use and reclamation in the city.
Several things are apparent when we consider these predictions. First, they are limited in scope; they are small-scale features of the historical drama. Second, they depend on specific and identifiable social circumstances, along with clear ideas about social mechanisms connecting the present to the fruture. Third, they are at least by implication probabilistic; they indicate likelihoods rather than inevitabilities. Fourth, they imply the existence of ceteris paribus conditions: "Absent intervening factors, such-and-so is likely to occur." But, finally, they all appear to be intellectually justifiable. They may not be true, but they can be grounded in an empirically and historically justified analysis of the mechanisms that produce social change, and a model projecting the future effects of those mechanisms in combination.

The heart of prediction is our ability to identify dynamic processes and mechanisms that are at work in the present, and our ability to project their effects into the future. Modest predictions are those that single out fairly humdrum current processes in specific detail, and derive some expectations about how these processes will play out in the relatively short run. Grand predictions, on the other hand, purport to discover wide and encompassing patterns of development and then to extrapolate their civilizational consequences over a very long period. A modest prediction about China is the expectation that labor protest will intensify over the next ten years. A grand prediction about China is that it will become the dominant economic and military superpower of the late twenty-first century. We can have a fair degree of confidence in the first type of prediction; whereas there are vastly too many possible branches in history, too many "countervailing tendencies," too many accidents and contingencies, that may occur to give us any confidence in the latter prediction.

Ceteris paribus conditions are unavoidable in formulating historical expectations about the future, because social change is inherently complex and multi-causal. So even if it is case that a given process, accurately described in the present, creates a tendency for a certain kind of result -- it remains the case that there may well be other processes at work that will offset this result. The tendency of powerful agents to seize opportunities for enhancing their wealth through processes of urban development implies a certain kind of urban geography in the future; but this outcome might be offset by a genuinely robust and sustained citizens' movement at the city council level.

The idea that historical predictions are generally probabilistic is partly a consequence of the fact of the existence of unknown ceteris paribus conditions. But it is also, more fundamentally, a consequence of the fact that social causation itself is almost always probabilistic. If we say that rising conflict over important resources (X) is a cause of inter-group violence (Y), we don't mean that X is necessarily followed by Y; instead, we mean that X raises the likelihood of the occurrence of Y.

So two conclusions seem justified. First, there is a perfectly valid intellectual role for making historical predictions. But these need to be modest predictions: limited in scope, closely tied to theories of existing social mechanisms, and accompanied by ceteris paribus conditions. And second, grand predictions should be treated with great suspicion. At their best, they depend on identifying a few existing mechanisms and processes; but the fact of multi-causal historical change, the fact of the compounding of uncertainties, and the fact of the unpredictability of complex systems should all make us dubious about large and immodest claims about the future. For the big answers, we really have to wait for the owl of Minerva to spread her wings.

Friday, June 5, 2009

What is Alsace?

It may seem like a strange question: What is Alsace? It is a region of France. It is a culturally and linguistically distinct population of 1.8 million people. Most visitors would observe that there is a distinctive Alsatian style in life, in architecture, and in culture. It possesses one great city (Strasbourg), many middle-sized cities (Hagenau, Wissembourg, Colmar), and hundreds of small villages. It is a beautiful collection of landscapes, villages, fields, forests, and vineyards. It is the homeland of Hansi and Marc Bloch. It is a region that has suffered acutely in warfare -- eastern Alsace was the site of most of the battles of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and it was the site of the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge and the German counteroffensive, Northwind, with intense tank fighting and destruction in dozens of villages. The sufferings of World War II are still remembered by the octagenarians. It is a border culture, with influences from Germany and France establishing aspects of culture and social attitudes over several centuries. And there is always choucroute, kougelhopf, and Kronenberg. In short, Alsace has a history and a set of traditions that set its people apart.

So from the point of view of travel-writing, the question has an easy answer. But the social reality is more complex and fluid. The social reality of Alsace today is highly heterogeneous, within and across villages, towns, and cities. And ongoing processes of nation-building and globalization raise the question of its cultural survival.

Take the issue of language. Stop into any grocery store or hospital in rural Alsace and you will find elderly people gossiping and talking in Alsatian. For many of these people Alsatian was their native language; for some it remained their only language. But the situation is different if you pause to watch boys playing ball in the public square; their chatter is in French -- or sometimes Arabic. So it is an open question whether the Alsatian language community will remain a vital one, or whether it will retreat into the archives. Current estimates indicate that fewer than 10 percent of children in Alsace are fluent in Alsatian. So the question arises, whether the language will reproduce itself into the the next several generations.

Or consider folkloric customs and cuisine -- the colorful costumes and dancing that are still very much a part of village festivals. How long will these customs survive in an age of mass-based entertainment and a homogenizing media culture? How are the customs transmitted across generations? How long can tarte flambée persist as an Alsatian specialty in the face of an onslaught by Pizza Hut?

And how about the distinctive modes of class relations that you find in Alsace -- the ways in which the local bourgeoisie dress and interact with each other, and how they relate to other social strata -- farmers, bus drivers, shop clerks? In what ways are these class relations distinct from those of Bourgogne? And how distinct are they from their counterparts in the United States?

More fundamentally, consider the range of contemporary social problems that Alsace faces, in both its cities and its villages: drug use, youth unemployment and disaffection, hooliganism, poorly assimilated immigrant communities. How will Strasbourg or Hagenau deal with these problems? And will "Alsace" remain? Or will the national strategies of social services, public policy, and legislation lead to a more socially uniform Alsace -- just a quaint set of historical markers on the autoroute?

So really, the question posed here has two distinct parts, both very interesting. The first is historical: what were the rich pathways of culture formation through which Alsace came to be Alsace? How did this particular mix of values, attitudes, modes of behavior, language, and culture come together?

The second part of the question is forward-looking: where is Alsace going? Will it preserve its cultural distinctiveness and its language? Or will it become simply another interchangeable part of France and the world? How much staying power does a traditional culture have in the face of the impulses of nation-building, mass communication, and globalization of consumption that the contemporary world imposes?

These questions are interesting in consideration of Alsace. But they are even more interesting in the context of thinking about globalization itself. Is it possible for local and regional cultures to successfully negotiate the challenges of the twenty-first century in ways that permit the survival of their cultural uniqueness? Or is the global world of the future destined to look more like a very large shopping mall, with the same foods, clothes, and ethics everywhere?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Many small causes

When large historical events occur, we often want to know the causes that brought them about. And we often look at the world as if these causes too ought to be large, identifiable historical factors or forces. Big outcomes ought to have big, simple causes.

But what if sometimes the historical reality is significantly different from this picture? What if the causes of some "world-historical events" are themselves small, granular, gradual, and cumulative? What if there is no satisfyingly simple and macro answer to the question, why did Rome fall? Or why did the American civil war take the course it did? Or why did North Africa not develop a major Mediterranean economy and trading system? What if, instead, the best we can do in some of these cases is to identify a swarm of independent, small-scale processes and contingencies that eventually produced the outcome?

Take the fall of Rome. I suppose it is possible that the collapse of the empire resulted from a myriad of very different contingencies and organizational features in different parts of the empire: say, logistical difficulties in supplying armies in the German winter, particularly stubborn local resistance in Palestine, administrative decay in Roman Britain, population pressure in Egypt, and a particularly inept series of commanders in Gaul. Too many moving pieces, too much entropy, and some bad luck in personnel decisions, and administrative and military collapse ensues. Alaric sits in Rome.

What an account like this decidedly lacks, is a story about a few key systemic or environmental factors that made collapse "inevitable". Instead, the account is a dense survey of dozens or hundreds of small factors, separated in time and place, whose cumulative but contingent effect was the observed collapse of Rome. No simple necessity here -- "Rome collapsed because of fatal flaw X or environmental pressure Y" -- but instead a careful, granulated assessment of many small and solvable factors.

But here is a different possible historical account of the fall of Rome. An empire depends upon a few key organizational systems: a system of taxation, a system of effective far-flung military power, and a system of local administration in the various parts of the empire. We can take it as a given that the locals will resent imperial taxation, military presence, and governance. So there is a constant pressure against imperial institutions at each locus -- fiscal, military, and administrative. In order to maintain its grip on imperial power, Rome needed to continually support and revitalize its core functions. If taxation capacity slips, the other functions erode as well; but slippage in military capacity in turn undermines the other two functions. And now we're ready for a satisfyingly simple and systemic explanation of the fall of Rome: there was a gradual erosion of administrative competence that led to increasingly devastating failures in the central functions of taxation, military control, and local administration. Eventually this permitted catastrophic military failure in response to a fairly routine challenge. Administrative decline caused the fall of Rome.

I don't know whether either of these stories -- the "many small causes" story or the "systemic administrative failure" story -- is historically credible. But either could be historically accurate. And this is enough to establish the central point: we should not presuppose what the eventual historical explanation will look like.

I suppose there is no reason to expect apriori that large events will conform to either model. It may be that some great events do in fact result from a small number of large causes, while others do not. So the point here is one about the need to expand our historical imaginations, and not to permit our quest for simplicity and generality to obscure the possibility of complexity, granularity, and specificity when it comes to historical causation.

(Christopher Kelly's The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction is a very readable treatment of Rome's functioning as an empire. Kelly hands off the ball to Gibbon when it comes to explaining the fall of Rome, however (History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -- as Kelly says, decidedly not a "short history"). Michael Mann's The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 gives something of the flavor of my "administrative decline" musing above. Likewise, the style of reasoning about revenues and coercion is very sympathetic to Charles Tilly's arguments about a somewhat later period in Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 - 1992.)