Sunday, March 28, 2010

Contentious politics in China

By official count, the incidence of popular protest in China has increased ten-fold in the past fifteen years.  Kevin O'Brien and Rachel Stern report that the Chinese state reported 8,700 "collective incidents" in 1993, and this number had grown to 87,000 by 2005 (12).  And the issues that have evoked protest have expanded as well: land seizures, egregious local corruption, lay-offs and labor mistreatment, ecological and environmental concerns, and the Sichuan earthquake and building collapses, for example.  (The photo above is drawn from a 2008 story on factory protests in Dongguan in the Telegraph (link).)  A recent volume by O'Brien and Stern, Popular Protest in China, is a collection of some of the best current work by China scholars on popular protest in contemporary China.  Contributors include some of the researchers who are doing the most detailed work on this topic today, including William Hurst (The Chinese Worker after Socialism), Kevin O'Brien (Rightful Resistance in Rural China), Guobin Yang (The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online), and Yongshun Cai (Collective Resistance in China: Why Popular Protests Succeed or Fail).  So the volume offers an excellent perspective on the state of the field.

(It is mildly ironic to note that the conference on which the volume is based was held in 2006 -- several years before the global financial collapse that threw millions of Chinese workers out of work.  The incidence and severity of factory protests has certainly increased in the intervening years.)

Sidney Tarrow frames the volume by observing that there has been a welcome recent convergence between China studies and the field of contentious politics.  The contributors to the volume have made productive use of some of the core concepts of the theories of contentious politics that have been developed in the past two decades -- resource mobilization, political opportunity, issue framing, social networks, issue escalation, etc., that have proven so productive in the analysis of a range of instances of contention and collective action.  And Tarrow poses a comparativist's challenge: to what extent is it possible to discern similar processes of mobilization and escalation in the China case?  Further, Tarrow points out that much of the theorizing about contentious politics has taken place in the context of more democratic regimes; so how much of a difference does the fact of China's authoritarian political system make for the occurrence and character of social contention?

One of the important insights offered by several of the contributors is the importance of disaggregating structures like "political opportunity," "actor," and "issue."  O'Brien and Stern put it this way in their introduction:
The essays in this volume show that political opportunity in China depends (at a minimum) on the identity of the participants, the region, the grievance at hand, and the level of government engaged. (14)
The Chinese state is not a "monolith" but a "hodge-podge of disparate actors," an "attractive, multidimensional target." (14, quoting O'Brien and Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China)
And, of course, we have to recognize the widely different circumstances facing potential contentious actors in different regions and segments of the country.  The point is an important one: we should not look to the intellectual framework of contentious politics research as a set of conceptual recipes for deductively explaining contention.  Rather, we are better off looking at the literature on contentious action as a toolbox of "mechanisms and processes" that recur across contexts and that aggregate differently in different circumstances.  (This is, of course, the methodology that Tarrow, McAdam, and Tilly advocate in Dynamics of Contention.)

Each chapter focuses, by and large, on a different thread within the current literature on contentious politics: framing (William Hurst), trust (Teresa Wright), transnational actors (Patricia Thornton), leadership (Feng Chen), networks (Yanfei Sun and Dingxin Zhao), repression (Yongshun Cai), communication (Guobin Yang), and opportunity (Yanfei Sun and Dingxin Zhao). As such, the volume also serves as something like a tutorial on current theories of contentious politics.

Liz Perry's concluding essay frames the argument around "rebellion" (protest against particular officials) versus "revolution" (protest against principles and structures of government). And she is inclined to think that the rise in protest in China today falls in the former category -- mostly harmless from the point of view of the power and structure of the regime. 
Despite its remarkable frequency, then, contention in contemporary China remains limited in size, scale, and scope.  With few exceptions, the social composition, territorial reach, and endurance of individual protests have all been highly circumscribed. (206)
But I'm inclined to think that this misses one of the most important implications of the contentious politics literature, and the import of its most important case. Small-scale mobilization and protest can escalate to fundamental and widespread demands for justice. And a broad movement can emerge that is not revolutionary -- devoted to the overthrow of the state -- and yet is persistently transformative: dedicated to the long, slow transformation of society and state in the direction of equality and dignity for all members of society. The great historical example of this -- the example that motivated some of the best work in the literature of contentious politics -- is the American civil rights movement. This movement demanded a fundamental change of law and of culture, and it succeeded. And we might say that this is what ordinary people in China today demand and deserve.  The demand for voice and legal protections of lawful activities that swims throughout the more specific claims currently being made has the potential of becoming a very widespread movement.

(There are a number of earlier posts on these issues, collected under the tag CAT_collective action.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Skinner's spatial imagination

images: presentations of Skinner's data by Center for Geographic Analysis, Harvard University, AAS 2010

G. William Skinner was a remarkably generous scholar who inspired and assisted several generations of China specialists.  (Here is a link to a remembrance of Bill.)  He was prolific and fertile, and there is much to learn from rereading his work. There is quite a corpus of unpublished work in the form of research reports and conference papers.  Rereading this work is profoundly stimulating. It holds up very well as a source of ideas about social science analysis of concrete historical and social data, and there are many avenues of research that remain to be further explored.

Skinner is best known for his efforts to provide regional systems analysis of spatial patterns in China.   He thought of a social-economic region as a system of flows of people, goods, and ideas.  He argued for the crucial role that water transport played in knitting together the economic activities of a region in the circumstances of pre-modern transport.   

Skinner's work demonstrated the great value of spatial analysis.  Patterns emerge visually once we’ve selected the appropriate level of scope.  Mapping social and economic data is tremendously insightful.  He was also highly sensitive to the social and cultural consequences of these flows of activity.  For example, patterns of gender ratios show a pronounced regional pattern; Skinner demonstrates the relevance of core-periphery structure to social-cultural variables such as this one. 

Skinner plainly anticipated the historical GIS revolution conceptually.  And this is a feature of imagination, not technology.

A classic series of articles on the spatial structure of the Chinese countryside in the 1960s provided an important basis for rethinking “village” society. They also provided a rigorous application of central place theory to the concrete specificity of China.  Here are several maps drawn from these essays ("Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China." Journal of Asian Studies 24 (1-3), 1964-65). Here Skinner is trying out the theories of central place theory, and the theoretical prediction of economic space being structured as a system of nested hexagons with places linked by roads.

Another key contribution of Skinner's work is his analysis of China in terms of a set of eight or nine “macroregions”.  He argues that China was not a single national economic system, and it was not a set of separate provincial economies.  Instead, it consisted of a small number of “macroregions” of trade, commerce, and population activity, linked by water transport.  And macroregions were internally differentiated into core and periphery.  

Skinner used meticulous county-level databases to map the economic and demographic boundaries of the region.  Skinner identified core and periphery in terms of population density, agricultural use, and other key variables.  And he then measured a host of other variables – female literacy, for example – and showed that these vary systemically from core to periphery.  There is also an important ecological dimension to the argument; Skinner demonstrated that there is a flow of fertility from periphery to core as a result of the transfer of food and fuel from forests to urban cores.  (This analysis is developed in "Regional Urbanization in Nineteenth-Century China" in The City in Late Imperial China, edited by G. W. Skinner, Stanford University Press, 1977.)  Here are three maps developed by Skinner and his collaborators on the basis of the macroregions analysis.

This is a particularly expressive map of the Lower Yangzi macroregion, differentiated into 4 levels of core and periphery.  This is pretty much the full development of the macroregional analysis.

Another key idea in Skinner's work is his analysis of city systems into a spatial and functional hierarchy. He argued that it is possible to distinguish clearly between higher-level and lower-level urban places, and that there is an orderly arrangement of economic functions and marketing scope associated with the various urban places in a macroregion.

So regional analysis of China is a key contribution in Skinner's work. But Skinner did not restrict his research to China alone. He also did significant work on Japanese demography and family structure and female infanticide in the 1980s (for example, "Reproductive Strategies and the Domestic Cycle among Tokugawa Villagers," an AAS presentation in 1988).

And he brought his regional systems analysis to bear on France in an extended piece of research in the late 1980s. The maps that follow are drawn from an unpublished conference paper titled "Regional Systems and the Modernization of Agrarian Societies: France, Japan, China," dated 1991. This paper builds upon a 1988 paper titled "The Population Geography of Agrarian Societies: Regional Systems in Eurasia."

This analysis builds a view of France as a set of interrelated regions with core-periphery stucture.  Through the series of working maps Skinner painstakingly constructs an empirically based analysis of the economic regions of France in mid-nineteenth century.  And Skinner then asks one of his typically foundational questions: how do these geographical features play a causal role in cultural and demographic characteristics?

This map of never-married/married female ratios is one illustration of Skinner's effort to relate social, cultural, and demographic variables to the core-periphery structure of a region.  The pattern of high ratio corresponds fairly well across the map of France to the regions identified by demographic and agricultural factors.  And this serves to confirm the underlying idea -- that economic regionalization has major consequences for cultural and demographic behavior.

Likewise patterns of female life expectancy and net migration; here again we find the kind of regionalization of important social variables that Skinner documents in great detail in late imperial China.

Finally, Skinner also played an important role as a “macro-historian” of China.  His 1985 Presidential Address to the Association for Asian Studies was a tour-de-force, bringing his macroregional analysis into a temporal framework (Skinner, G. William. 1985. Presidential Address: The Structure of Chinese History. Journal of Asian Studies XLIV (2):271-92).  In this piece he demonstrates a “long-wave” set of patterns of economic growth and contraction in two widely separated macroregions.  And he argues that we understand China’s economic history better when we see these sub-national patterns.  He analyzes the economic and population history of North China and Southeast Coast, two widely separated macroregions, over several centuries.  And he demonstrates that the two regions display dramatically different economic trajectories over the long duree.  Skinner brings Braudel to China.

Here is the pattern he finds for two macroregions over a centuries-long expanse of time.  And significantly, if these patterns were superimposed into a “national” pattern, it would show pretty much of a flat performance, since the two macroregions are significantly out of phase in their boom and bust cycles.

Finally, an enduring contribution that Skinner made is his cheerful disregard of discipline. Economic anthropology, regional studies, demography, urban studies, history … Skinner moved freely among all these and more. It was topics and questions, not disciplinary strictures, that guided Skinner’s fertile and rigorous imagination.  And area specialists and social scientists alike can fruitfully gain from continued study of his research.  Fortunately, work is underway to make Skinner's unpublished research and data available to other scholars.  Here are some major projects:
  • Data and maps are being curated and presented at Harvard. Here is a beta site and here is the platform the China GIS team is using at AfricaMap.
  • The Skinner Archive at Harvard (link)
  • Skinner's unpublished papers and research materials are being digitized and presented at the University of Washington.  Here is a link.
  • The China Historical GPS project at Fudan University is presenting an ambitious digital mapping collection as well (link). 
(Presented at the Association for Asian Studies, Philadelphia, March 2010; panel on Skinner's legacy.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Zomia -- James Scott on highland peoples

James Scott opens his most recent book with quotations from frustrated pre-modern administrators and missionaries whose territories included the peoples of inaccessible highland regions -- Guizhou, highland Burma, and Appalachia.  Scott finds that the geographical circumstances of highland peoples mark them apart from the political organizations of the valleys; states could control agriculture, surplus, and labor in the lowlands, but were almost entirely incapable of exerting sustained rule in the highlands.  And he finds that highland cultures and systems are more or less deliberately shaped to elude the grasp of the state; linguistic variety, swidden agriculture, and ethnic opacity all work to make the art of rational administration all but impossible.  The book is The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and it is a significant contribution to the social and political analysis of very large swatches of the world.  (Here are the table of contents and introduction to Edmund Leach's classic book, Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure.)

Scott makes use of the concept of "Zomia" to capture the highland peoples of Southeast Asia.
One of the largest remaining nonstate space in the world ... is the vast expanse of uplands, variously termed the Southeast Asian ma s-si f and more recently, Zomia.  This great mountain realm on the marches of mainland Southeast Asia, China, India, and Bangladesh sprawls across roughly 2.5 million square kilometers -- an area roughly the size of Europe.  As one of the first scholars to identify the massif and its peoples as a single object of study, Jean Michaud has traced its extent: "From north to south, it includes southern and western Sichuan, all of Guizhou and Yunnan, western and northern Guangxi, western Guangdong, most of northern Burma with an adjacent segment of extreme [north]eastern India, the north and west of Thailand, practically all of Laos above the Mekong Valley, northern and central Vietnam along the Annam Cordillera, and the north and eastern fringes of Cambodia." (chapter 1)
(The Michaud citation refers to Historical Dictionary of the Peoples of the Southeast Asian Massif.)

Scott estimates the population of the minority peoples of Zomia at 80-100 million.  Here is a map posted by Martin Lewis on GeoCurrents.Info.

What is intriguing about this definition of space and social reality is that it is not defined by nation-state boundaries and jurisdiction, by linguistic groupings, or by ethnic and national identities.  Scott emphasizes the enormous linguistic and ethnic variation that occurs across this expanse of space.  "In the space of a hundred kilometers in the hills one can find more cultural variation--in language, dress, settlement pattern, ethnic identification, economic activity, and religious practices--than one would ever find in the lowland river valleys" (chapter 1; Kindle location 343).

Two central arguments take up much of Scott's attention in the book.  One is an argument about the logistics of state power in a pre-modern agrarian society.  Essentially he argues that pre-modern agrarian societies were only able to impose their rule over a tight radius of perhaps 300 kilometers, when it came to collecting taxes, grain, and manpower.  Moreover, this radius of power reduced significantly when population was distributed over mountainous country.  So as a practical matter, the pre-modern states of Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia were river-valley states, and the peoples of the highlands were rarely subject to central rule.  This argument resonates with Michael Mann's analysis of pre-modern state power in The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760.  On this scale, the Kingdom of Chicago would barely be able to exert its will over the peasants of Peoria or Milwaukee; and Indianapolis would be a distant and irrelevant place.
The precolonial state, when it came to extracting grain and labor from subject populations, could project its power only within a fairly small radius of the court, say, three hundred kilometers, and that undependably and only during the dry season. (Kindle loc 610)
And, he argues, the peoples of the highlands deliberately organized their activities in ways that made the power of the state least effective.
Virtually everything about these people's livelihoods, social organization, ideologies, and (more controverially) even their largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positionings designed to keep the state at arm's length. (Kindle loc 26)
The very diversity, fluidity, and mobility of their livelihoods meant that for an agrarian state adapted to sedentary agriculture, this ungoverned landscape and its people were fiscally sterile. (Kindle loc 217)
The other central theoretical argument that Scott offers concerns the question of ethnicity and identity.  Like Ben Anderson (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism), Scott believes that the identities of Burman, Mon, Khmer, Tai, or Shan are constructed identities, not essential or ancient.
Identity at the core was a political project designed to weld together the diverse peoples assembled there. Bondsmen of allied strongmen, slaves captured in warfare or raids, cultivators and merchants enticed by agricultural and commercial possibilities: they were in every case a polyglot population. (Kindle loc 1166)
The central plain of what would become Siam was, in the thirteenth century, a complex mix of Mon, Khmer, and Tai populations who were an "ethnicity-in-the-process-of-becoming" Siamese. (Kindle loc 1172)
The book takes up the argument that Scott began in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed: that a central task of the state it to render its territory and population "legible".  The state needs to be able to regiment and identify its subjects, if it is to collect taxes and raise armies; so sedentary, mobile, peripheral peoples are antithetical to the needs of the state.  This argument begins in Seeing Like a State; and it gains substantial elaboration here.  And it is a fundamental call for a different approach to conceptualizing and studying the cultures and populations of Southeast Asia: not by ethnic group, not by national boundaries, but rather by the common circumstances of material and political life in high, rugged terrain.

As I've suggested in treating Scott's other contributions to "peasant studies", Scott's work almost always takes the form of an imaginative re-framing of problems that we thought we had understood.  But once looking at the facts from Scott's point of view, we find that the social phenomena are both more complex and perhaps more obscure than they initially appear to be.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Influences and arguments

Lately I've been writing about the influences that can be discerned in the theories of John Rawls.  Rawls was a "social contract theorist"; to what extent were his theories shaped and framed by his reading of the great contract theorists such as Locke, Rousseau, or Kant?  He was also influenced by the history of economic thought; so is it possible to find parallels or echoes of the thought systems of Adam Smith or Karl Marx in Rawls's thinking?  And to what extent were there more local influences in the 1940s and 1950s that created fairly specific directions and characteristics in Rawls's thinking?

This is an interesting question in application to one particular philosopher.  But it also raises a more general question: where do philosophical theories come from?  To what extent is it the case that a given philosopher is working within a "micro-tradition" -- a particular and specific field of influence -- and to what extent is the thinker "original", bringing forward new ideas on a topic?  And once a fundamental topic has been established for a thinker -- e.g., "What defines the principles of justice for a property-owning democracy?" -- to what extent does the theory then develop autonomously according to the arguments and analysis of the philosopher?

This way of formulating the problem invokes several related ideas: influence and tradition; originality and creativity; and orderly, logical development of a position or theory.  

I suppose that there are many instances of philosophers who fall mostly in the "influence" part of the map: their philosophical work largely takes the form of carefully working out the ideas of their influencers.  (This might be part of the legacy of Rawls; I suppose there has been quite an ocean of philosophical work dedicated to specifying more exactly what "primary goods" are, or how "reflective equilibrium" works.)  This might be described as "normal science" -- taking the foundations of a field of study as being unquestioned, and then attempting to work out the details more exactly.

There are also some good examples of philosophers who were largely driven by the "logical analysis" part of the map: formulate a good, difficult question, and then spend the rest of one's career working out analytically sound answers to the problems this question spawns.  "Naturalized epistemology" might fall in this sector; we might say that the philosophers who have tried to give a biological interpretation of the conditions of knowledge are taking one fundamental question -- how do biological organisms arrive at knowledge of their environment? -- and attempt to apply the findings of cognitive science and evolutionary biology to the issues that arise.  Kant's philosophy also seems to have this character: once having chosen the topics "What can we know metaphysically?" or "What creates moral duty?", his mind seems to have proceeded analytically and logically, without correction or stimulus from a contemporary literature.

And what about originality?  Are there examples of philosophers who have largely invented a set of questions and approaches that defined a new philosophy for a given domain?  Wittgenstein is commonly recognized as a highly original philosopher; but certainly his theories were embedded in a tradition of philosophy.  Several things are apparently true about Wittgenstein when it comes to influence and argument.  (a) Many of his ideas and assumptions in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from careful readings of Frege and Russell; (b) his insights and assertions in Philosophical Investigations were responsive to a surrounding set of ideas about language, behavior, and meaning, but his solutions and theories still strike one as being highly original; and (c) for certain themes and problems he continued to work carefully to move his position forward through analytical discovery and inference.  So Wittgenstein seems to illustrate all three dimensions of philosophical theory formation and knowledge construction.

Several things seem to be true about the formation of the theories and perspectives of individual philosophers:
  • They are introduced into a fairly specific "philosophical research community" through graduate education that provides paradigm examples of philosophical questions and issues and prescriptive advice about the nature of philosophical argument and analysis.
  • They are introduced to their field at a particular moment in social history: World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the civil rights period, 9-11; and historical events and shifts have an influence on the formation of their thought.
  • "Originality" can take the form of arriving at new questions ("How is group mentality possible?"); new methods of analysis (Frege-Russell's formal deductivism as a solution to the question of the nature of mathematical truth); or new substantive approaches to philosophical theory (Kant's Copernican Revolution in thought).
An interesting contribution to this set of topics is an innovative series of volumes posing "5 Questions" to philosophers in a variety of fields (link).  A recent volume is Philosophy of the Social Sciences: 5 Questions,  edited by Diego Rios and Christoph Schmidt-Petri.  Contemporary philosophers were asked to respond to five important questions about their approaches to the field of the philosophy of social science.  The format offers the beginning of a triangulation among "beginnings," "fundamental assumptions," and "future directions" for each of these philosophers.  The questions that were provided to the philosophers are these:
  1. How did you get interested in the philosophical aspects of the social sciences?
  2. Which social sciences do you consider particularly interesting or challenging from a philosophical point of view?
  3. How do you conceive the relation between the social sciences and the natural sciences?
  4. What is the most important contribution that philosophy has made to the social sciences?
  5. Which topics in the philosophy of social science will, and which should, receive more attention than in the past?
Contributors include David Bloor, Raymond Boudon, Mario Bunge, Nancy Cartwright, Margaret Gilbert, Daniel Hausman, Harold Kincaid, Daniel Little, Steven Lukes, David Papineau, Philip Pettit, Alexander Rosenberg, David-Hillel Ruben, John Searle, and Raimo Tuomela.  This list includes quite a few of the people who have helped to shape current thinking in this sub-discipline of philosophy; so it is very interesting to have a chance to see what they have to say about some of the original influences on their thinking about the social sciences, as well as their own definitions of the frameworks they have arrived at.  I found it very interesting to think seriously about these questions in my own case, because it forces one to reflect on the ideas, events, and ideologies that led one to choose one set of topics and approaches rather than another.  I would have added a sixth question for each of the contributors: "What are the most basic ideas that you have come to in the course of your studies of the social sciences?"

What I would like to see is a next step conducted by a gifted sociologist of the professions, who would attempt to map out the streams of influence and contribution that are documented within the essays in this volume.  Andrew Abbott's careful analysis of the currents of thought constituting the discipline of sociology in the 1960s and 1970s is a good case in point (Chaos of Disciplines).  Another good example is William Sewell's attempt to provide a geography of the discipline of social history in the 1960s (Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Detroit: Taking charge of our story

New Detroit (link) and Wayne State University are putting on a major and significant conference on how the story of Detroit is being told today. Detroit is getting a lot of press these days --and it's mostly about crisis, decline, and despair. It is hard for a city to move forward in the context of such a negative picture. And many in Detroit find this national story to be superficial and misleading. So how can we do a better job of understanding and presenting our story? (Here is a link: Ourdetroitstory.)

There is a persistent feeling in the region that the national press is writing the story of Detroit in ways that retell the myths about the past and sensationalize the present. And it makes a difference. We need more nuanced stories, and today's conference is an important effort in that direction.

The lead speaker was Tom Sugrue, author of the 1997 book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Sugrue made several key points. Most importantly, he points out that the received wisdom about Detroit is wrong. It's not mostly about the 1967 uprising, the white flight of the 1960s, or the racialized politics of Mayor Coleman Young. Instead, our current situation is the result of racial discrimination in employment in the 1940s through 1960s, the flight of industry from the city that began following World War II, and the patterned and systematic racial segregation that followed from Federal home loan policies, real estate steering, and violent and harrassing homeowner associations aimed at intimidating black home buyers.

So Sugrue argues that telling today's story requires an honest understanding of 70 years of our past. The past has created a set of social forces and patterns of economic and political inequality that profoundly affect the present and future. And he argues that the boundaries that divide our region have become a deep barrier to our progress.

The next panel involved lively presentations and discussions by distinguished observers: Robin Boyle (Wayne State University), Malcolm Dade (former political strategist for Coleman Young), David Freund (University of Maryland and author of Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America), and Marcella Wilson (Matrix Human Services). There is a strong theme of needing to achieve a greater reality of racial justice to our city -- and that so many other forms of progress won't be achieved without this important dimension of change.

The discussions today are an important part of Detroit's efforts to reinvent itself in a more equitable and affluent way. And this means understanding our history and our patterns of systemic racial disadvantage more fully.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Marx's influence on Rawls

John Rawls and Karl Marx shared a number of core intellectual concerns.  Both were interested in the question of what features a good and just society should have; both had theories about the good human life; and both understood that the benefits of modern life depend upon social cooperation.  So it is interesting to ask whether Marx's thought had an influence on Rawls.  In brief, the answer seems to be largely "no."  In particular, Marx's economic writings and his theory of exploitation seem to have been of no special interest to Rawls during the period leading up to the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971.

I didn't have the opportunity to study with Marx; but I did have that opportunity with Rawls.  I attended both of his lecture series on the history of moral philosophy and the history of social and political thought in 1972 and 1973, and I served as a graduate assistant in the latter course.  And eventually Rawls agreed to serve as primary advisor on my dissertation, "Marx's Capital: A Philosophical Study" (1977).  (This eventually became the germ of my first book, The Scientific Marx.)  Rawls's two primary lecture series have now been compiled by former students of Rawls's: Samuel Freeman's edition of Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy and Barbara Herman's edition of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy.  The lectures continued into the 1990s, and they certainly evolved significantly during that time.  In particular, the lectures on Marx are substantially more extensive by the time of the 1990s than they were in the 1970s.  (An earlier posting provides the notes I took on a lecture that Rawls gave in 1973 on Marx's critique of justice.)

Rawls's teachings about Marx in his courses on ethics and social and political philosophy focused primarily on the early Marx -- the "philosophical Marx".  He taught and reflected upon the theory of alienation and species being, and the main texts he focused on were the Economic and Philosophical ManuscriptsOn the Jewish Question, and Contribution to a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.  He gave little serious attention to Capital or Marx's own economic theories. It was Marx's theory of the human person, Marx's philosophical anthropology, that he seems to have found of the greatest philosophical interest and value.  (Robert Tucker's The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition) remains a good source on Marx's writings. and Rawls used it as the primary source of Marx's writings in his course.  Rawls also used Tom Bottomore's collection, Karl Marx: Early Writings.)

There is only one substantive comment about Marx in the lectures on moral philosophy:
A difference between Hegel and Marx in this respect is that Hegel thinks that the citizens of a modern state are objectively free now, and their freedom is guaranteed by its political and social institutions.  However, they are subjectively alienated.  They tend not to understand that the social world before their eyes is a home. .... By contrast, Marx thinks that they are both objectively and subjectively alienated.  For him, overcoming alienation, both subjective and objective, awaits the communist society of the future after the revolution. (Herman, 336)
(Shlomo Avineri's Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, which appeared in 1972, provides a similar treatment of Hegel view of the modern state and the citizen's freedom.)

Rawls gave his primary attention to Marx in his lectures on the history of social and political philosophy. (This occupied roughly two weeks of the 12-week course.)  Here are the selections of Marx's writings that Rawls assigned in this course:  On the Jewish Question, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, selections from the German Ideology, selections from Capital, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, Capital, Vol. I, chs I: sec. 4; VI-VII; IX, sec. 1; X, sec.1; XIII-XIV; and Critique of the Gotha Program.  (These are the assignments listed in the syllabus for Philosophy 171, fall 1973-74.)

The materials assigned from the early Marx in this syllabus provide a fairly complete exposure to Marx's theories of species being, true human emancipation, and alienation.  On the Jewish Question and the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts contain rich bodies of argument in which Marx lays out his conception of human activity and freedom.  Sections from the German Ideology provide some exposure to the theory of historical materialism.  And the Critique of the Gotha Program is a vehicle for discussing Marx's ideas of a socialist society.  So this batch of materials offer a reasonably thorough exposure to Marx's thought prior to his political economy and his formulation of an economic theory of capitalism.

By contrast, the imprint of Marx's political economy in this set of lectures is very limited.  The readings from Capital break out this way:
  • Vol I, ch I, sec. 4: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof
  • VI: The Buying and Selling of Labour-Power
  • VII, sec. 1: The Labour-Process or the Production of Use-Values
  • X, sec.1: The Limits of the Working-Day
  • XIII: Co-Operation
  • XIV: Division of Labour and Manufacturing
This amounts to about 55 pages of reading from Capital, out of the 774 pages of volume 1.  These readings introduce a few fundamental ideas such as the fundamentals of the labor theory of value, the idea of commodity fetishism, and some of the basics of Marx's sociological description of capitalist society and the economic process within capitalism.  But it is a very sketchy introduction to Marx's thinking in Capital.  And the most extensive discussion that Rawls provided of any ideas from Capital in his 1973 course -- the discussion of Marx's conception of justice in the 1973 lectures -- is largely a paraphrase of Allen Wood's analysis in "The Marxian Critique of Justice" (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1972, link).  This is true all the way down to the two passages that Rawls mentions from Capital in the course of this lecture; both were previously discussed in Wood's article.  So there is nothing original in the 1973 lecture; Rawls has pretty much adopted Wood's frame of analysis in treating the question of Marx's conception of justice.  This isn't surprising, in that Wood's article was highly original and rigorous, and opened up a largely new line of interpretation of Marx's theories.  But Rawls didn't have much to add to the debate in this lecture.

In other words: As of 1973, two years after the publication of A Theory of Justice, Rawls's references to the economic theories and sociological descriptions contained in Capital were very slender indeed.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Rawls had not been significantly immersed in a reading of Marx's economic and sociological writings during the formative period of his development of the theory of justice.

This breakdown of topics and readings gives a clue to what Rawls found appealing about Marx. The conception of individuals forging themselves through labor is central; it reflects a line of thought extending from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx, and it seems to be foundational for Rawls himself when he describes his theory of the good.

But there are other core ideas in Marx's thought that plainly did not appeal to Rawls. Central are the ideas of critique and exploitation. Both ideas are absolutely core to Marx; but they play no role in Rawls's theories.

The idea of critique involves the notion that there are hidden presuppositions underlying a given theory, and critical philosophy can uncover them. Ludwig Feuerbach represents on ideal along these lines; Feuerbachian criticism of religion "lays bare" the hidden agendas represented by official religion. Marx's own arguments in the German Ideology reflect this method. And in fact, many of Marx's titles have the subtitle "towards a critique of political economy".  Does Rawls ever give attention to this intellectual style? In a word, no.  Rawls pays no attention to Marx's philosophical method when it comes to "critique" as a tool of intellectual discovery.

The other unspoken Marxian concept in Rawls's writings and teachings is exploitation. Marx believed, as a matter of objective economic analysis, that capitalism is a system of exploitation in a specific technical sense: the capitalist is enabled to expropriate the unpaid surplus labor of the worker.  This perspective on modern economic relations as representing a set of fundamentally unfair economic relations between the powerful and the weak is not one that Rawls found compelling, apparently.  And the fundamental "ontological" framework of Marx's thinking -- the idea of capitalism as a system of relations of production through which economic activity transpires -- never comes in for detailed description or discussion in Rawls.

This aspect of Marx's theory of capitalism became central in the debate in the 1970s and 1980s over "Marx's theory of justice" (for example, Allen Buchanan, Marx and Justice: The Radical Critique of Liberalism and Allen Wood, Karl Marx). If capitalism is exploitative in its most fundamental institutions, then presumably Marx would judge that capitalism is unjust. Debate raged.

The topic of justice comes up directly in Rawls's 1973 lectures. But significantly, Rawls's analysis here is taken almost point-by-point from Wood; Rawls doesn't seem to have given the question much thought himself.  So the theory of exploitation, in spite of its relevance to Rawls's central topic, is not an area of influence on the development of Rawls's thought.

And why is this? Apparently because both ideas are fundamentally anti-liberal.  As Rawls writes in his lectures on political philosophy, "I will consider Marx solely as a critic of liberalism" (Freeman, 320).  The two ideas mentioned here both fall in the category of fundamental critique of liberalism.  The first discredits the philosophical foundations of Smithian political economy, promising to lay bare the underlying and contradictory assumptions it rests upon. The second lays out an explicit theory purporting to demonstrate the explicit inequality and unfairness of market institutions at their core. Perhaps it was cognitive dissonance that kept Rawls from giving more attention to the later Marx.

It is interesting to note that the explosion of interest in Marx by analytic philosophers took place in the early 1970s -- about the time of publication of A Theory of Justice.  Philosophers such as Allen Wood, George Brenkert, Allan Buchanan, John McMurtry, Gerald Cohen, Jon Elster, Adam Przeworksi (a political scientist), and John Roemer (an economist) began taking Marx's writings seriously and offering extensive analysis and criticism of his theories.  This resurgence began in discussions of "Marx's theory of justice," but extended quickly into many other areas of Marx's thought -- the theory of exploitation, the labor theory of value, the theory of historical materialism, and his theory of capitalism as a distinctive mode of production.  (I myself argued for a "rational choice" interpretation of Marx's theory of capitalism in The Scientific Marx.)  Early arguments discrediting the labor theory of value fall in this category as well.  Examples of some of this work are included in John Roemer, ed., Analytical Marxism: Studies in Marxism and Social Theory.  This work was referred to as "rational choice Marxism" or "analytical Marxism," and it represented an intellectual agenda that took Marx seriously as a thinker but often came to conclusions that offended orthodox Marxist theorists.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The moral sentiments

One of Adam Smith's contributions to the study of philosophical ethics is his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is an interesting work, one part descriptive moral psychology, one part theory of the emotions.  Here is the opening paragraph (link):
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.
So Smith asserts as a matter of empirical fact that there are common moral emotions and feelings -- sympathy, pity, compassion -- that underlie human social and moral behavior.  And the most basic kinds of morally motivated behavior -- altruism in particular -- are explained by the workings of these natural emotions of empathy with other human beings.  So Smith posed a fundamental question: is there an innate human moral psychology, beyond the reach of training and teaching, that accounts for our willingness to give to others and sometimes sacrifice important interests for the good of others?  Why do firemen rush into the highly dangerous environment of a large fire in order to rescue the people inside?

Now fast-forward to the post-Darwinian world; look at the human organism from the point of view of the study of primate behavior; and ask this key question: Is there an evolutionary basis for social behaviors? Are there emotions supporting cooperation that were selected for through our evolutionary history? Is a moral capacity hardwired?

Philosophers have treated this question in the past.  Allan Gibbard's Wise Choices, Apt Feelings: A Theory of Normative Judgment is a particularly good example. Here is how Gibbard describes the situation.
Consider now human beings evolving in hunting-gathering societies.  We could expect them to face an abundance of human bargaining situations, involving mutual aid, personal property, mates, territory, use of housing, and the like.  Human bargaining situations tend to be evolutionary bargaining situations.  Human goals tend toward biological fitness, toward reproduction.  The point is not, of course, that a person's sole goal is to maximize his reproduction; few if any people have that as a goal at all.  Rather, the point concerns propensities to develop goals.  Those propensities that conferred greatest fitness were selected; hence in a hunting-gathering society, people tended to want the various things it was fitness-enhancing for them to want.  Conditions of primitive human life must have required intricate coordination--both of the simple cooperative kinds involved, say, in meeting a person, and of the kind required for bargaining problems to yield mutually beneficial outcomes. Propensities well coordinated with the propensities of others would have been fitness-enhancing, and so we may view a vast array of human propensities as coordinating devices.  Our emotional propensities, I suggest, are largely the results of these selection pressures, and so are our normative capacities. (67)
One of Gibbard's key points is an analytical one. He argues against the idea of there being specific moral content, ethical principles, or moral emotions that are embodied in the central nervous system (CNS) as a result of variation and selection. Instead, he argues for there being a hardwired set of more abstract capacities that have CNS reality and selection advantage: the ability to learn a norm and to act in accordance with it.  (Richard Joyce makes a similar point: "Evolutionary psychology does not claim that observable human behavior is adaptive, but rather that it is produced by psychological mechanisms that are adaptations.  The output of an adaptation need not be adaptive" (5).)

This is the part that seems counter-intuitive from a simple Darwinian point of view. Wouldn't an organism possessing a genetically determined disposition to act contrary to its mortal interests almost necessarily have less reproductive success? So shouldn't such a gene quickly lose out to a more opportunistic alternative? Gibbard considers the evolutionary arguments surrounding the topic of altruism (including Richard Dawkins' Selfish Gene), and concludes -- not necessarily.  It is possible to mount an evolutionary argument that establishes the fitness-enhancing characteristics of some specific kinds of altruistic behavior.

So what does the current research on this topic add to what we already knew?  And, can we draw any interesting connections back to the venerable Smith?

In fact, there seems to be a new surge of interest in the topic.  A number of philosophers and psychologists are now interested in treating moral psychology as an empirical question, and they are interested in working back to the evolutionary environment in which these human capacities emerged.   (For example, Richard Joyce, The Evolution of Morality and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, ed., Moral Psychology, Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality: Adaptations and Innateness.)  Particularly interesting is research by Michael Tomasello and his collaborators.  Tomasello is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.  He argues that human beings are hardwired for cooperation, empathy, and social intensionality in a very interesting recent book, Why We Cooperate.  A great deal of his research has to do with experiments and observations of human children (9-24 months) and of young non-human primates.  He finds, essentially, that infants and children display a range of behaviors that seem to reveal a natural readiness for altruism, sharing, coordination, and eventually following of norms.  "I only propose that the kinds of collaborative activities in which young children today engage are the natural cradle of social norms of the cooperative variety.  This is because they contain the seeds of the two key ingredients" (89-90).  He presents a range of experimental data supporting these ideas:
  • Human infants have a pre-cultural disposition to be helpful and empathetic (12-14 months) 
  • Human toddlers adjust their cooperative and normative behavior to be more attentive to the behavior of others: generous to the generous and not to the ungenerous. 
  • Human infants and toddlers have a precultural disposition to absorb and enforce norms. 
  • The emotions of guilt and shame to be hardwired to conformance to norms. 
  • Infants appear to take a "we" intentional stance without learning.  They are able to quickly figure out what another agent is trying to do.
  • Chimps differ from human infants in virtually each of these areas. 
Here is a particularly interesting piece of evidence that Tomasello offers in support of the idea that human evolution was shaped by selection pressures that favored social coordination: the whites of the eyes in the human being.  Almost all non-human species have eyes that are primarily dark; whereas human eyes feature a large and conspicuous circle of white (the sclera).  The whites of the eyes permit an observer to determine what another individual is looking at -- allowing human individuals to achieve a substantially greater degree of shared attention and coordination.  "My team has argued that advertising my eye direction for all to see could only have evolved in a cooperative social environment in which others were not likely to exploit it to my detriment" (76).

So does this recent work on the evolutionary basis of moral emotions have anything to do with Smith and the moral sentiments?  What the two bodies of thought have in common is the idea that there is a psychological foundation to moral behavior, cooperation, altruism, and helping.  Pure maximizing rationality doesn't get you to "helping"; rather, there needs to be some psychological impulse to improve things for the other person.  Where evolutionary psychology differs from Smith is precisely in the nature of the explanation that is offered for this moral psychology; we have the advantage of having a pretty good idea of how natural selection works on biological traits, and we are therefore in a better position than Smith was to explain why human beings possess moral sentiments.  What we cannot yet answer is the question of the nature of the mechanism at the level of the central nervous system or the cognitive system, of how these moral sentiments are embodied in the human organism.

(It is interesting to contrast this line of argument with that of Tom Nagel in The Possibility of Altruism.  Nagel argues against the moral psychology of Hume -- very similar to that of Smith -- and argues that altruism is actually a feature of rationality.  We behave altruistically, fundamentally, because we have a rational representation of the reality of the external world and of other persons; and to recognize the reality of another person is immediately to have a reason to help the other person.  So no "motor" of moral emotion is needed in order to explain altruistic behavior.  On this approach, we don't need to postulate moral sentiments to explain moral behavior; all we need is a rich conception of practical rationality.)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rawls on Marx; December 1973

John Rawls taught a course on the history of political philosophy throughout much of his career at Harvard University.  The course contained his description and analysis of the most important figures in modern political philosophy, including Mill, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Marx.  The course evolved over time; the final version from 1994 is edited in Samuel Freeman's Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy.  I served as graduate assistant in Rawls's lectures on this subject in fall 1973, and recently reread my notes of the course.  Here are my notes of a particularly important lecture towards the end of the course: Rawls's treatment of Marx's ideas about economic justice.  This lecture demonstrates Rawls's understanding of the fundamentals of Marx's economic theories and the labor theory of value.  (I am inclined to think that Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis (1954) was an important source for Rawls on the history of economic thought, including Marx's economics, though I can't at this moment confirm this.)  This lecture is particularly significant in that it is roughly simultaneous with the emergence of "analytical Marxism" announced by the publication of an important article by Allen Wood, "The Marxian Critique of Justice" in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972 (link).


John Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, Phil 171, fall 1973
Notes from lecture, December 11, 1973
[notes taken by Daniel Little; intended to capture Rawls's formulations of the main points presented in the lecture]

[Quoting Rawls:]

Capital seems to be a description of an unjust society. The owners of the means of production live in relative abundance and idleness at the expense of the ever-growing class of wretched laborers. But Marx doesn't make any attempt to present an argument that capitalism is unjust, nor any concept of justice which would back up such an argument. Moreover, we have vitriolic criticisms of utopian socialists who did condemn capitalism on the grounds of justice. Marx asserts on the contrary, that capitalism is perfectly fair, perfectly just.  Why so?

(a) It is not enough to say Marx is averse to preaching or moralizing. He is so averse; but judgments of justice can be reasoned and hence not properly described as "preaching".

(b) It is not enough to say that he didn't want the critique of capitalism to rest on some social ideal. He does reject the utopian socialists' program; but that would not prevent him from stating his own opinion. And he doesn't do that either. He reproaches the utopians for not realizing that some major social change must precede an adjustment along moral lines.

Here is my conjecture as to why Marx didn't judge capitalism unjust. He thinks of justice as a political and juridical conception which is associated with a particular conception of the state and society; so it belongs to the prehistory of mankind. Given his picture of human society, these political and juridical institutions belong to the superstructure, and reflect the workings of the mode of production. For each mode of production there is a conception of justice appropriate to it, at least in prehistory. A further qualification: It is worthwhile to distinguish between the high time of a form and its low period -- where the form is a progressive force and where it stands in contradiction to the mode of production.

Here is a brief discussion of justice in Capital III:
To speak here of natural justice, as Gilbart does, is nonsense. The justice of the transactions between agents of production rests on the fact that these arise as natural consequences out of the production relationships. The juristic forms in which these economic transactions appear as wilful acts of the parties concerned, as expressions of their common will and as contracts that may be enforced by law against some individual party, cannot, being mere forms, determine this content. They merely express it. This content is just whenever it corresponds, is appropriate to the mode of production. It is unjust whenever it contradics that mode. Slavery on the basis of capitalist production is unjust; likewise fraud in the quality of commodities. (Capital III, 339-40) 
Here Marx conceives of justice in terms of adequacy to the mode of production.  (1) The justice of legal forms cannot be discovered on the basis of those forms alone. Rather it depends upon their adequacy to the mode of production. The juridical institution is formal; to give it content we must look to the way of life and its requirements. A consequence: There is no universal theory of justice which allows us to evaluate generally the social institutions of any society. There is no general principle like "slavery is always unjust." There are thus no general rules of natural rights, no universal justice. (2) This adjustment of justice to the mode of production doesn't mean there are no injustices. Slavery is unjust under capitalism; wage labor is just under capitalism, provided that the worker is paid the value of his labor power.

This view seems to suggest a sort of relativism; but this would be a faulty conclusion. We have a theory matching theories of justice with modes of production, and we might at some time find a function systematically linking them.

Let's now try out this suggestion on the conception of surplus value. The utopians argued that workers ought to be paid the value of their contribution to the firm. Since they are not, capitalism is unjust. Marx rejects this view. It makes the appropriation of surplus value appear accidental -- as if the capitalists could act differently. Marx required a theory of value which made the appropriation of surplus value a necessary part of the capitalist system. On the theory of value every commodity is exchanged for a strict equivalent.

Marx distinguishes between the product of labor and labor power. The worker is given the value of his labor power, not his product. It is on this ground that he is fairly treated. Thus he is undercutting the Ricardian socialist position by rejecting and replacing the principle of contribution. It is the system itself which brings about surplus value, not the behavior of individuals who violate moral principles. Surplus value is an intrinsic part of the working of the social institutions of capitalism.

Consider the description of the production of surplus value in Capital.
Every condition of the problem is satisfied, while the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, have been in no way violated. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent. For the capitalist as buyer paid for each commodity, for the cotton, the spindle and the labour-power, its full value. He then did what is done by every purchaser of commodities; he consumed their use-value. ... This metamorphosis, this conversion of money into capital, takes place both within the sphere of circulation and also outside it; within the circulation because it is conditioned by the purchase of the labour-power in the market; outside the circulation, because what is done within it is only a stepping-stone to the production of surplus value. (Capital I, p. 194)
The fact that surplus value arises is a piece of good fortune for the buyer, but no injustice to the seller.

Marx thus rejects the Ricardian principle of contribution. He finds it a bourgeois notion, basing property rights on one's labor.

Summing up. (1) Marx views the notion of justice as a virtue of legal forms and institutions, and thus perhaps it is a notion which belongs to prehistory. The state depends upon the mode of production. (2) Marx doesn't deny that the various conceptions of justice have formal features in common -- exchange of equivalents for equivalents -- but the notion of what is equivalent is determined in different ways. Marx would be prepared to admit that capitalism in its high period is just. One reason he rejects the utopian's argument is that it is misleading. It rests on a misapprehension of where the essential problem lies: not in the superstructure, but in the mode of production. He felt that the key enterprise is to give a scientific theory of the mode of production.

A second point: justice is a distributive notion. The appeal to justice suggests that we can separate the mode of distribution from the mode of production. This is for Marx incorrect. Appeals to justice are thus supposed to be superficial. Moreover, appeal to justice suggests that important social change can be achieved by legislation.

[Other relevant materials from the course:]

From the syllabus:

(a) Marx's criticism of the liberal state; (b) His attitude towards theories of justice; (c) The theory of alienation and exploitation; (d) The conception of rational human society

Final exam questions on Marx:

4. Present and discuss Marx's theory of alienation (as developed in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts)
5. Present and discuss Marx's theory of historical materialism (as developed in the German Ideology)
6. Present and discuss Marx's analysis of historical change in the Communist Manifesto.
7. Outline Marx's analysis of the basic characteristics of capitalism: the social relations which define it and the nature of the form of economic production.