Sunday, September 25, 2022

River warfare in the US Civil War

The mental images that most Americans have of the American Civil War involve the scenes of major land battles -- Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg. Armies marched dozens of miles, prepared encampments and defensive works, and either attacked the enemy in its own prepared defenses or awaited contact with the enemy. The picture is Napoleonic: an army marching across terrain to fight other slow-moving armies.

It is therefore highly interesting to realize that naval warfare on rivers -- especially the Mississippi River -- played a key role in the success of Union forces in 1862-1865, and that armored steamships were critical to victory. To an extent that is now hard to imagine, with modern transportation networks including dense highway networks, as well as air and rail systems, how important control and navigation of the Mississippi River was to both Union and Confederate war fighting. General Ulysses S. Grant's strategy for bringing the war to the South was dependent on the objective of gaining control of the Mississippi River; and the river was a key component in the movements of troops, supplies, and field headquarters around the contested territories.

maps: Feis, Grant's Secret Service, p. 12

The reason for this importance of control of the Mississippi has to do with speed of deployment and logistics. (There was also a major economic consideration: if the South could close the Mississippi, it would cause great hardship for the Northern population.) But consider the logistics and speed issues. The speed of advance of an army on the march through water-logged terrain with poor roads -- conditions that obtained during much of Grant's campaign in the west -- was minuscule in comparison to a steamship moving unhindered several hundred miles along the river. As a rough estimate, it would take an army 21 days to march from Cairo, Illinois to Vicksburg, Mississippi, whereas it would take a steam-powered riverboat about three days to travel the same distance. And steamships could carry all the materiel required for the campaign. (Travel up-river the same distance would take longer.) Maintaining a supply line for the mountains of food, horse fodder, ammunition, replacement equipment, and evacuation of the wounded required by an army in the field depended on heavy transport -- by rail or river boat. Rail transport was substantially faster than riverboat transport -- the average rail speed unhindered by sabotage of tracks, etc. was 25 mph, compared to 5-7 mph for river transport. So rail transport was preferable. However, controlling and maintaining rail networks in hostile territory was extremely difficult, since local sympathizers could sabotage tracks and bridges in dozens of remote places. As a result, naval operations were a key part of the Union's war fighting in the west of the country. The Mississippi River represented the great north-south highway along which the war in the west was fought.

The strategic importance of strong fortifications with heavy guns at locations along the river permitting control of traffic was plain to all sides; so major battles developed involving attempts to seize fortified places like Vicksburg, Mississippi. Grant's persistent effort to besiege and occupy Vicksburg was a mark of his strength as a general, and the eventual success of his plans represented a turning point in the Civil War. But key to success at Vicksburg (and Fort Henry a year earlier) was the availability of a growing force of river warships, from lightly armed gunboats to ironclad and timber-clad steamships with heavy armaments capable of assaulting land-based fortifications. And almost none of this range of river craft existed before the onset of war. The use armored river steamboats of the Civil War thus represented a major technological shift in warfare -- perhaps as dramatic in 1861 as high-precision artillery has been in Ukraine in 2022.

The high end of these armored vessels were the City-class gunboats ("turtles"). These were ironclad vessels designed for service in rivers rather than open seas. They had shallow draft of six feet, were armed with thirteen guns, and could cruise at eight knots. Seven boats were delivered by January, 1862, and they played a significant role in major battles along the Mississippi River, including Vicksburg. These ships included the USS Baron DeKalb, Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburgh.

Complementing these ironclads was a larger group of wooden vessels that also played a major role in river warfare during the Civil War. Angus Konstam's book Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War 1861-65 provides a review of the rapid development of armored wooden gunboats as the war in the west heated up. These craft needed to be shallow-draft, and they needed to be maneuverable enough to manage the twisting courses of the midwestern rivers. They were steam-powered and relatively slow, but provided both heavy mobile armaments and heavy transport for the strategic thrusts of the army. They could be used to transport troops, and they therefore permitted rapid shifts in the location of land-based attacks.

A rapid effort at ship-building and conversion ensued by both Confederate and Union militaries after the outbreak of war, and within a year each side had a number of river-based warships. The earliest heavy gunboats in the Union arsenal were converted commercial vessels -- the Conestoga (572 tons), the Lexington (362 tons), and the Tyler (420 tons), launched in summer 1861 and shielded with thick timber. In addition to the heavy gunboats, the armies also needed a larger number of smaller river gunboats (150-250 tons) that could be used to patrol the river and serve as transport up and down the river (9). The flagship of the river navy, also converted from commercial use, was the USS Black Hawk (902 tons). (All these data are drawn from Konstam's table of ships operated by both sides.) These wooden river warships were immediately thrown into the struggle.

What emerged was a campaign involving the attack on these Confederate naval and riverside defenses by two fleets: One descending the river from Cairo, Illinois, and the other (after the fall of New Orleans in April 1862) working its way up from the Gulf of Mexico. After a brilliantly executed attack on Fort Henry and Fort Donelson [by forces commanded by Grant] on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, Union naval forces in the upper Mississippi faced a series of imposing fortifications. (Konstam, 5)

Fortifications and heavy guns at Vicksburg were the most significant of these Confederate capabilities on the Mississippi River, and it took great fortitude for army and naval forces to eventually take Vicksburg in July 1863. This represented a major turning point in the Civil War.

What is particularly interesting to me about this quick exposure to river warfare in the 1860s is the fact that there were several tempos of operations in the Civil War -- the movements of armies at 15-20 miles per day, the movements of troops, officers, and materiel by steamship at perhaps 100 miles per day and by rail when available at 400 miles per day, and the transmission of messages at Internet speed by telegraph. The faster pace of steamboat and rail warfare fundamentally changed the challenges and opportunities confronting the generals. It is plain, then, that the American Civil War was a high-tech war, with innovations and adaptations introduced into war fighting in real time. (Even the evolution of heavy weaponry and ammunition moved forward quickly during the five years of fighting.) Here again, the similarity to the Ukraine war is striking.

(Here is an interesting photo essay on the evolution of Civil War gunboats; link. And here is a National Parks historical video on the battle of Vicksburg; link.)

Friday, September 23, 2022

Confronting Evil in History

My short book Confronting Evil in History has just been published in Cambridge Elements in the Elements in Historical Theory and Practice series edited by Daniel Woolf. 

Here is the abstract:

Evil is sometimes thought to be incomprehensible and abnormal, falling outside of familiar historical and human processes. And yet the twentieth century was replete with instances of cruelty on a massive scale, including systematic torture, murder, and enslavement of ordinary, innocent human beings. These overwhelming atrocities included genocide, totalitarianism, the Holocaust, and the Holodomor. This Element underlines the importance of careful, truthful historical investigation of the complicated realities of dark periods in human history; the importance of understanding these events in terms that give attention to the human experience of the people who were subject to them and those who perpetrated them; the question of whether the idea of 'evil' helps us to confront these periods honestly; and the possibility of improving our civilization's resilience in the face of the impulses towards cruelty to other human beings that have so often emerged.

The book focuses on the question, how should philosophers and historians confront the massive evils of the twentieth century -- Holodomor, Holocaust, genocide, mass enslavement, totalitarianism? It argues that we have not yet adequately rethought our fundamental ideas about human nature, morality, institutions, and culture in light of those evils. The current atrocities committed by Russian forces against the innocent civilians of Ukraine underline the ongoing importance of these fundamental questions.

Cambridge University Press has the generous policy of making new publications in the Elements series available for free PDF download for two weeks from the date of publication. If you'd like a free digital copy, here is the URL. Look for the "Save PDF" tab.

Feel free to share this link through social media with those who may be interested in the topic. Free access will continue for two weeks.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Malcolm Muggeridge on the Holodomor

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a much-read English left journalist, critic, and international observer and a close friend of George Orwell in the 1930s. Muggeridge wrote an introduction to Orwell's novel Burmese Days, and along with Tony Powell, he made arrangements for Orwell's funeral in 1950. (Ian Hunter's Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life provides an excellent biographical study.) 

Muggeridge was a strong supporter of the Communist Revolution in Russia in the 1920s, but in 1932 he served in Moscow as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and came to see the horrific side of Stalinism. In 1933 he traveled to North Caucasus and Ukraine to observe the process of collectivization and starvation that was underway there, without permission from the Soviet authorities, and some of his articles were published as "our correspondent" in the Guardian in March 1933. A second batch of articles was published in the Morning Post in June 1933 (link).

Here is Muggeridge's 25 March 1933 Guardian article (the first of the Guardian series):

Living in Moscow and listening to statements of doctrine and of policy, you forget that the lives of a hundred and sixty millions of people, mostly peasants, are profoundly affected by discussions and resolutions that seem, as abstract as the proceedings of a provincial debating society.

"We must collectivise agriculture", or "We must root out kulaks". But what is going on in the remote villages? I set out to discover it in the North Caucasus.

A little market town in the Kuban district. There were soldiers everywhere - well fed, and the civilian population was obviously starving. I mean starving in its absolute sense; not undernourished, but having had for weeks next to nothing to eat. Later I found out there had been no bread at all in the place for three months.

The famine is an organised one. The proletariat, represented by the G.P.U. (State Political Police) and the military, has utterly routed its enemies amongst the peasantry who tried to hide a little of their produce to feed themselves. The worst of the class war is that it never stops. First individual kulaks shot and exiled; then groups of peasants; then whole villages. It is literally true that whole villages have been exiled.

About 60% of the peasantry and 80% of the land were brought into collective farms, tractors to replace horses, elevators to replace barns. The Communist directors were sometimes incompetent or corrupt; the agronomes were in many cases a failure. Horses, for lack of fodder, died off much faster than tractors were manufactured, and the tractors were mishandled and broken. Collectivisation was a failure. The immediate result was a falling off in the yield of agriculture. Last year this became acute. It was necessary for the Government's agents to take nearly everything that was edible.

There took place a new outburst of repression. Shebboldaev, party secretary for the North Caucasus, said in a speech: "At the present moment, when what remains of the kulaks are trying to organise sabotage, every slacker must be deported. That is true justice. You may say that before we exiled individual kulaks, and that now it concerns whole stanitza [villages] and whole collective farms. If these are enemies they must be treated as kulaks'.

It is this "true justice" that has helped greatly to reduce the North Caucasus to its present condition.

And here is the second article from the Guardian on March 27, 1933, recording Muggeridge's observations from his travel to North Caucasus and Ukraine (link). Here is a striking passage from this entry:

How is it that so many obvious and fundamental facts about Russia are not noticed even by serious and intelligent visitors? Take, for instance, the most obvious and fundamental fact of all. There is not 5 per cent of the population whose standard of life is equal to, or nearly equal to, that of the unemployed in England who are on the lowest scale of relief. I make this statement advisedly, having checked it on a basis of the family budgets in Mr Fenner Brockway’s recent book Hungry England, which certainly do not err on the side of being too optimistic.

In the evening I joined a crowd in a street. It was drifting up and down while a policeman blew his whistle; dispersing just where he was, then reforming again behind him. Some of the people in the crowd were holding fragments of food, inconsiderable fragments that in the ordinary way a housewife would throw away or give to the cat. Others were examining these fragments of food. Every now and then an exchange took place. Often, as in the little market town, what was bought was at once consumed. I turned into a nearby church. It was crowded. A service was proceeding; priests in vestments and with long hair were chanting prayers, little candle flames lighting the darkness, incense rising. How to understand? How to form an opinion? What did it mean? What was its significance? The voices of the priests were dim, like echoes, and the congregation curiously quiet, curiously still.

Here is a short excerpt from the second article in the June 1933 Morning Post series (link):

If you go now to the Ukraine or the North Caucasus, exceedingly beautiful countries and formerly amongst the most fertile in the world you will find them like a desert; fields choked with weeds and neglected; no livestock or horses; villages seeming to be deserted, sometimes actually deserted peasants famished, often their bodies swollen, unutterably wretched.

You will discover, if you question them, that they have had no bread at all for three months past; only potatoes and some millet, and that now they are counting their potatoes one by one because they know nothing else will be available to eat until the summer, if then. They will tell you that many have already died of famine, and that many are dying every day; that thousands have been shot by the Government and hundreds of thousands exiled; that it is a crime, punishable by the death sentence without trial, for them to have grain in their houses.

They will only tell you these things, however, if no soldier or stranger is within sight. At the sight of a uniform or of someone properly fed, whom they assume, because of that fact, to be a Communist or a Government official, they change their tone and assure you that they have everything in the way of food and clothing that the heart of man can desire, and that they love the dictatorship of the proletariat, and recognise thankfully the blessings it has brought to them.

Much of the deadly reality of Stalin's war of starvation against the peasants, the Holodomor, was concealed or minimized by western journalists in Russia. John Simkin (link) provides a very illuminating description and critique of the western journalists stationed in Moscow during the early 1930s who minimized or denied the occurrence of mass starvation, including New York Times reporter Walter Duranty and UPI correspondent Eugene Lyons. Both Duranty and Lyons attempted to discredit Gareth Jones, whose travel through Ukraine in 1932 represented one of the earliest eye-witness accounts of mass starvation there, along with Arthur Koestler and Malcolm Muggeridge. (Here is an excellent discussion with Anne Applebaum of the important film Mr. Joneslink, and here is a website containing almost all of Jones's published writing (link).)

The Guardian provides a reproduction of the relevant page of the newspaper for March 27, 1933, the date that Muggeridge's second article appeared. It is striking to see the traumatic history represented on that single page of newsprint: Nazi oppression and violence against Jews in Germany, Stalinist arrest and persecution of workers in Russia, an Irish bombing, and hunger in the Ukraine (link). (Click the image for a more legible resolution of the page.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Better-functioning organizations

A recurring topic here is the potential for large and costly failures created by the dysfunctions of complex organizations (link). This perspective on organizations follows from the work of sociologists like Charles Perrow, Diane Vaughan, and Andrew Hopkins. But we can also ask the symmetrical question: is it possible for a medium- or large-scale organization to function well and to consistently to achieve its organizational purposes? Or are large organizations doomed to erratic performance?

Consider an example -- say, a large industrial manufacturing company like John Deere. John Deere employs about 70,000 workers and managers in locations in thirty countries.

John Deere is a manufacturing company that produces farm equipment -- tractors, harvesters, forestry equipment, residential lawn equipment, etc. Its corporate headquarters are in Moline, Illinois, and the company did $48.4 billion in annual sales in FY2021. This is roughly comparable to the revenues of Caterpillar, one of its main competitors, and a little over one-third the revenues of auto manufacturer Ford Motor Company. John Deere's current market value is $113.8 billion.

John Deere is widely regarded as one of the better-managed and led companies on the American scene today. What are the corporate goals and priorities that John Deere's executive team and upper management seek to achieve? Do they succeed? Is JD a social machine for success? Here are several unranked priorities:
  • Maintain and increase shareholder value
  • Maintain company's stock price
  • Achieve a strong rate of profit
  • Extend market share domestically and internationally
  • Increase revenue year-to-year
  • Satisfy customers
More specific goals concern the organization and management of production, the design of new products, and ongoing assessment of "market trends" for the technology of earth-moving and farm equipment. These might include:
  • manage and improve manufacturing processes for efficiency and quality of product
  • anticipate technology changes that affect farm equipment and other JD products
  • maintain worker morale
  • maintain appropriate coordination across divisions of company
  • contain costs, including materials and labor
  • maintain safety standards in the workplace
  • conduct effective and focused research and development activities
The company has three main divisions, with further divisions within each: Agriculture and Turf, Construction and Forestry, and Finance. The organization chart indicates the internal structure of the company. (Click the image to see a more legible version.)

The org chart indicates ten members of the executive team, including the CEO as well as presidents of Agriculture and Turf Division, Agriculture and Turf Division (small agriculture and turf, international markets), Construction and Forestry, Aftermarket services, Financial, Technology, General Counsel, Human Resources, and Senior VP and CFO. Several of these officers have responsibilities extending across the whole corporation, while others are responsible for the main product divisions of the company.

Not visible from the org chart is the management of activities that extend across multiple divisions: for example, manufacturing, new product design, technology development, and logistics. Consider manufacturing. The company builds tractors, engines, and other heavy equipment in factories in the US, Brazil, Argentina, Finland, France, Germany (2), The Netherlands, India (4), and Mexico (2). These manufacturing facilities presumably "belong" to different divisions of the company; and each of them presumably has local chief managers and directors as well. How are coordination problems solved within this complex set of manufacturing activities and sites? Are there systems in place for transferring new technologies of advanced manufacturing from one site to another? Are there quality assurance and worker safety systems in place ensuring that top executives will quickly learn of locations where either product quality or plant safety are compromised? Does a factory in Brazil that makes combine harvesters have ways of learning from technology and process innovations that have been developed in a turf maintenance tractor factory in Finland? Or are the divisions and locations "siloed" so that each proceeds according to its own internal measurements, processes, and executive leadership?

One answer that the central JD executive team might give to this question about coordination is that it doesn't matter very much. Their central responsibility is simply to manage manufacturing and sales processes in such a way that each market and division remains profitable and growing -- and perhaps to shut down activities that show little promise of improvement over the medium term. How they achieve this result is a problem for local and regional management. But this isn't a very convincing answer. If JD-Finland has redesigned a manufacturing process in a way that removes 10% of the cost of production, that is a savings that ought to be quickly shared with other factories around the world. Likewise, if JD-France has an unusual number of in-plant accidents, or JD-Mexico has a significantly high rate of product defects, the central management ought to be in a position to observe and correct those deficiencies. So an observer might suppose that there ought to be a central tracking system for technological and process innovation, safety performance, and quality ratings that extends across all regions and divisions of the company. If such a system is lacking, then the company is objectively less efficient than it could otherwise be.

A more serious source of corporate dysfunction can be found in the office of Finance, where the wizards are paying very close attention to the company's stock price. These experts lobby the CEO to take steps to prop up revenues in the coming 24 months, so that Wall Street will look at JD stock with more favor. Canvassing the options for increasing net revenue, the CEO's advisors recommend two things: to impose an IT fee on the users of the JD tractors and farm equipment "to offset the cost of these high-tech systems"; and to find significant sources of cost savings in heavy manufacturing plants. It is estimated that these changes will add 4% to net revenues in the coming 24 months. But these plans work out badly. Users of JD tractors are angered by the new fees -- leading to a surge of interest in Mitsubishi equipment in the heartland. And factory managers achieve cost savings by reducing production-line staff and curtailing safety programs. As a result, unionized workers are motivated to support a costly strike in the next negotiation, and a surge of factory accidents takes place in a number of factories.

This example illustrates a common source of dysfunction within an organization: one division favors priority X, which interferes with achieving priorities Y and Z. Enhancing stock value was achieved in this scenario; but at the price of alienating both customers and workers. So who is most able to influence the CEO -- the finance team, the HR team, or the marketing team?

This may sound like an entirely hypothetical and unlikely scenario; but something very much like it seems to have been in play in the background of the Boeing 737 MAX debacle. Here is an excerpt from a story in Industry Week about the sources of failure in the 737 MAX software redesign process:

Engineers who worked on the Max, which Boeing began developing eight years ago to match a rival Airbus SE plane, have complained of pressure from managers to limit changes that might introduce extra time or cost.

“Boeing was doing all kinds of things, everything you can imagine, to reduce cost, including moving work from Puget Sound, because we’d become very expensive here,” said Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer laid off in 2017. “All that’s very understandable if you think of it from a business perspective. Slowly over time it appears that’s eroded the ability for Puget Sound designers to design.” (link)

Two observations are relevant from the example of a somewhat fictionalized John Deere company. First, a degree of decentralization and specialization is inevitable in a complex organization. Different products and markets need to be managed by leaders and managers who focus their attention on those particular technical and market conditions. But second, an organization is always vulnerable to conflicts of priority and demand from the various divisions and voices within the company. The advocacy of the General Counsel may be at odds with the office responsible for product innovation; the finance team may be at odds with both labor relations and safety management executives. 

John Deere seems to be an especially successful corporation when it comes to accomplishing its business goals as well as its safety and quality goals. And it pays close attention to worker satisfaction within the company (link). The interesting question is this: how has this success been maintained over decades? Does it have to do with the recruitment and selection of employees and senior executives who do a particularly good job of balancing priorities? Is there a culture at John Deere that allows it to escape some of the potentially damaging dynamics of the mentality of "maximize revenues, maximize stock price" over all else? Does a medium-duration timeline for corporate decision-making help -- a situation in which executives are encouraged to offer plans and solutions that will best serve the company and its stakeholders (customers, workers, investors) over the longterm?

(Here is a relevant discussion of the dysfunctional decision-making that occurred in the US steel industry after World War II, leading to its permanent decline relative to international competitors; link.)

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Sliding towards "semi-fascism"

President Biden's September 1 speech on the political threats posed to our democracy by the language and actions of far-right GOP leaders and elected officials was entirely on the mark. As scholars of the history of fascism have noted, many of the characteristics of fascism are indeed currently present in GOP language and goals. The cries of outrage demanding apology from these very same politicians are entirely mendacious.

New School historian Federico Finchelstein has written extensively on the history and social reality of fascism. Especially interesting in our contemporary context is his Brief History of Fascist Lies. Here is how Finchelstein formulated the concept of fascism in the Washington Post following Biden's speech:

What is fascism? In historical terms, it was an ultranationalist, anti-liberal and anti-Marxist politics. Its primary aim was to destroy democracy from within to create a modern dictatorship from above. The state silenced the basic tenets of civil society, while eliminating the distinctions between the public and the private — or between the state and its citizens. Fascist regimes shut down the independent press and destroyed the rule of law.

Fascists defended a divine, messianic and charismatic form of leadership supported by big lies and propaganda. They had an extreme, xenophobic conception of what they deemed the enemy, regarding it as an existential threat to the nation and to its people that had to be first persecuted and then deported or eliminated. Fascism aimed to create a new and epochal world order through the militarization of politics.(link)

The similarities between these descriptions and the behavior and language of the MAGA crowd are unmistakeable. The charge of "semi-fascism" is not based on the fact that the right-wing GOP believes there is a hidden liberal elite that runs the country. Rather, it is that they are threatening mass violence against the state, elected officials, other citizens, and the groups they don't like. Like Mussolini, they will use whatever rhetorical dodges come to hand to gain support. But violent anti-democratic change is their program. That's what makes Biden's statements that the GOP is becoming a party of what he called "semi-fascism" so accurate.

The far right has manufactured faceless and fictional enemies to wage war against -- government officials in particular -- which is really a rejection of the idea that government has an entirely appropriate function in regulating industry and securing the common good. And under cover of that set of fictions, they are actually working aggressively to intimidate voters, librarians, teachers, health-care workers, election officials, public health administrators, and advocates for anti-racism and police reform.

Here is how Finchelstein encapsulates the Trumpian version of fascist aspiration:

Indeed, well before Jan. 6, 2021, Trump had already established key pillars of fascism: militarization of politics, xenophobia, totalitarian propaganda techniques and demonstrable falsehoods, and the demonization of his antagonists. Trumpism was only missing dictatorship. And then the insurrection happened, as Trump supporters attempted to overturn the 2020 election results because he lost. (link)

Critics of the American system from the left are certainly correct in saying that wealthy individuals and corporations wield vast power in our system -- witness the entirely one-sided tax policy changes that have occurred in the past decades, the weakening of regulatory regimes (FAA, NRC, OSHA, EPA), and the impunity with which billionaires move their wealth (and their yachts) to island enclaves beyond scrutiny of US taxes.

It's pretty laughable to assert that "socialists" and the radical-liberal left have created all kinds of new laws and policies oppressing other people; the left has been defeated on almost every issue (reduction of inequalities, gun safety legislation, strong and effective industrial regulation, taxes on the rich, reproductive rights, ...).

There are indeed dark forces pulling a lot of strings in our democracy: the NRA, the extremist anti-abortion movement, the effective power of corporations to secure their financial interests over the public good, the role of big money in elections (e.g. Barry Seide and the Marble Freedom Trust), and the increasingly strident voices of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-muslim bigotry among GOP politicians. Progressive critics refer primarily to the third and fourth items on this list; and these factors remain potent today. But the "populist" extremists have gained an enormous amount of power that they are wielding against the clear majority of the US population.

It's a gloomy picture!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Social cognitive frameworks and social class

It is evident that all of us "filter" the social worlds that we inhabit according to a set of expectations, assumptions, stereotypes, and values. We understand a social interaction that we ourselves participate in, or merely observe, through these assumptions and filters. We might describe these systems of thought as "social-cognitive frameworks" -- the collection of basic assumptions that an individual possesses in terms of which he or she conceptualizes and frames the social world around him, and some of the basic norms, values, and pro/con attitudes that influence behavior in everyday environments. These frameworks are not inevitable or uniform within a particular society. Instead, they are influenced by ordinary experiences in life in work, neighborhood, family, school, and military settings. And surely they vary dramatically by one's position in the systems of class, gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and status within which one lives. Here I would like to explore one aspect of how these social-cognitive frameworks are constituted through an individual's early and young-adult experiences -- the world of work.

A social-cognitive framework involves something like a taxonomy of the various categories of people around one, along with powerful social emotions: who can be trusted? Who feared? Who is a potential friend and ally, and who is an adversary or enemy? Which groups are thought to be admirable, and which contemptible? Are there socially specific indicators or labels that guide judgments like these -- a way of dressing, a tattoo, a readiness to smile, a motorcycle? And, finally, a social-cognitive framework involves a set of values and orienting goals for the individual -- the activities and achievements that he or she aspires to attain.

For example, what do Amazon warehouse workers think of the professors they may encounter when they visit Madison or Ann Arbor -- what assumptions do they make about the professors' social attitudes? And vice versa -- what assumptions do professors make about the hourly working people they encounter? And what about the technical specialists at the warehouse or factory -- how do the Amazon workers think about these "white collar" "professional" men and women, and how do they behave towards them?

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that George Orwell attempted to get inside the social-cognitive frameworks of the working class men and women with whom he interacted in the north of England, as recorded in The Road to Wigan Pier. He paid close attention to the ways these men and women talk, dress, eat, work, and raise their children, and made it very clear that these practices and mental frameworks differ a great deal from other social strata in England in the period. Orwell identified his own class origin as "lower-upper-middle class", and has a clear understanding of the distinctive social views of that segment of English society:

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded. Or perhaps it would be better to change the metaphor and describe it not as a mound but as a layer—the layer of society lying between £2,000 and £300 a year: my own family was not far from the bottom. You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood. Nevertheless, the essential point about the English class-system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money. Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerry-built modern bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts. Hence the fact that the upper-middle class extends or extended to incomes as low as £300 a year—to incomes, that is, much lower than those of merely middle-class people with no social pretensions. Probably there are countries where you can predict a man’s opinions from his income, but it is never quite safe to do so in England; you have always got to take his traditions into consideration as well. A naval officer and his grocer very likely have the same income, but they are not equivalent persons and they would only be on the same side in very large issues such as a war or a general strike—possibly not even then. (chapter 8)

Here is his portrait of the lower-middle class gentile view of the working class:

And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. Look at any number of Punch during the past thirty years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun and becomes a demon. It is no use wasting breath in denouncing this attitude. It is better to consider how it has arisen, and to do that one has got to realise what the working classes look like to those who live among them but have different habits and traditions. (chapter 8)

Where do these social-cognitive frameworks come from? Orwell tries to answer this question as well.

I have dwelt on these subjects because they are vitally important. To get rid of class-distinctions you have got to start by understanding how one class appears when seen through the eyes of another. It is useless to say that the middle classes are ‘snobbish’ and leave it at that. You get no further if you do not realise that snobbishness is bound up with a species of idealism. It derives from the early training in which a middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’.  (chapter 8)

And Orwell is persuaded that these assumptions are deep and stable, once established.

 A middle-class person embraces Socialism and perhaps even joins the Communist Party. How much real difference does it make? Obviously, living within the framework of capitalist society, he has got to go on earning his living, and one cannot blame him if he clings to his bourgeois economic status. But is there any change in his tastes, his habits, his manners, his imaginative background—his ‘ideology’, in Communist jargon? Is there any change in him except that he now votes Labour, or, when possible, Communist at the elections? It is noticeable that he still habitually associates with his own class; he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who thinks him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, pictures, music, ballet, are still recognisably bourgeois tastes; most significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class. (chapter 8)

Throughout Orwell's essays there are two consistent themes: that the social perceptions and attitudes of English men and women differ dramatically by class, and that (unlike many of his counterparts) he has a fundamental respect for the values and perspectives of working people. His analysis of the poetry of Kipling, for example, is very much concerned with the worldview of social relations that it expresses.

Charles Sabel addressed this question of worker mentality (or what I am calling "social-cognitive frameworks") in Work and Politics. One of the most interesting parts of Sabel's book is the attention he gives to the consciousness and values of various strata of workers. His description of the "craftsman's ethos" is particularly intriguing, since it pertains to a category of labor that is in a sense a carry-over from pre-modern handicraft economies:

From the point of view of the middle class, the craftsman is a contradictory figure, capable of tasks that presuppose self-esteem and assertiveness, yet in a more general way lacking both. Despite his apparent social proximity to middle-class managers and social scientists, he has remained as mysterious to them as the other parts of the working class. The craftsman's autonomy on the job is frequently attested: Not only does his independence often make supervision superfluous, but he frequently outwits managers in complex negotiations over work rules and piece rates.... Yet it has been repeatedly shown that the craftsman's attitudes toward education, child rearing, and the social hierarchy are those typical of what might be called a subaltern social class. Where the middle-class manager teaches his son to questions rules and inquire into the justification of hierarchy, the skilled worker often teaches his son to accept both respectfully. (82) But to judge by the few studies of the experience of apprenticeship itself, however organized and by whomever administered, the programs teach two related lessons. The first concerns objects and techniques, the second the social preconditions and implications of the craft's knowledge. (83)

Sabel's answer to the question, what are some of the the primary determinants of a person's social-cognitive framework, is to point to the circumstances and values inculcated in technical training programs and internships. These processes of formation and training lead to an orienting set of values and aspirations. And these values are distinct from those that a similarly talented young person would gain from a university education in engineering. Sabel writes:

Incorporation into a new social world also defines the craftsman's hopes for the future, and in ways that shed light on his apparently inconsistent behavior in the labor market. What counts for him now is technical prowess, not place in an officially defined hierarchy of jobs: Titles are not important, savoir faire is. Careful studies by Siegfried Braun and Jochen Fuhrmann show that this is precisely the opposite of the middle-class attitude. The middle class conceived of a career not as a series of successively more complex jobs, but as a progression through a socially recognized hierarchy of posts, each patently more prestigious than the preceding one. The craftsman wants to be able to do something; there is evidence that he is often indifferent to or ignorant of the career possibilities -- understood in the middle-class sense -- that apprenticeship opens to him. (84)
Sabel refers to this value orientation as a craftsman ethos, and he believes it is a distinctive social-cognitive orientation to the contemporary world of work.

These passages provide clear documentation of the workings of distinctive social-cognitive frameworks across class (in England, anyway). And it seems likely that a similar ethnographic account could be provided for the many forms of social separation that exist in modern US society as well: across lines of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and age cohort, for example. Further, these differences of perspective are important, since they create the environment in which social interaction, friendship, or political solidarity arise. Social cohesion and political persuasion are important but challenged goals in twenty-first century United States (as well as other countries); and it seems apparent that group-specific differences in social expectations and assumptions about other groups are likely to be important for cohesion, conflict, and persuasion.

This raises a very interesting question: where does this kind of inquiry fit within the domain of the social and behavioral sciences? Is it a question for ethnographers? For micro-sociologists like Erving Goffman? For social psychologists or opinion researchers? For journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Studs Terkel? And more abstractly, is it possible to formulate a better theory or landscape map of the socially situated actor that takes into account the formation and influence of diverse social-cognitive frameworks?