Sunday, November 27, 2022

Koestler's observations of Soviet totalitarianism

In honor of the remembrance of the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, it is worth recalling Arthur Koestler's first-hand observations of the devastation of 1932-33 in Ukraine.

In 1932 Koestler undertook a tour of the Soviet Union as a journalist, under the sponsorship of the Comintern. What he witnessed during these months of travel led to a lifetime rejection of Soviet Communism, and an honest recognition of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. Among the most horrific of those crimes was Stalin's war of starvation against the people of Ukraine, the Holodomor (link). Today is the day of remembrance marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Holodomor, so it is relevant to begin there in his recollections in his autobiography of the period, The Invisible Writing.

Here is how Koestler's travels begin:

My first destination was not Moscow but Kharkov, then capital of the Soviet Ukraine. I had friends living in that town, who had invited me to stay with them until I found my feet in the new world.... My idea of Russia had been formed entirely by Soviet propaganda. It was the image of a super-America, engaged in the most gigantic enterprise in history, buzzing with activity, efficiency, enthusiasm.... Only slowly does the newcomer learn to think in contradictions; to distinguish, underneath a chaotic surface, the shape of things to come; to realise that in Sovietland the present is a fiction, a quivering membrane stretched between the past and the future. . . . (Part Two, section IV)


Here is Koestler's first exposure to the Ukraine famine, the Holodomor:

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks -- rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms.

Another incident was so slight that I only registered it half-consciously. As our train was approaching a river across which a bridge was being built, the conductor came walking down the corridor with an armful of square pieces of cardboard and blocked up all the windows. When I asked why this was done, my travelling companions explained with smiles that bridges were military objectives, and that this precaution was necessary to prevent anybody from photographing them. It was the first of a series of equally grotesque experiences which I put down as examples of revolutionary vigilance. (Part Two, section IV)

And the signs of famine and horrendous suffering were evident in the Kharkov bazaar:

The goods ranged from a handful of rusty nails to a tattered quilt, or a pot of sour milk sold by the spoon, flies included. You could see an old woman sitting for hours with one painted Easter egg or one small piece of dried-up goat’s cheese before her. Or an old man, his bare feet covered with sores, trying to barter his tom boots for a kilo of black bread and a packet of mahorka tobacco. Hemp slippers, and even soles and heels torn off from boots and replaced by a bandage of rags, were frequent items for barter. Some old men had nothing to sell; they sang Ukrainian ballads and were rewarded by an occasional kopeck. Some of the women had babies lying beside them on the pavement or in their laps, feeding; the fly-ridden infant’s lips were fastened to the leathery udder from which it seemed to suck bile instead of milk. A surprising number of men had something wrong with their eyes: a squint, or one pupil gone opaque and milky, or one entire eyeball missing. Most of them had swollen hands and feet; their faces, too, were puffed rather than emaciated, and of that peculiar colour which Tolstoy, talking of a prisoner, describes as ‘the hue of shoots sprouting from potatoes in a cellar’. ... Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. ... Officially the famine did not exist. (Part Two, section IV)

Police state

Koestler was able to visit a number of friends in Kharkov and various other cities, and through them he gained a fairly direct perception of the conditions of repression under which Soviet citizens lived in the 1930s: bureaucracy, censorship, fear, arrest, and imprisonment.

When conditions become insupportable, men react according to their temperament in roughly three ways: -- by rebellion, apathy or self-deception. The Soviet citizen knows that rebellion against the largest and most perfect police machinery in history amounts to suicide. So the majority lives in a state of outward apathy and inner cynicism; while the minority lives by self-deception. (Part Two, section IV)

And he makes an important point about the role of the GPU, the omnipresent security police:

It is not the Terror, but the existence of this ubiquitous organisation without which nothing can be done, and which alone is capable of getting things done, that defines the structure of the totalitarian police state.

A Communist writer — a woman whom I greatly admired — once made an unguarded remark that has stuck in my memory. She was telling us, a small circle of Party members, about a clandestine meeting of her with a comrade in a forest in Austria. It had been spring, and despite the circumstances she greatly enjoyed her walk in the woods. When she met the other person, a Party official, he had launched at once into an ‘analysis of the difficulties confronting the movement and the means of overcoming them’. From that moment it had seemed to her that the birds had become silent, and the air had lost its fragrance. She was and is a devoted Communist, and this experience greatly disturbed her. ‘Why,’ she asked pathetically, ‘why is it that the leaves die wherever we go?’ (Part Two, section V)

Travels past the Caucasus

Koestler's account of his travels through the Caucasus and the Asian expanses of the Soviet Union are equally absorbing. He encounters Langston Hughes in a wretched GPU billet in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan.

[Hughes] offered me some vodka and camel sausage (which, together with sweet Turkestan melon, was to replace in Asia my former staple diet of red caviar), and over these delicatessen he told me the tragi-comic story of how he had come to be stranded in Ashkhabad. He had arrived in the Soviet Union several months before, together with a troupe of some forty American Negro actors and singers. They had been invited by MESHRABPOM, the leading Soviet film trust, to make a film on the persecution of the Negroes. Hughes was to write the script. But by the time they arrived in Moscow a political rapprochement had begun between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. which was eventually to lead to the official recognition of the Soviet regime by America in 1933. One of the American conditions for resuming normal diplomatic relations was that Russia should renounce its propaganda campaign among the American Negroes. Accordingly, MESHRABPOM overnight dropped the project of the film. ... Stranded in Ashkhabad, Hughes had kept sending wires to MESHRABPOM which were never answered. For the last three weeks he had lived as a kind of pensionnaire of the Ashkhabad G.P.U. in the dom sovietov getting what food was available in the G.P.U.’s canteen and co-operative stores on tick. He told me all this as a kind of shaggy-dog story— one of those funny things that inevitably happen in a country which has embarked on a great revolution. Later in the evening, more people arrived in Hughes’s room, and I discovered that we were not the only intellectuals in Ashkhabad. First to arrive was a timid little mouse of a man with a wizened Tartar face, who hardly ever spoke but listened to everything that was said with an immutably admiring smile. He was Shaarieh Kikiloff, the President of the Turkoman Writers’ Federation. What he wrote, neither Hughes nor I were ever able to find out, though we travelled together for about a fortnight. Nor did we ever discover whether he was married, where he lived and how he lived. (Part Two, section X)

Eventually Koestler and Hughes traveled on to Uzbekistan together. But while still in Ashkhabad Koestler witnessed a premonition of Stalinist terror to come, in the form of an extended political trial:

By a strange hazard I stumbled on the first great show trial in Central Asia — a foretaste of things to come.

The only sizeable building in Ashkhabad was the City Soviet, the equivalent of a Town Hall. I had walked past it several times with Kikiloff and wanted to have a look inside, but the smiling little man had each time side-tracked me with a vague ‘They are very busy there’ or It is not a good time’. Puzzled by his manner, I at last insisted and simply walked into the building with the anxious Kikiloff in tow. Inside, there was a courtyard from which a staircase led to the offices; and opposite the gate there was a large door, with red draperies over it, leading into the City Hall. People were drifting in and out of that hall; it looked as if a meeting were in progress there. I walked in and sat down in the last row, Kikiloff unhappily huddled beside me.

The charges were political -- sabotage and counter-revolutionary conspiracy -- and the trial went on for weeks.

Gradually, through Changildi’s testimony, and through the reports in the local newspaper during the following days, I got the hang of the affair. The trial had been on for several weeks. It was expected that it would last for another number of weeks. The City Hall was the only large public meeting place in Ashkhabad; whenever it was needed for a meeting or a theatre performance, the trial was adjourned. The twenty-nine defendants were accused of Sabotage and Counter-revolutionary Conspiracy.
Attakurdov had been the leading personality in the young Turkmen Soviet Republic. He had been chairman of the Ashkhabad Soviet; his brother-in-law, Ovez Kouhev, chairman of the District R.D.I.; another of his in-laws had been editor of the official Party paper. They were now all in the dock. It looked as if Attakurdov and his clan had been running the Republic, and were responsible for all the troubles that had befallen it.

Changildi’s testimony provided a revealing glimpse into the nature of these troubles. An entire kolkhoz had been disbanded because of a hundred and fifty melons. Moreover, private property of the collectivised land had been restored to its former owners, against the policy and law of the Government. Neither the Judge nor the Public Prosecutor had commented on this unheard-of event. When I asked Kikiloff about it, he shrugged and smiled: ‘There are difficulties’. But if such an event was possible, and accepted as a matter of course, the collectivisation programme in Turkmenistan must be in a state of chaos. I did not draw these conclusions; but I vaguely guessed them. I did not doubt that Attakurdov and his people were bad, guilty men; but the eerie unreality pervading the courtroom made me at the same time feel that they were being used as scapegoats. (Part Two, section X)

As a distinguished international visitor, Koestler was asked to sit with the officials on the stage, and Koestler drew an important conclusion from this experience:

The German Communist Party had a motto which used to appear every day on the top right corner of the official Party paper: 'Wo es Stdrkere gibt, immer auf der Seite der Schto decker en — ‘Where there is Power we are on the side of the Powerless’. On that platform I was obviously on the wrong side. It gave me the same guilty feeling that I had experienced towards the Ukrainian peasant girl in the sleeping-car to Erivan. And again, on a different level, towards Nadeshda. And again in my daily contacts with the common people who had no access to privileged co-operative stores, no priorities for food, housing, clothing and living. They were the powerless and I was on the side of the Power, and so it went on wherever I turned in Russia. A revolutionary can identify himself with Power, a rebel cannot; but I was a rebel, not a revolutionary. (Part Two, section X)

What is striking about Koestler's writings is his willingness to be honest about a political system to which he had been ideologically committed, and to describe in detail the social and political circumstances that he observed. Like his Spanish civil war prison memoir, Dialogue with Death, The Invisible Writing provides the reader with a very direct and vivid glimpse of the terrible events of the twentieth century that he witnessed.

Ninety years after Stalin's deliberate war of starvation against the Ukrainian people, another dictator is waging merciless war against Ukraine's civilian population. Putin's aggressive war against Ukraine, and the means of civilian terror he has turned to after the complete military failure of Russian conventional forces, are crimes against humanity, and they must end.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Who is ordering torture and execution in Ukraine?

With the retreat of Russian forces from Kherson this month, new evidence of gruesome atrocities against civilians has become visible (link). A very important question arises: What organization and what commanders have directed this campaign of atrocity, murder, rape, mutilation, torture, and abduction? Is there good investigative reporting on where orders for these unspeakable atrocities and crimes against humanity are coming from? 

Any list of possible suspects in ordering and committing systemic and horrific atrocities in Kherson and other Ukraine locations will certainly include these potential actors: rogue low-level occupation units, mid- to high-level military commanders, the Wagner Group and its presumed commander, Dmitri Utkin, forces commanded by Chechen militia leader Ramzan Kadyrov, and Putin's secret security serve, the FSB. It goes without saying that Vladimir Putin bears ultimate responsibility for these atrocities, since he knows full well that Russian forces are committing these horrendous acts, and we can therefore infer either explicit or implicit consent on his part. But we still need to know more about the organizations and commanders who are directing this campaign of deliberate atrocity against civilians in Ukraine.

A leading candidate is the Russian security service, the FSB, which is the successor to Stalin's NKVD and has been enormously empowered under Putin's rule. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan provide a detailed and highly concerning analysis of Putin's FSB in their 2011 book, The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB. The book provides detailed information about the organization and functions of the FSB, as well as informed estimates of its overall size (more than 200,000; p. 2). The book also provides a detailed historical chronology of the evolution of the FSB since Gorbachev's dissolution of the KGB in 1991. 

Soldatov and Borogan document the wide extent of extra-judicial killing in the war in Chechnya and Dagestan by the security services.

Neighboring Dagestan has seen twenty-five kidnappings since February 2009 by Memorial’s count, twelve of which resulted in the murder of victims. A week after the press conference, Sirazhudin Umarov, 32, a construction worker, was kidnapped from Qala, a Derbent district of Dagestan. On September 9 he was called to a meeting by an acquaintance named Azer, a police officer. There Umarov was captured by unidentified masked men. The following day his badly mutilated body was discovered. The security forces confirmed that he had been killed by the authorities, though they claimed he had died during an antiterrorism operation. “His face was so badly smashed from beating that I had difficulty recognizing him,” said Gulbenis Badurova, 33, his wife. “His eye was missing, and both hands had been broken.” (184)

(Soldatov's account of his own interrogation at Lefortovo Prison is chilling, and expresses the nature of the Russian police state.) 

There is a direct lineage connecting Stalin's NKVD (the primary agent of Stalin's terror and repression) and the contemporary FSB, and Soldatov makes the case that the parallels are even more striking today than they were twenty years ago. The lineage from the NKVD to the FSB is important, because the NKVD carried out horrific atrocities and massacres throughout the Stalin period: in 1940 it carried out the Katyn Forest massacre of at least 20,000 Polish army officers (prisoners of war), and in 1941 it carried out a series of massacres of political prisoners in Kiev and other locations in Ukraine (link). (Here is some background on NKVD atrocities in Ukraine in1941; link.) There is no basis for doubting that the NKVD was the author of great atrocity and evil in the 1930s through 1950s and was the primary instrument of Stalin's will throughout those decades.

It is reasonable to ask, therefore, what role FSB directors and special forces agents have played in the atrocities of torture, rape, kidnapping, and murder that have become evident in multiple locations in Ukraine recovered from Russian occupation in recent months.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs (link) Andrei Soldatov documents the increasing role of repression that has been assigned to the FSB during Putin's rule -- including in the occupation of territory seized from Ukraine since February 2022. The conclusion that Soldatov draws is stark: the FSB is moving closer and closer to the repressive omnipresent arm of a police state that the NKVD was for Stalin:

Since the war in began, Putin’s rapidly growing security state seems to be inching closer to its Stalinist predecessor. The militarization of the FSB, its new recruitment camps, its increasingly open and brutal tactics all suggest that Putin is looking more closely at the approach of the NKVD—an agency that was forged by a totalitarian state in wartime. And the long war is what the Kremlin is priming the country for.

Here is how Soldatov describes the new focus of the FSB, both in Russia and in its war aims in Ukraine:

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in enters its sixth month, a dramatic shift has occurred in the Kremlin’s security bureaucracy, and it has centered on the agency closest to Putin himself: the Federal Security Service, or FSB. When the war began, the Kremlin planned to use the FSB mainly in Ukraine, as a special operations force that would consolidate a rapid Russian conquest. According to the plan, the Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine would trigger regime change in Kyiv, and a new pro-Moscow leadership, sponsored by FSB spymasters, would take control of the country. At the time, it was the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch—the Fifth Service—that was to carry out this task. It was the only major FSB department, out of a dozen, that was directly involved in preparing for the war.

As those plans, however, Putin crafted a different, far more comprehensive mission for the FSB: it would be at the forefront of Russia’s total war effort at home as well as its intelligence operations in Ukraine. And every branch of the service would now be involved. Running the new crackdowns in are the FSB’s counterterrorism unit, its counterintelligence service, and its investigative department. Meanwhile, FSB special forces and the military counterintelligence branch are running operations targeting Ukrainian service people in occupied territories and beyond, recruiting Ukrainian agents, and processing those whom the FSB hopes to see prosecuted in show trials.

Notice that Soldatov's description in the paragraphs quoted here specifically outlines a substantial role for the FSB in occupied Ukraine, according to Putin's pre-war planning. 

My question here is a simple one: how extensive is the involvement of the FSB in the widespread and horrific atrocities that have come to light in Kherson, Bucha, and many other locations in previously occupied Ukraine? These acts of rape, murder, and torture against innocent civilians are generally attributed to "troops" in news stories, which perhaps leads the reader to imagine "rogue low-level army units"; but this is implausible. The atrocities are too widespread to reflect a few sadistic killers among the Russian army of occupation. Therefore we need to know more about the command and control of this horrific way of waging a war of terror and atrocity against civilians in Ukraine. And the world must hold Russia and its bureaucrats of atrocity accountable for their actions during this war.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Reasoning for sociological theory

What is involved in providing a compelling and justified formulation of an abstract theoretical concept in sociological theory?

When we engage in theorizing about human action and the social world, we would like our statements to be rationally grounded in some specifiable sense; we would like to be able to offer evidence and reasons for believing that these statements are likely to be true -- or are at least more likely than available alternatives. What counts as evidence and reasons in the field of sociological theory?

Take Zygmunt Bauman's concept of "liquid modernity". This seems like an insightful way of thinking about the modern world. But is it more than a metaphor? Does it have more grip on the world, or on the investigations of empirical sociologists, than Carlyle's notion of "sartor resartus" in Sartor Resartus? Is there empirical content in the concept of liquid modernity?

Or consider Pierre Bourdieu's concept of a "field" of cultural and intellectual activity (link) in The Field of Cultural Production. The heart of Bourdieu's concept of "field" is "relationality" -- the idea that cultural production and its products are situated and constituted in terms of a number of processes and social realities. Cultural products and producers are located within "a space of positions and position-takings" (30) that constitute a set of objective relations.

The space of literary or artistic position-takings, i.e. the structured set of the manifestations of the social agents involved in' the field -- literary or artistic works, of course, but also political acts or pronouncements, manifestos or polemics, etc. -- is inseparable from the space of literary or artistic positions defined by possession of a determinate quantity of specific capital (recognition) and, at the same time, by occupation of a determinate position in the structure of the distribution of this specific capital. The literary or artistic field is a field of forces, but it is also a field of struggles tending to transform or conserve this field of forces. (30)

Is "cultural field" a concept that can be observationally evaluated, analogously to a magnetic field or a gravitational field? No, and no. The logic of "field" for Bourdieu is not the same as the logic of a gravitational field; it does not specify a single, simple mathematical relationship between several variables. Testing the hypothesis of a gravitational field is straightforward: the theory postulates a force between two objects proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Having specified this simple relationship, it is simple to test the gravitation-field hypothesis. We can set up an experimental situation with objects of known masses and measure the force exerted between them at various distances; we can evaluate the accuracy of the gravitational constant; we can evaluate whether the relationship of distances is an inverse square relationship or possibly non-integer exponent: 1/r^2.001, for example. So the physical theory of a gravitational field is very simple from the point of view of empirical or experimental evaluation.

So what about sociological theories like liquid modernity or cultural field? Can these theories be supported with empirical evidence? The most direct answer seems not to be available in these cases: the idea that scientific statements are ultimately justified by their direct empirical implications. The question of whether Bourdieu's theory of the field is a true description of some aspects of human reality is not one that can be directly decided by experimentation or observation. Rather, the value of the theoretical concept derives from our assessment of how well it serves to organize and explain the behavior of actors within systems -- novelists, colonial administrators, scientists. It is a theoretical concept, valuable in its capacity to organize a range of more observational facts. And this assessment depends ultimately on the empirical adequacy and fecundity of the research communities that make use of these concepts.

These sociological concepts (field, liquid modernity) are more akin to ideal types along the lines of Weber's concept (link) than to single-dimensional statements about a domain of entities and forces in the sense of physical theory. An ideal-type concept is a complex amalgam of properties, meanings, and causal dispositions defining the supposed behavior of its referent. Here is a statement from Weber's Methodology of the Social Sciences in his explication of "commodity-market": 

This conceptual pattern brings together certain relationships and events of historical life into a complex, which is conceived as an internally consistent system.  Substantively, this construct is itself like a utopia which has been arrived at by the analytical accentuation of certain elements of reality.  Its relationship to the empirical data consists solely in the fact that where market-conditioned relationships of the type referred to by the abstract construct are discovered or suspected to exist in reality to some extent, we can make the characteristic features of this relationship pragmatically clear and understandable by reference to an ideal-type. (90)

Bourdieu's construct of cultural field and Bauman's conception of liquid modernity have many of the features of an ideal type: they are offered to "bring together certain relationships ... into a complex". 

There is also a range of theoretical constructs in sociology that have a closer relationship to sociological observation -- what we might call "mid-range" theoretical constructs. The questions of whether people have ideologies that influence their actions; whether there are concrete material social mechanisms that recur across social settings; or whether pragmatism offers a better theory of the actor than does the theory of economic rationality -- each of these issues can be linked to observation in direct and indirect ways. Claims about ideology can be linked to various methodologies of social psychology, public opinion research, and qualitative interviews. Claims about specific causal social mechanisms can be evaluated through research methods found in comparative historical sociology. And the realism of pragmatist theories of agent intentionality are amendable to the kinds of investigations offered by researchers in experimental economics. 

It is the range of highly abstract sociological constructs that are most distant from direct application to the empirical and historical worlds we investigate. And, unlike the most abstract theoretical constructs of physics, they do not have precise quantitative or predictive consequences. Instead, they are more like the organizing mental frameworks through which a sociologist or a historian makes sense of a wide range of human activity and historical changes. And we might say that these frameworks acquire credibility to the extent to which they give rise to productive sociological research at the meso level. In this way they function less as empirical concepts and more as ontological hypotheses or frameworks: "This is how the social world is structured; causation and meanings flow along these lines." Advocates for one theoretical framework or another offer diverse arguments designed to make their positions plausible and compelling to the reader. But the rational credibility of the construct depends ultimately on the empirical reach and credibility of the research and theories to which it gives rise. We will be justified in believing in cultural fields or liquid modernity to the extent that a robust body of empirical sociological research has been created that makes use substantial of these ideas.

Gary Ebbs captures much of the thrust of this naturalistic view of theoretical assertions in his book, Carnap, Quine, and Putnam on Methods of Inquiry:

In our pursuit of truth, we can do no better than to start in the middle, relying on already established beliefs and inferences and applying our best methods for reevaluating particular beliefs and inferences and arriving at new ones. No part of our supposed knowledge, no matter how clear it seems to us or how firmly we now hold it, is unrevisable or guaranteed to be true. Insofar as traditional philosophical conceptions of reason, justification, and apriority conflict with the first two principles, they should be abandoned. In particular, the traditional philosophical method of conceptual analysis should be abandoned in favor of the method of explication, whereby a term we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, is replaced by another term that serves the useful purposes of the old term but does not have its problems. A central task of philosophy is to clarify and facilitate our rational inquiries by replacing terms and theories that we find useful in some ways, but problematic in others, with new terms and theories that are as clear and unproblematic to us as the terms and methods of our best scientific theories. (Ebbs, introduction)

This is a coherentist view of scientific knowledge, and it provides a surprisingly compelling approach to the question of how to evaluate abstract sociological theories.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Twitter's unacceptable hidden defect

image: github analysis of Twitter follower network (link)

Twitter's paroxysms in the past two weeks have been unsettling. But suddenly, I am coming to believe that many of us have misunderstood what we were getting into when we got involved in Twitter in the first place. We had made assumptions about the advantages that Twitter could bring to us and maybe to our academic and cultural communities -- unfettered ability to hear what a fairly lengthy list of "people to follow" and "people who follow" have to say about subjects that the individual user is interested in. We users thought the platform would offer a stimulating sharing of ideas, with a bit of synergy -- new perspectives on old issues and topics. Stuff comes in, we think about it, and stuff goes out. The platform doesn't "make" the message.

But let's look at the situation more closely. Our initial assumptions about Twitter presupposed a process: Person A follows {F1, F2, F3, ..., Fn} and is followed by {G1, G2, G3, ..., Gm}. The platform is simply a conveyor: it serves up messages from source to followers, all through the network of initiators and followers. Whenever any of the Fi people tweet, person A gets a chance to read the message and interact with it. And anything that A tweets is seen by everyone in the follower list Gi. There is usually some overlap between the F's and G's, but they aren't usually exactly the same sets of people.

But notice that this summary of the Twitter process makes an assumption: that the platform is an automatic, neutral, and mechanical server; it simply delivers messages from A to all of Gi, and it delivers all the messages created by the Fi crowd to A. (Whether A is overwhelmed by the volume of messages is a different matter; that's why it makes sense to have a reasonably small set of F's, so that it is possible to pay attention to the messages originating from the people one follows.)

What we are now learning, however, is that the platform (Twitter) is not neutral and automatic. Here I'm focusing on the personalized feed that each Twitter user receives through the app. There are two settings on the HOME / WHAT'S HAPPENING? tab. The user can stick with the default, the curated list, the "top Tweets first" list; or the user can select "Latest Tweets". The implication is that the second choice gives the user an unprocessed feed from all the accounts he/she follows, in reverse chronological order. But my own experience in the past week or so indicates that this is not the case today, if it ever was. Today, for example, 23 of the first 25 tweets in my feed are from "blue-check" accounts; whereas fewer than 10% of the people I follow have blue-check accounts. So blue-check items are vastly over-represented in my news feed, even on the "Latest Tweets" option. Twitter made a trial-balloon announcement last week that "premium accounts" will receive priority in the news feed, and it appears unavoidable that this has been implemented. And that is flatly unacceptable to me.

It is unacceptable for two reasons. First, Twitter is a communications system for me; and the system should not decide which messages I get to see -- anymore than the phone company should decide which phone calls to put through. I want to have routine, unbiased access to the tweets published by the people I follow; I don't want those messages to be buried at the end of a stream of several hundred messages that have been given priority. The whole value of having a Twitter account is having direct access to the ideas, observations, and messages of these people whose opinions I respect, and I want to have an unbiased access to those messages.

But second, the implications of a "curated" feed are quite horrible when you think them through. Any sort of bias can be built into the curation algorithm, emphasizing one kind of message over another, and building a "thought world" for the individual user that is the construction of the algorithm. Like counting votes, the only way to avoid that bias is to mechanically serve up the messages in the order in which they are published. I had long presupposed that this was the way that the feed worked. But plainly it does not work that way today -- even on the seemingly "automatic" setting of "most recent".

This is a deficiency that we probably recognized more readily in the case of Facebook, where the Facebook news feed is plainly a selective "curated" list of items drawn from the agents one has "friended" and other news sources. But on Twitter, this curation bias wasn't evident to me until this week. The reality of how the system works is important: by subscribing to Twitter and reading or scanning the news feed, we are giving the platform an incredible amount of discretion in deciding what we see and what we don't see. Right now the selection algorithm seems to be centered on Twitter's effort to incentivize users to select a paid plan (Twitter Blue, blue check, verified), by offering the advantage that the paid plan messages will get priority in the feed. That all by itself is unacceptable to me as a user, because it opens up the possibility that a disproportion of the messages that I receive are boring and irrelevant. I don't want more messages from Elon simply because he's a blue check user. But the selectivity can be even more harmful than that, since an algorithmic feed can be tuned to political purposes as well. For example, we could imagine an algorithm that gives priority to messages casting doubt on the value of US support for Ukraine and low priority to messages that emphasize the importance of US support for Ukraine.

Consider a fairly dystopian fantasy that sheds light on what I'm getting at. What if a new mass email provider offered a new service. "We will deliver your email in nano-seconds; but even better, we will automatically correct the spelling and grammar, and we will screen incoming and outgoing messages for statements you might later regret." This would be algorithmic "processing" of email communications. And it would be nightmarish. I say nightmarish, because when I send a message, I formulate it in the way that best expresses my meaning and intentions; it is the job of the email carrier to blindly and neutrally deliver the message without algorithmic review and without editing. In a small way, Twitter is messing with my social communications -- both incoming and outgoing -- by imposing an algorithmic "prioritizing" weight on different messages that means that some messages sent in my direction have a much greater probability of being read by me than others. That is a kind of soft censorship. In the present case it is censorship based on "membership status"; but the same routine could prioritize messages according to a measure of their place on the political spectrum. Not good.

I began this post by saying we didn't really understand what we were getting into when we joined Twitter -- thirteen years ago in my case. We thought, without reflection, that it was simply a cool communications platform, a basis for communicating with individuals and groups in many parts of the world and in many different disciplines. But upon reflection, it is something different than that. It is a system in which we have given up control of who sees our messages -- and when -- and which messages from our interest group we are able to see. Those determinations are being made by the algorithm, not by a simple "first-in, first-out" process that guarantees that every message will be delivered. And the algorithm is tweaked according to the business and political interests of the corporation. And Elon Musk has made it plain this week that he is entirely OK with using Twitter's system for his own political purposes. That is not acceptable.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Election Day 2022

image: Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny

Here we are in November 2022, and the House, Senate, governors, and state houses are all up for grabs. An appalling number of GOP candidates have continued to spread lies about voter fraud in 2020 and have refused to commit to accepting the results of today’s election. (Remember that Donald Trump took exactly that position in a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016.) An untethered Christian Nationalist Supreme Court is in the middle of rewriting “settled law” in many key areas of our rights, including reproductive rights. And a visibly immature and narcissistic “richest man in the world” has taken ownership of one important piece of the public square and overnight imposed his loony conspiracy musings on the rest of us, as well as dismantling the moderation and verification tools the forum has used until now. It is not hyperbole to fear that our democracy is at terrible risk today and in the coming years.

It is worth reflecting on Timothy Snyder’s prescient and alarming 2017 book, On Tyranny, and its 2021 revised graphic edition. Snyder structures his book around twenty pieces of advice to us as citizens in an imperiled democracy — a kind of “what to do when catastrophe comes” for all of us. And many of the items are highly relevant in today’s United States. The illustration provided above is taken from the graphic edition. 

Take the first three items together. “Defend institutions” is hugely important for us today, and it is hard. So many signs of erosion of democratic institutions are now visible — determined efforts at voter exclusion, subversion of the offices of secretary of state in numerous states, data-science weaponized gerrymandering, and deliberate discrediting of elections. And one-party rule is a growing risk, in large part because of these assaults on democratic institutions and practices. “Illiberal democracy” with a strongman,  a lapdog dominant party, and pro-forma elections seem like very real possibilities on our horizon (link). So "Do not obey in advance" seems like a good note of caution. But so does item #6 -- "Be wary of paramilitaries".

Now think about several other items on the list that are relevant to our situation today -- #10, #11, and #13. "Believing in truth" is all the more important today after years of lies about election fraud, "stolen elections", idiotic conspiracy theories (e.g. Paul Pelosi), and crazy stuff about Democrats broadcast by wholly unscrupulous demagogues on Fox and other outlets. Respecting the truth and investigating the facts about various important events -- for example, the January 6 insurrection -- are all the more important today than ever. And "corporeal politics" -- what is that? It is a willingness to stand out for one's political convictions, to show up at rallies in support of reproductive rights, and to call out anti-democratic politicians and activists in visible ways. We have a model -- the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., and other civil rights leaders.

And what about the final four items -- "dangerous words", "calm in the face of the unthinkable", "patriotism", and "courage"? These are the most reflective of Snyder's snippets of advice. Dangerous words are "weak signals" for dangerous deeds -- threats of violence, neo-Nazi slogans, racist and anti-Semitic memes. So it is crucial for us as citizens to hear those words and resist them. Being calm in the face of the unthinkable -- this is crucial advice, because effective collective action requires good thinking and a calm willingness to work together in the face of adversity. Moreover, it is pretty clear that there is great power in collective action and solidarity, if we can achieve it. And "patriotism" is clearly a part of this picture, if by that we mean a strong commitment to the institutions and values of our constitutional democracy and a multi-cultural society of mutually accepting communities. That is patriotism -- not the flag-waving of the MAGA movement (with an assault rifle over the shoulder), but a reflective commitment to the institutions that ensure liberty, equality, and wellbeing for all of us together.

The final point is humane and crucial: have as much courage as you are able. Defending our democracy does not demand Spartan heroism. Rather, each of us must muster our moral resources and do what we can. Our democracy is worth struggling for.

So let's hope for the best today, and let's hope that the leaders we elect will reflect deeply about their moral and political values and the good of our democracy, rather than the short-term opportunism that is evident on the right. Be a descendant of Lincoln rather than Father Coughlin!

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Fifteen years of Understanding Society

This week represents the fifteenth anniversary of publication of Understanding Society, with a total of 1,484 posts and 13.3 million page views to date. There have been 72 posts and 657K page views in the past twelve months. The blog has remained consistent with the original vision of a "lab notebook for open-source philosophy". And the topics that I've written on have paralleled both the teaching and the academic writing I've done in the past year, reflecting a nice synergy between blogging, teaching, and research. Out of 72 posts during the preceding year, the most frequent topics include "Evil in history" (22), "Democracy and authoritarianism" (16), "Progress and social change" (11), "Philosophy of history" (7), and "Social ontology" (5). Eighteen posts were devoted to specific figures in the history of philosophy and social thought, including Nietzsche, Marx, Carlyle, Machiavelli, Herder, and Herzen.

Blogspot provides cumulative statistics for page views for each post. The top ten posts in the past twelve months include:

  1. The global city -- Saskia Sassen, 12.3K
  2. Lukes on power, 11.1K
  3. Liquid modernity?, 10.0K
  4. Marx's ideas about government, 9.8K
  5. Assemblage theory, 6.7K
  6. Possessive individualism, 6.6K
  7. Power and social class, 4.9K
  8. What is methodology?, 4.7K
  9. Why "philosophy of social science"?, 2.5K
  10. Quantitative and qualitative social science, 1.3K

(For some reason the page providing the text of my talk at the Beijing Forum in 2011, "Justice matters in global economic development", continues to gather a large number of views -- 19.6K in the past twelve months, and 68.6K views since 2011; link.)

From this list it is evident that Sassen, Lukes, Deleuze, Marx, and Macpherson continue to have a good deal of interest for the online public.

The geopolitical distribution of visitors to the blog is interesting as well. Here are maps of about a quarter of the visits on November 3 and November 4, 2022. 

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 3, 2022

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 4, 2022

Just about every day there are visitors from six continents, with the preponderance coming from the United States and Western Europe. There are usually a few return visitors from Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv -- surprising to me in the middle of the atrocious war now being waged in Ukraine. On this particular day in early November, visitors from the Russian Federation landed on posts on "Social progress" (Moscow) and "Who was Leon Trotsky?" (Nalchik). A visitor from Kyiv read "Sociology of life expectations", and a return visitor from Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine read "Quality of life in China". A visitor from Minsk also visited "Quality of life in China" on the same day, and a visitor from Pinsk browsed a number of posts on "agents and structures". Surprisingly enough, nearly 500 visitors have opened the Ukrainian-language post "Злі наслідки тоталітарних ідеологій" ("Evil consequences of totalitarianism") since it was published in May 2022. (This was as an experiment using Google translations of a relevant post into Ukrainian and Russian.) India and the Philippines always show a substantial number of visitors. Thanks to the Great Firewall, there are no visitors recorded from China, though it is likely that some readers in China come to the blog through a VPN routed through another country.

Since I spend a lot of energy and time writing for the blog, it's worth reflecting on why it's worthwhile for me. The answer is, this is a format of writing and thinking that I find hugely stimulating and satisfying. Something will strike me in my reading or teaching, and I'll try to write up the topic in a reflective way in a thousand words or so. Over time, I find that I've learned a great deal by wrestling with details and ideas from books and articles I would otherwise never have encountered -- for example, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Life, New Jerusalems, or Holocaust in Rovno. And there turns out to be a fair amount of continuity among the topics that show up in the blog over time. Understanding Society has been a very important part of the vitality of my intellectual life in the past fifteen years.

Two topics have proven to be particularly timely in the past year, both in the blog and in my teaching. The first is the topic of honestly confronting the evils of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust and the Holodomor. And the second is the rising threat to liberal democracy created by the anti-democratic impulses of the extreme right in the US and other western democracies. Both of these are important issues to consider at any time. But they are existentially important today, when Russian military forces are committing horrendous atrocities against civilians in Ukraine once again, and when paramilitary organizations and GOP candidates alike are explicitly threatening subversion and violence against democratic institutions in the US. Atrocity and authoritarianism once again threaten our freedom and wellbeing.

It is interesting to me to look back to the beginning, to the contents of the first two months of the blog in 2007. Most striking is the extraordinary number of posts in those two months (58). But the distribution of content is also very interesting. Topics in the philosophy of social science provided the overwhelming majority, including sociological methods, social ontology, and social causation. There were a handful of posts on topics in the philosophy of history, and a comparable number on features of social consciousness (religion, ideology, tacit knowledge, ...). Key parts of the philosophy of social science that I continue to advocate -- the ideas of heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency of the social world -- were all present in those first two months, and these themes have continued to appear over the intervening years. The language of "actor-centered sociology" did not appear explicitly in these first two months of posts, though the cognate label "microfoundations" was used for several posts during that time. (The first time the phrase "actor-centered" was used is in November 2008, in "Narrative history".) Notably, there are several topics which came to have a substantial presence in later years, including democracy, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, technology failure, analytical sociology, or critical realism, which were entirely absent in 2007.

It is fair to say that the language of the blog remains fairly academic -- though less so than in a published journal article. That said, I appreciate George Orwell's simple rules of good writing from “Politics and the English Language”:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This year I have introduced an improved set of tools for navigating the blog to find posts of interest on a particular topic. This proved to be more flexible on the Wordpress platform where the blog is mirrored ( The navigation tool permits the user to select posts by topic or keyword. My hope in creating these tools is that it will be more convenient to "read" the blog on a particular subject through a series of topically related posts.

I have also prepared a four-volume PDF archive of the first fifteen years of blog posts, organized into topics and themes. It runs to 5,500 pages of posts on social ontology, philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, democracy and authoritarianism, social progress, and country studies. The collection will be placed in an online archive to ensure continuing access in the future. Given the current tumult in the world of social platforms, I'd like the past fifteen years of work represented in the blog to remain accessible independently from the blogging platforms on which Understanding Society has appeared.

So thank you, readers, for continuing to follow Understanding Society!

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Critical realism and ontological individualism

Most critical realists would probably think that their philosophy of social science is flatly opposed to ontological individualism. However, I think that this opposition is unwarranted.

Let's begin by formulating a clear idea of ontological individualism. This is the view that social entities, powers, and conditions are all constituted by the actions, thoughts, and mental frameworks of individual human beings, and nothing else. The social world is constituted by the socially situated individuals who make it up. This is not to question the undoubtable fact that individuals have social properties -- beliefs, values, practices, habits, and relationships -- that are integral to their consciousness and agency. But these properties themselves are the recursive effects of prior sets of socially constituted, socially situated individuals who have contributed to their formation as social actors. Fundamentally, then, social entities are constituted by individual actors; and individual actors have in turn been framed, shaped, and influenced by their immersion in prior stages of social arrangements and relationships.

Consider a trivial illustration of the kind of recursive individual-social-individual process that I have in mind here. Consider the habit and norm of queuing in waiting for a bus, boarding a plane, or buying a ticket to a popular music concert. Queuing is not a unique solution to the problem of waiting for something. It is also possible for individuals within a group of people to use their elbows and voices to crowd to the front in order to be served earlier. But in some societies or cultural settings children have been given the example of "waiting your turn", lining up patiently, and conforming to the norms of polite fairness. These norms are internally realized through a process of socialization and maturation, with the result that the adult in the queuing society has both the habit and the norm of waiting for his or her turn. Further, non-conformists who break into the queue are discouraged by comments, jokes, and perhaps a quick jab with a folded umbrella. In this case adults were formed in their social norms by the previous generation of teachers and parents, and they in turn behave according to these norms and transmit them to the next generation. (Notice that this norm and behavior differs from the apparently similar situation of bidding on a work of art at an auction; in the auction case, the individuals do not wait for their turn, but rather attempt to prevail over the others through the level, speed, and aggressiveness of their bids.) Here we might say that the prevailing social norms of queueing-courtesy are a social factor that influences the behavior of individuals; but it is also evident that these norms themselves were reproduced by the prior behaviors and trainings offered by elders to the young. Further, the norm itself is malleable over time. If the younger generation develops a lower level of patience through incessant use of Twitter and cell phones, rule breakers may become more common until the norm of queueing has broken down altogether.

This example illustrates the premises of ontological individualism. The queueing norm is promulgated, sustained, and undermined by the various activities of the individuals who do various things throughout its life cycle: accept instruction, act compliantly, instruct the young, deviate from the norm. And the source of the causal power of the norm at a given time is straightforward as well: parents and teachers have influence over the behavior of the young, observant participants in the norm have some degree of motivation towards punishing noncompliant individuals, and ultimately other sources of motivation may lead to levels of noncompliance that bring about the collapse of the norm altogether.

Several points are worth underlining. First, ontological individualism is fully able to attribute causal powers to social assemblages, without being forced to provide reductionist accounts of how those powers derive ultimately from the actions and thoughts of individuals. OI is not a reductionist doctrine. Second, OI is not "atomistic", in the sense of assuming that individuals can be described as purely self-contained psychological systems. Rather, individuals are socially constituted through a process of social formation and maturation. This person is "polite", that person is "iconoclastic", and the third person is deferential to social "superiors". Each of these traits of psychology and motivation is a social product, reflecting the practices and norms that influenced the individual's formation. (This isn't to say that there is nothing "biological" underlying personality and social behavior.)

Several points can be drawn from this account. First, OI is not a reductionist doctrine -- any more than is "physicalism" when it comes to having a scientific theory of materials. We do not need to derive the properties of the metal alloy from a fundamental description of the atoms that constitute it. Second, OI is not an atomistic doctrine; it does not postulate that the constituents of social things are themselves pre-social and defined wholly in terms of individual characteristics. In a perfectly understandable sense the socially constituted individual is the product of the anterior social arrangements within which he or she developed from childhood to adulthood. And third, OI does not compel us to take an "as-if" stance on the question of the causal properties of social assemblages. The causal powers that we discover in certain kinds of bureaucratic organization are real and present in the world -- even though they are constituted and embodied by the actions, thoughts, and mental frameworks of the social actors who constitute them.

Now let's turn to critical realism and the position its practitioners take towards "individualism" and the relationship between actors and structures. Roy Bhaskar addresses these issues in The Possibility of Naturalism.

First, the ontological question about the relationship between "actors" and "society":

The model of the society/person connection I am proposing could be summarized as follows: people do not create society. For it always pre-exists them and is a necessary condition for their activity. Rather, society must be regarded as an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions which individuals reproduce or transform, but which would not exist unless they did so. Society does not exist independently of human activity (the error of reification). But it is not the product of it (the error of voluntarism). Now the processes whereby the stocks of skills, competences and habits appropriate to given social contexts, and necessary for the reproduction and/or transformation of society, are acquired and maintained could be generically referred to as socialization. It is important to stress that the reproduction and/ or transformation of society, though for the most part unconsciously achieved, is nevertheless still an achievement, a skilled accomplishment of active subjects, not a mechanical consequent of antecedent conditions. This model of the society/ person connection can be represented as below. (PON, 39)

This is a complicated statement. It affirms society exists as an ensemble of structures that individuals "reproduce or transform" and that "would not exist unless they did so". This is the key ontological statement: society depends upon the myriad individuals who inhabit it. The statement further claims that "society pre-exists the individual" -- that is, individuals are always born into some set of social arrangements, practices, norms, and structures, and these social facts help to form the individual's agency.

Here is the diagram to which Bhaskar refers (PON 40):

The cyclical relationship between social arrangements and individual "socially constituted action" is represented by the rising and falling dashed lines.

It seems, then, that Bhaskar's view is fundamentally similar to the view of methodological localism developed in earlier posts (link, link, link). Methodological localism affirms that there are large social structures and facts that influence social outcomes. But it insists that these structures are only possible insofar as they are embodied in the actions and states of socially constructed individuals. The “molecule” of all social life is the socially constructed and socially situated individual, who lives, acts, and develops within a set of local social relationships, institutions, norms, and rules. And these supra-individual structures and norms are, in turn, maintained by the actors who inhabit them.

Francesco Di Iorio addresses many of these points in his contribution to Research Handbook of Analytical Sociology through his analysis of the relationship between critical realism and methodological individualism. Much of Di Iorio's analysis seems entirely correct. But, following Bhaskar, Di Iorio seems to postulate the absolute (temporal) priority of the social over the individual; and this seems to be incorrect.

According to critical realists, MI cannot account for the fact that the social world and its bounds exist independently of the individual interpretation of this world, that is, independently of the individual’s opinion about what she is free or not free to do. (Di Iorio 141)

It seems apparent, rather, that the relationship between the social world and the particular constitution of human actors at a given time is wholly recursive: social arrangements at ti causally influence individuals at ti; actions and transformations of individuals at ti+1 lead to change in social arrangements in ti+1; and so on. So neither social arrangements nor individual constitution are temporally prior; each is causally dependent upon the other at an earlier time period.

So it seems to me that there is nothing in the core doctrines of critical realism that precludes a social ontology along the lines of ontological individualism. OI is not reductionist; rather, it invites detailed investigation into the ways in which social arrangements both shape and are shaped by individual actors. And these relationships are sufficiently complex and iterative that it may be impossible to fully trace out the connections between surprising features of social institutions and the underlying states of the actors who constitute them. As a practical matter we may have confidence about beliefs about the properties of a social structure or institution, without having a clear idea of how these properties are created and reproduced by the individuals who constitute them. In this sense the social properties are weakly emergent from the individual-level processes -- a conclusion that is entirely compatible with a commitment to ontological individualism (link).

One of the most prominent critics of ontological individualism is Brian Epstein. His arguments are considered in earlier posts (link, link, link). Here is the conclusion I draw from his negative arguments about OI in the supervenience post:

Epstein's analysis is careful and convincing in its own terms. Given the modal specification of the meaning of supervenience (as offered by Jaegwon Kim and successors), Epstein makes a powerful case for believing that the social does not supervene upon the individual in a technical and specifiable sense. However, I'm not sure that very much follows from this finding. For researchers within the general school of thought of "actor-centered sociology", their research strategy is likely to remain one that seeks to sort out the mechanisms through which social outcomes of interest are created as a result of the actions and interactions of individuals. If Epstein's arguments are accepted, that implies that we should not couch that research strategy in terms of the idea of supervenience. But this does not invalidate the strategy, or the broad intuition about the relation between the social and the actions of locally situated actors upon which it rests. These are the intuitions that I try to express through the idea of "methodological localism"; link, link. And since I also want to argue for the possibility of "relative explanatory autonomy" for facts at the level of the social (for example, features of an organization; link), I am not too troubled by the failure of a view of the social and individual that denies strict determination of the former by the latter. (link)

It is evident that the concept of microfoundations has a close relationship to ontological individualism. Here are several efforts at reformulating the idea of microfoundations in a more flexible way (link, link). And here are several effort to provide an account of "microfoundations" for practices, norms, and social identities (link, link). This line of thought is intended to provide greater specificity of the recursive nature of "structure-actor-structure" that is expressed in the idea of methodological localism.