Monday, December 18, 2023

Mistakes by organizations

In 1964 Jim Marshall, a defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings, committed a mistake by recovering a fumble by the San Francisco 49ers and running it into the end zone – at the wrong end of the field. In the early 1990s the US Congress made a mistake by ordering continued development of the Osprey VTOL aircraft. Did these two “actors” do the same sort of thing? Is an organization’s mistake similar to an individual’s mistake? At a superficial level it is easy enough to agree that these are the same kinds of things. The wrong outcome resulted from a series of apparently intentional and calculated actions. But a closer look makes it clear that they are not so similar after all.

Making a mistake by an individual arises in situations of quasi-rational actors deciding on an action based on the consequences the actor hopes to bring about. The actor is “intentional” — he or she has a plan for bringing about a desired consequence or benefit, has calculated a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, and has estimated the circumstances within which he/she acts over time. A mistake happens when the actor miscalculates something that he/she should have correctly calculated — the way one action can be expected to lead to an intermediate outcome, the features of the environment in which the action is to be carried out, the predictable events that might interfere with the sequence of actions and their intended outcome. Miscalculation is the essence of individual mistakes. The actor is a unified perceiver and observer who chooses a sequence of actions designed to achieve the goal, but miscalculates some part of the underlying assumptions guiding the action.

Is miscalculation the primary source of mistakes when a complex organization’s strategy goes awry? Sometimes. Lyndon Johnson miscalculated the goals and reasoning of Ho Chi Minh and escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War. But the most interesting causes of organizational mistakes have little to do with miscalculation. The reason for this is that organizations, unlike individuals, are not unified perceivers, planners, and actors. Instead, organizations are loose configurations of lower-level actors who are only weakly coordinated by a single managing intelligence – a top level executive. Loose linkages across sub-units of an organization raise the possibility that each sub-unit is approximately rational, and yet the aggregate result of the complex interaction is quite different from what was intended by the key executive. In the case of the design of the Ford Pinto, the top corporate executive did not intend to release a vehicle design that endangered vehicle safety, and yet a series of loose linkages across units led to exactly that outcome.

Several key organizational dysfunctions have been identified that contribute to organizational mistakes … even though each sub-unit is acting rationally. Dysfunctions that have been discussed in earlier posts can all lead to organizational failures: principal-agent problems, conflicting cognitive frameworks, conflicting local priorities, external pressures on decision makers, poor communication and information-sharing. (A New Social Ontology of Government discusses these dysfunctions in greater detail.)

It is clear, then, that an organization’s mistakes are often quite different from the mistakes made by a reasonably rational individual. They often derive from dysfunctions that appear to be systemic in organizations, and from the important fact that organizations are unavoidably dis-unified. Intentions, information, belief formation, cognitive framing, coordination of underlying assumptions all depend on separate teams of decision makers and actors, and large organizations often miss the mark with their decision processes precisely because of this fact. Sources of bad collective or corporate decisions include problems of conflicting priorities and interpretations of the action environment, principal-agent problems, imperfect communication and information sharing, slow “updating” of knowledge of the action environment, and unintended consequences of one line of action that interfere with other actions. In the end the organization fails to accomplish its action goal, and from the outside it looks like a series of incomprehensible blunders.

The public diagnosis of governmental and corporate "mistakes" is often a simple one: “Mistakes were made”, with the implication that more intelligent or experienced managers would have been more successful. But this impression is often mistaken. Intelligent people in different parts of the organization made resourceful and resilient efforts to carry out their part of the plan. And yet the compound of these sub-actions is something that turns out to be stunningly ineffective. Dien Bien Phu was a military disaster for the French army in Indochina. And yet there were reasons for each intermediate decision that led to the eventual debacle.

This suggests that citizens and policy makers need to think about organizational errors differently from mistakes made by individuals. Organizations need to be more “disaster-resistant”, so that the dysfunctions mentioned here have less likelihood of resulting in a catastrophic failure. “Be more careful” is not useful advice. Instead, organizational designers and leaders need to take specific measures to soften the potential impact of information failure, conflicting cognitive frames, and conflicting priorities in different parts of the organization. Redundancy is one potential source of resilience. Better training in procedures and cognitive frameworks is another. (For example, accidents have occurred in nuclear fuel processing plants because workers were not taught about the importance of the geometry of holding vessels on the critical mass of liquids with dissolved radioactive materials; Atomic Accidents.) And we need to bear in mind always that the loose linkages and weak forms of intentionality that are unavoidable features of large organizations pose permanent risks for effective organizational action.

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Brecht on Galileo on science

Bertolt Brecht composed his play Life of Galileo (1939) (link) while on the run in Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1938. Brecht was a determined anti-Nazi, and he was an advocate of revolutionary Marxism. It is fascinating to read one of the longest speeches he composed for Galileo at the end of the play, in which Galileo reflects on his recantation of the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. Rather than celebrating "pure science" over the oppression of the Church, Brecht has Galileo reflect bitterly on the corruption of science and its subservience to the powerful. This speech occurs in scene 14, near the end of the play. Galileo's disciple Andrea Sarti is interested in showing that Galileo's recantation was a wily move, allowing him to pursue the higher truths of science. And he is delighted to learn that Galileo has been secretly writing his Discorsi (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), which demonstrates to him that Galileo continues to pursue the highest values of science. Galileo disagrees, and offers a harsh criticism of the role of science in society altogether. The whole scene is worth reading carefully, but here is an important excerpt.

A large room with table, leather chair and globe. Galileo, old now and half blind, is carefully experimenting with a bent wooden rail and a small ball of wood. In the antechamber sits a monk on guard. There is a knock on the door. The monk opens it and a peasant comes in carrying two plucked geese. Virginia emerges from the kitchen. She is now about forty years old.


Andrea: You gained the leisure to write a scientific work which could be written by nobody else. If you had ended up at the stake in a halo of flames the other side would have won.

Galileo: They did win. And there is no scientific work that can only be written by one particular man.

Andrea: Why did you recant, then?

Galileo: I recanted because I was afraid of physical pain.

Andrea: No!

Galileo: They showed me the instruments.

Andrea: So it wasn't planned?

Galileo: It was not.


Andrea loudly: Science makes only one demand: contribution to science.

Galileo: And I met it. Welcome to the gutter, brother in science and cousin in betrayal! Do you eat fish? I have fish. [a] What stinks is not my fish but me. I sell out, you are a buyer. O irresistible glimpse of the book, the sacred commodity! The mouth waters and the curses drown. The great whore of Bablylon, the murderous beast, the scarlet woman, opens her thighs and everything is altered. Blessed be our horse-trading, whitewashing, death-fearing community!

Andrea: Fearing death is human. Human weaknesses don't matter to science.

Galileo: Don't they? -- My dear Sarti, even as I now am I think I can still give you a tip or two as to what matters to that science you have dedicated yourself to.

A short pause

Galileo professorially, folding his hands over his stomach:

In my spare time, of which I have plenty, I have gone over my case and considered how it is going to be judged by that world of science of which I no longer count myself a member. Even a wool merchant has not only to buy cheap and sell dear but also to ensure that the wool trade continues unimpeded. The pursuit of science seems to me to demand particular courage in this respect. It deals in knowledge procured through doubt. Creating knowledge for all about all, it aims to turn all of us into doubters. [b] Now the bulk of the population is kept by its princes, landlords, and priests in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws which cloak what these people are up to. The poverty of the many is as old as the hills, and from pulpit and lecture platform we hear that it is as hard as the hills to get rid of. Our new art of doubting delighted the mass audience. They tore the telescope out of our hands and trained it on their tormentors, the princes, landlords and priests. [c] These selfish and domineering men, having greedily exploited the fruits of science, found that the cold eye of science had been turned on a primaeval but contrived poverty that could clearly be swept away if they were swept away themselves. They showered us with threats and bribes, irresistible to feeble souls. But can we deny ourselves to the crowd and still remain scientists? [d] The movements of the heavenly bodies have become more comprehensible, but the peoples are as far as ever from calculating the moves of their rulers. The battle for a measurable heaven has been won thanks to doubt; but thanks to credulity the Rome housewife's battle for milk will be lost time and time again. Science, Sarti, is involved in both these battles. [e] A human race which shambles around in a pearly haze of superstition and old saws, too ignorant to develop its own powers, will never be able to develop those powers of nature which you people are revealing to it. To what end are you working? Presumably for the principle that science's sole aim must be to lighten the burden of human existence. [f] If the scientists, brought to heel by self-interested rulers, limit themselves to piling up knowledge for knowledge's sake, then science can be crippled and your new machines will lead to nothing but new impositions. You may in due course discover all that there is to discover, and your progress will nonetheless be nothing but a progress away from mankind. The gap between you and it may one day become so wide that your cry of triumph at some new achievement will be echoed by a universal cry of horror. -- As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. [g] In my day astronomy emerged into the market place. Given this unique situation, if one man had put up a fight it might have had tremendous repercussions. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctor's Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind's benefit. [h] As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose. What's more, Sarti, I have come to the conclusion that I was never in any real danger. For a few years I was as strong as the authorities. And I handed my knowledge to those in power for them to use, fail to use, misuse -- whatever best suited their objectives.

Virginia has entered with a dish and come to a standstill.

Galileo: I betrayed my profession. A man who does what I did cannot be tolerated in the ranks of science.


What are the messages here about the relationship between science and society, between science and class? The view is unequivocal: science has been corrupted. Against the idealism offered by Sardi, Galileo asserts that science has come to serve the interests of the powerful, and it might have been different. Galileo's long speech here (plainly expressing Brecht's own social criticisms) offers a harsh and negative assessment of the role of science in society. And much of this speech derives, not from an unexpectedly radical sixteenth-century mathematician, but from the Marxist theories that Brecht had studied in the early 1930s.

[a] Galileo begins this diatribe with self-contempt. He looks at his work as a scientist as "selling out" -- offering the products of his intelligence and creativity for sale to the highest bidder. Science has been commodified, like the woolen-good trade. Galileo stinks like a rotten fish.

[b] Society is divided into rich and poor, powerful and powerless; and the rich and powerful dominate and exploit the poor and powerless. This fundamental reality is obscured by the "fog" of myth and misconception, or what Marx refers to as ideology. "Good" science can tear through the mystifications of popular beliefs and myths; but all too often the scientists refrain from providing the tools needed (the microscopes and telescopes) to penetrate the mists of common misconception about the social world.

[c] Science could have been a revolutionary force; it could have helped to "sweep away" the mystifications of the rich and powerful. Instead, the rich and powerful have bought and intimidated the scientists. The poor Roman housewife's quest for milk will be permanently difficult because the Roman proletariat has failed to see the necessity of sweeping away the class oppression of patrician and plebian social life.

[d] The point here is that Galileo has allowed human beings to see the real motions of the planets, but they still have not discovered the "laws of motion" of the social world. They continue to live in a world of illusions about how the social world works (like the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic conceptions of the planetary system). From Marx's Capital, Preface to the German Edition: "Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future."

[e] When ideology and mystification are allowed to persist, exploitation, domination, and poverty will persist as well.

[f] Science is distorted when it is put to service in the interests of the powerful. It no longer serves to benefit humanity, but rather only the landlords and the priests. And without science, ideology and mystification will continue to mislead the poor.

[g] Galileo seems to believe that the struggles with the Church over the Copernican Revolution during the Inquisition represented turning points for human emancipation, and there was a choice. Science could have become a permanent force for progress, or it could become a tool of enrichment for the powerful. Because scientists (including Galileo) lacked the courage to stand up, science became a tool of exploitation. The chance to orient science towards its own "Hippocratic oath" of allegiance to progress to humanity was lost.

[h] Here Galileo (Brecht) is contemptuous of scientists and inventors who do their work for commercial and monetary gain -- the smart people who put their imagination and intelligence to work for the highest bidder. And almost always the highest bidder is the exploiter -- the capitalist and the landlord who uses the products of science to enhance his wealth.

In this section of the play, then, Brecht breaks with a common narrative about the Galileo story: the pure and rational scientist who is forced to change his beliefs by an unthinking and authoritarian Church. In that story the scientist is the isolated individual courageously pursuing the truth for its own sake, and the Church is an authoritarian structure which is the antithesis of intellectual freedom. Instead, Brecht tells a more complicated story. It is not just the question of recanting "unacceptable" beliefs; it is the question of devoting one's scientific talents in service to the rich and powerful. Galileo's [Brecht's] fundamental critique is that "science" is allied with "the ruling class".

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Thinking about social class

Marx's theory of social class is founded on the idea of conflict of interest defined by the property system.  Marx puts the point this way in the Communist Manifesto: “History is a history of class conflict.” And his inference from this fact: “Workers of the world, unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains” (Marx and Engels 1848). Individuals belong to classes depending on their position within the social property system.  The social property system defines the access and use enjoyed by different groups of the resources available to a society at a given period of history.  The primary resources are capital, land, and labor.  (We might now want to add "knowledge" and "data" to this list of categorical resources.) Individuals belong to classes defined by the type of access and use they have to what kinds of resources.  

This is a structural definition of the concept of class. A person’s class is defined by his or her position within a system of property relations, defining one’s location with a structure of domination, control, and exploitation. The group of people who share a similar position within the property relations of a society constitute a class. Their circumstances, resources, and opportunities are similar to those of others in the class, and they have common interests that are in opposition to members of some other classes. So class works as a social sorting process: individuals are tracked into one class or another through specific sociological mechanisms (schooling, parental attitudes, neighborhood). And it works to assign very different ranges of material outcomes to members of the various groups; working-class families wind up more poorly educated, less healthy, and more vulnerable to economic fluctuations than their counterparts in the landlord class, the financial elite class, or the capitalist class. Part of the challenge of developing a sociology of class involved identifying some of the concrete pathways of difference created by class with respect to specific opportunities – education, health, adequate nutrition, access to creative work, and other important social resources.  

Status and consciousness are also part of the sociology of class. And, of course, there is the concrete sociological task of better understanding the lived experience of people who wind up in the various segments of the class system. Individuals develop specific features of mentality out of the experience they have in the class environments of their parents, their schools, and their workplaces. And these differences in turn give rise to differences in behavior -- consumer behavior, political behavior, and inter-group behavior. And members of a class may acquire a common perspective on their situation -- they may come to diagnose the social relations around them in a similar way, they may come to a common “class consciousness” that leads them to engage in collective action together.

Evidently, the groups that own capital and land have access to material resources that owners of labor power do not; so capitalists and landlords have social advantages lacked by proletarians.  Proletarians gain access to material goods by selling their labor power to owners of capital and land; they become wage laborers.  Class relations create substantial differences of material wellbeing and substantial inequalities of wealth and income.  By controlling the wealth constituted by capital and land, these privileged classes are able to take a disproportionate share of society's wealth.  The great modern social classes, in Marx's historical analysis, are the bourgeoisie (capital and land) and the proletariat (wage labor).  In feudalism the great classes were the feudal aristocrats (owners of land and rights in the labor of serfs) and serfs (usufruct of small parcels of land, labor obligations to the lord).

Class and property are thus conceptually intertwined.  An economic structure can be defined as a system for producing social wealth in which productive resources and the results of production are unevenly divided across different groups. Classes are the major social positions within an existing economic structure. Producers create wealth through their labor and creativity; property owners extract a part of this wealth through a system of social relations that privilege them.  Another way of putting the point is to ask: where does the individual gain his/her income -- from the sale of labor time, from the sale or rent of physical assets, or from the sale or rent of expertise? Workers derive their income from the sale of their labor time; capitalists, financiers, and landlords derive their income from their ownership of physical and financial resources, and professionals, experts, and intellectuals derive their income from their possession of scarce expert knowledge and skills. 

In nineteenth-century France we might have classified the population into land owners, capital owners, wage laborers, artisans, professionals (accountants, architects), intellectuals, government officials, civil service workers, small merchants, smallholding farmers, tenant farmers, landless workers, and lumpenproletariat. And these groups can be roughly triangulated according to their ownership of three major elements: labor power, valuable skills and knowledge, and economic assets (land, property, wealth). Within any society there are groups that fall outside the primary classes -- small traders, artisans, small farmers, intellectuals. But it is central to Marx's theory of class, that there is a primary cleavage between owners of the means of production and the direct producers, and that this cleavage embodies a fundamental conflict of interest between the two groups. 

Classes, according to Marx, also constitute a system of exploitation: a system in which a substantial share of the fruits of social production are transferred from one group to another, through the normal workings of the social-property system. The producing class is exploited by the ascendant class: wealth is transferred from producers to owners. Serfs and lords, slaves and masters, workers and owners represent the primary classes of feudalism, ancient slavery, and nineteenth century capitalism. The proletariat produces surplus value, and the bourgeoisie gains ownership of this surplus through the workings of the property system, in the form of profits, interest, and rents. As Marx puts it in Capital:

He, who before was the money owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but—a hiding.

Finally, the theory of class suggests the need for a theory of class consciousness: the ways in which members of distinct classes understand their roles in society, and the social relationships that largely determine their fates.  Marx’s concept of ideology is intended to express the notion that large system of ideas serve a social function of concealing the conflictual nature of the property and class system in which people find themselves.  The concept of false consciousness falls within this notion; members of a class possess false consciousness when they seriously misconstrue the nature of the social relations within which they live.

The explanatory thrust of the theory of class goes along the lines of a sociological hypothesis: people who have a similar location within a system of property relations will also develop other important similarities: similarities of thought, values, style, behavior, and politics, for example. And so Marx believed that structurally-defined classes of people were likely to further develop a similar class consciousness -- a similar framework of thought in terms of which they understand the social forces around them; and he expected that classes of people would come to share a signature framework of political motivation -- a set of ideas, interpretations, and values that would motivate them to engage in collective action together. 

(Several earlier posts have focused on social class as well; link, link, link, link, link.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Orwell on historical truth

George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- were grossly misrepresented by the Communists. Ultimately his own faction, the POUM, was accused by the Communists of having engaged in conspiracy and having fomented the street violence that occurred during these weeks. Orwell was a participant, and he knew first-hand that this was untrue. It is instructive to read Homage to Catalonia from the lens of "historical truth".

So what were the facts about Barcelona in spring 1937?

IT will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. I myself have little data beyond what I saw with my own eyes and what I have learned from other eyewitnesses whom I believe to be reliable. I can, however, contradict some of the more flagrant lies and help to get the affair into some kind of perspective. (70)

In what follows Orwell offers a judicious account of the events and pronouncements that preceded and followed the beginning of street fighting in Barcelona in May 1937 -- first between the anarchists (CNT) and the Guardia Civil, then with several parties of the left joining with the CNT on the barricades. He makes an effort to recover documents and contemporary news articles to piece together the sequence of events that culminated in the suppression of the POUM. And he finds that reportage in the press was almost invariably incorrect, whether purposefully or not. The Communist line was consistently antagonistic to the anarchists and the Trotskyists (POUM). 

A tremendous dust was kicked up in the foreign anti-Fascist press, but, as usual, only one side of the case has had anything like a hearing. As a result the Barcelona fighting has been represented as an insurrection by disloyal Anarchists and Trotskyists who were ‘stabbing the Spanish Government in the back’, and so forth. The issue was not quite so simple as that. Undoubtedly when you are at war with a deadly enemy it is better not to begin fighting among yourselves; but it is worth remembering that it takes two to make a quarrel and that people do not begin building barricades unless they have received something that they regard as a provocation. (73)

In particular, the Communists were active in constructing a propaganda platform against both POUM and the anarchists.

Since the beginning of the war the Spanish Communist Party had grown enormously in numbers and captured most of the political power, and there had come into Spain thousands of foreign Communists, many of whom were openly expressing their intention of ‘liquidating’ Anarchism as soon as the war against Franco was won. In the circumstances one could hardly expect the Anarchists to hand over the weapons which they had got possession of in the summer of 1936. (73-74)

Orwell explicitly considers his own position and potential bias in constructing the narrative that he offers. He credibly offers a commitment of his own intention to report honestly what he has observed.

I have tried to write objectively about the Barcelona fighting, though, obviously, no one can be completely objective on a question of this kind. One is practically obliged to take sides, and it must be clear enough which side I am on. Again, I must inevitably have made mistakes of fact, not only here but in other parts of this narrative. It is very difficult to write accurately about the Spanish war, because of the lack of non-propagandist documents. I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest. But it will be seen that the account I have given is completely different from that which appeared in the foreign and especially the Communist press. It is necessary to examine the Communist version, because it was published all over the world, has been supplemented at short intervals ever since, and is probably the most widely accepted one. ... In the Communist and pro-Communist press the entire blame for the Barcelona fighting was laid upon the P.O.U.M. The affair was represented not as a spontaneous outbreak, but as a deliberate, planned insurrection against the Government, engineered solely by the P.O.U.M. with the aid of a few misguided ‘uncontrollables’. More than this, it was definitely a Fascist plot, carried out under Fascist orders with the idea of starting civil war in the rear and thus paralysing the Government. The P.O.U.M. was ‘Franco’s Fifth Column’ —a ‘Trotskyist’ organization working in league with the Fascists. (74)

Throughout he establishes the ideological and propagandist "line" taken by the Communists, and he demonstrates its deliberate mendacity.

In a moment I will give some more extracts from the accounts that appeared in the Communist press; it will be seen that they are so self-contradictory as to be completely worthless. But before doing so it is worth pointing to several a priori reasons why this version of the May fighting as a Fascist rising engineered by the P.O.U.M. is next door to incredible. (75)


The alleged Fascist plot rests on bare assertion and all the evidence points in the other direction. We are told that the plan was for the German and Italian Governments to land troops in Catalonia; but no German or Italian troopships approached the coast. As to the ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ and the ‘German and Italian agents’, they are pure myth. So far as I know there had not even been any talk of a Congress of the Fourth International. There were vague plans for a Congress of the P.O.U.M. and its brother-parties (English I.L.P., German S.A.P., etc., etc.); this had been tentatively fixed for some time in July—two months later—and not a single delegate had yet arrived. The ‘German and Italian agents’ have no existence outside the pages of the Daily Worker. Anyone who crossed the frontier at that time knows that it was not so easy to ‘pour’ into Spain, or out of it, for that matter. (65-776_

And Orwell proceeds with a point-by-point refutation of the anti-Anarchist propaganda narrative offered by the Communists.

It is impossible to read through the reports in the Communist Press without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice. Hence, for instance, such statements as Mr Pitcairn’s in the Daily Worker of 11 May that the ‘rising’ was suppressed by the Popular Army. The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the ‘Trotskyists’. But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. (78)

By contrast with the organized and coordinated Communist narrative, Orwell's account of the street fighting in Barcelona in 1937 has the authenticity of an honest participant who offers his own account of events in which he participated. It is plain that he had sympathies -- for example, he refused the invitation to leave POUM and join the Communist International Brigade because he was not willing to risk being ordered to fire his rifle against Spanish workers (anarchists). But his sympathies do not appear to have interfered with his critical eye and his willingness to tell his story unflinchingly and honestly.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An absolutist Socrates

We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors. 

So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which his trial led? Crito offers a series of pragmatic reasons why Socrates should flee: the welfare of his children, the avoidance of harm for his friends, who will be thought to have been too afraid or too penurious to help Socrates escape, his own ability to lead a happy and fulfilling life in another city.

Socrates' reply is that he is not willing to consider reasons of self-interest (or the interests of others) until he has satisfied himself on what virtue or justice requires of him. Socrates insists that he wants to make the virtuous choice, not the most advantageous choice. He focuses on what justice requires of a citizen when the laws of the city have led to a command that requires great sacrifice of the citizen. In his own case, the laws of the city have been observed: charges have been lawfully brought forward; he has been given the opportunity to rebut the charges; and a majority of the jury has found him guilty of the charges and a separate majority has voted in favor of the penalty of death. The laws of the city have spoken; so what now is the unconditional obligation of the citizen?

Socrates' reasoned answer is unequivocal. He concludes that the lawfully enacted commands of the city create unconditional obligations of compliance for the citizen.

So: Do we say that we should never willingly act unjustly, or that we should in some instances and not in others? Or is acting unjustly never good or noble, as we often agreed on previous occasions? (Crito 49a)


So: And so one must never act unjustly.
Cr: By no means.
So: And so one should not repay an injustice with an injustice, as the many think, since one should never act unjustly. (49b)

Here Socrates believes he has established the unconditional, unqualified obligation to act justly. So all that remains is to determine whether "acting justly" requires complying with the lawfully executed commands of the state. But first, are there exceptions to this principle -- for example, in cases where the state's commands are themselves unjust? And second, are there qualifications about the "legitimate" state that must be respected in order to create obligations at all?

Or will we say to them "The city treated us unjustly and did not decide the case properly"? Will we say this or something like it?
Cr: By Zeus, that's what we'll say, Socrates. (50c)

Socrates emphatically rejects this idea: there is no exception for "unjust commands" by the state.

So: What if the laws then said, "Socrates, did we agree on this, we and you, to honor the decisions that the city makes?" And if we were surprised to hear them say this, perhaps they would say, "Socrates, don't be surprised at what we're saying but answer, since you are used to participating in questioning and answering. Come then, what reason can you give us and the city for trying to destroy us? Did we not, to begin with, give birth to you? And wasn't it through us that your father married your mother and conceived you? So show those of us, the laws concerning marriages, what fault you find that keeps them from being good?" "I find no fault with them," I would say. (50c)

And the crucial lines:

"Well, then. Since you have been born and brought up and educated, could you say that you were not our offspring and slave from the beginning, both you and your ancestors? And if this is so, do you suppose that justice between you and us is based on equality, and do you think that whatever we might try to do to you, it is just for you to do these things to us in return? (50e)

The authority of the city, then, depends on two things: the citizen's agreement (explicit or implicit) to comply with decisions the city makes; and the idea that the city created the citizen and rightly "owns" the citizen as offspring and slave. The first reason is fundamentally a social-contract argument for the origins of political obligation, while the second is an even older argument based on the idea of "moral parentage" of the citizen by the city and its laws. And, conjoined with arguments described above, the obligations described here are unconditional: the city has the inherent right to command (enact its laws) without limitation, and the citizen has the absolute duty of compliance. The city and its laws have a moral status higher than that of the citizen.

This is an absolutist theory of the state and its authority. It is, among other things, a complete refutation of the legitimacy of principled civil disobedience; disobedience and non-compliance are never "just". It is also a procedural conception of justice: if the laws stipulate that capital cases must be decided in a day, then there is no place for argument or resistance to the effect that this requirement is unjust to the accused. 

It is worth noticing that Socrates (or Plato) stacks the deck a bit here, by considering only the city's command and the consequence for the individual citizen. The citizen must comply, no matter what the cost to his own interests. But surely this is a special case. If the individual wishes to sacrifice his own interests or life in obedience to the commands of the state, perhaps we should simply regard this as an individual choice. However, the arguments seem to have the same force if the city's commands require the citizen to inflict harm on others -- innocent civilians, members of family, other citizens. If the laws had allowed as punishment for the crimes for which Socrates was convicted the execution of the accused and his children, would Socrates be equally obliged by the requirement of justice to comply? More historically, if the city had commanded that Cleon had unlimited authority to choose the means of war against Sparta (delegating its unconditional right to command) and Cleon had ordered the massacre at Melos, would any Athenian soldier have the moral right to refuse the order? It appears that Socrates' arguments to Crito would persist in holding that the authority to command is absolute; therefore soldiers must comply.

This argument for the duty of compliance appears to present a theory of the state that is wholly unlimited in its justification of the unconstrained authority of the state. There are no limits on the actions the state can undertake; there are no rights of citizens that the state must respect; there is no recourse for the citizen against "illegitimate or mistaken" commands by the state. There is no constitution or bill of rights defining the legitimate scope and limits of state power, and nothing that secures an inviolable zone of protection for the rights of the individual citizen.

Socrates was executed by a judicial process conducted under the terms of Athenian democracy. But what about the commands of the city and its laws during the rule of the Tyrants? Were Athenian citizens equally obligated to comply with the commands of the Tyrants during the period in which they ruled? If so, what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate one? For that matter, how are we to understand Socrates' own refusal to do the bidding of the Tyrants? Why did he not regard their commands as being as absolute and binding as those of the democracy?

Athens' condemnation of Socrates for his speech and teaching is one thing; legitimation of the massacres committed by Cleon in the name of Athens is another. And yet the arguments offered by Socrates in the Crito seem to equally support both. (See these earlier posts for more discussion of crimes of war committed during the Peloponnesian War; link, link.) This suggests that the political theory defended in Crito is fundamentally wrong, and wrong in a very deep way. It provides an absolutist, even totalitarian, basis for thinking about the relationship between state and citizen that is antithetical to the idea of the moral autonomy of the citizen.

Monday, September 4, 2023

A horrendous massacre in Tamil Nadu, 1968

A recurring theme in Understanding Society for the past several years is the occurrence of unfathomable atrocity in the twentieth century. Many of the examples considered occurred in Europe. But atrocities have occurred in many countries and civilizations. A horrific example occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1968. In the small rural village of Keezhvenmani, some 44 dalit people, mostly women and children, were gathered into a hut by the strongmen of local landlords, the hut was set afire, and all 44 innocent dalit people died a horrifying, torturous death. The exact number of victims is uncertain.    

The term "dalit" refers to the lowest caste of people in the Indian caste system, now officially designated as "Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe", and the massacre at Keezhvenmani was only one of a number of mass murders of dalits in Tamil Nadu since independence. (Here is a detailed report by Human Rights Watch on violence against dalit women in India (link). A central finding of the report: "The lack of law enforcement leaves many Dalit women unable to approach the legal system to seek redress. Women are often also unaware of the laws; their ignorance is exploited by their opponents, by the police, and, as illustrated by the cases below, by the judiciary. Even when cases are registered, the lack of appropriate investigation, or the judge’s own caste and gender biases, can lead to acquittal, regardless of the availability of evidence or witnesses. The failure to successfully prosecute cases of rape also allows for crimes against women to continue unabated, and in the caste context, encourages the use of rape as a tool to punish and silence Dalit communities.")

The young scholar Nithila Kanagasabai (herself a resident of Tamil Nadu) attempted to provide an evidence-based reconstruction of the Keezhvenmani massacre in "The Din of Silence: Reconstructing the Keezhvenmani Dalit Massacre of 1968" (link). 

The background of the 1968 killings was the conflict between landlords who owned or controlled the rice paddy of the region (mirasdar) and the landless workers (often formerly bonded laborers) who were the primary workforce. These agricultural workers were dalits and they were extremely poor. When these workers and families began to support the mobilizing efforts of the increasingly active presence of several Communist parties in the region, the landlords began to use violence against these workers and families. A number of murders occurred in the months preceding the December 1968 massacre at Keezhvenmani. Here is Kanagasabai's description of the December 25 massacre:

According to eye witness accounts, on 25th December 1968, at around 10 p.m., the mirasdars and their henchmen came in police lorries and surrounded the cheri (hutments), cutting off all routes of escape. They shot at the labourers and their families who could only throw stones to protect themselves or flee from the spot. They also started burning the huts in the vicinity. Many of the women and children, and some old men, sought protection in a hut that was 8 ft x 9 ft. The hut was burnt down, and the people with it. Both the sessions court and the high court that later heard the case, held that those who committed the arson were not aware of the presence of people in that particular hut (Krishnakumar, 2005). But eye witness accounts by the survivors point to an altogether different truth. (111)

The accused perpetrators of this atrocity were charged, tried, and convicted, but their convictions were set aside by the Madras High Court. "The evidence did not enable Their Lordships to identify and punish the guilty” (114).

This event illustrates the workings of oppression involving both caste and class. The landless workers were predominantly dalit -- the lowest caste. And they were the poorest of the poor, with very little power to assert a fair share of the harvest. Land owners were in a position to resist increases in wages (the primary demand of the workers in this dispute), both through their structural advantage within the property system (land ownership) and their coercive power (through their ability to call upon armed thugs to carry out their violence against the dalit protests). A solution for the property disadvantage for the dalit workers is land reform, and during the years following the Keezhvenmani massacre there was a reasonably strong organization dedicated to land reform and dalit land ownership, the Land for Tillers Freedom (LAFTI). However, land reform based on NGO activism is likely to remain small-scale, in comparison to state-wide land reform programs.

Kanagasabai quotes V Geetha and Kalpana Karunakaran in the introduction to Mythily Sivaraman's Haunted by Fire (2013):

That episode and visit brought home to Mythily the starkness of life in this grain rich part of Tamil Nadu... She realised that the price for dignity, for daring to declare oneself a communist was very high in these parts – many had paid with their lives... Unsurprisingly, in her subsequent reflections, she refused to concede that the monstrous incident at Kilvenmani was only a wage dispute gone wrong, and argued passionately for it to be recognised for what it was: class struggle in the countryside. (Geetha & Karunakaran, 2013)

Class struggle in the countryside, indeed -- landlords exercising horrendous violence against landless workers.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Moses Finley's persecution by McCarthyism

MI Finley (1912-1986) played a transformative role in the development of studies of the ancient world in the 1960s through the 1980s. He contributed to a reorientation of the field away from purely textual and philological sources to broad application of contemporary social science frameworks to the ancient world. His book The Ancient Economy (1973) was especially influential.

Finley was born in the United States, but most of his academic career unfolded in Britain. The reasons for this "brain drain" are peculiarly America. Like many other Americans -- screenwriters, actors, directors, government officials, and academics -- Finley became enmeshed in the period of unhinged political repression known as McCarthyism. Finley was named as a member of the Communist Party of the United States by fellow academic Karl Wittfogel in his own sworn testimony to the McCarran Committee (United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security). (Pat McCarran (D-NEV) was also the primary sponsor of the Subversive Activities Control Act (1950), which provided for mandatory registration of members of the Communist Party and created the legal possibility of "emergency detention" of Communists. Police state institutions!) When Finley was called to testify under oath to the committee, he declined to answer any questions based on his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. He was subsequently fired by Rutgers University for his refusal to answer the committee's questions. (Daniel Tompkins' essay "Moses Finkelstein and the American Scene: The Political Formation of Moses Finley, 1932-1955" provides some valuable information about the first half of Finley's career until he departed the United States; link.)

It should be noted that one's Fifth Amendment rights do not allow the witness to pick and choose which questions he or she is willing to answer. Many of the witnesses who took the Fifth during this period were fully willing to discuss their own activities but were not willing to name associates -- for example, Case Western Reserve professor Marcus Singer. Here is a brief summary of Singer's case taken from his New York Times obituary (October 11, 1994).

In 1953, when he was on the Cornell University faculty, Dr. Singer was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned about his political affiliations. He admitted having been a Communist until 1948, although he said he had never held a party card. He refused to name Communists he had known while teaching at Harvard, from 1942 to 1951, on grounds of "honor and conscience" and invoked the protection of the Fifth Amendment.

In 1956, he was convicted of contempt of Congress, fined $100 and given a three-month suspended sentence in Federal District Court in Washington, which ruled that he had waived the Fifth Amendment's protection. In 1957 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set aside the conviction, saying its ruling was required by a Supreme Court decision in a similar case. The court sent the case back to Federal District Court with instructions to enter a judgment of not guilty.

In hindsight the willing participation of university presidents, law professors, and other faculty in the effort to exclude Communists or former Communists from faculty positions, and to fire professors who chose to plead the fifth amendment rather than provide testimony to the various congressional committees about their associates seems to reflect an almost incredible level of hysteria and paranoia. Ellen Schrecker documents the compliant actions of many administrators, trustees, and fellow faculty members (link). This was a betrayal of the principles of academic and personal freedom. One does not need to be an advocate of the Communist Party in order to defend a strong principle of academic freedom for all professors; and yet administrators and faculty at many leading universities were eager to find ways of supporting these anti-Communist measures. Schrecker quotes an official statement of the AAU in 1953 that provided grounds for firing faculty for membership in the Communist Party and for refusal to testify about their activities (link):

The professor owes his colleagues in the university complete candor and perfect integrity, precluding any kind of clandestine or conspiratorial activities. He owes equal candor to the public. If he is called upon to answer for his convictions, it is his duty as a citizen to speak out. It is even more his duty as a professor. Refusal to do so, on whatever legal grounds, cannot fail to reflect upon a profession that claims for itself the fullest freedom to speak and the maximum protection of that freedom available in our society. In this respect, invocation of the Fifth Amendment places upon a professor a heavy burden of proof of his fitness to hold a teaching position and lays upon his university an obligation to reexamine his qualifications for membership in its society. (325)

The AAUP eventually issued a statement condemning firing of professors for these reasons in 1956; but the damage was done.

But what about MI Finley? Was he a member of the CP-USA? And did this membership influence his thinking, teaching, and writing? Was he unsuitable to serve as a professor at an American university? F.S. Naiden answers the first question unequivocally: "Incontrovertible evidence now shows that Moses Finkelstein, as he was then named, joined the Party in 1937–8. The Party official who enrolled him, Emily Randolph Grace, reported this information in a biographical note she wrote about Finley in order to prepare for an international conference in 1960" (link). And Naiden suggests that his membership continued through the mid-1940s. 

Let's take Naiden's assessment as accurate; so what? Should Finley's membership in the 1930s be viewed as basis for disqualification as a professor fifteen years later? Here the answer seems clear: Finley's choices in the 1930s reflected his political and social convictions, his ideas and thoughts, and should fairly be seen as falling within his rights of freedom of thought, speech, and association. If his political ideas led him to commit substantive violations of the law, of course it would be legitimate to charge him under the relevant law; but there is no suggestion that this was the case. So Finley's persecution in 1953 -- along with the dozens of other faculty members who were fired from US universities for the same reason -- is just that: persecution based on his thoughts and convictions.

And what about his teaching? Did his previous membership in the Communist Party interfere with his professional responsibilities to his students or to the academic standards of his discipline? Again, the answer appears to be unequivocal. Finley, like the great majority of other professors dismissed for their Communist beliefs, appeared to make a strong separation between his personal political beliefs and the content of his teaching. He did not use the classroom to indoctrinate his students. And his activism in the 1930s -- organizing, leafletting, efforts to persuade others -- was clearly separated from his academic performance. (He had not even completed his PhD during the prime years of his membership in the Communist Party.) So any unbiased observer from Mars would judge that Finley was a fully ethical academic.

Finally, what about his research and writing? Did his membership in the Communist Party distort his scholarship? Did it interfere with his ethical standards of honesty and evidence-based historical research? Again, by the evidence of his writing, this charge too seems wholly unsupportable. Finley was a superb scholar, and his research is grounded in a reasonable and extensive marshaling of evidence about the social and economic realities of the ancient world. Finley was not a communist hack; he was not a dogmatic ideologue; rather, he was a dedicated and evidence-driven scholar -- with innovative theoretical and methodological ideas.

It is especially interesting to read Finley's short essay on the trial of Socrates in the context of his political persecution in the United States in 1953 (Socrates on Trial, first published in slightly different form in Aspects of Antiquity in 1960). Though there is an obvious parallel between the trial of Socrates and the encounter between Finley and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security -- in each case the accused is brought to legal process based on his thoughts and criticisms of the society in which he lives -- there is no indication in this text that Finley wishes to draw out this comparison. Instead, most of his essay focuses on the point that much of the trial of Socrates has been mythologized for political purposes -- to attack direct democracy and the tyranny of the majority. Plato's text is a work of literature, not a transcription of the details of the accusations and the responses of Socrates. 

Paradoxically, it is not what Socrates said that is so momentous, but what Meletus and Anytus and Lycon said, what they thought, and what they feared. Who were these men to initiate so vital an action? Unfortunately, little is known about Meletus and Lycon, but Anytus was a prominent patriot and statesman. His participation indicates that the prosecution was carefully thought through, not merely a frivolous or petty persecution.

And Finley attempts to understand the thinking of the jurors themselves by placing the trial in the context of the massive Athenian trauma of the Peloponnesian War and two devastating plagues:

One noteworthy fact in their lives was Athens had been engaged in a bloody war with Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 B.C. and did not end (though it was interrupted by periods of uneasy peace) until 404, five years before the trial. The greatest power in the Greek world, Athens led an exceptional empire, prosperous, and proud -- proud of its position, of its culture, and, above all, of its democratic system. But by 404 everything was gone: the empire, the glory, and the democracy. In their place stood a Spartan garrison and a dictatorship (which came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants). The psychological blow was incalculable, and there was not a man on the jury in 399 who could have forgotten it.

So Finley offers a historically dispassionate reading of the trial of Socrates. But we might draw out the essential parallel between the two cases anyway. We might say that Finley, like Socrates, was attacked because he "denied the gods of the city" -- in Finley's case, he challenged the unquestioned moral superiority of capitalism over socialism; and because he threatened to "corrupt the youth" -- to teach through his classroom and his example an unwholesome inclination to "communism". Might we say that the "crimes" of Socrates and Finley were similar after all, in the minds of their persecutors: they were too independent-minded and too critical of their society for the good of society?

I.F. Stone's Trial of Socrates offers a fascinating perspective on Socrates that is relevant to these connections to Finley; and in fact, Stone suggested to Finley that he should write a memoir of his experience (Tompkins (link) p. 5). In Trial of Socrates he writes: "Was the condemnation of Socrates a unique case? Or was he only the most famous victim in a wave of persecutions aimed at irreligious philosophers? ... Two distinguished scholars ... have put forward the view that fifth-century Athens, though often called the Age of the Greek Enlightenment, was also ... the scene of a general witch-hunt against freethinkers." The same words could apply to MI Finley and the dozens of other faculty members who lost their careers to McCarthyism, and to the regrettable failure of liberal democracy in those decades of ideological warfare against critics of capitalism.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Memory and culture after 1989 in Central Europe

The years following the collapse of the socialist-Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe were not comfortable for the people of the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many other countries. The economic arrangements of a centrally planned economy abruptly collapsed, and new market institutions were slow to emerge and often appeared indifferent to the needs of the citizens. The results of "shock therapy" were prolonged and severe for large segments of these post-socialist countries (Hilmar 6-8). Till Hilmar's Deserved: Economic Memories After the Fall of the Iron Curtain tries to make sense of the period -- and the ways in which it was remembered in following decades. 

Here is how Hilmar defines his project:

I ask: how it is possible that people who underwent disruptive economic change perceive its outcomes in individual terms? A common answer is to say that we live in neoliberal societies that encourage people to put their self-interest first and to disregard others around them. People have become atomized and isolated, the argument goes, and they have unlearned what it means to be part of a community. They have forgotten what we owe each other. Yet something is not quite right about this diagnosis. It assumes that we live our lives today in a space that is somehow devoid of morality. It thereby misses a crucial fact: people are embedded in social relations, and they therefore articulate economic aspirations and experiences of a social dynamic. In this book, I daw on in-depth interviews with dozens of people who lived through disruptive economic change. Based on this research, I show that it is precisely the concern of what people owe each other -- the moral concern -- that drives how many people reason about economic outcomes. They perceive them, I demonstrate, through the lens of moral deservingness, judgments of economic worth that they pass on each other. (3)

The central topic, then, is how individual people remember and make sense of economic changes they have experienced. Hilmar places a locally embodied sense of justice at the center of the work of meaning-making that he explores in interviews with these ordinary people affected by a society-wide earthquake.

Hilmar's method is an especially interesting one. He compares two national cases, Czechoslovakia and the GDR, and he bases his research on focused interviews with 67 residents in the two countries during the transition. The respondents are drawn from two categories of skilled workers, engineers and healthcare workers. His approach "enabled a focus on people's work biography and their sense of change in social relations" (15).

His central theoretical tool is the idea of a moral framework against which people in specific times and places interpret and locate their memories. "The memory of ruptures is guided by concerns about social inclusion. What makes a person feel that he or she is a worthy member of society? In our contemporary world, the answer to this question has a lot to do with economics" (17). Or in other words, Hilmar proposes that people understand their own fates and those of others around them in terms of "deserving-ness" -- deserving their successes and deserving their failures. And Hilmar connects this scheme of judgment of "deserving" to a more basic idea of "social inclusion": the person is "included" when she conforms to existing standards and expectations of "deserving" behavior. "A person's sense of accomplishment and confidence -- in the professional, in the civic, as well as in the private realms -- are all part of a social and normative ensemble in which the grounds for acclaim are social and never just individual" (18). And he connects this view of the social and economic world to the ideas of "moral economy" offered by E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi. A period of inequality and suffering for segments of the population is perceived as endurable or unendurable, depending on how it fits into the prevailing definitions of legitimacy embodied in the historically specific moral economy of different segments of society. In the Czech and German cases Hilmar considers, social inclusion is expressed as having a productive role in socialism -- i.e., having a job (39), and the workplace provided the locus for many of the social relationships within which individuals located themselves.

The central empirical work of the project involves roughly seventy interviews of skilled workers in the two countries: engineers and healthcare workers. Biographies shed light on large change; and they also show how individual participants structured and interpreted their r memories of the past in strikingly different terms. This is where Hilmar makes the strongest case for the theoretical ideas outlined above about memory and moral frameworks. He sheds a great deal of light on how individuals in both countries experienced their professional careers before 1989, and how things changed afterwards. And he finds that "job loss", which was both epidemic and devastating in both countries following the collapse of socialism, was a key challenge to individuals' sense of self and their judgments about the legitimacy of the post-socialist economic and political arrangements. Privatization of state-owned companies is regarded in almost all interviews as a negative process, aimed at private capture of social wealth and carried out in ways that disregarded the interests of ordinary workers. And the inequalities that emerged in the post-1989 world were often regarded as profoundly illegitimate, based on privileged access rather than. merit or contribution:

People grew skeptical of the idea that above-average incomes and wealth could in fact be attained through hard work. Instead they began to associate it with nepotism and dishonesty. On these grounds, researchers posit that the principle of egalitarianism returned as the dominant justice belief after the bout of enthusiasm for market society. (94)

This is where the idea of "deservingness" comes in. Did X get the high-paid supervisor job because he or she "earned" it through superior skill and achievement, or through connections? Did Y make a fortune by purchasing a state-owned shoe factory for a low price and selling to a larger corporation at a high price because he or she is a brilliant deal maker, or because of political connections on both ends of the transactions?

The discussion of social relations, informal relations, and trust in post-socialist societies is also very interesting. As Delmar puts the point, "you can't get anything done without the right friends" (118). And social relationships require trust -- trust that others will live up to expectations and promises, that they will honor their obligations to oneself. Without trust, it is impossible to form informal practices of collaboration and cooperation. And crucially: how much trust is possible in a purely market society, if participants are motivated solely by their own economic interests? And what about trust in institutions -- either newly private business firms or government agencies and promises? How can a worker trust her employer not to downsize for the sake of greater profits? How can a citizen trust the state once the criminal actions of Stasi were revealed (138)? What was involved in recreating a basis for trust in institutions after the collapse of socialism?

Through these interviews and interpretations the book provides a very insightful analysis of how judgments of justice and legitimacy exist as systems of interpretation of experience for different groups, and how different those systems sometimes are for co-existing groups of individuals facing very different circumstances. And the concrete work of interview and interpretation across the Czech and German cases well illustrates both the specificity of these "moral frameworks" and some of the ways in which sociologists can investigate them. The book is original, illuminating, and consistently insightful, and it shows a deep acquaintance with the literature on memory and social identity. As such Deserved is a highly valuable contribution to cultural sociology.

(It is interesting to recall Martin Whyte's discussion of generational differences in China about the legitimacy of inequalities in post-Mao China. The Mao generation is not inclined to excuse growing inequalities, whereas the next several generations were willing to accept the legitimacy of inequalities if they derived from merit rather than position and corrupt influence (link). This case aligns nicely with Hilmar's subject matter.) 

Are organizations emergent?

Do organizations have properties that are in some recognizable way independent from the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit them? In A New Social Ontology of Government I emphasized the ways in which organizations fail because of actor-level features: principal-agent problems, inconsistent priorities and goals across different working groups, strategic manipulation of information by some actors to gain advantage over other actors, and the like. With a nod to Fligstein and McAdam's theory of strategic action fields (link), I took an actor-centered approach to the workings (and dysfunctions) of organizations. I continue to believe that these are accurate observations about the workings of organizations and government agencies, but now that I've reoriented my thinking away from a strictly actor-centered approach to the social world (link), I'm interested in asking the questions about meso-level causes I did not ask in A New Social Ontology.

For example: 

(a) Are there relatively stable meso-level features of organizations that constrain and influence individual behavior in consistent ways that produce relatively stable meso-level outcomes? 

(b) Are there routine behaviors that are reproduced within the organization by training programs and performance audits that give rise to consistent patterns of organizational workings? 

(c) Are there external structural constraints (legal, environmental, locational) that work to preserve certain features of the organization's scheme of operations? 

It seems that the answer to each of these questions is "yes"; but this in turn seems to imply that organizations have properties that persist over time and through changes of personnel. They are not simply the result of the sum of the behaviors and mental states of the participants. These meso-level properties are subject to change, of course, depending on the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit the organization; but they are sometimes stable across extended periods of time and individual personnel. Or in other words, there seem to be meso-level features of organizations that are emergent in some moderate sense.

Here are possible illustrations of each kind of "emergent" property.

(a) Imagine two chemical plants Alpha and Beta making similar products with similar industrial processes and owned by different parent corporations. Alpha has a history of occasional fires, small explosions, and defective equipment, and it was also the site of a major chemical fire that harmed dozens of workers and neighbors. Beta has a much better safety record; fires and explosions are rare, equipment rarely fails in use, and no major fires have occurred for ten years. We might then say that Alpha and Beta have different meso-level safety characteristics, with Alpha lying in the moderate risk range and Beta in the low risk range. Now suppose that we ask an all-star team of industrial safety investigators to examine both plants, and their report indicates that Alpha has a long history of cost reduction plans, staff reductions, and ineffective training programs, whereas Beta (owned by a different parent company) has been well funded for staffing, training, and equipment maintenance. This is another meso-level property of the two plants -- production decisions guided by profitability and cost reduction at Alpha, and production decisions guided by both profitability and a commitment to system safety at Beta. Finally, suppose that our team of investigators conducts interviews and focus groups with staff and supervisors in the two plants, and finds that there are consistent differences between the two plants about the importance of maintaining safety as experienced by plant workers and supervisors. Supervisors at Alpha make it clear that they disagree strongly with the statement, "interrupting the production process to clarify anomalous temperature readings would be encouraged by the executives", whereas their counterparts at Beta indicate that they agree with the statement. This implies that there is a significant difference in the safety culture of the two plants -- another meso-level feature of the two organizations. All of these meso-level properties persist over decades and through major turnover of staff. Supervisors and workers come and go, but the safety culture, procedures, training, and production pressure persist, and new staff are introduced to these practices in ways that reproduce them. And -- this is the key point -- these meso-level properties lead to different rates of failure at the two plants over time, even though none of the actors at Alpha intend for accidents to occur. 

(b) This example comparing industrial plants with different safety rates also serves to answer the second question posed above about training and oversight. The directors and staff who conduct training in an industrial organization can have high commitment or low commitment to their work -- energetic and focused training programs or perfunctory and forgettable training programs -- and the difference will be notable in the performance of new staff as they take on their responsibilities. For example, training for control room directors may always emphasize the importance of careful annotation of the day's events for the incoming director on the next shift. But the training may be highly effective, resulting in informative documentation across shift changes; or it may be ineffective and largely disregarded. In most cases poor documentation does not lead to a serious accident; but sometimes it does. So organizations with effective training on procedures and operations will have a better chance of avoiding serious accidents. Alpha has weak training programs, while Beta has strong training programs (and each dedicates commensurate resources to training). Routine behaviors at Alpha lead to careless implementation of procedures, whereas routine behaviors at Beta result in attentive implementation, and as a result, Beta has a better safety performance record.

(c) What about the external influences that have an effect on the overall safety performance of an industrial plant? The corporate governance and ownership of the plant is plainly relevant to safety performance through the priorities it establishes for production, profitability, and safety. If the corporation's highest priority is profitability, then safety procedures and investments take the back seat. Local budget managers are pressed to find cost reductions, and staff positions and equipment devoted to safety are often the easiest category of budget reduction to achieve. On the other hand, if the corporation's guidance to plant executives is a nuanced set of priorities within which both production goals and safety goals are given importance, there is a better chance of preserving the investments in process inspectors, better measurement instruments, and on-site experts who can be called on to offer advice during a plant emergency. This differentiating feature of corporate priority-setting too is a meso-level property that contributes to the level of safety performance in a chemical plant, independent of the knowledge and intentions of local plant managers, directors, and workers.

These brief hypothetical examples seem to establish a fairly mundane form of "emergence" for organizational properties. They provide examples of causal independence of meso-level properties of organizations. And significantly, each of these meso-level features can be identified in case studies of important industrial failures -- the Boeing 737 Max (link), the Deepwater Horizon disaster (link), or the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion (link).

It may be noted that there are two related ideas here: the idea that a higher-level property is emergent from the properties of the constituent entities; and the idea that a higher-level feature may be causally persistent over time and over change of the particular actors who make up the social entity. The connection is this: we might argue that the causally persistent property at the meso-level is different in nature and effect from the causal properties (actions, behaviors, intentions) of the individuals who make up the organization. So causal persistence of meso-level properties demonstrates emergence of a sort.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Marxism and British historiography

It is noteworthy that some of the very best historical research and writing of the 1930s through 1970s in Britain was carried out by a group of Marxist historians, including E.P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and a few others. Many belonged to the British Communist Party and were committed to the idea that only sweeping revolution of economy and politics could bring to an end the exploitation and misery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism. These historians did not align with the democratic socialists of the Fabian and Labour varieties (link), and the chief demarcation line had to do with the feasibility of gradual reform of advanced market economies. These were gifted and rigorous historians with a particular set of ideological commitments (link).

All of these historians researched some aspect or other of the history of "capitalism", an effort that required dispassionate and objective inquiry and assessment of the facts. Equally, all of them embraced a view of capitalism and a stylized history of capitalism that derived from Marx's writings -- especially Capital and the scattered writings defining the theory of historical materialism. Third, all of them had an ideological apple to peel (as a Dutch friend of mine used to say): they took the view that exploitation and misery were so intimately bound up in the defining institutions of capitalism that only wholesale revolution could root them out. And finally, most of them were politically committed to a party and a movement -- the Communist Party -- which itself made harsh demands on the thinking and writing of its adherents. The "party line" was not merely a form of discipline, it was an expression of loyalty to the cause of communism. And since Soviet communism dominated throughout the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, the party line was almost always "Stalinist" in the most dogmatic sense of the term. So the difficult question arises: how is it possible to reconcile a commitment to "honest history" with a commitment to Marxism and revolution?

Harvey Kaye's British Marxist Historians provides a detailed treatment of many of these historians, including Dobb, Hilton, Hill, Thompson, and Hobsbawm. Kaye fully recognizes the dual nature of the thinking of these historians: "I consider their work to be of scholarly and political consequence" (x). Kaye evidently believes that the scholarly and political commitments of these historians are in no way in conflict. But this is an assumption that must be examined carefully.

Kaye's book can be read as an effort to establish a careful geography of Marxist theoretical ideas about the development of capitalism and how those ideas were both used and transformed in the hands of these historians. His account of Dobb offers a detailed account of Dobb's view of a "non-economistic" historical treatment of capitalism, and he expends a great deal of effort towards identifying the key criticisms offered of Dobb's views by Paul Sweezy, Rodney Hilton, Robert Brenner, Perry Anderson, and others. The chapter can be read as a meticulous dissection of the definition of key ideas ("mode of production", "relations of production", "feudalism", "class conflict", ...) and the theoretical use that these various Marx-inspired historians make of these ideas to explicate "capitalist development" and the notion of "transition from feudalism" in its various historical settings. Most compelling is Kaye's treatment of E.P. Thompson's historical and theoretical writings. He makes it clear that Thompson provides a highly original contribution to the idea of "class determination" through his insistence on the dynamic nature of the formation of consciousness and experience in the men and women of the British laboring classes.

Kaye makes clear in his treatment of each of these historians that their research never took the form of a dogmatic spelling-out of ideas presented in Marx's writings, but rather a much more rigorous effort to make sense of the historical record of feudalism, the English Revolution, the early development of capitalist property relations, and the like. These were not Comintern hacks; they did not treat Marxism as a more-or-less complete theory of history, but rather as a set of promising insights and suggestions about historical processes that demand detailed investigation and analysis. And none of the books of these historians that Kaye discusses can be described as "orthodox Comintern interpretations" of historical circumstances. Kaye quotes Christopher Hill (102): "A great deal of Marxist discussion went on in Oxford in the early thirties. Marxism seemed to me (and many others) to make better sense of the world situation than anything else, just as it seemed to make better sense of seventeenth-century English history." And later in this chapter he quotes Hobsbawm (129): "An advantage of our Marxism -- we owe it largely to Hill ... was never to reduce history to a simple economic or 'class interest' determinism, or to devalue politics and ideology." These comments seem to point the way to partial resolution of the apparent conflict between political commitments and historical integrity: Marx's writings about capitalism, class, and historical materialism constitute something like a research programme or analytical framework for these historians, without eliminating the need for historical rigor and objectivity in searching out evidence concerning the details of historical development (in England, in France, or in Japan). 

If we wanted to assess the possible distortions of historical selection and analysis created by party commitments with regard to historical writing and inference, one natural place to look would be at the selection of topics for research. Are there topics in British history that are especially relevant to the ideological concerns of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and did the British Marxist historians stay away from those topics? Kaye remarks on Hobsbawm's own assessment of the role the party line played in defining issues and positions for the British Marxist historians: very little, according to Hobsbawm (15). He quotes Hobsbawm: "There was no 'party line' on most of British history,' at least as far as they were aware at the time." So we can reasonably ask: when these historians treat "politically sensitive" topics, do the analyses they offer seem to reflect ideological distortions? 

Kaye notes that one topic that should be of interest to Marxist historians is the history of the labor movement in Britain. "The 'modern' historians of the Group were naturally most anxious to pursue and make known the history of the British labour movement and, no doubt, were encouraged in their efforts by the British Communist Party. And yet this was the one field in which constraint was felt in relation to the Party. As Hobsbawm has stated on a number of occasions, there were problems in pursuing twentieth-century labour history because it necessarily involved critical consideration of the Party's own activities" (12). Kaye also quotes from an interview Hobsbawm offered in 1978:

[Hobsbawm] acknowledges that he took up nineteenth-century history because when "I became a labour historian you couldn't really be an orthodox Communist and write publicly about, say, the period when the Communist Party was active because there was an orthodox belief that everything had changed in 1920 with the foundation of the C. P. Well I didn't believe it had, but it would have been impolite, as well as probably unwise, to say so in public". (134)

This passage makes it clear that Hobsbawm avoided twentieth-century British labor history precisely because the party line was in conflict with the historical realities as Hobsbawm saw them. So Hobsbawm refrained from writing about this period.

So a preliminary assessment is perhaps possible. When these Marxist historians went to work on a given historical topic, they exercised rigor and care in their assessments of the past; they enacted fidelity to the standards of honesty we would wish that historians universally embrace. And indeed, the historical work done by these historians does indeed conform to high standards of honesty and independence of mind -- even as the research focus on "capitalism" is framed in terms of Marxist concepts. But the example of Hobsbawm's statements about twentieth-century labor history imply that certain topics were taboo, precisely because independence of analysis would run counter to the party line. (Kaye also suggests that Hobsbawm's continuing adherence to the 'base-superstructure' model derived from his deference to the orthodox Party line on the nature of the mode of production; 135.)

But we can also ask an even more fundamental question: did the historians of this group take any public notice of the crimes of Stalinist USSR -- the Holodomor, the terror, the show trials, the Gulag? Or was explicit condemnation of systemic actions like the Holodomor or the Gulag too much of a repudiation of the Communist Party for these historians to accept? Should they have made public mention and condemnation of these occurrences? Does their silence cast doubt on their honesty as historians? To this question Kaye's book provides no clear basis for an answer.

It is intriguing to ask about Harvey Kaye's own ideological orientation. He makes it clear in the Preface that his book is a sympathetic treatment of the circle of British Marxist historians, and in fact he acknowledges feedback and comments from several of these authors. His later book, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History, is likewise committed to defending the insights offered by Western Marxist historians. So his is something of an insider's account of the Historians' Group. We can ask, then, whether Kaye's own sympathies have colored his assessment of the objectivity and rigor of the historians in this group. Does he bring the necessary critical edge that we would expect from an historiographic assessment of a group of historians? (I should confess too that the historians that Kaye studies are also among my list of favorites as well. I would add Marc Bloch and a few others from French and German history, but the broad framework of historical narrative and analysis developed by Dobb, Hilton, Thompson, and Hobsbawm is one that has been powerful for me as well.) 

My own assessment is that Kaye's sympathies do not distort his interpretations of these historians. Rather, he offers a careful, reflective, and knowledgeable analysis of the development of their historical ideas and the relations that emerged among them, and he documents the willingness of these historians to avoid the dogmas of CP-driven "party lines" about history. For example, Kaye's critique of Hobsbawm's continuing use of the base-superstructure model illustrates Kaye's willingness to apply a critical eye to these historians (154 ff.). Only obliquely does he address the hardest question, however: did these historians speak out about the atrocities and crimes of Stalinism? Many of these figures (not including Hobsbawm or Dobb) rejected Stalinism through their decision to leave the British Communist Party after the Soviet brutal use of force against Hungary in 1956. But this is still less than forthright recognition of the horrendous crimes of the Soviet dictatorship throughout the 1930s and 1940s, extending through the death of Stalin and beyond.

The penultimate paragraph of the book appears to encapsulate Kaye's own perspective as well as the collective view he attributes to the group of Marxist historians he considers:

In other words, they [British Marxist historians] have accepted that the making of a truly democratic socialism -- or libertarian communism, requires more than 'necessity' -- the determined struggle against exploitation and oppression -- and more than organization. It also requires the desire to create an alternative social order. And yet, even that is not enough. There must be a 'prior education of desire' for, as William Morris has warned: 'If the present state of society merely breaks up without a conscious effort at transformation, the end, the fall of Europe, may be long in coming, but when it does, it will be far more terrible, far more confused and full of suffering than the period of the fall of Rome.'

And this passage perhaps expresses an appealing resolution as well to the question of how to reconcile political commitment with historical objectivity.

(Ronald Grigor Suny has written quite a bit of interesting material on the falsifications offered by "Stalinist history". A few snapshots of his views can be found here: "Stalin, Falsifier in Chief: E. H. Carr and the Perils of Historical Research Introduction" and "The Left Side of History: The Embattled Pasts of Communism in the Twentieth Century".)