Monthly Archives: February 2012

Skocpol vs. Fukuyama on the Tea-Party: Political Sociology Grudge Match

Excuse the over-dramatic title, I just thought it was interesting that Fukuyama (to whom this blog seems addicted) and Theda Skocpol (one of the most prominent US political sociologists and one of the foremost theorists of social revolutions) have both weighed into debates over the Tea-Party and its significance. In fairness, Fukuyama makes his contribution to the debate in an interview with a news weekly whereas Skocpol has been engaged in a detailed empirical study of the Tea-Partiers with her colleague Vanessa Williams. Still, the contrasts are interesting.

Fukuyama (p1 p2), for example, identifies the Tea-Partiers as being young, enthusiastic and grass-roots – rejecting the idea that the Koch brothers or whoever are behind the movement. He is puzzled, however, why the Tea-Partiers seem to be organising against their own economic interests by agitating policies which benefit ‘elites they should despise’. His suggestion is that the movement has tapped into a deep strain of scepticism towards government and hostility towards ‘elites’ of any stripe. Like in his recent book, Fukuyama sees political culture as perhaps the most important determining factor in the different paths societies take.

However, as I tried to suggest in a previous post, I think it’s too simple to see the Tea-Partiers as straightforwardly mobilizing against their own interests. If we do so we either have to  draw on ideas of ‘false consciousness’ and assume they are hoodwinked (dismissed in an out of hand fashion by Fukuyama as a conspiracy theory) or we have to hand-wave by saying that culture provides the explanation. But there are different ways actors can understand their own interests, they might attach a strong importance to their relative rather than absolute well-being. This might just be what motivates Tea-Partiers, fear that the distance between them and those beneath them might be eroding due to the actions of Obama and the federal government. Perhaps downward mobility of the middle-class and upward mobility of lower-classes frightens and angers them.

The grey guards

Interestingly, Skocpol actually rejects the idea that Tea-Partiers are organising against their economic interests and suggests that they are fighting for very specific material interests and values (unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to read her book, I’m going on a few reviews and the recent articles she has published to expand on her and Williams’ thesis). Like Fukuyama she sees them as a grass-roots organisation with a strong sense of their political goals and what they want to achieve. However, her research rejects the idea that the organisation is a young movement – rather it is a movement of the middle-aged suburban middle class. They aren’t against all government spending, they’re very pro government programmes which benefit people like them and very anti programmes benefiting undeserving people (the young, migrants, inner-city groups – yes, that’s a euphemism).  In a Washington Post article Skocpol and Williams write:

Tea Party activists are not uniformly opposed to government social programs, however. Our interviewees were very anxious that Social Security and Medicare be maintained. “I’ve been working since I was 16 years old, and I do feel like I should someday reap the benefit. I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking for a pay out of what I paid into,” one Tea Party member explained.

As Skocpol notes:

After all, tea partyers see themselves as hard-working Americans whose taxes should not fund benefits for “freeloaders.” Along with illegal immigrants, low-income Americans and young people loom large as illegitimate consumers of public benefits and services. In tea party thinking, they are all asking for more than they have earned.

The Skocpol and Williams analysis suggests there is a generational cleavage opening up, a ‘grey vs. brown’ divide between the conservative sub-urban whites and the multi-racial, cosmopolitan younger generation. The latter are symbolised by Obama, who represents everything the Tea Partiers despise about the contemporary US: he’s mixed-race, immigrant, educated, and wants to make Federal programmes universal rather than targeted at sub-urban middle-class insiders. There’s a very strong moral economy at work here, in which the Tea-Party represents the revolt of the hard-working middle class against feckless and immoral freeloaders who aren’t even ‘real Americans’ anyway.

Unlike Fukuyama, Skocpol isn’t shy about emphasising the role of free-market fundamentalist organisations funded by billionaires in the Tea-Party – or more accurately in leverage the Tea-Party to gain influence over the Republican national agenda. Although they don’t have much sway at the grass-roots level (which is genuinely a grass-roots movement), well-funded organisations such as Americans for Prosperity (supported by the Koch brothers) have been busily promoting an agenda that seems compatible but is actually contradictory to the ‘welfare only for us’ platform of the Tea-Party. The Tea-Partiers might be organising in their own interests, but risk being played for fools by the big money agenda. In fairness to Fukuyama, he does note that

Republican politicians are completely bought by Wall Street

but he doesn’t give a very clear view between the hard-right business conservatives, the Republican party and the Tea-Party as does Skocpol. Her analysis suggests we are seeing a significant realignment in US politics. A question raised by Fukuyama is pertinent, however. ‘Where is the uprising from the left?’ Why does Occupy have difficulty in moving beyond its young activist base to become a broad populist left-of centre movement? Why is its ‘blame narrative’ and set of claims about social justice less compelling to many Americans than that of the Tea-Party? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it’s an important one.

Fukuyama Blogging: Part 5 ‘Conclusion’

IntroPart 1Part 2Part 3China/Russia detourPart 4

Much delayed post on Fukuyama’s conclusion to The Origins of Political Order. I’ve had this post sat on my hard drive for over a month, but I wasn’t feeling the blogging vibe. Let’s have another go!

Having reached the French Revolution and the highest forms of political development through the emergence of the modern state, the rule of law and political accountability vol. 1 of Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order concludes. The entire history of politics from our primate ancestors up to the dawn of the modern world: done and dusted. Time to wrap up and look at what Fukuyama hopes we will take away from the book:

1) Modernisation not a general process, nor is political modernisation. Fukuyama’s goal is, in one sense, to rehabilitate modernisation theory and to make a case for the existence of an evolutionary ladder in political development. But at the same time he wants to reject the idea, promoted by classical social thinkers such as Weber, Durkheim and Marx, that all the components of modernisation are linked as part of a general process. Political modernisation inChina ran ahead even absent technological development. Nor is political modernisation a singular process, it can be decomposed into three aspects as I examined above. Fukuyama makes a strong case here, but as I argued in Part 4 its questionable whether he really succeeds in separating the ideas of accountability and the rule of law. The two seem pretty much intertwined empirically, even if they are conceptually distinct.

2) Ideas matter.Fukuyama seems quite irritated by perspectives which fail to acknowledge the independent weight of ideas in the evolution of human societies. He insists that it’s ‘a fool’s er­rand’ to attempt to make sense of the specifics of religion in terms of material circumstances, ideas ‘are tur­tles far down the stack that do not nec­es­sar­ily stand on the backs of tur­tles re­lat­ed to the econ­omy or phys­ical en­vi­ron­ment’. As a partisan of the opposite point of view, however, I wasn’t convinced thatFukuyama provides enough support for this thesis. In his account of political development it seems that it’s the way religious institutions  are socially organised that really matters. This in fact fits in with an ‘organizational materialist’ perspective of scholars like Mann and Tilly very well. At other times,Fukuyama’s account acknowledges the direct material interests of religious actors. It’s pretty rare in the book that the actual substantive content of belief systems makes a big difference independently of other factors.

On the subject, I was slightly disappointed how rarely the idea of the ‘struggle for recognition’ comes up in the book.Fukuyamais a well known for his Hegelian view that the search for recognition – reciprocal acknowledgement by one’s peers – is the driving force in human history. Yet the idea only has a walk on part in this book, with the biological drive to favour friends and family doing the heavy lifting.

Move over, bub, you're History.

3) Violence plays a central role in political development. Following the well known arguments of Hintze, Tilly and others in IR such as Spruyt and Ayoob, Fukuyama places a lot of weight on conflict as a driver of the rise of the state and of political accountability (but not the rule of law as far as I can tell). Violence has a Darwinian function in generating selective pressure amongst political units and generating one of the few impetuses to overcome vested interests (see #7).

Okay, sure, fine. This is a well-established thesis that has been the subject of extensive debate. But it’s worth noting that there are other kinds of competition, for migrants, political supporters, allies and for mobile capital (the latter examined by Arrighi and Silver in the context of early modern Europe), many of which probably drove political development as well.

4) Property rights aren’t everything – oh and Mancur Olson was wrong. Fukuyama spends a lot of time criticizing economists and political scientists who think that everything turns on robust property rights and that all strong states are predators who bury commercial activity with onerous taxes. The story is much more complex than the account inspired by political economists such as Olson, he insists.

Pretty much wrong, apparently

Here there’s not much to disagree with, the property rights uber alles brigade are pretty wearying. But it is worth noting that very often the people that Fukuyama bothers to engage with are all from the conservative side of academic debate, making specific mention of the specifics of arguments by neo-liberals and even neo-conservatives. In one sense, these are probably the people who Fukuyama debates with and is addressing in the book. But it’s notable that, although he often criticises Marx, he doesn’t actually engage with modern scholars influenced by Marx such as GA Cohen or Hobsbawm. There’s some irony in this deployment of straw-man Marxism, as contemporary Marxists such as Brenner and the IR theorist Teschke have made arguments which are of a similar format to Fukuyama’s, stressing the specifics of different systems of property rights and the relations between classes in explaining how capitalism originated in England.

What’s more, for all his attempts to distance himself from the Whig view of history, his account of the development is quite rose tinted in certain respects. It stresses the strong property rights of English subjects and established traditions of political accountability, but makes no mention of enclosure and the colossal theft by elites that it constituted. Both within Britainand overseas in its colonies, the establishment of property rights for some was quite closely related to the loss of property on the part of others. Turning to the modern world, things don’t seem to have changed much: witness the land grabs by unscrupulous local officials in China and the resultant images of ‘nail houses’.

5) Extreme levels of path-dependence characterises development. AlthoughFukuyama is resurrecting the idea of political modernisation and evolution, his account makes it clear that societies do not pass through a sequence of similar changes. Rather, their different paths are shaped by very deep social institutions:

New in­sti­tu­tions are more typ­ical­ly lay­ered on top of ex­ist­ing ones, which sur­vive for ex­traor­di­nar­ily long pe­ri­ods of time.

There’s no smooth and automatic progression along a simple evolutionary pathway either:

The ac­tu­al his­tor­ical roots of dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions of­ten seem to be the prod­ucts of a long con­cate­na­tion of his­tor­ical ac­ci­dents that one could nev­er have pre­dict­ed in ad­vance.

Borrowing the idea of spandrels from Gould and Lewontin, he argues that an institution that arose for one purpose might play a totally different purpose further down the line – a notion that Mann referred to as a kind of institutional promiscuity.

This all makes political development seem pretty haphazard. Indeed, if this is true, then it seems that actually existing historical civilisations probably did not exhaust all the various possible ways of organising agrarian societies.

It makes me wonder as well, what of all the paths of socio-political development off the main linesFukuyamaexamines? All the societies he focuses on are patrilineal, but what about matrilineal cultures such as the Israelites or Sumatra’s Minangkabao people. Were these dead ends or did circumstances just prevent them from achieving the prominence of other world civilisations?

6) Political development should be understood in within-nation terms. Fukuyama actually contradicts himself on this issue I think. His focus is on the internal (endogenous if you like) development of political institutions, not looking at the position of societies in wider webs of relationships. Hence, turning to contemporary questions of development he argues that:

In more re­cent so­ci­eties, it is easy to blame so­cial fail­ures on the machi­na­tions of var­ious out­siders, whether Jews or Amer­ican im­pe­ri­al­ism, rather than look­ing to in­dige­nous in­sti­tu­tions for the ex­pla­na­tion.

Well, yes. But its also easy for those in wealthy nations to blame feckless Mexicans or Africans for the problems of maldevelopment, rather than ask uncomfortable questions about the global division of labour or the architecture of transnational finance. But Fukuyama isn’t so interested in understanding the interlinked global process of development, save for when he examines the second serfdom and can’t avoid acknowledging that the enserfment of those East of the Elbe was causally linked to the economic development of the West.

Suddenly at the end of the book, however, Fukuyamatakes a different perspective on the drivers of political development:

 It is there­fore no longer pos­si­ble to speak sim­ply about “na­tion­al de­vel­op­ment.” In po­lit­ical sci­ence, com­par­ative pol­itics and in­ter­na­tion­al re­la­tions have tra­di­tion­al­ly been re­gard­ed as dis­tinct sub­fields, the one deal­ing with things that hap­pen with­in states, the oth­er with re­la­tion­ships among states. In­creas­ing­ly these fields will have to be stud­ied as an in­te­grat­ed whole.

I’d agree, but I’d also say that the international dimension of development is nothing new in human history.

7) Political decay is a general phenomena. Taking up the baton from Huntingdon,Fukuyama wants to provide a sophisticated general account of political decay. Here I think he is quite successful. He sees two main sources of political decay: legacy investments, where previously successful social institutions are imbued with intrinsic value and thus are preserved long after they cease to be adaptive, and repatrimonialisation, which I examined in other posts. Yes, these are both variants of Olson’s idea of vested interests and ‘distributive coalitions’ gradually ossifying societies, butFukuyama develops the ideas with a lot of empirical and theoretical detail. I think there are other sources of political decay in the post-Malthusian world, but I’ll wait to see what Fukuyama says in the sequel.

One of the most interesting consequences of his argument is that decay generates novel social formations, not simply a reversion to previous forms. Sorry Heraclitus, but the way up is not the same as the way down. The Western Roman Empire had to fall before the possibility of feudalism arose. Decay therefore introduces novelty and can actually open up new pathways for political evolution.

That’s my scattershot appraisal of the threads of argument that run through the whole book. This post is already too long, so I’ll write a coda on the implications for the modern world to follow.