Monthly Archives: December 2012

Tilly the Poet

Over at Abandoned Footnotes, Xavier Marquez has unearthed a poem (!) about models in the social sciences written by the historical sociologist Charles Tilly. Tilly was a very talented individual, but I hadn’t realised that he dabbled in verse. Xavier Marquez takes Tilly as making a, somewhat oblique,  argument against modelling. Based on my interpretation of such books of Tilly’s as ‘Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons’, I’m not sure that this was what Tilly was getting at in the poem. Here’s the comment I offered:

Hello. Interesting post. First sociological poem I’ve read. I don’t think Tilly was against models per se. Durable Inequality, for example, features a typology of the basic sorts of relationships which concatenate into larger structures of social inequality.

I think, rather, that Tilly is presenting two alternative models in his poem through metaphor. The first, kayaking, presents a model of human beings as satisficers rather than optimisers. Individuals lack perfect information, so they make improvised judgements to do the best they can under their circumstances. Unobjectionable, as you say.

The second metaphor, walking with other individuals through crowds, presents a model of human action as improvisation around existing social scripts. Chains of such interaction form into larger, impersonal structures – the movement of the crowd in the metaphor. So although interpersonal interactions are improvised, they exist within wider constraining structures. Most individuals remain within existing structures and stick to established scripts, they rarely take ‘short-cuts’ – i.e. paths of action which would seem to be instrumentally rational but are not part of an established social script.

Social structures the processes that produce them can be described or modelled by third parties: the cameraman in the metaphor might be a psephologist or epidemiologist. Individuals may have no understanding how their actions contribute to macro-level phenomena.

So I don’t think the poem is an argument against models. Rather, and I hope I’m not imputing my own views to Tilly here, it presents an argument it is very difficult to link macro-level phenomena to micro-level action – even if the macro-level phenomena is easily described and predicted. I’d interpret the poem as expressing scepticism about micro-deterministic models, as elsewhere Tilly emphasised the importance of the configuration of networks of social relationships between individuals in the emergence of macro-level structures. We can use ideal-types to understand individual relationships and models to describe the macro-level phenomena, but making sense of the translation between the two requires the methods of historical sociology.

This was rather less eloquent than a haiku, apologies.

I recall that Robert Denemark made a similar argument against microdeterminist approaches in his  ‘World System History: From Traditional International Politics to the Study of Global Relations’ in International Studies Review in 1999.

Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History III

This is the third and final of my posts on Ernest Gellner’s ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB). Part I, in which I provide a summary of PSB and its major arguments, is here. Part II, in which I focus on Gellner’s account of the changing structure of human cognition through history, is here. This prompted some reflections on PSB over at Breviosity.

Apologies, I’ve only got back into blogging recently, so it’s another wordy one. But there’s a lot going on in PSB and I want to do the book justice by pulling out some of the key arguments and insights it offers.

PSB is clearly a work of major significance, unjustly overlooked (at least in IR). It brings together a huge number of disconnected areas of intellectual inquiry. In this respect, I thought that PSB had similarities with the work of Charles Taylor. Gellner and Taylor both have a knack for demonstrating how key philosophical thinkers are relevant for history and the social sciences. I normally start to get peeved when scholars start invoking Kant or Descartes to prop up some tendentious line of argument. Frankly, I think it’s often a sign of pretentiousness and self-indulgence. There’s a lot of this about in radical/critical IR, unfortunately.

By contrast, Gellner deploys his keen understanding of the history of ideas in a manner that is very illuminating. Reading PSB actually made me reassess my views. I normally have a preference for the ‘organisational materialism’ of Mann and Tilly, which focuses on social structures rather than intersubjective beliefs. But Gellner makes a case for taking the historical sociology of cognition seriously, given the vastly different mental worlds in which have existed in human history. This isn’t to say that Gellner is a complete ideationalist who presents history as a Hegelian sequence of modes of consciousness. Production and coercion have their own logics, which Gellner plays close attention to. His discussion of coercion even draws on some Schelling-esque game-theoretical considerations.

What relevance does any of this have for IR and international history though? One point of contact is his discussion of the radical ideologies of the 20th Century. Since 9/11 there’s been a lot of intellectual discussion if fascism, Soviet Marxist-Leninism and even liberalism can be considered secular religions. From within Gellner’s framework it does make sense to do so. He argues that the theological mode of cognition has gradually been replaced by the scientific mode. In this mode nature is a coherent whole about which we may come to have ‘referential, socially neutral, objective’ knowledge (p. 198). Because nature is no longer seen as part of a divinely sanctioned order, such knowledge lacks ‘social suggestiveness’. If the universe is no longer a meaningful cosmos then facts are bare – we cannot read moral lessons off of nature.

During the transition period, however, scientific facts were seen as having social suggestiveness. Nature and/or history were seen as a meaningful whole, their constituent elements imbued with a purpose. Thus, fascism drew on vitalist metaphors from distorted interpretations of biology to justify policies of ‘racial hygiene’ and national rebirth. The social-darwinist liberalism of Spencer, which formed the basis of eugenics campaigns in the US, did likewise.

Orthodox Marxism was based on a teleological account of history as a meaningful, cumulative process. In an uncharitable light, the concept of exploitation appears to be based on an attempt to base a set of normative claims on bare economic facts. When Marxist-Leninism became the official ideology of the Soviet state it became the official doctrine of a secular theocracy:

The doctrine around which the church is organized is one of those nineteenth-century counter-faiths, heavily messianic and oriented towards a collective version of total salvation. It contains not mere the promise of deliverance for all of mankind and a theodicy, but also an overall theory of, in effect, everything (p. 215).

Gellner’s analysis is, I would argue, is much richer than that on offer by a perspective which lumps every intellectual system together as ‘metanarratives’. For one thing, while Gellner is clear that any secular religion remains vulnerable to falsification by neutral facts, the scientific mode of cognition is not necessarily socially stable. Because scientific facts are bare and lack social suggestiveness, they are not necessarily very satisfying. They do not disclose any normative lessons, they don’t legitimate either small-scale social interactions or political order very effectively. To riff on Hegel, science doesn’t help people feel at home in the world.

Gellner describes this as the conflict between cognition and culture. From this tension arises what he calls the ‘flourishing re-enchantment industry’ – i.e. bullshit of all varieties. There exists an unmet demand for meaning and socially suggestive accounts of our place in the cosmos. But ‘the products of this industry have a high rate of obsolescence. Fashions rotate at considerable speed, almost decade by decade’ (p. 220). Gellner’s analysis on this point is, I would argue, richer than that of post-modernist obscurantists (bullshit merchants of the first order, now largely obsolete themselves) by about a metric mile.

One implication is that liberal triumphalism is not necessarily assured. The tension between cognition and culture provides opportunities to alternative ideologies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, no secular religion poses a challenge currently (although rightist nationalism has an outside chance at returning). Yet Gellner was very perceptive in anticipating the potential power of political Islam. He argues that certain features of (Sunni?) Islam such as strict unitarianism, austere scripturalism and lack of spiritual inter-mediators make it compatible with modernity, understood by Gellner as technical rationality. Thus one solution to the culture/cognition tension is to cleanly separate the noumenal and the referential.

I’m left wondering, however, if Gellner isn’t a bit unfair on the self-designated heirs to the Enlightenment. He adopts the position that positivism is basically correct: there aren’t any non-analytic, non-referential facts. This results in the scandal of the Enlightenment: reason cannot provide a compelling set of justifications for the systems of morality and the social doctrines which rationalists took to be rational. Human rights, egalitarianism, justice might seem to be rational in some sense – but normative claims ultimately lack any rational basis. Values are arbitrary. The problem is the same as that identified by MacIntyre: reason cannot tell us what values we should hold (Whose justice? Which rationality?). Thus liberalism, which in its most general sense includes nearly the whole political spectrum in the advanced industrialised world, is not really so far from being just another secular religion.

Well, maybe. But it seems a bit quick to dismiss attempts by first-rate philosophers such as Christine Korsgaard and Jürgen Habermas to provide a rational basis for an account of individual rights and obligations. Perhaps some values really are more substantively rational than others. In addition it seems to me that Gellner’s assumption that advanced industrial societies are intrinsically anomic is at least questionable. He expresses the view that reason does not set any particular values and preferences are not ‘given’ but socially constructed and thus the product of history (p. 193-4). Modern societies are blank slates. But research by Inglehart and Welzel suggests that there is a broadly predictable shift to a system of ’emancipatory values’ which occurs as nations industrialise.  Liberalism (again, broadly defined) might not be rationally justifiable, but as a matter of sociological fact it might  be the set of values which arises in advanced industrialised societies.

As a coda to this series of three posts, it’s interesting to note that Gellner seems to believe that the problems in the sphere of production are likely to be those of abundance: the manufacture of wants and jockeying for positional advantage. The latter is, of course, omnipresent. But I think the C21st will pose much greater problems of scarcity than of post-scarcity. To riff on Marx, we’re still in the realm of necessity.

Plough, Sword and Book: Gellner and the Structure of International History II

My previous post on Gellner’s  ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB) managed to attract an approving link from Brad DeLong, so I thought that I might as well write the promised follow-up.

To recap part 1, PSB is an extremely ambitious – and overlooked – magnum opus that attempts to outline the structure of human history in terms of the development of production, coercion and cognition from the hunter-gatherer past to the advanced industrialised present. Gellner’s thesis is that the three epochs of human civilisation (hunter-gatherer, agrarian and industrial) are distinct not just in their patterns of social organisation, the focus of other historical sociologists such as Mann and Tilly, but in the way that they conceive of the relationship between mind and world.

Of note is the significance Gellner attaches to Plato. I’ve never believed that Plato has much relevance to the study of contemporary politics or even contemporary political theory, his political concerns belong to a very different world to our own. Popper’s criticism of Plato as totalitarian or proto-totalitarian always struck me as completely anachronistic. But Gellner makes a fascinating case for seeing Plato’s philosophy as exemplary of the cognitive shifts of Karl Jasper’s ‘axial age’. Before this age, local ritual and custom (nomos) ruled human life. Nomos was authoritative because human beings lived within small-scale, closed communities. It was grounded in a meaningful, ritualised shared social existence. Metaphysical concepts, norms, aesthetic standards and empirical beliefs (all of which are merged together at this point in history) compelled human thinking but were socially bounded and could not transcend context.

The key change in the axial era was the rise of putatively universal systems of normatively-loaded concepts that were ‘trans-ethnic, trans-social, trans-communal’. This is the birth of logos and the idea of reason and of the notion of a transcendent supra-sensory reality standing above, and giving meaning to, mundane existence. The death of Socrates might be seen as marking the historical juncture between the age of socially-circumscribed communal norms and the the axial age in which concepts transcend context.

Normatively-loaded concepts, now recognised explicitly as concepts, form the basis of explicit doctrines. The literate intellectuals of the axil age were deeply concerned with achieving coherence between these concepts in order to correctly understand and explicate the nature of the noumenal realm. The intellectuals, theologians and priesthoods pushed against the ‘easy cohabitation’ of many incompatible strands of belief that had characterised earlier periods of human history. But empirical investigation was not held in high regard within this new age of cognition and belief systems became largely non-referential:

Reality does not constitute a check on Ideas: on the contrary, they are the norms by which reality is to be judged and guided (p. 76)

The reality of the senses is only a flickering shadow cast by the true reality accessible only through reason and – once the world religions had established themselves – scripture, meditation, faith, veneration of saints and so on. The world is seen as a meaningful whole, each element accorded its proper place and imbued with a purpose. This axial age cognitive order, in which normatively-loaded concepts stand over and above mundane reality, helped to stabilise an agro-literate social order in which violence-specialists and legitimacy-specialists stand over and above the great mass of agricultural producers. The world religions offered salvation in the here-after but legitimated hierarchy on Earth.

Heaven, the circle, encloses Earth, the square.

Heaven, the circle, encloses Earth, the square.

Initially confined to the philosophically inclined elites, access to the noumenal order was restricted to priesthoods who interceded on behalf of the mass of the population in the mature agrarian societies. Effective monopolies were established on access to truth and salvation. Yet the salvationist aspect of many world religions always held the prospect of direct un-mediated access to the noumenal order by ordinary human beings. Thus under a specific set of circumstances at a particular point in history, the spiritual monopoly was broken and large numbers of people gained direct, unmediated access to salvation. Yes, this is Weber’s story of the rise of the Protestant Ethic and the swinging shut of the monastery door as essential to the rise of modernity. Indeed, I would argue that Gellner is much more neo-Weberian than the likes of Mann and Tilly – who are interested primarily in organizational rather than cognitive structures.

In any case, universalism managed to break free of the Universal Church and thus from the hierarchical social and spiritual order which it embodied. From there, Gellner argues, it was possible for the modern cognitive order to emerge. In this cognitive order  the noumenal, super-sensory realm is dethroned. Nature is regarded as a single ordered whole free from any intrinsic meaning or purpose but comprehensible through experience and the faculty of reason. No knower is unique or has specially privileged access to the facts about nature.

This was a huge inversion in the cognitive ordering of the world. Previously, nature presented a testament to the veracity of supra-sensory truths – it confirmed the divine order. After the Enlightenment, reality provides the external measure of systems of belief. How did the Reformation bring about this ‘dethronement of the concept’, considering that Protestant denominations continued to regard the Bible as Holy Scripture? This is the weakest link in the whole chain of Gellner’s argument, in my view. In fact, the answer to the question is split between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Gellner suggests that the scriptural criticism may have led towards the view that everything can be criticised and thus the destruction of the idea of sacred knowledge. He makes a more convincing suggestion that the acceptance of a stalemate in the Wars of Religion gave rise to toleration and the creation of a social space in which free inquiry could flourish. Thus the Reformation may have been instrumental rather than essential to the Enlightenment.

Although I think he leans on Weber too much to the exclusion of consideration of the material processes transforming Europe at the end of the medieval age, I’ll restrain myself in this post and save the critical discussion for a final post dealing with the contemporary world and Gellner’s relevance for international relations. But I’l make one final point. Gellner’s thesis is very much focused on Western Europe and the transition to and then away from the medieval era.  His rich discussion of the relationship between legitimacy-specialists (priests, scribes etc.) and violence-specialists, emphasising the role of mobilizing norms of legitimacy to decide between essentially equivalent groups of violence-specialists, has a great deal of applicability across cultural contexts.

But much of the discussion assumes a certain division of labour between the two groups, the division of labour present in medieval Europe. India is recognised as being on a very distinct sociological and cognitive path, but isn’t examined in any depth.  Although the role of ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ in traditional Chinese thinking does fit with Gellner’s account of the cognitive structures of agrarian society, priests and mediators with ‘heaven’ have not held the authority or autonomy in China that Gellner assumes as the norm. The discussion of Islam is very limited, with Gellner commenting on the ‘anti-rational theocracy’ of that world religion without mentioning the Islamic Golden Age. Nonetheless, he has some much more interesting things to say about the position of Islam in the modern world – but that will have to wait for another post!

Free Market Fairness, Distributional Adequacy and Distributivism

There’s an interesting review of Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by O’Neill and Williamson in the Boston Review. The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy. Many political philosophers present a set of principles which are squarely centre left, accommodating the free market but underlining the need for the maximum possible level of equality compatible with economic efficiency. The usual foil for this brand of liberal egalitarian position is the sort of minarchist free-market libertarianism defended by Robert Nozick, according to which individuals have an absolute right over legitimately acquired property.

According to the review, it looks like Tomasi wants to defend a compromise position which starts from a basically Rawlsian position but accords special value to market exchange and property rights. But it’s difficult to make such a compromise work – the reviewers don’t seem to think that Tomasi manages it.

The basic problems are that Rawls’s position does not prohibit market exchange and, once we’ve acknowledged that property rights are not absolute and can be compromised for the sake of social justice and/or the provision of public goods, it seems difficult to think of reasons why we shouldn’t arrange institutions to benefit those who are least well-off. There’s not much space for centre-right political philosophers to work with here. The best argument against liberal egalitarian conclusions seems to be an empirical one about the levels of equality that are realistically compatible with economic efficiency. But that isn’t a critique of liberal egalitarian principles as such.

In the review, O’Neill and Williamson report that Tomasi addresses this challenge by proposing his own test of ‘distributional adequacy’ as an alternative to Rawlsian distributive equality (i.e. maximise the position of the least well-off). But I didn’t really understand the idea of “distributional adequacy”, which is defined as being the requirement that ‘each and all should benefit from political and economic arrangements; if all are better off, it is acceptable that some have much more than others’. Better off than what? What is the counterfactual for comparison? It sounds like it is the requirement for pareto-optimality, but pareto is dependent on a comparison with the status quo. So a change is only ‘distributionally adequate’ if the rich are no worse off than they are at present? Or is it some kind of ‘state of nature’ comparison between the present set-up and a life of banging rocks together? Neither are very satisfying. I feel like I’m missing something…

In any case, it seems like O’Neill and Williamson are suggesting that Tomasi’s own principles point towards something like distributivism, a variant of European Christian democracy according to which the problem with industrial democracy isn’t that we have too many capitalists, but too few and too big.

If I get the chance I might give Tomasi’s book a read. I’m interested in seeing where contemporary philosophers might take the arguments of Hayek, who seems to be under-recognised by political philosophers as one of the major conservative liberal thinkers of the last century. But I start from a position of scepticism; I think it’s pretty difficult to make a clear philosophical case for the sort of centre-right position favoured by Anglo-American conservative liberals.

Well Burrowed, Old Mole! Reflections on MacLeod’s The Star Fraction

When I first read it at the age of 16, The Star Fraction by Ken MacLeod was a revelation to me. I was already a voracious reader of Iain (M) Banks, especially of his novels that deal most directly with political concepts such as The State of the Art and The Player of Games. But reading Ken MacLeod was a discovery of a different order of magnitude.  Science-fiction takes ideas more seriously than any other genre. It refuses the conformity of presentism, daring to provoke the human imagination into considering different alternatives about the way that things might be.  But whilst much science-fiction focuses on the technological aspects of alternative futures, The Star Fraction is about the future of History in the ‘capital H’ sense: struggles between ideologies, movements, classes and states.  Ken MacLeod is aware of the fact that politics is not going to disappear, the future will present us with tough choices about our collective destiny. We may not always live long enough to understand the full consequences of those choices – although with the right innovations in biomedical science some of us just might…

'Well burrowed, old mole!'

‘Well burrowed, old mole!’

MacLeod’s introduction to the US version of The Star Fraction has been up for a while over on the blog for the Centre for a Stateless Society. The book is a reflection on a social-scientific, not technological, possibility: that comprehensive central planning is very likely unworkable for micro-economic reasons but capitalism may well be unsustainable for macro-socio-economic reasons. Like a lot of science-fiction, The Star Fraction presents a what-if: ‘What if capitalism is unstable, and socialism is impossible?’. It’s still a pertinent question to ask.

As MacLeod himself reveals ‘History is the trade secret of science fiction, and theories of history are its invisible engine’. The Star Fraction is a work of social-science-fiction written by someone with a subtle understanding of the materialist theory of history, an insider’s knowledge of computing, and first hand experience of the travails of the socialist project. The cyberpunk stylings are mainly there to give the book it’s flechette-gun-volley velocity and impact – as well as to give concrete substance to some humanist worries about whether technology actually needs us in the long-term.

One of the cleverest things about the original The Star Fraction novel is the fragmented system of micro-states imposed on the UK by America’s invasion of Europe. I didn’t realise it when I first read the novel, but the UK’s political system is supposed to be a degenerate and oppressive version of the minimal-state market-anarchist system outlined in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In the book ‘actually existing libertarianism’ is imposed externally by a occupying superpower – just as ‘actually existing socialism’ was in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Global financial crises generated by out of control algorithms, flying death-robots killing Islamist terrorists at the behest of the world’s last superpower, fascists in the shadow of the acropolis, grass-roots hackers’ movements releasing gigabytes of diplomatic cables – the world seems more like a MacLeod novel every day. This all reminds me that I really need to get a chance to read Farah Mendelsohn’s edited collection of essays, The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod. I’m still kicking myself that I wasn’t able to go the Science-fiction and International Orders seminar, which featured both MacLeod and Chris Brown, at the LSE back in 2011 too.