In Defense of Determinism (Sort Of)

The last endless summer officially ended and I am now into the second month of my life as a PhD student. Since I am being regularly intellectually stimulated now and not just being an indulgent wastrel, hopefully I will start posting on this blog more often. I am writing this now because, after having what feels like my 10,000th argument about structuralism versus agency, I feel compelled to defend determinism (sort of).

In political science, there has been a long-standing debate whether analysis should be done at the macro level (studying structural shifts in relations between countries, the global political economy, class conflict, etc.) or at the micro level (“At what point does it become rational for me, a self-interested individual, to stand in front of that tank instead of going home to watch ‘Modern Family’?”). Typically, mainstream academics have adopted the milquetoast “Maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle…” approach that usually accompanies Jon Stewart rants. Some, however, remain staunch followers of the preeminent structuralists of political studies: Marx, Polanyi, Moore, Skocpol, and so forth. (Jack Goldstone denied us and now we deny him.)

The ubiquitous argument in all critiques of structuralism is that whatever you’re studying (the relations between classes, the development of modern liberal democracies, social revolutions) gets reduced down to one narrow casual factor and that the relationship is absolute. You put the quarter (and only a quarter) into the gumball machine and the machine produces a gumball; that is how it is, now and forever. This is understandably a less than satisfying prospect for many scholars, who cannot fathom how the diverse elements and outcomes of human history can somehow be compacted together into one simple story. (Usually that story is an economic one, as evidenced in the cases of every major structuralist I have named above.)

Yet I would argue that none of the structuralists I have named would see their theories and accompanying narratives as mechanistic. It is a facile observation that not everything people do is a consequence of structural shifts, economic or otherwise. You did not get a classic tapered haircut with frosted tips because of external pressures caused by the threat of military invasion. Your dog didn’t soil the rug because of the 2008 financial crisis. There are a litany of forces at play in the world, and it cannot be denied by anyone that it is human beings that matter in the unfolding dramas that have occurred in our history, from the Norman conquest of England down to the Arab spring.

Nevertheless, it would take a nihilist of the highest order to argue that human history is a jumbled mess of random decisions. William the Conqueror did not fight it out at Hastings because he was bored. Mohammed Bouazizi did not set himself on fire because there was nothing good on TV that day. There are patterns that play throughout time, whether it be the changes that come from invading legions seeking the bounty of a fresh, fertile land or desperate rebels who can no longer stand the suffering of their unjust conditions.

Structuralists springboard from this common sense conclusion and narrow down historical patterns to one predominant one. For Marx, the means of production in a particular epoch determine what a society will be like. For Skocpol, market forces matter, but so does the state and how it responds to internal and external pressures. Polanyi theorized about a “double movement” with the market economy constantly struggling with society which laws and values will win out. Goldstone, before his apostasy, used the raw club of biology and Malthus to explain the English Revolution. All these explanations are different, yet they share the same position that there are recurring patterns behind the phenomena which social scientists study and which also matter to the progress of the human race as a whole.

The atomized individualist mentality within you must surely bristle at this thought. Indeed, we don’t like to think of ourselves as unthinking pawns at the mercy of, say, the inexorable progress of capitalism or population booms. Men make history, don’t they? “Yes,” Marx would say, “but they don’t make it as they please.” If they did, then surely we would have escaped the pain and suffering of the “single catastrophe” identified by Walter Benjamin:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

None of this is to say that this storm happens whether men (or women) do things or believe things are not. It is simply to argue that, even if a Robespierre or a Jefferson or a Guevara manages to persuade a people to overthrow the status quo, they are not in control of the situation. Remember that the word “determinism” comes from the Latin “terminus” — it’s all about boundaries, limitations, endings. Admittedly, capitalism produced Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Eugene Debs as sure as it produced Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Steve Jobs. Nevertheless, the former personages were the exceptions, the identified aberrations,  the subversives who threatened the latter personalities who were (and remain) the models to be followed. The vast majority of people under capitalism — be they working class laborers, middle class intellectuals, upper class businessmen and captains of industry — subscribe to and produce material that fits within the mainstream; they are, by definition, not radical. Marx, as a structuralist, would argue that this is no accident. Similarly, all structuralists would say that, even if their predominant patterns do not produce homogeneous results, there are limitations to the results you will observe.

The problem becomes how we identify the correct pattern. If you’re studying human history, it makes sense to study historical narratives, and you are surely going to find a plethora of systems at work, followed by the usual problems of transforming systems into variables that can be measured. “Theoretical parsimony,” as its called, goes out the window as explanations become increasingly nuanced and qualified. You can, as Goldstone did, attempt to dismiss all nuance and qualifications and lay the blame on the blunt impact of unhindered population growth, but then you end up with a mono-causal theory that, while not strictly deniable, doesn’t offer much in the explanation department. That sort of thing may fly in classical economics — where Malthus is still a darling — but, sadly, the social sciences are not afforded the same “laws of rationality” at the “principle of gravitation” that Smith and Ricardo receive.

Unfortunately, taking the opposite approach and using pure deduction — coming up with universal models that water down variables to meaningless categories — doesn’t help either. Even if we conceive of a theory of social networks that “travels well,” so to speak, we lose a bit of the realization that the nitty-gritty details matter most. For example, political science long held that the Islamic world was a bulwark of authoritarianism, with very few of the “variables” necessary to generate popular uprisings. Consequently, there were not a litany of predictions that the Arab Spring would happen before it did (at least not from the Academy). While structuralism does involve in-depth examinations that produce “ifs” and “buts” like Mormons produce children, thick descriptions would seem likely to be more handy at coming up with the recipes for, say, revolution than models that operate on generalities that, may in reality, be more complicated.

One thing is undeniably true about this debate: structuralism is dead. Still, the question remains with us if we should keep it that way, like disco, or whether it still has value and its place, like punk, as an alternative to those damned positivists and behavioralists.


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