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.

State Power or Power to the People?: Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions Today

Lenin once declared that, as long as the state exists, there could be no freedom. Given the growth of state power around the world in the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequent global War on Terror, it would appear that Lenin’s vision of freedom is more out of reach than ever. Does it therefore follow then that rebellion and revolution are impossible in the post-9/11 period? This essay uses Theda Skocpol’s analysis of popular uprisings in France, China and Russia to argue that, in actuality, the structural conditions necessary for successful social revolutions still exist. Despite the considerable resources at their disposal, modern states continue to undergo major crises that they cannot cope with, even in an age with so much significance assigned to stability and continuity. Additionally, as the Arab Spring attests, classes still unite into powerful coalitions via shared interests that undermine the status quo and demand a broad reconstruction of the political, economic and social landscapes. Of course, just as Skocpol describes the required conditions for social revolution, she also stresses the constraints placed upon elites as well as revolutionaries, and in the current epoch consideration of such constraints remains relevant, as no major international incident occurs within a vacuum. Indeed, the question becomes not whether radical reform can emerge to shake the state, but whether it can endure myriad forces arrayed against it to create a lasting and meaningful new order.

In each case study within States and Social Revolutions (1979), Skocpol finds a crumbling “old regime” unable to institute “reform from above.” Absolutist monarchies, once relied on to safeguard servitude of the lowest classes, proved impotent to answer competing military power abroad and to satisfy basic needs at home. For Russia, it was the devastation and humiliation brought on by defeat in the first World War, while France and China could not adequately meet the demands of landed gentries agitating for greater autonomy. It was only when “top-down” change due to structural parameters failed that revolution “from below” became credible; the revolutionaries found themselves knocking on open doors. Presently, in the developing world, countries fall generally within two categories: (1) those witnessing economic growth through open markets and liberalization, birthing nascent bourgeoisies eager for empowerment, and (2) cash-strapped states, typically contending with severe Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), relying on force to hold onto power through fear and intimidation. In the developed world, advanced countries follow a trend of maintaining public appeasement through tax cuts and benefits programs, while also operating in an international environment where foreign intervention – justified either as “humanitarian interventions,” preventive strikes to halt the rise of even the possibility of existential threats, or both – is commonplace. In the case of the Third World, the parallel with the restless, newly influential French and Chinese middle classes is clear, while the unsustainable use of brutality amidst squalor invokes comparison with Russia after total war. As for the First World, states cannot maintain solvency when they are little more than gigantic pension funds with equally massive armies. Countries that are more the former than the latter, such as Greece and Italy, descend into much-protested austerity; while those that are more the latter than the former, such as the United States, alienate those they occupy and pay a high domestic cost for doing the occupying – in terms of “war weariness” as well as body count. Moreover, all countries at all levels of development must contend with neoliberalism’s economic hegemony, and the crisis borne from its prescriptions of deregulation.  The recent financial crisis affected all countries, and the inability of states across the board to either hold those responsible accountable or to enact reforms to prevent its repeat evidences that states are more beholden to global capitalism than the other way around. In sum, states may be more “muscular” after 9/11, but they are not perfect, and Skocpol argues that when states reach a critical juncture of failure, revolutions are not just possible – but inevitable.

Whether a revolution has potential or is automatically in the pipeline, someone has to lead it. Skocpol comments that the “patterns of class dominance” determine this, with dominant classes (outside the state) often working in tandem with the oppressed working classes to bring down the state. We see this today, most recently with the Arab Spring, and Egypt serves as case in point. The revolution began with trade unions, as workers demonstrated for improved conditions and higher wages, and was supplied momentum by the downfall of an authoritarian regime in Tunisia by grassroots protest. This galvanized the liberal intelligentsia, who had long campaigned for democratic reforms, in addition to other sections of the population, including supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The consequence was a national movement acting as a “broad tent,” and while the revolution could not be described as a truly social one due to constraints upon the process (to be described below), there was clear consensus that the state had to be transformed. Just as the revolutionary classes were not “equal winners” in Skocpol’s cases (the liberals triumphed in France, for example, while the peasants prevailed in China), it seems those favoring a moderate religious party have subordinated the secular Egyptian intellectuals. Meanwhile in the United States and the United Kingdom, the last few years have seen a flood of collective action, as primarily middle class groups – affluent, well-educated white adults in the Tea Party, disaffected college students in the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London movements – have taken to the streets. While not genuinely embracing revolutionary tactics, such protests are linked by grievances that transcend singular policies and speak to a more general displeasure with the system as it is operating, part of a grand narrative that professional politicians have lost touch with citizens and are unwilling to defy vested interests to make tough decisions. Certainly, in terms of class interests alone, the “squeezed middle” in developed countries could feasibly make common cause with more traditionally repressed fragments of society to realize an overhaul not just of one particular regime but the system itself.

So why do they not do so? In her book, Skocpol writes about constraints upon classes. The Russian peasants, for example, gained independence and solidarity after their emancipation, but did not achieve true impact as a force until the disintegration of the military weakened state coercion. Similarly, disgruntled groups in the Third World may conceive their own independence and solidarity through the advent of civil society organizations (such as the aforementioned trade unions), but state coercion decides the issue as insurgent groups do not gain from a fractured military (as in Libya as well as Egypt). Swift and merciless suppression as seen in Bahrain and Syria are more typical. In instances where movements with an agenda of reworking society take power democratically, e.g. the socialist successes in Latin America and parts of Africa, multinational corporations and transnational economic institutions apply pressure to ensure new governments do not deviate too far from the neoliberal project. In cases where they do, as in Venezuela, what follows is isolation and vilification as a deviant anomaly. In the First World, the constraints are primarily cultural. Despite the obvious appeal for the working class to be at the forefront of unrest, they have been notably absent. One can explain this by their demonization in society as inherently uneducated and incapable of sophisticated reasoning – the “white trash” of the middle U.S. or the “chavs” of urban Britain. The middle classes are disinclined to ally with those dismissed as deserving their servile status. Given this dismissal, the working classes retreat into their own “false consciousness,” rallying to a cultural narrative that they are the “real” backbone of their country and their interest should be in defending tradition rather than crusading for change. As for the middle classes themselves, they are lulled into the liberal hope of “revolution without revolution” as Robespierre described it: the ability to affect upheaval without shedding the unpleasant blood, sweat and tears necessitated by drastic action. They are quick to identify the programs and policies they do not like, but their faith in the importance of the atomized individual – a chief cultural standard – makes sacrificing personal self-interest in order for delayed gratification unthinkable. The winds of change cannot surmount the barricades of their sense of self, and consequently these winds are only so much noise against the shutters, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

State power is neither invincible nor undying, despite the enlargement of authority that followed terrorism’s rise as a locus of international anxiety. People are still anxious about a great many things in addition to the suicide bomber lurking under their bed: the ability to trust their leaders, to hold them to account, to earn a living and provide for their families and to participate meaningfully in decision-making. When states fail in these areas and lose the cornerstones of credibility and coercion, the potential for their downfall is there. Yet a line of dominoes does not begin falling on its own; it must be pushed. This is why recognizing Skocpol’s attention to constraints is so essential to her work. Looking around the world today, we see the conventional barriers to revolution, chiefly in the blunt instrument of state oppression. Yet Skocpol omits cultural values from her analysis, which is unfortunate, as value systems can be just as important to structural analysis as the state and its institutions. Many years ago, Skocpol “brought the state back in” to aid in comparative political research. Perhaps it is time to bring social norms into her still useful approach as well.