Archive for category Political thought

Machiavelli and Savonarola

Students at the Machiavelli seminar at Santa Croce

Florence had risen rapidly from the 1300s to near 1500, thanks in large part to the strength of the Medici family whose revolution in accounting made them bankers to Europe, brought wealth to Florence and financed the great renaissance art and architecture we see in the city today.   Today’s two seminars involved two men – Niccolo Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola – and two churches – Santa Croce and San Marco.

Savonarola took power in 1494 when the French invaded Italy and overthrew the Medicis.  He played to the emotion of the peoples’ resentment of Medici opulence and wealth which he derided as unchristian at a time when so many in Italy were in poverty.   So powerful was his religious fervor that even the great Botticelli is said to have thrown many of his paintings in the “Bonfire of the Vanities” that Savonarola held — great fires where people burnt material objects that were not godly.   This foreshadowed later book burnings.

Students at Piazzale Michelangelo, with the Duomo in the background

Gaining a following, Savonarola vowed to cleanse Florence.   Homosexuality had been tolerated, Savonarola made it a capital offense under new “sodomy laws.”   People were forced to take a more puritan life style.   He attacked the Medicis, especially Pope Alexander VI (who, to be sure, was a nasty immoral jerk to put it nicely).   Yet while he rode resentment of the wealth of the ruling class to power, the public didn’t like his puritanism.   By 1497 bars started to serve wine and liquor again, and in 1498 he was excommunicated and hung in Piazza della Signora.

Piazza della Signora, where Savonarola was executed

We visited San Marco where the monks including Savonarola had their cells, and Sarah explained the importance of the art work there, reflecting those times.   After Savonarola’s death, Florence had a brief period of Republican rule.   One of its leaders was a man named Niccolo Machiavelli.

I had the students read a talk I gave a few years ago about Machiavelli, linked here.  I’m not going deep into Machiavelli’s thought for this blog entry (no time!), but that link has quotes and examples of his pragmatic realism.   The short version is that after the Florentine Republic fell Machiavelli was exiled and published The Prince, a practical how to book on politics.

The serene grounds within Santa Croce

Some consider him the first political scientist because Machiavelli makes clear that he is not worried about what ought to be, but what actually is.   And the world around him — Italy fragmented, divided and insecure, the public being seduced for awhile by a religious extremist like Savonarola, and the demise of the Florentine Republic — did not reflect anyone’s conception of an ideal society.   Rather than follow the philosophers in trying to determine what the “good” should be, Machiavelli said its more important to figure out how the world works — how to play the game and win.

As I noted in a blog entry from the last Italy trip, Machiavelli is no Hitler (that blog goes into the details of his thinking more).   He wanted a Republic where people could have peace and prosperity.   To get that, however, Italy had to first gain security and develop a strong state.  He saw that if Italy didn’t unify and develop a stable state, the fragmented divided statelets of the peninsula would fall into stagnate squabbling while the rest of Europe would rise ahead.  But to get security you needed a strong leader who wouldn’t let morality get in the way of achieving the end of having a secure state.   In that Machiavelli makes a clear consequentialist “the ends justify the means” argument.

Again, read the links above for more on Machiavelli’s specific thought.  In this post I just want to reflect on how Savonarola and Machiavelli foreshadow the darkside of the growing humanism that Giotto’s work represented the start of.    Savonarola was a reaction to the increasing distance between the new humanist ethos of the renaissance and old strict ways of the Church.   Tradition was being challenged, change and diversity were accepted.  The good side was that this meant more freedom, as reflected in the issue of homosexuality.   The bad side was that this meant more class division and a pre-occupation on the material, as reflected by church corruption and the power of the Medicis.

Humanism embraced realism.   Just as the art and sculpture became more realistic, Machiavelli’s guide to politics reflected a desire to do what would work, even if were not right by moral standards.   In Machiavelli we see an overt move to relativism, as a Prince has to navigate the waters he finds rather than try to create an ideal polity.

Savonarola and Machiavelli are extremes that show divisions with us to this day.  I couldn’t help but think of Osama Bin Laden as a Muslim Savonarola, with authoritarian governments like the Saudis using Machiavelli’s methods.  One is a desire not to give up the old and in fact react to change by embracing an extremist and reactionary world view.   The other is to try to protect the new order by using any means necessary, fearing chaos and disarray.  The relativism in Machiavelli also reflects a dark side of this change — there is no new moral standard replacing tradition.

The students seem drawn to Machiavelli’s thought, it has the kind of pragmatic approach that has defined US politics and foreign policy for generations.   This shows me that despite 500 years of development since those early days of the pre-enlightenment, we still haven’t found a new moral code.   Reason alone can’t provide one, nor is there any proof of there existing an ethical code that can be derived from nature.   Those who claim there is one are rarely able to put up an argument to defend their position – they dance and weave a lot.  That leaves the door open for new Savonarola’s, like perhaps a younger Pat Robertson type.

This brings the conversation to the present.   We’re not just looking at historical figures dealing with 500 year old problems.   These are dilemmas we’re still working to solve, as relevant today as they were then.

I’m learning more, for instance, about a show I never saw before, Jersey Shore.   Apparently they are right around the corner from us, and one of our students actually talked to them and was on camera — she didn’t sign a waiver though, so they won’t use that footage.   I also got this picture — students say it’s a guy called ‘the Situation’ who “picked up two Italian bimbos.”   One wonders what Savonarola would say about these guys:

Reality TV invades our space in Florence

Though after a long hot day of art, politics, and 13 miles of walking, we ended with the best Gelato in the world, from Gelateria dei Neri.  Buona Notte!

Gelateria dei Neri in Florence - best gelato in the world!


Community Thinking

Today we had commencement ceremonies at UMF as the class of 2011 graduated.   Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker, had an edgier than usual speech.   Rather than just “what great times we have had and now we are ready to face the challenges ahead,” he defended his generation from critics.   Noting that the critics are usually from the generation that has created a massive economic crisis, been involved in countless wars, and who say love is what matters most but want marriage to only include a man and a woman, he vowed that his generation could change the country’s course.

Breaking from the usual generalities, he praised fellow graduates Nancy Varin and Benjamin Engel (both of whose honors defenses I attended this week), citing their work, motivated by a sense of principle, to improve Maine.   He said that if we all work together and pledge each day to do something to help someone else, his generation could help the country back to prosperity, and move forward to expand freedom, democracy and human values.

His speech was a perfect segue into the main commencement speaker, William McKibben.   McKibben is known as one of America’s leading environmentalist and strong advocate for action to fight global warming through improved community efforts.   Yet his focus was not global warming, but community — and in such his address complemented Lee’s call for action.

McKibben is most known for starting, a grassroots network devoted to trying to counteract global warming.   CNN called the organization’s “day of action” on October 24, 2009 the largest global day of political activism in the history of the planet, as events were held in 188 countries drawing millions of participants.   He didn’t talk about the issue of global warming, but rather how that organization operated.  It started with seven students working with him to try to do something significant — and by reaching out to others and making connections they succeeded beyond what anyone expected.

He also noted a rather alarming statistic.   An organization (I forget which one) polls people annually about how happy they are with their life.   The number answering “Very satisfied” peaked in 1956.   Since then the trend has been downward to below 25% today.  Yet during that time period we’ve had a massive growth in economic well being and prosperity.   If individual wealth and consumption were the key to happiness, we should be euphoric.   Instead, people are more anxious and stressed than ever — with true happiness more elusive than ever.

The reason, he argued, is our focus on individual wealth and consumption over community and shared values.    As a society we’ve become far more fragmented as we’ve become wealthier.    He noted that a study was done in which shoppers entering supermarkets were compared to those at farmers’ markets.   At farmers’ markets the average patron engages in ten times more conversation than in supermarkets.   There is more community.

If we worked closer as communities we could not only create sustainable economies, but have more connections and be able to work through problems better.  We’d also be happier, and we could make choices that aren’t so harmful for the environment.    McKibben noted that recent years have seen a dramatic growth in movements built around community, such as farmers markets, and efforts to produce and consume locally.   This gives him optimism that we’re starting to recognize (perhaps forced to by economic reality) that we need a sense of community to give us the connections required for a satisfying life.

Nancy Varin’s honors thesis (she was one of the students praised by Jeffrey Lees, the student speaker) was about social welfare reform.   She compared the “collectivism” of Rousseau to the “individualism” of Locke, and said that our political debates are too often defined by those extremes.   Offering an alternative of “communitarianism,” she said that a focus on community is the answer.   Communities do not exist without individuals, but individuals are defined by and in part even constructed by their community.   The extremes are unrealistic “ideal types,” easy to build an ideology upon but not reflective of reality.

She noted that such an approach to welfare reform could yield pragmatic compromises, and would move decision making closer to those impacted.  Moreover, the receivers of aid would have to give back and learn how to be active in the community rather than just consume tax dollars and focus on getting their individual lives in order.  Some of the most important work in the future could be what is done by community organizers rather than government bureaucrats.

It strikes me that the tea party movement, as much as I disagree with much of their politics, is driven by this sense that community has been lost.   Often that gets channeled into nostalgia, memories of what communities used to be like, and thus fear that Muslims, immigrants and others are the cause for having lost what America used to be.   The reality is that our lack of community is not because of people who are “different,” but because of the path our culture took towards radical individualism and consumption as an end itself.   Meaning became defined in terms of material success in a way that almost guaranteed psychological failure.

Lacking that nostalgic yearning for what’s been lost, the up coming generation is in a position to change the world.   The idealism Jeff admitted he was espousing is not misplaced and in fact necessary.   Driven by a desire for more consumption and the capacity to fulfill our material wants, my generation has become addicted to oil, reckless about the environment, and has come to see war as akin to an interesting reality TV show.    We say we  support the troops as long as the President tells us our patriotic duty is to go shopping and keep consuming.   Soldiers suffer the pain and pay the price (as do their families) and we cheer them on, insensitive to the demands we through our government place on them.   We’ve been “living high and living fine on borrowed time” and the price is coming do.

The next generation isn’t afraid of people who are different, understands that globalization changes everything, and has the potential to embrace the idea of community.   Communities can be global (like or local, they can be virtual through facebook or real as in town meetings.   They let us connect; they empower without relying on the bureaucratic state to solve problems.   And students are active.   Back in the sixties they protested while young and then become yuppies seduced my material prosperity when they matured.   This generation doesn’t protest as much, but is more activist than any I’ve seen since I started teaching over twenty years ago.

At some point as McKibben’s short but powerful defense of community was ending I felt myself tear up.  I realized I was really moved not just by his speech, but by the sense of optimism that we weren’t stuck in a downward spiral, doomed to what Stephen Kahn calls the “collapse of civilization.”   There is a solution, and we have a generation emerging that not only is dissatisfied with what conditions they inherit, but also with the mode of thinking being passed down.    They are starting to embrace a new thinking centered around community, a sense of ethics, and a need for practical action to solve problems and make the world — or at least the community in which they acting — a better place.

So congratulations to the class of 2011.   You are graduating in some of the most difficult economic times since the Great Depression, with traditional jobs fading, as well as careers that are likely to shift numerous times during your working life.   You’ll face energy crises, environmental crises, and challenges to our lifestyle that we can only imagine.  Yet you may well forge a new future based on thinking that rejects 20th century ideological dichotomies and recognizes that the individual without the community is meaningless.   As communities we can not only solve problems, but can live much happier and more satisfying lives.


Personality and Experience

In reading a couple other blogs I was struck by how in one, a conservative blog, there were some really disparaging remarks about “liberals.”  One person was glad she was not in particular professions because she couldn’t take all the liberals and their ‘political correctness.’   In a left leaning blog there were comments ripping conservatives as “being driven by ignorance and fear.”    Frankly I’ve never seen a correlation between individual character and whether someone is liberal or conservative, but clearly a lot of people see their side as ‘good and reasonable’ and the other side as somehow faulty.  Some of it on blogs is just for fun (like Packer fans saying Viking fans are scum — deep down they all know they’re just football fans, they’re trash talking), but I think many people take it seriously.

That got me thinking about why people have the perspectives they hold.   It may be less about rational analysis of the world and more about personality and experience.   For instance, my personality is such is that I am not judgmental and do not hold grudges.   On the scale between perceiving and judging on the Myers Briggs personality test I’m way off on the ‘perceiving’ side.    Beyond that I think I am constitutionally incapable of holding a grudge or staying mad for more than a few minutes.  I find it pretty easy to forgive and move on.

I think those traits are part of who I am; my ‘wiring’ if you will.   I suspect those personality traits predispose me to being a social and civil libertarian.  They also make me less likely to be a political activist.   Many colleagues and friends I know are very involved in causes from environmentalism to the peace movement.  Often I agree with them about the issues but don’t have a desire to protest or spend time on some campaign to pass or stop some legislative initiative.    Being a ‘perceiver’ I’m more likely to watch and try to figure out what’s going on than to participate (which is why I’m a political scientist not a politician!)   That’s not necessarily good, it’s just who I am.   All of us have personality traits which probably predispose us to particular views about life, as well as how we’ll act.

Second is experience.   I’ve studied social science, traveled a lot in Europe, learned German and developed a set of experiences that lead me to a particular way of looking at the world.   If I had gone to law school and stayed in South Dakota, I might look at politics very differently.    Part of this is personality as well.   When I decided to go to graduate school rather than law school, my mom was dubious.   She told me that as a lawyer I’d be guaranteed a real good income, while graduate school was uncertain.

I shocked her when I said, “if I really wanted money I’m sure I could spend time learning how business and investments work, and then become a millionaire.  But I don’t want to do that, it would be boring.”    OK, forgive my 22 year old arrogance there, but I meant it at the time — I thought that business and high finance was probably not that hard if one really put their heart in it, studied it, and made it the focus of their life.   But yuck.   No material payoff is worth living what to me would have been a boring, even meaningless life.

To someone else, of course, that kind of life is the essence of our society, producing investments, expanding the market and creating jobs.   My desire to study European politics and teach at a university might seem lazy or unambitious (though at age 22 I had no clue where I was going — I just wanted to go to Johns Hopkins for an MA because I’d  live in Bologna, Italy my first year!).    If I had stayed in DC working in the Senate at age 25 instead of deciding to leave I also would have had a very different set of experiences.

Each person has their own life world, a set of experiences that shapes how they look at things.   Each person’s life world is inherently limited by those experiences.  Just as someone might dismiss academia as “ivory towered out of touch with reality,” another might dismiss military life as structured around hierarchies and orders.   Another might dismiss high finance as a narrow focus on money and investments without regard to culture and how society works.   Nobody can truly claim that their experience is privileged.  Each person’s experience brings a unique perspective to life.   The academic, athlete, journalist, preacher, mechanic, lawyer, doctor, janitor…each has a life perspective shaped by personality and experience.

Here’s where it gets tricky.   When we debate our beliefs (shaped by experience and personality) we tend to make the mistake of thinking that our own belief is self-evidently the right one because to each of us it seems so obvious.   Anyone with that personality and set of experiences would come to the same conclusion, after all!  When others have very different world views, the knee jerk response is “I’m right, they’re wrong!”   And since we fool ourselves into thinking we hold our perspective out of a kind of impartial, unbiased analysis, it’s soon easy to think there must be something wrong with those people who think differently.  Why don’t they see clearly what seems so clearly to me?

But if we recognize that personality and experience trump ‘unbiased reason’ in shaping our world views, then it’s possible to look at it differently.  Rather than one of us being right and the others wrong, we’re really just experiencing reality from different perspectives.   We are like the blind men and the elephant, where one felt the elephant’s trunk, another the leg, another the ear, etc., and each had a very different idea of what the creature was like.   The construction worker, teacher, cop, florist, writer, and waitress all are experiencing life and politics from a different angle.   I study social science, the priest studies philosophy and Christian theology; those experiences lead to different conclusions.   And if that’s the case, it’s not a leap to say that the truth probably can’t be captured by any one person’s perspective, no matter how certain they are that the world clearly is how they interpret it to be.   Only by learning from each other and recognizing other perspectives as legitimate and valuable can we get a more realistic sense of how the world is and address political issues.

This reminds me of Walter Lippmann’s argument that for democracy to function, we must not only tolerate each other’s right to speak, but actually listen to and learn from each other.   While we try to convince and persuade others, we shouldn’t close our minds to their efforts to convince and persuade us.  And maybe we’ll realize that the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian and the socialist all have something important to contribute to the public debate.   If our perspective is shaped mostly by personality and experience, then the best way to approach politics is not to try to eliminate political differences and “win,” but to embrace diverse views as a source of strength.


Particle or Wave? Individual or Collective?

One of the well known paradoxes of quantum mechanics is that light is both a particle and a wave.   On its face this appears to be contradictory.    In one state light appears to have its energy spread out, creating interference patterns if waves intersect.  In another state, particles act, hitting things like sensors which allow us to operate remote controls for TVs and garage doors.  There doesn’t seem to be a clear way to conceptualize light as being both at the same time.  It’s not like the particles form a wave in the way water molecules form ocean waves.   Rather, the essential nature of light is that it is both a wave and a particle at the same time.   This is still unnerving to many, despite the physicist Nils Bohrs notion of complimentarity:  these states are not contradictory but complementary, as you need both to describe reality.

I was thinking about this in light of recent discussions about whether or not social phenomena are simply the product of individuals making choices, or if humans are best seen as part of a larger whole, a society.   There are some who view this distinction much the same way one is tempted to view the particle/wave issue.   One can see the world is made up of discrete human identities making choices and, through their actions, producing some kind of social reality.   As complex as that reality may be, it can be broken down to the individual actions, and explained at the individual level of analysis.

Others see the individual as being the product of social forces and cultural heritage.    You are born into a particular circumstance, and depending on your position in society and your cultural and family environment, you develop in particular ways.   The idea of being truly an individual is illusory; yes, we have identity, but who we are in this world reflects the forces acting upon us as much if not more than our own individual capacities.

Pondering these different views, I realized that it’s wrong to posit the question as if we had to choose between two positions – humans are individuals simply making choices and thus producing reality on the one hand, or society is a barrage of forces producing and empowering/constraining human identity on the other.  That is to view these as contradictory.  What if we saw them as complimentary?

In quantum physics, you see light as a wave or as a particle depending on what you are looking for.   If you seek to measure its wave like properties, that is what you’ll find.  The data won’t give you much information explaining how light functions as particles.   It does tell you something though — you know that near the peak of the wave you’ve got a higher probability of finding a particle.  As the wave spreads out, the probability goes down (this also opens the door to phenomena like quantum tunneling — atoms can appear on the other side of a barrier, as if one could suddenly walk through a wall.   That is really strange, but if it didn’t happen we wouldn’t have our sun!)  If you look to measure the particle functions of light, you’ll find a photon, but you won’t know much about the wave behavior.

Humans can be viewed the same way.  If I want to examine the psychology of crowds or mass behavior, analyze statistical trends, and treat humans as something that can be studied as an aggregate collective entity, I can do that.  Indeed, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and others have very convincing powerful theories that need no information about individual psychology or action.   Highway engineers can study traffic patterns without having to figure out the psychology of the individual drivers.    You can extrapolate downward (if crowd psychology works a certain way, than individuals must be reacting in particular ways) but you don’t need to.

If you want to study human psychology and behavior, you can do that too.   You might be able to explain a lot about what a few individuals do, though it won’t be enough to explain the broad trends of history.   It may give clues, but for most larger issues you have to go above the individual level of analysis to the cultural, governmental or even systemic.

Often these are seen as contradictory, and the battles between “methodological individualism” on the one hand, and “structuralism and social constructivism” on the other can be intense.   In international relations theory this is known as the agent-structure problem.    And like in quantum mechanics, there is a complementarity principle called constructivism.   Humans are agents acting to reproduce or transform social structures, but individual actions are not enough unless they are part of a larger social or cultural movement.

So the issue of whether or not humans should be looked at as individuals only or as part of a social structure only is wrong headed.   We are both, we cannot be understood as separate from our society and culture, but society and culture cannot exist without individuals.   We are both particle and wave.

That last sentence is true on a couple of levels.  Just as light is both particle and wave, so is matter.  That means that all of us share that trait with light — we have wave lengths, and we have particles.  We’re so big that the particle aspects (matter) of what we are become obvious, but every particle that makes up our bodies is both wave and particle.  Paradox is the essence of reality.


Facebook Nation

A nation is usually defined as a group of people who identify with each other due to a common bond.   To be politically relevant, this bond has to innately connected to identity, such as ethnicity or language.  A nation is, as Benedict Anderson put it, an “imagined community.”   It isn’t based on personal interactions, a choice of who to align oneself with, or a clear objective rationale.   Rather, people for whatever reason identify with a particular trait or idea, and then see themselves as part of a community.

Nations are therefore historical and social constructs, existing only because people have chosen to define themselves as unified by a particular label.   Moreover, nations emerged in Europe with the rise of modernism, as groups started to differentiate themselves on the basis of language and perceived ethnic identity.    Before nations, the primary source of European identity was the Church.   All Europeans were Christians, members of the holy Catholic Church, unified in Christ.  A French speaking peasant and a German speaking peasant didn’t feel a sense of being French or German — they’d probably never meet each other, and the language they used or where they lived didn’t factor much into identity.  France might exist on a map, but it was abstract.

Napoleon Bonaparte changed all that.   After the French revolution France descended into chaos, as the revolutionaries realized that reason and rational thought, while very useful in criticizing the old order, didn’t give them a clear set of principles for how to govern.     Napoleon took power, and soon turned to the imagery of the France to create a new form of identity.

The French tricolor, once a battle flag, became a sacred symbol of the state.   We feel the impact of Napoleon’s efforts today, when you look at controversies that arise over the American flag.   There is nothing truly sacred about a flag, but it becomes a focal point of that imagined common identity.   The power of nationalism was obvious as a country that went from bankruptcy to revolution to chaotic weakness came together to conquer Europe.

Nationalism replaced religion as the primary mode of identity in the modern era.     The idea that Christians were slaughtering Christians in World Wars I and II was irrelevant; what mattered was that Germans, French, British and Russians were fighting.    To be sure, Christians had fought Christians during the reformation, but those fights were about religion — each side felt the other had the “wrong” interpretation of the faith.   By the modern era, it simply didn’t matter, nation trumped faith.   The power of nationalism is intense, because it joins people together in a common, collective identity, often able to be manipulated by skillful political leaders.

In an era of globalization, these modern notions of national identity are breaking down, especially with young people.   Not that nationalism is disappearing.   Indeed, while nations themselves may be imagined communities, they do attest to something more fundamental about humans — we are social creatures whose identity cannot be determined through purely individual means.   At one level this is obvious — every attribute, description, and label I give myself comes mediated through a language.  By definition humans are products of culture and history, if any of us were born in a different time or place we’d be fundamentally different people.

Yet humans are also individuals.  This dual nature explains so much political acrimony, as people tend to emphasize one over the other, rather than think critically about how they intersect.  We have individual identities connected to collective identities.    That is what makes nationalism such a potent force, if leaders can manipulate our sense of identity and command loyalty, they can unleash collective power, often in destructive ways that damage individual liberty and autonomy.

Nationalism in that traditional sense may be fading, if what I said about the obsolescence of the centralized bureaucratic state is accurate.   If central states are less dominant, then national identity will lose its centrality.   In that sense it will go the path of religious identity, remaining important, often powerful, but not central.

Consider Facebook.  I have about 200 facebook friends, though most of them are people I would otherwise have no contact with.   Some are old friends from college or grad school, some are colleagues, and some are actual family and “real” friends.    This list includes students who were on various travel courses I was part of, and we friended each other primarily to share pictures.  Now I read about their job hunts, new children, and other life events, knowing what is happening in a way I otherwise could not.   Unlike some faculty members, I have no problem being ‘facebook friends’ with students.

People also organize political campaigns or promote causes, comment on each others’ status, and it as entertaining way to feel part of other peoples’ lives, some of whom I wouldn’t recognize if they greeted me on the street.   As I glance through this, I wonder what this says about identity and connections in the future.    I get amused by folk of my generation who find facebook almost scandalous due to its lack of privacy.  “What these kids share! Don’t they realize this is out there forever,” one colleague murmured.   Yes, they do.   And they don’t care.   It’s a different world.

Facebook now has 500 million members, and is growing strong.   Its mode of communication, lay out, and little controversies are common to most of its users, as are popular posts and links.   It generates discussion, debate and can spread knowledge about both important major events or about how many times a new parent had to get up to change diapers last night.

In a sense it’s like a nation — a post-modern nation where collective identity is diffuse and diverse.   Unlike ethnic nations with strict rules on language and “blood,” Facebook Nation is defined by whatever the users want to identify with.   The connections are loose, yet powerful.   Students admit to spending too much time on facebook, and there is a sense of community in keeping up with what others are doing, or sharing a thought or idea, knowing that it’ll at show up on a couple hundred screens.   In that sense, it commands loyalty and respect, even if there is no central power pulling the strings or manipulating the users.

If so, that’s a good thing.   Facebook Nation will launch no wars, operate no sweat shops, and force no one to join who does not want to be there.   It is a new kind of collective identity, one which seems to exercise little power over the politics and social conflicts of the day, but a lot of power over how people spend their time.   And given the damage done by state-centric modern nationalism, a decentralized post-modern facebook nation is a welcome change.   It isn’t itself the “face” of the future, but it may be an indication of where we as a society are heading, thanks to the technology driven information revolution we’re experiencing.

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Power to the People

(Part 2 of a two part post)

As I noted yesterday, the great compromise between labor and business ushered in an era of record prosperity and stability for the industrialized west.  It expanded opportunities for the lower classes, gave most people access to education, health care, and a functioning social welfare net, all while allowing businesses to prosper, expand, and innovate.   After the ideological battles of the first half of the 20th century, the success of the second half is astounding.

Yet we are in crisis.  Most industrialized states have government debt of 60% of GDP or more, while private and corporate debt is often three times as high.   So much debt in every sector of the economy cannot be sustained.  The cheap credit bubbles that led us here have burst, and it’s still possible that we are at the start of “Great Depression II.”   Moreover, the crisis is global, and the economic re-balancing it entails could breed instability and conflict.   The 65 year run of prosperity and stability in the industrialized world could be nearing an end.

So how do we prevent that from happening?  First and foremost is to avoid sacrificing ‘the great compromise.’   The compromise had two aspects.   First, the workers got true opportunity to succeed and have their children live a life better than theirs, thanks to a social welfare system that guaranteed the basics and protected worker rights.    Second, capitalism and markets could function, allowing businesses to innovate, profit and grow, thus yielding a materially prosperous society.    Now both the left and the right risk going beyond the terms of the compromise, and thus endangering it.

The left risks expanding governmental power and social welfare guarantees to the point that they do not only assure equal opportunity and basic needs, but are used instead to shape and mold outcomes.   The right runs the risk of going beyond the terms of the compromise by empowering big business to begin exploiting again — this time third world workers via globalization.   If production shifts to the third world, the short term benefit of lower prices for us is offset by long term problems of economic sustainability.   The middle class will shrink, the number of workers will decline, and less profitable and productive service sector jobs will dominate.   Working class opportunity will fade, and you’ll end up with a bifurcated society of the very wealthy and a large and relatively poorer lower middle class.

But how do we prevent the compromise from fraying at the edges, with both the left and the right breaking its terms until they set up a crisis that comes equipped with its own ideological holy war?   How do we avoid the kind of instability that marked the first half of the 20th Century?   The answer may be surprising: devolve power.  Give localities, states, and regions more money and control of policies and regulations.    Give people more power over big corporations and financial institutions.

This is possible because now even small towns have access to data and information that used to require central bureaucratization.   With resources, a state or county could run a health care system or aid for poor families in a way that used to require more central control.   The problem with central control is that bureaucracies are bad at adapting to particular circumstances.   They thus require ‘standard operating procedures’ that work adequately well most of the time, but rarely at an optimal level, and sometimes creating absurd Kafkaesque outcomes.   Bureaucracies are also very conservative, and do not adapt well to change — not a good attribute in this era of rapid and unexpected change.   All this makes bureaucracies inefficient and expensive.

If this could be localized, money could be spent more efficiently as local idiosyncrasies are taken into account.  The staff would be better able to adapt policies to fit individual cases that don’t fit the norm.    Broad guidelines could come from above, but everything from qualifying income levels to the amount of aid could be related to local prices and contexts.   Moreover, people would be empowered to define what problems should be addressed and even develop alternate solutions.   Before the digital age, this was simply beyond the scope of local or even state governments.    Not any more.

One can imagine the central state (or for the US, the federal government) shrinking over time, as more power and resources are given to states, while state governments would devolve more power and authority to the locals, something Jerry Brown already proposes for California. Thus while many programs might be reduced or eliminated, there would be more local control over the specifics of how this would happen.   The social welfare side of the great compromise could be made sustainable even in lean economic times.

The same logic could apply to big money.   Big corporations and financial institutions often have more power than most sovereign states.   They lack the protections of sovereignty, but also the burdens.   They are immensely powerful, and can use that wealth to manipulate political outcomes and circumvent both governments and markets.   Their flaws, as with the flaws of big government, come from too much centralized power and too little transparency and oversight.

Just as the left has to question its devotion to big government, the right has to recognize that big business is not somehow pure and uncorrupted just because its not government.   Centralized power acts like centralized power, whether its a government or a corporation.    The key here is to open up and democratize corporations — with the effect of altering them as much as the radical devolution of government power would alter the state.

Right now corporations are assumed to be responsible only to their shareholders, with their primary job being to maximize profits.  Yet in the US, at least, corporations are considered “individuals” before the law, like any citizen.  But while we tell our children that citizens have responsibilities, and we aren’t to just selfishly try to enrich ourselves with no regard for morality or others, that is precisely what we say corporations are supposed to do.

What if corporate decision making bodies, such as boards of directors and executive committees, had to include members of the public who represent the interests of communities, workers, environmentalists, and others.   The idea is that corporations need accountability and transparency just as governments do; big government and big business are more alike than different.    The choice to relocate in Vietnam would depend not just on the bottom line, but also the impact on the community.   Confidential information would now be open to the public (something Wikileaks like developments will cause anyway).

Since businesses are global, the difficulty would be in defining the relevant communities here, simple geography won’t suffice.   Over time the digital age may prove this less problematic than it seems to those of us still living with a world view shaped in the 20th Century.   Diverse populations can be brought together in communities rather easily, as Facebook illustrates.    Corporations will still generate profits, innovate, compete in the market, and remain capitalist.   They will simply be run with broader accountability, reflecting their responsibilities to both shareholders and the larger public.

In short, a radical rethinking of both government and business can save the ‘great compromise’ and bring us an era of continued prosperity.   It is premised on bringing the old slogan “power to the people” to life.    Real power, power over governments and large corporations, will be held in part by people in local and regional governments, now capable of getting information and acting on it thanks to the dramatic transformation of social, economic and political life caused by the information/internet revolution.



A Wikileaks Kind of World

War has broken out!  So scream headlines on various websites and blogs.  Bowing to pressure from the US, major credit card companies and Pay Pal stop allowing citizens to contribute to and support Wikileaks, leading to a massive cyber attack against those companies, even shutting down Mastercard’s on line system.   Groups opposed to Wikileaks have struck back against the group “anonymous” who has been leading these attacks — as of this writing, if you click that link you’ll get an “account suspended” page.   Wikileaks has also been removed from servers; four days ago I went there and read their self-promotion; now the site is off limits.   You can still reach it, but only through round about means.

Watching all the scampering about in response to a large but relatively vanilla set of leaks, it occurs to me that this isn’t so much about the leaks themselves, but a generation of politicians and leaders who don’t quite understand the new world they now inhabit.   Old methods of controlling information and responding to threats don’t work.   This case is important less for its substance (it’s unlikely the leaks did much if any real harm to the US) and more for what it symbolizes.    It demonstrates that the new cyber-world we’ve created doesn’t play by 20th Century rules.   Technology may be rendering traditional politics obsolete, and at this point leaders don’t know how to respond.

It happened before.   Before 1439, printing a book required extensive work to copy by hand the words, and bind them in a usually lavish form.  Few people could afford books, Latin was the language in which most were written (though in the 14th century there started to be more vernacular literature — Dante’s Inferno, for example).   The church controlled most of the books, and the flow of ideas across Europe or even cities was limited.   Oral communication, including oral histories, was the standard way people shared ideas.   That meant, of course, that disseminating ideas was difficult, and if you challenged authority you got noticed before too many people had latched on to the challenge.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg developed the first (western) printing press.   Suddenly the mass production of books and pamphlets was possible; an information revolution began.  Even after the printing press had been developed it took awhile before literacy to advance to the point that there was a public demand for the printed word.   But by the 1500s ideas could spread quickly.

The Catholic Church learned what this meant the hard way.   When the Pope decided that St. Peter’s basilica needed to be rebuilt to reflect the grandeur befitting the center of the Roman Catholic church, he allowed the printing press to be used to print off papal indulgences, giving people time off from purgatory.   These could be in effect “sold” — given to people who donated to the new basilica.  It worked, giving us the splendor we now find at the Vatican.   Yet it also led to the decline of church power, as one Catholic monk, Martin Luther, appalled by what he saw as a practice which threatened peoples’ salvation, put together a list of 95 issues about church practices he thought should be questioned and discussed.   He penned them in Latin, and nailed them to his university-church’s equivalent of the common bulletin board:  a large church door.

He expected an academic debate.   He got much more.  Some of his friends translated the list into German, and used the printing press spread Luther’s complaints across German speaking lands.   Soon a revolt was brewing, called the reformation.    It wasn’t that suddenly people started to agree with Luther’s argument; rather, these ideas proved able to unite Germans already chaffing at following dictates from Rome.   Luther’s complaint sparked a rebellion which led to over 100 years of instability and war, culminating in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.    The treaty put forth a new political entity: the sovereign territorial state.

The Church was pushed from the pinnacle of power for good, the old medieval political system of decentralized and local authority was destroyed.   An entire new political and cultural world was created, all because communication changed and ideas were able to be spread rapidly and with ease.  The printing press allowed mass education, helped create modern nationalism, and made the industrial revolution and enlightenment possible.    Propaganda, advertising, and even consumerism could not exist without the printing press.   We live in era of the printing press, though that era may be giving way.

The internet and corresponding information technology could impact our political world with as much force and substance as the printing press did the medieval world.   In other words, it could render current political structures and practices obsolete, forcing the entire system to transform.   Like Gutenberg’s invention, it has allowed ideas and information to flow in a fundamentally different and more widespread manner.   Information can be stored electronically and then publicized for the world to see.   Such documents can’t be destroyed, do not suffer physical limits, and cross borders and continents with ease.

The modern Nation State may be the functional equivalent of the 16th Century Church.  It dominates politics, and has considerable control over information available to its citizens.  The state’s control over information allows it to maintain physical control of territory, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of political violence.   A state can go to war, but if non-state actors do so, it’s despicable terrorism.

Does this new technology threaten the sovereign state?   Will the state find that the wide dissemination of diverse views and information previously unobtainable threatens its status?   Will the politics of the Westphalian era, beginning in 1648, give way to a new era, one where sovereignty, territoriality and statehood no longer define the fundamentals of global politics?   If so, what will the new world look like, and how violent/difficult will the transition be?

As the “cyberwars” over Wikileaks rage, this whole issue is symbolic of the “world in motion.”   We live in a Wikileaks kind of world now, and no one is quite sure what that means for the future.

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Voting is irrational!

But do it anyway.

Some people argue that if everyone acted rationally out of enlightened self-interest,  society would function best.   In such a view problems are only the result of misplaced altruism, a lack of understanding of reality, or notions of self-interest which violate the rights of others (e.g., theft or murder).   However, voting is one behavior which shows that rational self-interest on the individual level could lead to societal results which are harmful.

Rational behavior occurs when a person acts in a way which maximizes expected utility (EU).   Utility simply means the result is beneficial to the individual.   Expected utility takes into account that the individual has to predict what the outcome of action might be (positive and negative), and thus has uncertainty built in.  This means, of course, that a person can be rational but wrong.  Saddam Hussein may have thought that invading Kuwait would be accepted by the US and make Iraq stronger.  He was wrong, but not necessarily irrational.   Calculations of expected utility are rational if they are based on an interpretation of evidence not twisted by some kind of psychological bias or erratic guess.   So let’s take voting.

First, what benefit does one get from voting?   In terms of the election itself, there is a possibility that a candidate one supports will tie or win by one vote.  In such a case, a person’s vote has real value, he or she has determined the winner.   However, in all other cases the individual vote was irrelevant — if the person stayed home, the result would be the same.  One calculates the odds of a race being decided by one vote by considering the historical record of elections, and how often that happens, as well as polls and the dynamics of a given race.   In some local elections it may happen none and then, but in most elections it’s exceedingly rare.

Second, what disadvantage does one get from voting?   It could be monetary (stamp for an absentee ballot), an opportunity cost for time spent voting, and even risks that a car accident or some other  problem might be caused by the actions needed to go vote.    Compare the costs with the exceedingly low probability one’s vote will matter in the outcome, and there is very little reason for anyone to vote.   Staying home and watching The Simpsons would likely yield greater personal benefit.  Thus the expected utility of voting is negative, and the rational thing to do is stay home.

A common retort to such an argument is “what if everyone did that.”   But there is no reason to think an individual’s refusal to vote (especially if they don’t tell anyone, or even lie and say they did) affects what others do.   If one calculates the probability that other people didn’t vote as a result of one person’s refusal to vote, it would be extremely low.  Nonetheless, if ‘everyone did that,’ democracy would perish.   If most people did that, a small minority would have the power to impose their will.

So we really need most people to vote.   It isn’t in their individual rational interest to do so, it is in their collective rational interest. Voting, like so many social activities, is based on societal rather than individual rationality.  We do things because what ever personal cost we pay, we know it’s our duty to our community.    Often these are things we could choose not to do without any consequence.   Stopping to pick up some litter when nobody’s around, contributing to a charity, or volunteering are all aspects of social rationality.

Social rationality is different than individual rationality because one doesn’t calculate expected individual utility, but rather expected collective utility.   If everyone did X, then what would the result be?   The to get away with free loading is not relevant in a calculation of collective utility.  It’s assumed others will do the same thing.

Societies act with collective rationality if there is a strong measure of group cohesion and loyalty, if people feel like they are part of something greater than themselves and thus have a subjective sense of happiness or satisfaction when they adhere to the collective action.   One could argue that the individual benefits by feeling good about voting, or meeting friends at the polling center, but the reason those subjective values carry weight is because the individual is thinking in terms of collective utility.   They know that their own self-interest is tied up in social responsibilities and connections; the self-interest is meaningless outside the collective interest.  It is shaped by ones’ culture, and the actions of others are fundamental to subjective well being.

Societies only work when there is a strong sense of community.  In Communist Russia the state tried to force a collective mentality on people, but the opposite emerged.  People felt no responsibility for community or the collective because that was the realm of the state.  Instead people tried to get away with what they could and saw collective responsibility as outside themselves, a duty for the government, not citizens.  The result was a breakdown of social cohesion and the functioning of society.

Ironically, for democracy and individual rights to thrive, there must be a strong sense of collective utility and social responsibility.   Societies with a strong sense of collective utility will have less conflict and more cooperation, thereby yielding the possibility for greater individual freedom.    You have more liberty as an individual if you see yourself bound up with society.

Voting is the classic example of that apparent paradox.   Individual rationality would lead to actions that destroy democracy and could allow tyranny.   A sense of responsibility and societal cohesion leads one to feel the duty vote.   It is that sense of community which also provides one with positive feelings about the act, of being part of the greater whole, and doing something for the good of society.

So next time someone posits individual liberty as being somehow opposed to a strong sense of community, or tries to claim society is made up solely of individuals acting in terms of their own individual self-interest, remember the importance of collective rational interest.  Without a strong sense of collective rationality, individuals will not act in ways that benefit the entire community, and would thereby endanger democracy and freedom.

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American values and Democracy

In my first year seminar Tuesday we’ll be discussing democracy.   We are also reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book The Idea That is America, a very timely and profound look at how the values that founded our country are still our best bet for solving our problems and creating a better future.    So I’ll blog a bit about those values in the coming weeks.   We already discussed liberty (or freedom), something I’ve written quite a bit about already.

Slaughter notes, of course, that the term democracy was used differently at the time of the revolution.   To the founders democracy was crude majority rule, while a Republic was representative government.    Around the time of Woodrow Wilson the usage of the term started to change.   Now politician and political scientist alike would clearly note that while the US is a Republic, it is also a democracy.

It wasn’t a democracy by today’s standards early on.    A country now is considered a democracy when every individual can participate equally in both choosing representatives and other elected officials (one vote per person), and participating equally in political debate and discussion.   Early America did not have this — the founders created a country with slavery, women were not allowed to vote, and for awhile only white land owners had a say in most matters.

A couple of things stand out.  First, as Slaughter notes, the United States is a constant work in progress.   The ideals of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution are aspirational; early America did not fit what the lofty ideals the founders expressed.   Moreover, there have been peaks and valleys along the way — times where we move forward (e.g., the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote) and times we stray from our ideals (the McCarthy era red scare).    There is progress over time, but not constant progress.

This should help political activists and those with strong, passionate views accept that their causes cannot be won quickly.   Both abolition and woman’s suffrage came as a culmination of generations of effort.  Many were radical (some suffrage movements called for an all out revolution), some pragmatic, but over time they won because they appealed to American values.    Tradition, old prejudices, racism and sexism all violate the very principles upon which the country is based.   As time passes, we work and move closer to achieving those values more fully.   That should give us a sense of optimism, even when things look bleak.

Second, it also shows just how hard it is to form and support a democracy.   What the founders labeled democracy would not be given that word now.   To be a democracy requires that all citizens be able to have the right to vote and participate in the political discourse.   If a majority could deny a minority that right, the system would not be democratic by today’s standards.   Fundamental to maintaining a democracy is accountability to law (all must adhere to the rule of law)  and accountability to the people (elections must be free and fair).

What strikes me is just how interwoven our other values are to maintaining a democracy.  Democracies are meaningless without freedom — you can vote in almost every country in the world, but they do not achieve democratic rule if the people are not free.   Democracy cannot self-improve like ours has if there is no tolerance of dissent.   Disagreement is key.   We cannot improve if we do not allow people to think freely and criticize how things are done.

There is a lesson here for those who want to spread democracy.   President Bush famously said that “everyone wants to be free,” suggesting that democracy would be natural if only we got ride of despots like Saddam.   Yet as our own experience shows, our democracy took nearly 200 years to achieve the bare minimum of what it takes to define a country as democractic today.   What if Iraq had said, “We want to be a democracy, but women can’t vote and Sunnis will be held as slaves.”   We’d reject that as not only undemocratic, but an extreme violation of human rights.   Yet we had something like that for much of our history.

Still we expect other states to overnight jump from political cultures that often are less developed than ours was in 1789 to become a functional democracy operating with values we embrace in their 2010 form.   We seem surprised when war lords take over, a political system becomes hopelessly divided, or corruption runs rampant.  We don’t seem to realize that building a democracy requires generational efforts, and is always a work in progress.   Rather than try to demand radical reform, maybe we need to be patient.    Let’s look for slow steps rather than radical change.   Rather than focus on China’s faults, let’s appreciate how much it’s improved.  Rather than wringing our hands over Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia, let’s see it in the context of Czarism and Communism, and hope for at least steps in the right direction.

Humans have an annoying and very dangerous habit.   We like to see our situation — be it religion, form of government, or tastes — as being “right.”   Everyone else is wrong.   That creates a tendency to want to demand others conform to ones’ own choices and beliefs — or else they are met with anger and intolerance.  That is seen in our politics today — and has been in our politics probably since the country formed.   Our values are the best way to counter that tendency, and with democracy work through the disagreements, passions and uncertainties.   After all, we are still early in our path as a country to live up to the ideas and values that define America as an idea, not just a place.

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Powerful Books

Every once in awhile I read a book that comes to help shape how I look at life, my research and society.   Three books stand out as especially influential in that regard, and each has something in common: the author’s perspective and interpretation of what is happening in the world is very similar to my own.    So I am drawn to those books not because they change how I think (I would be worried if one book could change a lifetime’s contemplations about reality), but they speak in new ways to my already existing understanding of the world, stretching or altering it in subtle but real ways.

The first was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The book crystallized for me how one can study and comprehend social reality through analyzing ideas and signified shared/understandings of reality,  without relying on beliefs on essential human nature or timeless modes of thought.   I read this book in 1987 (it was written in 1968).

The second was Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, a short but powerful expose on war from a war reporter who had been in just about every major battle zone from the early eighties to 2001.   His brilliant and cutting analysis brought home the importance of the human element in understanding world events, and changed how I teach political science and approach research.   I found this book at Barnes and Nobels in 2002 shortly after it was published and bought it out of curiosity.

Tuesday I read Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, first published 62 years ago in 1948.   Fromm is part of the Frankfurt School, and through the work of Horkheimer and Adorno I’ve already found myself drawn to their form of critical theory.   This neo-Freudian approach and especially Fromm’s connection of social processes to psychology is something I find compelling, and represents a necessary link between abstract social theory (liberalism, Marxism, etc.) which often ignores or assumes the psychological component, and my desire to understand social transformation and change.   Social theory is very good at predicting constant behaviors, but when something essential changes (like  the Cold War ends or the economy collapses) once dependable theories start to fail.

My last blog entry, Changes, asserts that the new media is generating an information revolution that will have as profound an impact on politics and society as did the rise of the printing press, which destroyed the medieval order and made modernity possible.   Where this is going, and how we might avoid chaotic and even violent change is a very difficult question, especially if our theories and ideologies are rooted in an era that is passing. We don’t have the tools to understand the new era coming.

I believe that elements of these three books will help guide my research.   How can we understand what is happening, and is it possible to avoid the chaos and violence which often accompanies fundamental social change?    The Berger and Luckmann book opens up the ability to de-naturalize the existing order and not see it as “normal.”  Humans very easily see their own culture as natural and far more coherent and consistent than it is.   All cultures have morphed and collapsed, the elders often horrified by what the youth are constructing.   To study this, we have to avoid the bias of seeing what we’ve experienced as “normal” and something almost certain to continue (or which normatively should continue), or as resulting from some fundamental human nature.

From Hedges I keep my focus on not just abstract theory or aggregations of outcomes, but on what things mean to individual humans, how life experiences are affected by change.    Hedges focused on war, but economic factors, cultural change, and all of what is happening hass very real and profound impacts on the daily lives of average people.   Hedges ended his book talking about Freud and the instincts of Thanatos and Eros, which is a good segue into Fromm.

Fromm essentially argues that modernity has increased negative freedom (freedom from), but by pushing back tradition, religion, and community — the old ties that bound one with the natural and social worlds — has created isolation and a sense of powerlessness.    Modernity produced the first true individual, but the cost of that was to strip people of meanings and senses of identity that gave comfort to existence.  People respond in different ways, but often try to escape this freedom and the anxiety of individuation by embracing authoritarianism, destructiveness, or dehumanizing conformity to social expectations.

I’ll write more on Fromm’s specific arguments soon.  However what I find intriguing is that these problems, which he ties to among other things the rise of fascism, essentially show how people are driven by psychology to irrationally embrace demagogues and ideologies out of fear.  It’s not just propaganda or evil manipulative leaders (or advertisers), but a consequence of the psychological dilemmas the modern age has fostered.   By pushing aside religion and tradition we’ve freed ourselves from past superstitions, but have not yet achieved the capacity to fully actualize positive freedom in a way that allows the development of a truly liberated and content individual.

Suffice it to say my project is moving in ways not anticipated last year, and starting to come together as meshing media studies, social constructivism and political psychology.    Given that my specialization is German politics and international relations, I’m finding this journey into new directions intellectually stimulating and, well, exciting!