Below the fold, Brad DeLong argues that what he calls the “Barrington Moore problematic” is no longer a useful way of ordering the social sciences.
What is the Barrington Moore problematic, you ask? (Yes, I had to google the name.) In short, it is the search for the answer to why 20th-century states gave rise to regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In an advanced industrial society and a backwards industrializing one, regimes arose which killed millions of people. And even without those horrible ideologies, the First World War showed modern states using nationalism to mobilize for slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Understanding why drove research agendas for a long time; it certainly provided a useful way to organize undergraduate education.
DeLong argues, with good reason, that this no longer dominates. Modern Western societies mobilize rapidly against even relatively mild forms of racism or authoritarianism. Other societies sometimes (but ever less) give rise to tinpot dictators or self-proclaimed socialists, but they are simply not the same.
Al-Qaeda is not about to seize control of any state. Hugo Chávez may be leading an increasingly authoritarian regime, but he is no Joseph Stalin: he isn’t even a Fidel Castro. (Heck, these days even Fidel Castro isn’t much of a Fidel Castro.) And for all the attention to the threat of chaos, embodied by nihilistic terrorists or drug cartels, neither has really been able to do much damage inside functioning modern democratic states.
We need, therefore, to find a new overarching question to bind together the social sciences.
Except ... well ... in one field, economics, a lot of people believed that we had achieved a Great Moderation. Depressions were a thing of the past. Well, not so much. In political science, many believed that we had a pretty good handle on what politics looked like under first-past-the-post. Again, not so much.
Do we really understand why the world hasn’t been turning up many Stalins lately? Are we sure that Communism and facism and future things like them are dead? Is it in fact time to abandon the study of dictatorship and democracy because things look like okay, right now?
Well, probably yes. That said, I worry that in a few years or decades the below essay (under the fold) just might (perhaps) look a little bit like the literature on the Great Moderation, or the Westminster system, or worse yet the positivism that preceeded the First World War. Maybe, just maybe, after the resurgence of problems that so many thought were dead, we just might not yet want to abandon the search for the roots of totalitarianism.
And it sure wouldn’t hurt to keep undergraduate education focused on it.
John Stuart Mill was perhaps the last who was substantially at home in and competent in all the branches of moral philosophy: political theory, psychology, history, public administration, political economy, sociology, etc.
Afterwards young scholars paying their dues found it simply impossible to learn everything and still have time to write anything. And since it is much easier to teach undergraduates what you know than what you don't, specialization in research drove specialization in curriculum as well. But dividing up the social sciences makes sense even for professors and graduate students only if the beast is cut at the joints, so that the problems in understanding the world that fall in the debatable lands between two disciplines are few and unimportant. And dividing up the social sciences makes no sense for undergraduates: What use are economics B.A.s who know no political science or history? None at all. What good is a government department where, in my day, an undergraduate without trying could find himself assigned Graham Alison's Essence of Decision five times in five different classes?
But to try to construct an undergraduate education with its foundation as a simple injunction to read widely in the social sciences would be an enterprise doomed to failure. We think in patterns--analytical classifications and narratives. A program needs a backbone, something to give it enough structure to make sense to the minds of nineteen year-old East African Plains Apes with our limited brains and yet not reproduce the narrowing blinders imposed by each of the disciplinary straightjackets? And how could such a program attract teachers when the incentives are all on the side of working on the core concerns of the disciplines in which they must eventually make their homes?
The project of building a Social Studies was "rescued," if that is the word, by history. The Eurocentric view of the world before 1914 was of one in which the wonders of science drove prosperity, prosperity drove order, order allowed the spread of liberty, and liberty promoted peace and thought, and peace and thought drove science. All was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds but, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, getting better all the time.
Then came World War I. Lenin. Mussolini. Stalin. Hitler. Franco. Mao. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Augusto Pinochet. A host of others. The virtuous circle was not the natural path but instead a fragile accident. No discipline was designed to or qualified to think how to get the North Atlantic world at least back to its happy place, back to something like the society of progress in which people once thought they had lived--a world in which the extra-judicial slaughter of thirty-five Europeans at Kishinev excited horror and condemnation, even if they were Jews.
Call this problematic presented by the history of the world from 1914 to 1975 the "Barrington Moore problematic": it is to understand the historical and social origins of dictatorship and democracy, of slavery and freedom, of ideology and rationality, of poverty and prosperity. Humanity had moved from societies of illiterate farmers producing little more than subsistence dominated by thugs with strong arms and sharp spears to urban, literate, industrial orders. That produced Abraham Lincoln but also Vladimir Lenin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt but also Mao Zedong, Konrad Adenauer but also Augusto Pinochet. And Adolf Hitler as the sole member of the my-regime-killed-50-million club. Why? How? And what could be done to make it stop?
The Barrington Moore problematic provided the spine of the Social Studies major--of pretty much all the interdisciplinary social sciences majors on the North American continent for two generations. Few "majored" in it. It was too big. They found some other smaller, more manageable pool of issues. But in their gallop through the issues of the Barrington Moore problematic they had, as one early observer of Social Studies put it, read an awful lot of books that were very good to have read--if not fun to read. And so the major has been a fifty-year success--not just because budgetary restrictions capped it and the best Harvard students will gravitate like lemmings toward anything that promises to exclude some applicants.
Can the Barrington Moore problematic serve a role similar in the next generation to the one it has served in the past two?
I would say not. Adolf Hitler is sixty-five years in his grave. Societies in transition to urban-market-mass political modernity and how to keep more Lenins and Hitlers from arising in them does not seem to be the globe's most urgent problem any more. And our most recent modern monsters seem of a different and perhaps older kind: Saddam Hussein reminded me more of the Caliph Uthman or of Mehmet II than of Hitler. Hamas, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah seem more like updated versions of the Assassins of Syria rather than of the Comintern. Rwanda seems more like the Sicilian Vespers with radios than like the terror-famine of the Great Leap Forward.
Outside we have demonstrators.
They are answering a question posed by Martin Peretz. "Do I have to pretend," he asked, "that I think Muslims are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which they are so likely to abuse?"
I take it that the demonstrators are saying that the answer is "Yes, he does."
But focus on the fact that the asking of that question and the ire of those who answer it is a powerful sign that the concerns of the Barrington Moore problematic are not our big concerns. The demonstrators are not there calling for a more equal distribution of income. They are not calling for true participatory democracy. They are not calling for a reorganization of work or the abolition of the gulf between existence and essence or of an end to hierarchy and bureaucracy.
They are calling for a very different transformation.
So how then should Social Studies organize itself for the next generations? What intellectual thread should you follow as a guide through the labyrinth that is the study of human society? You need to expose students to the broadest range of ideas and perspectives. You need to avoid dissolving into a blooming, buzzing confusion. And yet you need to avoid the narrowing--I would say crippling--straightjackets of our current disciplinary perspectives. And you still need to allow individual students to find and study their own ultimate interests.
We at Berkeley face the same problem.
We do not have good answers.
I occasionally play with "global history" a la Ernest Gellner, James McNeill, and Jared Diamond. I occasionally play with a narrower dialogue of centralization vs. decentralization a la John Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek, and James Scott.
I have had only one really good idea: that is to invite your Chair Richard Tuck out to Berkeley this fall for our internal review of our Political Economy major, so that he can come down from the mountaintop, reveal the tablets, and tell us what the answer is.