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.