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The Barrington Moore Problematic and Its Discontents - Grasping Reality with Both Hands

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Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist J. Bradford DeLong: Fair, Balanced, RealityBased, and Even-Handed Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720-3880; 925 708 0467; delong@econ.berkeley.edu.

Economics 210a Weblog Archives DeLong Hot on Google DeLong Hot on Google Blogsearch September 25, 2010

The Barrington Moore Problematic and Its Discontents As delivered in Harvard's Science Center B on Saturday morning: Audio John Stuart Mill was perhaps the last who was substantially at home in and competent in all the branches of moral philosophy. Afterwards young scholars paying their dues found it impossible to learn everything and still have time to write anything. Since it is easier to teach undergraduates what you know, specialization in research drove specialization in curriculum. But 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. Yet we do not want to reproduce the narrowing blinders of the disciplines? 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

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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. Idi Amin. Augusto Pinochet. The virtuous circle turned out not to be 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--that pre-WWI 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 1945, or perhaps 1953 or perhaps 1975 or perhaps even 1989, 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 ones. 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 historical 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--and indeed of pretty much all the interdisciplinary social sciences majors on the North American continent for two generations. In their gallop through the issues of the Barrington Moore problematic students had, as Alexander Gerschenkron put it to those in his office he allowed to drink the good sherry, to read an awful lot of books that were very good to have read--if not fun in the moment or easyto read. And so the major has been a great fifty-year success--and 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? Echoing Seyla, I would say not. For one thing, the era of modern history that the BMP was created to grapple with has indeed come to its end. For another thing, the Enlightenment preconditions for the BMP have not yet been secured. First, Adolf Hitler is now sixty-five years in his grave. Societies in transition to urbanmarket-mass political-economic 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. Second, our most recent modern monsters seem of a different and perhaps older kind: Saddam Hussein always 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 plus plastic explosives rather than of the Comintern. Rwanda seems more like the Sicilian Vespers with radios than like the terror-famine of the Great Leap Forward. Third, the Barrington Moore problematic assumes that we have consensus, at least within our own circle of debate, that the hard-won victories of the Enlightenment are the bedrock that we seek to protect and advance. Roosevelt had four freedoms. Freedom from want--that is, freedom to earn a living, freedom to not have to spend http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/the-barrington-moore-problematic-and-its-discontents.html

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one's life frantically trying to avoid penury, what Locke called the right to property. Freedom from fear--that is, freedom from arbitrary arrest, from being beaten up on the street corner by people who don't like who one is, or who don't think you have a right to live here, what Locke called the right to life and liberty. Freedom of speech and expression--saying what you think and making the laws. And, of course, there is the first of Roosevelt's four freedoms, the oldest of the Enlightenment freedoms, perhaps the most hard-won in the seventeenth century and the pattern for the others, John Locke's toleration, freedom of religion--freedom to peaceably assemble with one's fellow believers to worship one's own conception of God. You cannot even start thinking in the Barrington Moore problematic unless you start with consensus that the Enlightenment freedoms are the bedrock of what we want to protect and advance. It is at this point in my argument that I found that I could not not notice 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?" That is a speech act that not only asserts that people called "Muslims" don't "deserve" the "privilege" of Lockean toleration, but also that he will be pretending if he ever says that they do. To this the only appropriate response is: "What the fracking frack?" So not only are the problems the BMP addresses not our biggest problems here in the North Atlantic--they appear to have been largely solved--and not only are our current monsters arising from other sources than contemplated, but we don't even have consensus in this room on the basic Lockean bedrock which has to serve as the foundation on which the whole structure was built. We thus need something more advanced--that deals with problems we have not yet solved rather than those we have-focused on very real but lesser threats to liberty and prosperity than the high totalitarianisms--but also something more basic as well. We are thus, historically, both too late and too early for that intellectual project to make sense. In his contribution to "A Critique of Pure Tolerance" Robert Paul Wolff could claim that basic Enlightenment issues were settled, that mere Lockean tolerance was not something at which we should aim--that we should aim "beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance." But surely we cannot aim beyond tolerance until and unless we have at least gotten into its neighborhood? 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 interest. We out there at Berkeley face much the same problem. We do not have good answers. I occasionally play with "global history" a la Gellner, McNeill, and 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 http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/the-barrington-moore-problematic-and-its-discontents.html

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Berkeley this fall for our internal review of our Political Economy major this fall, so that he can come down from the mountaintop, reveal the tablets, and tell us what the answer is and what we should do. Brad DeLong on September 25, 2010 at 08:02 AM | Permalink Favorite

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Comments s9 said... "To this the only appropriate response is: 'What the fracking frack?'" Ironically, that's actually just your inappropriate sanitization of the appropriate response. Reply September 25, 2010 at 09:55 AM hartal said... I wish I could remember the rather disturbing limits that Locke puts on tolerance. Would he have treated Muslims today as he wished Roman Catholics or atheists to be treated in his day? Has anyone compared Locke's arguments for secularism with those of the philosophes? I wrote about it in a paper on Locke for a grad course with Michael Sandel. He was not too impressed with that paper probably because I cited CB Macpherson too favorably. But then again I can't see how anyone would think his book on justice is more interesting and profound than Amartya Sen's. At any rate, I regret securing my "A-" in the class by making concessions to his communitarianism in the next paper. I wish I had Sen's analysis of the Smithean impartial spectator to work with. * What has also changed is the confidence that capitalist economies have the tools to stabilize themselves somewhere in the vicinity of Rawlsian justice. Reply September 25, 2010 at 10:20 AM dd said... Hope Tuck wasn't too embarrassed by your shameless adulation. Reply September 25, 2010 at 10:41 AM hartal said... To take UCB political theorist Wendy Brown's approach, we should ask on what conditions are minor religions tolerated, if at all. In historical terms, religions are only tolerated if there is confidence that the faith that they inspire does not interfere with primarily loyalty to the nation-state. In other words, the toleration of religion is also its dilution and domestication, as Erica Benner has shown. Today the fear is that Muslims privilege the umma over the nation state, being far more interested in global Muslim causes than in the their fellow citizens. But does not this argument apply with as much, if not more, force to American Jews? The real discrimination here is ignorance of the importance Islam puts on the contract between citizen and state. On Qur'anic grounds, http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/the-barrington-moore-problematic-and-its-discontents.html

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Muslims must place a high value on the sanctity of contracts; they are enjoined to show loyalty to the state in return for its physical protection and respect for basic freedoms, as Bhikhu Parekh shows in his wonderful A New Politics of Identity. Reply September 25, 2010 at 10:56 AM Omega Centauri said... I think religious tolerance founders on the issue of externalities. In many primative religions, the god (or gods) would visit calamities upon the land or the people if they were displeased with the spiritual purity of the people. Under that belief system, tolerating an impure subgroup is considered to be a blunder with potentially catastrophic results. We've somewhat advanced beyond that, although we can find religious subgroups who have not. One way to conceptualize religion, is as a collection of memes. Using memetic theory, and thinking about the competition among memes (or meme groups), one comes to the conclusion that evangelicalism (the meme, to spread the meme group as widely as possible), is strongly selected for, just as passivism is selected against. So we should have the expectation that many modern religions take self-replication as an important command-meme. So what is the externality of tolerating a new rapidly spreading religious meme? Could it be the wholesale replacement of the existing order? We also have the battle between rationality and spirituality/faith that has been ramping up recently, and spilling over into our politics, science, and educational systems. Some religions have externalities associated with them that are considered as substantial negatives by other substantial subgroups of society. How are we to respond to the conflict between externalities real or imagined, and the Lockian ideal? I can easily imagine where the issue of whether future generation must live with catastrophic climate change may hinge around the struggle among religions. Reply September 25, 2010 at 12:12 PM r.d. said... Here is my response to Mr. DeLong: http://redonkulusblog.blogspot.com/2010/09/barrington-moore-problematic-andmore.html Excellent talk. Reply September 25, 2010 at 12:58 PM Lee A. Arnold said... When I was a little boy (late 1950's, I hate to say) I was introduced to the neighbors' very old dachshund, named "Mr. A". Why was he called "Mr. A"? Because his name had been Adolf, and then the war came. We want freedom of speech, but sometimes, loved ones have died. Last week a poll showed that an overwhelming percentage of people think the Muslims have a right to build the mosque near Ground Zero; they just don't think it is an appropriate idea. War brings out strong emotion. Peretz is not a big problem or indicative of a big problem, he is just a big, stupid, emotional, Ivy Leaguelevel fool. The Enlightenment project is in fine shape. There is a wrench thrown into it, however. Science is not going to do one of the things it thought possible: it is not going to deterministically predict any complex system. "Complex" meaning "multicompartment model, with circular or more complex chains of determination between the compartments." You get observation problems, measurement problems, n-bodycomputation problems, and verification problems. This is a big gash in the historical and social sciences. In my opinion it should be taught before things like the ideas of http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/the-barrington-moore-problematic-and-its-discontents.html

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Kuhn and Lakatos, which are subsequent and secondary. The pincers maneuver between analysis and narrative is all we've got. In my opinion it may be possible to create a symbolism that can regularize the mechanics of context-making, across all the disciplines, in a way that involves the observer too -- see New Chart, for Descartes -but it would be unlikely to derive a predictive pattern; rather it becomes a picture about how prediction is perceived and acted upon. Which may be something worth clarifying, who knows... In morals? we will remain casuists, in the good sense of Jonson and Toulmin, before it became a bad word. Reply September 25, 2010 at 09:33 PM Nathanael said... Back to basics. You need a major in Enlightenment Thinking. Well, actually, it's *so* basic to the enterprise of the University that you need a *core curriculum* mandated for *all students* focused on Enlightenment Thinking. But you may have too many anti-Enlightenment types as professors, and/or as funders, to do that.... so what then?... Reply September 25, 2010 at 10:06 PM Rebecca Spang said... I see that this is the right thing to have said in that time and place. It really was. But I wonder if its opening account of history--as opposed to its internal account of the "History of Social Studies"--is correct? Now, granted, I was not one of the "happy few" who was a Social Studies concentrator, so I may have missed something. But in the History Department--yes, at Harvard, and yes in the 1980s--we sometimes read two people called Marx and Engels. They, like all of their generation, were very keen on technology, industrial expansion, and the idea that the world existed for humans to use [I guess Thoreau may be one of their generation who saw things a bit differently]. But they never imagined that, in the SHORT term, the forms of technology, industrial growth, etc. etc. that they saw around them were going to promote liberty or peace. Things may, for a few, have been getting so much better all the time; things, for many, many more--so M7E argued--were getting far worse. I write this not because I think M&E were "right" and nineteenth-century liberals "wrong," but because I wonder how a prominent speaker at an event on the 50th Anniversary of the "Social Studies" concentration has somehow omitted to mention the *social* question? (as it was called in the nineteenth century) Does class difference really have no bearing on how we think about the history of the past few centuries (even just in Europe) or how we conceptualize teaching about the world we inhabit today? Reply September 26, 2010 at 12:52 PM aimai said... Brad, Excellent. Really excellent. Sorry I wasn't there to ask the first question. aimai Reply September 27, 2010 at 08:03 AM kharris said... The "East African Plains Ape" thingie probably needs modification, in light of recent genetic discoveries. Now, it should be "East African Plains Apes and/or the offspring of East African Plains Apes and the cold-weather-adapted descendants of other East African Plains Apes who left East Africa a long time before and then came back to the Levant just in time to hook up with the new kids on their way through" or something http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2010/09/the-barrington-moore-problematic-and-its-discontents.html

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like that. Reply September 27, 2010 at 11:08 AM om said... Rebecca Spang took the words out of my keyboard. To say that democracy-vs.totalitarianism is THE one serious problem of Social Studies, to the exclusion of the economic organization of society, seems strange... (Also: I found the list of modern monsters somewhat lacking, too. I will happily admit that no American politician comes even close to the ranks of a Hitler or a Stalin. But Pinochet is a modern monster, and his American abettors are not?) Reply September 27, 2010 at 05:28 PM Comment below or sign in with TypePad

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First, Kill all the Pensions

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The Atlantic (blog) - Oct 19, 2010 She may or may not have been the first major economics blogger, depending on whether we are allowed to throw outlying variables such as Brad Delong out of ... Related Articles » « Previous Next »

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