Social Reform, Instrumental Reason, and "Ends" of History:
Groping for a Usable Anything in the Sphere of Social Action

The conviction persists-though history shows it to be a hallucination that all the questions that the human mind has asked are questions that can be answered in terms of the alternatives that the questions themselves present. But in fact intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.
[Dewey p19] quoted and brought to my attention in [Deacon])

Reason and a Personal Ethos:

This paper is very largely about dangers I see in some methods that might seem to promise greater social justice, so it would be extremely natural to connect it with a stand for "business as usual".  On the contrary, I believe the world is badly in need of radical change.  I'd like to see humankind work consciously to equalize opportunities.  There is, however, no mandate for this to occur. It is not the will of God (whom I don't believe in), nor the will of history, nor can philosophy prove it to be "right".  I say it is right, but what will really matter is whether a consensus or mandate is formed to pursue this end.  It is a matter for persuasion, not for philosophical proof.

Suppose there were only two people in the world (or on a desert island, if you prefer).  How much bearing might rigorous analytical determinations have on our ability to cooperate or at least coexist in peace?  Whatever role reason might play in our coexistence, the process of consensus formation would have to be our focus.  Whatever philosophical "proof" I might think I had, of a particular ethos, or a particular "should" would either play a role in bringing about some agreement, or be utterly sterile.  This seems to hint at a need for caution on the part of those who think they have answers which are too subtle for others to understand.

Property is a convention.  It is just as much a product of government as welfare and taxes are.

The absence of God doesn't mean we are supposed to be pleasure-seeking automatons.  The apparent fact that humans evolved from slime doesn't imply any norm, such as that the fittest should survive.  We now have minds and can, in theory at least, design the future; the game of chance called evolution could be left behind, though it, and its analogues ("meme" theory, evolutionary computer algorithms, ...) are indeed mechanisms to be used selectively.

Maybe I'm an optimistic nihilist; probably I am a pragmatist in some sense.

The "Overcoming" Paradigm

Here is a question that I propose we try to "get over":
"Who, or what (forces, ideas, etc.) do we need to overcome in order to have the world we want?"
Is "overcoming" always the wrong orientation or paradigm?  Not at all.  In the case of very big, isolatable wrongs, it can be very effective.  It was a good orientation for stopping the Viet Nam war, and ending apartheid, and for ending British colonial domination in the 1770s, and for defeating the truly evil empires in World War II.

But freedom is a complex and fragile creation -- it isn't what you get when you "overcome tyranny"; you don't get enlightenment by overthrowing "error" and the priesthood; also you don't get social equality by overthrowing the Bourgeoisie, as the case of the USSR and other Communist regimes seems to illustrate.

And I, in case you think I don't know it, won't make the world sane just by overcoming the "overcoming paradigm."

Still, it may help to understand what it's about; not that we can hope to eliminate it, as Marx and others hoped to eliminate religion, after exposing it as an artifact -- it is too much a part of our natures -- but we can at least learn to be skeptical of our inclinations in that direction.

The growing field of evolutionary sociobiology is doing much to illuminate the question.  Combining psychological experimentation, statistical modeling and analysis (It is notoriously difficult to account for how certain social traits--those we might call altruistic especially--can improve the individual's chance of passing on genes. This is where much of the heavy math comes in) of diverse, especially primitive, cultures, it has shed much light on the mental reality of ingroups and outgroups, and the special proneness to envision complexes of antagonistic groups of others, and to associate these (in an association that goes in both directions) with "bad" beliefs.

Indeed works like the two by Boyd and Richerson (see citations below) argue convincingly that variations in belief systems, like dress and other matters of appearance, and dialect, serve as "markers" to distinguish ingroups and outgroups, in a way that is biologically conditioned.

The "End of History" Variation of the Overcoming Paradigm, as a "Move" to Squelch Debate

Claims about the "end of history" can be neatly divided into (1) those that claim we are at the supposed "end of history", and (2) those that claim we are headed there, following a definite road map.  To claim to know where we are headed is in some sense to indicate a "road map" or something equivalent.

In the first case we are urged to go on about our private business and stop worrying about history.  In the latter case, we are exhorted to follow the road map (whether that of Marx, of the American "Founding Fathers", or Allah); and we are told that those who won't follow the road map are a menace to society.

Either way tends to squelch discussion of diverse visions of a future world, and ways of getting there.

It is easy to find examples of conservative squelching of debate, from the Alien and Sedition acts to McCarthyism, and beyond.  As a general rule, though, the mentality that "we are already there" tends to generate less hysteria, unless there is a perception that ones hold on the promised land is very tenuous.  In Fukuyama, for example, there is an overall tone of tolerance.

For the other case -- i.e. that the End of History "exists", but is in the future, and we must walk a "straight and narrow path" to get to it, consider [Lenin, 57] (note: for citations, I am using abbreviated names of sources rather than numbered footnotes; see the list of sources at the end) in denouncing primarily Bernstein and his followers, Lenin says, under the topic "What is freedom of criticism?"

Those who are really convinced that they have advanced science would demand, not freedom for the new views to continue side by side with the old, but the substitution of the new views for the old.
It is any accident that Marx's main impact on history was mediated by men of such inclinations.  What percentage of Capital is pure vitriol?  Certainly more than half.  I open it at random to p616 [Marx-Capital] and find a description of Malthus' "Essay on Population" as "nothing more than a schoolboyish, superficial plagiary of De Foe, Sir James Stewart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, &c and does not contain a single sentence thought out by himself."  Bakunin's comment about the "hate that Marx nurtures not only against the bourgeoisie but against all -- even revolutionary socialists -- who contradict him and dare to follow a line of ideas different from his theories" [McLellan 117] could be supplemented with hundreds of illustrations.

The tradition is passed down to western Marxists like Sidney Hook who in his 1933 book Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, denigrates Bukharin at every opportunity [Hook, 76, 86, 142, 171], this being the duty, at the time, of all good Stalinists.

The tradition of using torrents of rather indiscriminate abuse in place of arguments against a position is again illustrated in [Bell pxxvi-xxvii], and we can surmise that even the Czech liberal Jeri Pelikan was brought up in the same school when he speaks of "a scientific nobody from the Institute of Marxism-Leninism" (though we see it more vehemently in what the "scientific nobody" himself had to say] [Bell, n16, pxxvi.]

If we ever come to a clear understanding of the debacle of the "Marxist" states of the 20th century, I expect this aspect of Communist culture, which goes back to the founder, will be seen to be more responsible for this tragedy than the societal goals set forth by Marx. (No doubt the shallow roots of civility in Russia did much to exacerbate the tendency, while the West sometimes developed more tolerant strains of Marxism).

Searching for Another Way to Generate Change

I see a great deal of promise in the critique starting with Lyotard of the "master narrative", though not taken to the extremes to which I often see it taken.  The same goes for the critique of "instrumental reason" of the Frankfort School, including the directions in which Habermas is taking it.

Any vision of struggling against and overcoming a great foe is classic master narrative material -- even more so if it involves the "end of history" of course.  A list of particularly passionate and aptly titled literary works on this theme might include Battle Cry of Freedom, as well as Mein Kampfe, and Triumph of Will.

Instrumental reason begins with a way of knowing the world based on a generic universal observer -- which can only see things in one way -- i.e. the right, or "objective" way.  From this is developed a model of change that looks like one and only one consciousness confronting manipulable matter.  This style of rationalism was established well before Hegel, and it may be that in some way that I have yet failed to grasp, Hegel was trying to construct an alternative, and that Marx was trying to build on that alternative, but if so, it may have been (with Marx) a case of "Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear a word you're saying." as Emerson said.

I also think that, however excellent Marx's analysis may have been, its relationship to action was flawed (as any theory of how to change the future, based on historical inevitability surely would be).

Consider this possibility.  Knowledge of, or for that matter, belief about, where one is headed (or one's "thrownness" as I tend to think, though this usage may not conform with Heidegger's) has a very strong tendency to result in change of where one is headed.  Is is possible that if Marx had never written, his predictions would have come true?  Could it be that several decades of preaching the Marxist message of where the world is headed, and of assaults on the bourgeois establishment actually hardened or inoculated the bourgeois powers, leading to various stratagems for avoiding the fate awaiting it, culminating in the "welfare state compromise"?

Could it be that in that situation, the crisis would have built and built, with the capitalists having no clue, and no break-outs of sufficient size to have an inoculating effect on the status quo, until the one big convulsion spontaneously swept the proletariat just as it reached it maximum strength (and with no Lenin running around sneering about those Bernsteinites and their talk of spontaneity).  Kind of reminds me of cheesy sci-fi time travel fantasies where you must be careful not to cause change, or you might end up not being born.

As far as I can see, the only general path to inducing (as opposed to analyzing and predicting) change that doesn't involve instrumentally manipulating the world (hence treating people as objects) is by changing the ethos, or generating new knowledge of how people and society work (though the latter tends to lead to more instrumental manipulation if people don't learn a better approach).

What is to be Done?

I am also trying to find other work; perhaps encompassing various fields that have never been mentioned in the same paper before, to support better ways to attempt to make a better world.

This lead me at first, to try to generalize Weber's case of an ethos -- the "protestant ethic" of course [Weber] -- acting as an engine of measurable change.  It seemed to me that the "protestant ethic" which seemed to spontaneously generate accumulation, and make capitalism possible, was acting something like an escapement, or a one-way valve, or some such mechanism.

I recollected how the concept of the escapement mechanism (and the various implementations of that concept), revolutionized timekeeping; likewise the flywheel revolutionized the harnessing of steam power.  Each case involved the regularization of some inchoate form of energy (a weight falling, a pendulum swinging or a spring unwinding, on the one hand; the generation of steam on the other) turning it into a highly regular and eminently usable generic stream of motion.

I did find a good online article, [Bernstein]. So far as material applications are concerned, it develops the idea to great generality, including solid state electronic variants of the escapement.  This set of physical examples might provide a stock of models to chose from in the search for sociological analogues.

Social Systems of Accumulation and Regulation Theory

It is this line of thinking which made me gravitate to the idea of Regulation theory and Social Systems of Accumulation, when I ran across these ideas in Gibson-Graham p255, note 9.  I was relieved not to run across any practitioners of the SSA approach who describe it quite the way these authors do (though their description was sufficiently intriguing).

SSAs seemed like, and to some extent still does seem like, an approach that might tie together, and make a useful abstraction out of the class of situations, belief systems, property arrangements, etc., that, through acting like escapement mechanisms, contributed to the making of the modern world.  Besides the approach of Weber, I had noted some other instances.  Marx's teasing out of the nature of money (the form it took in the mid 19th century that is) in the Grundrisse, and the formalisms, including "M-C-M'" and "M-C-C'-M'" developed there and in Capital provide an earlier (of course) overlapping analysis of early capitalism.

Cedrick Robinson [Robinson 110f] asserts convincingly that the Industrial Revolution was financed by the slave trade and the trade in goods produced by slaves, which formed an almost literal, highly concentrated river of wealth, as if expressly made to be skimmed, further concentrated, and harnessed for some huge project.

In every discussion of "stages of capitalism" I look for components that might organize themselves into a largely autonomous system, as opposed to projects or entities that must be directed explicitly at each point towards the goal achieved, (albeit the phrase "stages of capitalism" suggest an attempt to save the appearance of a steady progression to the "end of history" rather than indicating many contingent possibilities).

I am looking for building blocks of self organizing, or "autopoietic" systems, thinking that however much such systems have tended to run amok, they are yet the most promising building materials for any potential politico economic system that does not systematically crush certain groups of people.  Indeed capitalism, with all its problems, is a case in point.  But as long as such systems only get formed by accident, or by the design of certain factions, as was the case of imperialism's disruption of local self-sufficient economies to generate another skimmable "river of wealth" (c.f. [Lenin 177ff], and [Hobson]), they will probably keep on having deleterious effects.

In Social Structures of Accumulation, [Kotz et al], and in the writing on Regulation Theory, there may be useful materials for the sort of project I have in mind, but it looks doubtful.  The emphasis is so much on systems, and the model is that they are systematically put together, then run terrifically for a while, and finally run out of steam.

Among the system transitions described in the book are the start of the post civil war system, based on transcontinental expansion and emphasizing steel production and railroad building [Kotz et al 30f] -- largely made possible by the south's temporary absence, for all practical purposes, from national politics.  Then there is the early 20th century system, with the gold standard, and an enlarged banking system with more autonomy from big business [Kotz et al 35f], and the post W.W.II "Bretton Woods" system discussed on p38-9 in the Reich article  and p308-9, in the summation article.  The "Bretton Woods system" is described as based on fixed rates of exchange, an overwhelming American military presence, and the huge differences in the state of economic health between the Anglophone countries and the rest of the developed world.

The book is a collection of essays by what might be called the SSA "school" plus one representing the Regulatory Theory school for a comparison and contrast.  Naturally different writers produce somewhat different periodizations and stress different factors.  An article by McDonough [Kotz 114-119] stresses the "Keynesian state" rather than Bretton Woods and the international order.

Reich's article, "How SSAs Decline and are Built" [Kotz p?] stresses the "system of 1896", the defeat of populism, the disfranchisement of blacks in the south, and the switch from trust-busting to a system of regulated monopolies.

The Regulation Theory approach, which Kotz describes in relation to the SSA approach in chapter 5, is best known for the concept of "Fordism".  Its main concepts are intensive regimes, in which labor productivity is made to rise sharply (at least their productivity in the eyes of business owners; not necessarily their productivity "for themselves"); and extensive regimes, in which the labor pool expands greatly but its productivity remains about the same.  Another attribute which may be present or lacking is "mass consumption" a la Fordism.  A regime with "mass consumption" is sharply different from Marx's vision of the impoverishment of the proletariat, who, far from starving, are buying cars and building houses.  Such a system depends on steady salaries and credit for workers; it cannot function in an atmosphere of pick-up labor and piecework.  The extensive regime resembles capitalism in its early expansive days, while the "intensive regime without mass accumulation" resembles Marx's expectation of capitalism about the "burst the integument".

So far, in studying SSAs and the Regulation Theory I can't say I've come up with the sort of building blocks, or usable general principals I'd like to see, although the SSA theorists do at least lean towards the contingency of history as opposed to its directionality a la Hegel, Marx, and Fukuyama.

Habermas, the Public Sphere, System and Lifeworld, Steering Media, etc. (My future reading program)

The system and lifeworld theory seems related to (though more elaborate than) Polanyi's notion of embedded and disembedded economy; where you have a disembedded economy, the economy is more or less "system" and the more traditional aspects of life are "lifeworld".

I have barely started to read Polanyi, but his interest in economies at all levels of development including primitive cultures, and in multiple systems that have existed over time suggest there is much worth looking into.

I am only slightly further along in understanding Habermas' ideas of system and lifeworld (taken from Husserl apparently), and of communicative action, and steering media (which suggests I should look into Talcott Parsons).

What I have found most interesting is the attempt, by various writers, to apply these concepts to concrete situations; in particular universities in one case, and NGOs in the other.  In both cases, a sort of institution is struggling to keep elements of "lifeworld" afloat when there seems to be an inevitable spiral into the world of "system".

Two interesting articles are to be found in volume 6, number 3 of Pedagogy, Culture, & Society.  One [Kemmis] concerns how these concepts may help guide the struggle of higher education to retain its traditional values in the age of "accountability".  The other, [Huttenon & Hannu] is more of an overview of these concepts and in part, a review of Habermas' Between Fact and Norms.

In addition, I have found a Doctoral Thesis by Rupesh Shah [Shah], in which chapter 11 focuses on the same issues in the NGO arena, wherein he cites [Kemmis] (which is how I found the Pedagogy, Culture, and Society articles).

Action research and social choice theory (possibly two approaches to the same set of problems) seem to be phrases around which some very interesting material has accumulated.

I have located an Action Research Manual [Reason et al], a collection of articles contain some of those that attracted my attention, and an overview article on Social Choice Theory [Plott].

Appendix: Protocols of Cooperation

What I have here is incomplete and can be, at best, tantalizing to anyone but myself.

I'd like to propose a category of social structures -- which could be natural, traditional, "by the book", or centrally channeled, or centrally administered, called protocols of cooperation.  Maybe this category has already been defined, and given a different name, but if so, I haven't discovered it.

Symmetrical,"Leaderless" or "contagious" Protocols

The following list is partly inspired by the observation, in Deacon, that the pattern in many animal vocalizations and other communicative behaviors is that one individual starts (barking, squawking or whatever), and others take it up as a reaction.  This may serve as an automatic spreading or amplification of one individual's observation of danger (or with dogs, it may be a reaction to prey).

  • "Smart Mobs" - Story on On the Media, 12/22/02.  From Seattle Internationalization protests to the Miss World pageant in Nigeria. ("how bees talk - see also NY Times magazine - "The Year in Ideas" - 12/??/02). Watch developments in Japan.
  • Blogging (Story on On the Media, 12/22/02) toppled Trent Lott.
  • Dogs barking
  • "Contagious" laughter (or celebratory activity)
  • Conventional strikes
  • "1 minute" strikes (banging on pots and pans thoughout a city at a precise designated time).  An communication, to participants themselves and potential participants, as well as to the government, of the extent of disapproval of the government.  The participants may achieve some of their ends through the reaction of the government (the nature of it is such as to make prosecution of the participants difficult), or it may serve as a preliminary guage of support for more substantial action.

  •   This is not truly leaderless, but involves
  • Animal vocalizations in general - see [Deacon]
  • Geese flying in a pattern; fish swimming in schools
  • Frontier socialism(?) "Barn raisings", "quilting bees, ..."
  • Protection of borders of Tibet as described in [Harrer].
  • chirivari, lynching, and similar spontaneous social controls.
  • Focus on a mutual enemy
  • Swarming {e.g. U.S. westward expansion, and early British colonialism}
  • The formation of nationalisms as described in Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (prior to the setting in of "official" nationalism) [Anderson].
  • Truth Seeking and Information Sharing Protocols

  • Courtroom Procedure
  • Peer review; particularly in academic journals
  • Conferences in various fields of endeavor
  • Decision Sharing Protocols

  • Elections
  • Parliamentary Procedure

  • Citations:

    Anderson: Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities. London, Verso 1983.  (I haven't seen the expanded 1991 edition)

    Bell: Bell, Daniel, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. New York: Basic Books 1999

    Bernstein: Bernstein, Dennis S., Feedback Control and the History of Technology. as of 5/6/02. (have kept a copy in case it disappears from that URL).

    Boyd&Richerson-1: Boyd, Robert; Richerson, Peter, "The Evolution of Human Ultrasociability", in Indoctrinability, ideology, and warfare : evolutionary perspectives. eds Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Frank Kemp Salter. New York : Berghahn Books, 1998.

    Boyd&Richerson-2: Boyd, Robert; Richerson, Peter, Culture and the Evolutionary Process.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.)

    Deacon: Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton 1997

    Dewey: John Dewey, The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Henry Holt and Company 1910.

    Fukuyama: Fukuyama, Francis. The end of history and the last man. New York : Free Press 1992

    Gibson-Graham: Gibson-Graham, J. K., The End of Capitalism (as we knew it) : a Feminist Critique of Political Economy, Cambridge MA, Blackwell 1996.

    Harrer: Harrer, Heinrich; Graves, Robert (trans), Seven Years in Tibet.  New York, Dutton 1954.

    Hattunen & Hannu: Rauno Huttenen & Hannu L. T. Heikkinen. (1998) "Between Fact and Norms: action research in the light of Jürgen Habermas's theory of communicative action and discourse theory of justice", vol 6 number 3 of Pedagogy, Culture, and Society.

    Hobson: Hobson, J. A., Imperialism: A Study, Ann Arbor: U. Michigan 1978.

    Hook: Hook, Sidney, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx: A Revolutionary Interpretation.  New York: John Day, 1933

    Kemmis: Kemmis, Stephen, (1998) "System and Lifeworld, and the Conditions of Learning in Late Modernity", vol 6 number 3 of Pedagogy, Culture, and Society.

    Kotz: Kotz, David; McDonough, Terrence; Reich, Michael, Social Systems of Accumulation, Cambridge and New York: 1994

    Lenin: Lenin, V. I., Essential Works. New York: Dover, 1987

    Marx-Capital: Marx, Karl, Capital v1, New York: International Publishers 1975.

    McLellan: McLellan, David, ed, Karl Marx, Interviews and Recollections.  Totowa NJ: Barnes & Noble 1981.

    Plott: Plott, Charles R. "Axiomatic Social Choice Theory: An Overview and Interpretation", American Journal of Political Science, volume 20, issue 3 (Aug., 1976), 511-596

    Polanyi: Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation.  Boston, Beacon Press 1957, c1944.  See also Primitive, archaic, and modern economies. Garden City, Anchor Books 1968.

    Reason et al: Reason, Peter; Bradbury, Hilary eds, Handbook of action research : participative inquiry and practice.  London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif. : SAGE, 2001.

    Robinson: Robinson, Cedric J., Black Marxism, Chapel Hill & London: University of North Carolina Press 2000.


    Weber: Weber, Max; tr Parsons, Talcott, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Scribners 1950.