Sunday, December 21, 2014

Endnotes: Solstice Edition

Another year is coming to an end, another Ragnarok deferred; a time to take stock and give thanks. It’s been a very busy year. I spent six months in Spain undertaking new research, and am now in the middle of writing a book. (More details to follow eventually). One paper that emerged from ideas discussed in this blog is now forthcoming in Political Studies in 2015: “The Irrelevance of Legitimacy;” hopefully more will follow soon. All this has meant this blog has been a bit abandoned - only 5 posts, though some of them were very popular and widely shared. Thanks to everyone who read, commented and shared these footnotes!

In the season’s spirit of sharing, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed this year:
The season is not complete without linking again to Phil Schrodt’s post from last year on the insidious war on Yule:
Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?
Here in the Southern hemisphere it’s the summer, not the winter solstice, but happy solstice/christmas/festivus/yule/Newtonmass/Toxcatl or any other ritual you may celebrate to all!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Vagueness and Political Regimes

I've been recently re-reading Juan Linz's Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, a book I didn't appreciate enough when I first studied it many years ago. Linz had an encyclopedic knowledge of political life in modern societies, and the book is a bit like a modern version of Aristotle's Politics -- a little dry, but attentive to the concrete details of institutions in a huge variety of countries in order to develop theoretically useful "ideal types" (even though Linz, unlike his more illustrious ancient predecessor, keeps the normative discussion to a minimum). In particular, Linz had a fine Weberian sense for the complexities of the link between ideas and political power; and one specific question he raises struck me as interestingly related to some of the things I was saying earlier this year about Franco. The question concerns why some non-democratic political regimes have highly articulated ideologies (e.g., Marxism-Leninism), whereas others have at best what Linz calls "mentalities" -- "ways of thinking and feeling, more emotional than rational" (p. 162), vague "intellectual attitudes" and ill-defined symbolic commitments to "the nation" or "order and progress." What accounts for these differences? And do they have any bearing on how political power is organized?

Linz argues that there is a functional affinity between the degree of "pluralism" of a regime and the specificity of its ideological commitments. The more a regime depends on a variety of groups, none of which can defeat the others, the less specific its ideology. By the same token, we should only see very specific ideological commitments among regimes that emerge from the victory of a single, highly mobilized party over disparate opponents, which is precisely how totalitarian regimes arise. Ideological vagueness is the glue that allows the disparate elements of an authoritarian coalition to hold together, as in Franco's Spain[1]:

In our view the complex coalition of forces, interests, political traditions, and institutions -- part of the limited pluralism [of an authoritarian, rather than a totalitarian regime] -- requires the rulers to use as symbolic referent the minimum common denominator of the coalition. In this way the rulers achieve the neutralization of a maximum number of potential opponents in the process of taking power (in the absence of the highly mobilized mass of supporters). The vagueness of the mentality blunts the lines of cleavage in the coalition, allowing the rulers to retain the loyalty of disparate elements. The lack of an assertion of specific, articulated, and specific commitments facilitates adaptation to changing conditions in the nonsupportive environment, particularly in the case of authoritarian regimes in the Western democratic sphere of influence. The reference to generic values like patriotism and nationalism, economic development, social justice, and order and the discreet and pragmatic incorporation of ideological elements derived from the dominant political centers of the time allow rulers who have gained power without mobilized mass support to neutralize opponents, co-opt a variety of supporters, and decide policies pragmatically. Mentalities, semi- or pseudoideologies reduce the utopian strain in politics and with it conflict that otherwise would require either institutionalization or more repression than the rulers could afford. The limited utopianism obviously is congruent with conservative tendencies. (p. 164)

In Linz's view, the vagueness of ideological commitments in authoritarian (as opposed to totalitarian) regimes limits the appeal of these regimes for those groups of people who make ideas their business, or who for some other sociological reason have a need to find "meaning" in politics:

Such regimes pay a price for their lack of ideology in our sense of the term. It limits their capacity to mobilize people to create the psychological and emotional identification of the masses with the regime. The absence of an articulate ideology, of a sense of ultimate meaning, of long-run purposes, of an a priori model of an ideal society reduces the attractiveness of such regimes to those for whom ideas, meaning, and values are central. The alienation of intellectuals, students, youth, and deeply religious persons from such regimes, even when successful and relatively liberal compared with totalitarian systems, can be explained in part by the absence or weakness of ideology. One of the advantages of authoritarian regimes with an important fascist component was that this derivative ideology appealed to some of those groups. But it also was one of the sources of tension when the disregard of the elite of the regime for those ideological elements became apparent. (pp. 164-165)

Nevertheless, we might think that the very non-specificity of authoritarian ideological commitments means that these regimes can often rely on the "shallow" support of people who do not need to find special meaning in politics: as long as no specially controversial commitment is demanded of them, they may be happy to go along, given the costs of resistance. Shallower commitments among the masses may be traded off for deeper commitments among specific groups.

At any rate, I suspect this mechanism is more common than Linz indicates, operating not only within authoritarian coalitions but also in democratic societies, and accounting in part for the recurring feelings of disappointment to which electoral politics gives rise among many people. The problem seems to be that there is a trade-off between the ritual use of emotionally charged but non-specific ideas that can mobilize many people "shallowly," such as vague nationalistic symbols, and the ritual use of highly specific and tightly interlinked symbolic systems that can mobilize fewer people "deeply," such as Marxism-Leninism. The trade-off arises because insisting on the specificity of an ideological system intensifies conflicts within a coalition, but also encourages more committed activists, whereas vague symbolic commitments can maintain a larger coalition (as in catch-all parties in many democracies) but decreases the degree to which the coalition members can coordinate on specific actions.

We should thus expect that vagueness "works" as a policy to hold together a diverse coalition when members believe that their goals cannot be achieved "outside the tent" but the vagueness of particular symbolic commitments lets them believe that they have a chance to push specific policies in their favored direction. The first belief is strengthened when rival coalitions are deeply mistrusted (e.g., the left and the right after the Spanish civil war, or to a lesser extent Democrats and Republicans in the USA today); the second when coalition members have long-term projects (perhaps themselves vague) rather than one-off specific demands. In these circumstances, the problem for coalition leaders is that the moment specific actions are actually undertaken, members learn information about the chances of their preferred outcomes actually happening, threatening the unity of the coalition. Leaders interested in political survival thus have an incentive to procrastinate and act in ambiguous ways (as Franco did), so long as they do not have the resources to definitively resolve ideological conflicts in their favor. By contrast, when leaders expect to win such conflicts, or when coalition members come to see that their chances of achieving their deeper objectives are as good outside the tent as inside, vagueness loses value: either the leader demands commitment to more specific programmes, or vague symbols fail to keep coalition members in line. This explains why the most committed are the first to leave when they figure out that their ideals cannot be realized within the coalition; it was the most ideological falangistas who became Franco's "a-legal right opposition," not the moderates, for example.

It is also interesting to consider why highly articulated ideologies should be able to produce deep but narrow mobilization; and here I think that Linz is a bit off. The mobilizational capacity of "ideology" (in Linz's sense) has less to do with its utopian content than with the fact that strong ideological commitments develop in tight chains of often face-to-face interaction. Consider the way in which Marxism diffused in pre-revolutionary Russia through study groups, participation in clandestine activities, and other recurrent situations that made it a sort of common language among a set of people with similar core values, facilitating their identification with the ideology as a symbolic whole. The argumentative context of many of these situations (where activists argued with one another over means and ends) produced more or less coherent belief systems, though it also encouraged splintering, and regular face to face interaction produced deep commitments through emotional amplification, but also limited the degree to which many people could fully identify with the ideology as a whole. (The history of the Bolsheviks seems to be illustrative here). Indeed, to the extent that ideologies become politically dominant (through the victory of specific groups in war, for example) and can be used, given their explicitness, as "test[s] for loyalty" (p. 162), large incentives for dissimulation also emerge, limiting their mobilizational capacity: consistency is maintained at the price of mass commitment. By contrast, shallow commitments to vague symbols do not require the same sorts of feedback, and they can be maintained by the typical means of mass politics, haphazard as they are. Vagueness, not consistency, thus seems to be the price of large-scale coalition politics.

[1] Franco's Spain was, of course, Linz's paradigmatic case of authoritarianism, and the country he knew best.