Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Varieties of Electoral Experience

(Some commentary on recent elections in North Korea, and on electoral rituals generally)

As many readers will know, North Korea just had an election for the Supreme People’s Assembly. In these elections – held more or less every five years, previously in 2009 – voters are presented with only one candidate per district, all of them belonging to the Korean Workers’ Party, and expected to vote “yes.” (Though technically they could mark “no” on their ballot papers, voting is not genuinely secret, and North Korean defectors report feeling that the risks of voting “no” are so large that practically no one does it). Even if voters had a choice, however, the offices they are voting for have no real power; as in the old Soviet joke, we might say that citizens in North Korea pretend to vote and deputies pretend to rule. (Some cynically-minded readers might say this idea applies far more widely).

One might think this would be reason enough for voters to sit out the election, but participation is not optional; though apparently some hardship dispensations are available, failure to show up to vote appears to carry severe risks, since the elections function as a political censusproviding information about people who might have left the country, military personnel gone AWOL, and other undesirables that can then be used against non-voters and/or their families. New Focus International (a website run by North Korean defectors) reports:
At any other point in the year, family members of missing persons can get away with lying or bribing surveillance agents, saying that the person they are looking for is trading in another district’s market. But it is during an election period that a North Korean individual’s escape to China or South Korea becomes exposed.
There is much more to this election, which takes place once every five years, than politics or propaganda: it is the occasion on which the North Korean state conducts a comprehensive crackdown on missing individuals.
The number of ‘missing’ persons began to snowball around 20 years ago. During the ‘Arduous March’ of the mid 90s, when North Koreans suffered mass famine, many living in inland provinces escaped from their designated residential areas to seek survival opportunities elsewhere. The exact number of those who starved to death during this time is difficult to establish, not least because it was impossible to identify the dead bodies that constantly piled up near train stations and rivers.
As the North Korean state collected the bodies in trucks and transported them to the hills to bury en masse, it exacerbated the confusion of surveillance and security agents in their record-keeping. Although agents continued to receive daily reports from residential surveillance officers, sometimes not even the family members of the missing persons themselves could confirm whether their loved one was dead or alive.
Moreover, those who know that someone in their family has safely made it to China will keep the knowledge secret, because anyone who leaves North Korea is labeled as “a traitor of the people” by the ruling Party. Even when surveillance agents drop in on the homes of missing persons and interrogate family members about their whereabouts, they will stand up to the agents and hold their ground, maintaining that they are out to trade and have not yet returned.
In the mid-2000s, state surveillance and security agents turned to tactics of persuasion rather than confrontation alone. They requested families to give up information about missing persons by saying that they knew the person was in China, but that if he or she returned to North Korea to vote in the next election, all would be forgiven by the Workers’ Party. There were threats too: if the missing person did not return for the election, the treacherous penalty of abandoning the homeland would be paid by the remaining family members.
Still, it is curious that the regime insists on associating this surveillance operation with a periodic electoral ritual, rather than merely announcing a census, which would presumably serve the same purpose. At any rate it is clear that the regime takes the electoral ritual seriously in some ways. Candidate posters are printed, agitators give talks in workplaces about the importance of the elections, and a festive atmosphere is created; and after the election is over, North Korean news agencies dutifully report turnouts above 99%, with 100% support for the KWP and its leader. (The Korean Central News Agency’s report on the results of the 2009 election and its report on the 2014 election are nearly identical). Incidentally, the reason the turnout numbers do not reach 100% is the fact that “[e]lectors on foreign tours or working in oceans could not take part in the election;” KCNA even helpfully notes that electors too old or ill to go to the polls “cast their ballots into mobile ballot boxes” which, if true, appears to show a remarkable degree of commitment on the part of the state to produce a foreordained result, when it could simply cast their ballots for them.

A state powerful enough to produce these outcomes can clearly dispense with elections: the Chinese state does not hold direct elections for its highest legislative bodies, for example, despite claiming to be just as democratic as the North Korean state. Yet North Korea, like almost every other state in the world, prefers to retain public electoral rituals (and has retained them for more than fifty years; NELDA indicates that there have been 10 such elections since 1962, mostly at regular five year intervals, though with one 8 year gap between the 1990 and 1998 elections). But why bother?

One answer I’ve seen in a couple of places seems tempting, but incorrect: that these elections are meant to “legitimate” the regime by providing a “veneer” of democracy (see, e.g., here). The problem is that there is no evidence that anyone is fooled who did not already want to be fooled, and certainly not anyone with any genuine influence in the regime: not the international community (which appears to feel at best amused, at worst trolled, by the whole thing), not the leaders being “elected” (who presumably are well informed about who has real power in the regime, and know it’s not the voters), and not the voters, who “generally have no interest in who their candidate is as many already live their lives apart from the state, and don’t bother to find out the name of the person they have just ‘voted’ into office,” and who have apparently occasionally engaged in iconoclastic destruction of candidate posters and other election-related vandalism under cover of darkness. The “veneer” of democracy that North Korean elections provide is too thin to do any genuine work producing political support for the regime.

Moreover, when we look at the KCNA dispatches that talk about the feelings of voters and the meaning of the event, we find that they do not emphasize the opportunity for popular participation provided by the election, or its democratic character, but the ways in which the ritual shows the people’s unity, loyalty, and gratitude; to the extent that the elections “legitimate” the regime (or better, produce emotional attachments and normative support for the regime), not even the regime thinks that they do so by convincing them that they live in a democracy. (Even in “real” democracies people complain about the lack of choice; why would North Koreans be any different? We must have a very poor opinion of people’s political competence to believe that they can be tricked in this way.)

Though we know very little about voter behavior in North Korea, we do have some knowledge about single party elections in the Soviet Union and various Eastern European states under communist rule, and we have some more robust theories about the purpose of periodic elections and the motivations of voters in settings with some token opposition, like Mexico under the PRI from 1929 until at least 1994Egypt under Mubarak, or Russia today. This literature suggests that elections do not serve a single purpose for all regimes, and voters behave differently across authoritarian contexts (and in turn behave differently in such contexts than in democratic contexts): the varieties of electoral experience are many. Regimes may stage overwhelming victories to send a signal of invincibility and thus to deter opposition among elites; they may encourage electoral competition to distribute spoils to elites that have some degree of social support, thus coopting these into the regime; they may use elections to determine the competence of officials in mobilizing the population, and/or to observe incipient opposition if actual turnout does not match expected turnout; and they may stage them periodically to produce an orderly circulation of elites, or as a way of managing succession problems. At the same time, voters may vote even while knowing that their vote cannot affect the composition of the government in order to receive election-day goods or to avoid potentially negative consequences; to express support or dissatisfaction (expressive voting is not confined to more democratic contexts); or even because they think it is the right thing to do. But the idea that elections serve to give “legitimacy” to the government plays almost no role in any of these theories.

Soviet elections, which are perhaps most comparable to those in North Korea, are an especially interesting case. (I draw here on a piece by Rasma Karklins from 1986). The Soviet Union spent enormous resources on electoral rituals, which were frequent (more so than in North Korea, on average one per year) and regular. There were “campaigns,” and the day of voting was a festive occasion, sometimes including ceremonies where first time voters were presented with flowers or other gifts. As in North Korea, the voter could only choose to vote “yes” or “no,” but voting “no” entailed some risk and could not be properly done secretly. As in North Korea, the regime enlisted party cadres and ordinary citizens as “agitators” to produce maximum turnout (agitators were made responsible for bringing 20-30 voters to the polls), and there was enormous social pressure to vote. All of this meant that elections always resulted in nearly unanimous verdicts – over 99% support for the party in most cases, with turnouts similarly over 97%. The efforts the regime put on achieving unanimity are remarkable, and the language used to report the results shows striking similarities to the language KCNA uses today (minus the reference to the democratic character of the Soviet Union):
The results of the elections to the USSR Supreme Soviet and the unanimous election to the country’s supreme body of state power of the candidates of the indestructible bloc of Communists and non-Party people provide striking new evidence of the monolithic unity of the Party and the people and of the working people’s full support for the domestic and foreign policy of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and the Soviet state. The elections have convincingly shown the thoroughly democratic nature of the world’s first society of developed socialism and the working people’s firm resolve to persistently strive for new successes in all sectors of communist construction. (Pravda, 7 March 1979, as quoted in Karklins, p. 451)
Yet these 99% turnouts are not the whole story. The turnout numbers excluded people who were not properly registered to vote, as well as (most?) prisoners, migrants without residence permits, and people who requested absentee ballots but did not actually vote. In a number of cases, people cast voters for other people, a practice that low-level people serving in electoral commissions seem to have encouraged in order to avoid trouble with their superiors. For example, Karklins reports a funny story about how “an Estonian biologist working at Tartu State University voted not only for his wife, but also for 30 of his students, apparently because the student turnout was only around 70%, and he simply took it upon himself to take care of the”problem“.” (p. 453). Actual voter turnout seems to have been closer to 90% than to 100%, and in some of the major cities like Moscow may have reached as low at 75% in some elections; and among those who voted between 1% and 5% made use of their right to enter an election booth to cast a negative vote or to write something on the ballot. Moreover, though voters expressed fear that not voting, or voting no, would lead to trouble, actual penalties seem to have been rare, more a reflection of the generalized fear produced by earlier decades of terror than of the actual incidence of punishment for not performing their assigned roles. (Karklins reports one 1971 case in which an anti-Soviet comment in a ballot led to “an arrest and a five-year sentence in a Soviet labor camp,” though this seems to have been exceptional, not the rule; and I vaguely remember something from I think Gulag Archipielago in which a single spoiled ballot during the Great Terror led to a huge search and numerous arrests). Nevertheless, these small risks meant that non-voters (and people who actually voted no) were among the more educated and politically aware USSR citizens, those most likely to dissent or emigrate; non-voting was one of the “weapons of the weak.” So when I read the North Korean numbers I wonder about the actual incidence of non-voting, especially given the fact that many North Koreans have in fact begun to live their lives “away from the state” since the famine of the 1990s; and I wonder about the actual numbers of “no” voters (are there no North Koreans who take advantage of their right to strike a candidate as a political act? Is the North Korean state so efficient at repression that it always pursues such people?); but I suspect that if the North Korean state knows such numbers, it keeps them very much secret, as they are more useful indicators of its actual support levels.

More importantly, Soviet elections seem to have produced in the long run not legitimacy, but alienation. If politics involves everywhere the mobilization of emotion through ritual, the dominant emotions such rituals produced and amplified seem to have been closer to resignation rather than enthusiasm; the regime ritually triumphed over the citizens by forcing them to participate in a mass charade, boasting of its ability to get citizens to approve of it even when everybody knew of the falsity of these claims. A Soviet election in the 1970s and 80s, at least, was thus a ritual designed to lower the emotional energy of the citizens, and increase that of its rulers, though it is plausible to imagine that the ritual aspects of the elections served to produce enthusiasm in citizens early on – a Soviet election, like an election almost everywhere, was first and foremost a big party, where the symbols of the regime were the key objects of attention, and where emotional commitments to these symbols (including political parties and candidates) can be amplified and preserved (or lost and reversed). It is in this sense that an election can “legitimate” a regime (though in competitive contexts, it always does so at the expense of producing negative emotions among partisans of the losing parties, something that is never properly emphasized in accounts of how democratic elections “legitimate” states). Yet the “legitimation” involved in Soviet elections as the regime wore on was less that granted by citizens on rulers (through enthusiastic emotional attachment to regime symbols, including the party and its candidates) than a kind of self-legitimation by rulers on themselves, more and more dependent on the ability of the regime to “triumph” over its citizens by making them passive and acquiescent rather than enthusiastic and committed.

Today, I suspect that North Korean elections are similarly alienating to North Korean citizens: the people who are emotionally elevated by participation in them are more likely to be the rulers than the citizens. There is evidence that the “hidden transcript” in North Korea is different from the public narrative; that many North Koreans, like people everywhere, mock the symbols of oppressive power whenever they think can get away with it. Where voters endorse the elect, and officials elect the people they desire, the people is likely to become more and more emotionally distanced from these officials as time wears on. Yet the triumphalist ritual of such elections is still useful to rulers committed to remaining in power; the appearance of power, is power.

Update 3/13/2014: edited one passage for clarity, fixed a typo.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Francisco Franco, Robust Action, and the Power of Non-Commitment

(Warning: speculation about Spanish history during the Franco era by an amateur).

I’m currently in Spain, doing some research on Franco’s cult of personality. In preparing for this project, I recently read Paul Preston’s biography of Franco, which presents Franco as a selfish, vengeful, and ultimately petty tyrant who caused the death of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots. (If not for Hitler, Franco seems like he would certainly have been in contention for the “worst person of the 20th century” award). Yet despite the evidence of Franco’s political cunning (nearly four decades at the top of the Spanish political system puts him in the top 2-3% of all modern rulers in terms of sheer longevity), the portrait that emerges from Preston’s biography is emphatically not one of a decisive and Machiavellian political leader, but one of “astonishing personal mediocrity” (Kindle Loc 17636), a ruler who constantly procrastinated important decisions, acting reactively rather than proactively, and was rarely clear or even coherent about his commitments, to the despair of allies and enemies alike. How could such a person end up leading the winning side of a bloody civil war and becoming the effective ruler of Spain for more than three decades?

Preston argues cogently that luck played a large role, but it struck me while reading his book that one possible key to Franco’s “success” (measured simply by his ability to remain in power) is something that Padgett and Ansell called, in a classic article on the rise of the Medici in Renaissance Florence, “robust action,” action that cannot be easily foiled or prevented by your opponents. Since their ideas about what enables a political leader to act in this way seem to me to illuminate Franco’s spectacular longevity in power, it’s worth describing them in some detail.

Padgett and Ansell begin their article by noting that there is something puzzling about Cosimo de’ Medici’s power in Florence. Cosimo was clearly powerful, despite not holding formal political office, as his contemporaries (including Machiavelli) appreciated keenly;

Yet the puzzle about Cosimo’s control is this: totally contrary to Machiavelli’s portrait in The Prince of effective leaders as decisive and goal oriented, eyewitness accounts describe Cosimo de’ Medici as an indecipherable sphinx …

… Lest one conclude that this implies only savvy back-room dealing, extant accounts of private meetings with Cosimo emphasize the same odd passivity.’ After passionate pleas by supplicants for action of some sort, Cosimo typically would terminate a meeting graciously but icily, with little more commitment than “Yes my son, I shall look into that” (pp. 1262-1263)

Cosimo “never said a clear word in his life” (p. 1308). But not only was Cosimo inscrutable; his actions, especially after 1434,

… appeared extraordinarily reactive in character. Everything was done in response to a flow of requests that, somehow or other, “just so happened” to serve Cosimo’s extremely multiple interests. (p. 1263)

Padgett and Ansell argue, pace Machiavelli, that there were no “deep and ruthless machinations” that explain Cosimo’s political success. Cosimo really was a “sphinx without a secret” (a term coined by one of Franco’s ministers to refer to Franco); his actions really were reactive, not the moves of someone who could always see further ahead than his adversaries. But his actions were robust (not easily foiled or prevented) precisely because he could not be pinned down by them: others had to reveal their interests when acting in ways that he did not:

We use the term “robust action” to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality-the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego. The “only” point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism-maintaining discretionary options across unforeseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals [my emphasis]. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action.  Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of others’ successful “ecological control” over you … Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby. (pp. 1263-1264)

Padgett and Ansell insist that “not pursuing specific goals” is not merely a matter of strategic ambiguity. What is needed is a more radical lack of commitment to specific interests, or rather, a more radical incommensurability of one’s various interests, which they denote by the idea of “multivocality:”

But robust action is not just a matter of behaving ambiguously. Others are too shrewd not to see through behavioral facades down to presumed self-interested motivations. To act credibly in a multivocal fashion, one’s attributed interests must themselves be multivocal. (p. 1307)

In other words, in the face of unpredictable and changing conditions, too much commitment to specific objectives is damaging to one’s survival in power, as it allows others to predict your moves and to credibly paint you as acting selfishly against the interests of potential allies. To be sure, only some people are in a position to act in this way; not just anyone can “succeed” by acting reactively and inscrutably:

Of course, robust action will not work for just anyone. For the flow of requests to be channeled, only some network structures will do. And for the resolution of judge and boss to be credible, coherent interests must remain opaque as far down as it is conceivable to peer. Contra Machiavelli, even Cosimo himself did not set out with a grand design to take over the state: this assumption reads history backward. … Cosimo’s political party first emerged around him. Only later, during the Milan war, did Cosimo suddenly apprehend the political capacity of the social network machine that lay at his fingertips. (p. 1264)

Most of Padgett and Ansell’s article then describes precisely the sort of network structure that makes robust action possible. Roughly speaking, their argument is that the Medici coalition contained inherently contradictory interests, yet it was constructed in such a way that its component parts could only act together through Cosimo: “Robust action by the Medici was credible precisely because of the contradictory character of their base of support,” yet “[t]he result was an awesomely centralized patrimonial machine, capable of great discipline and “top down” control because the Medici themselves were the only bridge holding this contradictory agglomeration together” (p. 1307). By contrast, the coalition of Medici opponents was both far more “coherent” and narrow in terms of the interests it represented (and hence more predictable in its actions) and less susceptible to centralized control (and hence less effective and disciplined).

Now, there are many differences between Franco and Cosimo de’ Medici. But the overall strategies that allowed Franco to survive in power during one of the most difficult periods in European history do present some interesting similarities to the strategies Padgett and Ansell describe in their article.

Let’s start with Franco himself, who if nothing else seems to have shared something of Cosimo de’ Medici’s inscrutability. Preston recites a litany of descriptions emphasizing this aspect of his character:

He was abundantly imbued with the inscrutable pragmatism or retranca of the gallego peasant. Whether that was because of his origins as a native of Galicia, or the fruit of his Moroccan experiences is impossible to say. Whatever its roots in Franco, retranca may be defined as an evasion of commitment and a taste for the imprecise. It is said that if you meet a gallego on a staircase, it is impossible to deduce if he is going up or down. Franco perhaps embodied that characteristic more than most gallegos. When those close to him tried to get hints about forthcoming ministerial changes, they were rebuffed with skill: ‘People are saying that in the next reshuffle of civil governors so-and-so will go to Province X’, tries the friend; ‘Really?’ replies the sinuous Franco, ‘I’ve heard nothing’. ‘It’s being said that Y and Z are going to be ministers’, ventures his sister. ‘Well’, replies her brother, ‘I haven’t met either of them’. The monarchist aviator Juan Antonio Ansaldo wrote of him ‘Franco is a man who says things and unsays them, who draws near and slips away, he vanishes and trickles away; always vague and never clear or categoric’. John Whitaker met him during the Civil War: ‘He was effusively flattering, but he did not give a frank answer to any question I put to him. A less straightforward man I never met.’ Mussolini’s Ambassador Roberto Cantalupo met him some months later and found Franco to be ‘icy, feminine and elusive [sfuggente]’. The day after first meeting Franco in 1930, the poet and noted wit José María Pemán was introduced by a friend as ‘the man who speaks best in all Spain’ and remarked ‘I think I’ve just met the man who keeps quiet best in all Spain’ (‘ Tengo la sospecha de haber conocido al hombre que mejor se calla en España’). (Kindle Locations 113-130).

To be sure, Franco, unlike Cosimo, made lots of public speeches during his life and said many well-documented things to ambassadors, ministers, and other political leaders. But one point that Preston’s biography brings out well is that it is very difficult to construct a coherent position for Franco from his public statements (though Preston tries valiantly). For one thing, he seems to have had no problems disregarding the truth when it was convenient for him to deny it, and he was alarmingly willing to change his position as circumstances or audiences changed. He could say anything with apparently complete conviction: he could be a monarchist one minute, a Falangista the next, and then assert his claim to being a true Spanish democrat. Yet Preston never quite succeeds in establishing that there was one thing Franco “really believed” underneath all the bullshitting and incoherence, some ideological commitment or fundamental interest beyond his maintenance in power that could account for the many different things he said. His key political talent, Preston notes more than once, was for “shroud[ing] his intentions in a cloud of nebulous vagueness” (Kindle Location 14849-14850). Since no one could be quite sure about his real commitments, these could be “read” in a variety of different ways at the time – as fundamentally sympathetic to the Falange, or fundamentally conservative and Catholic, or as those of an anti-communist warrior.

One obvious way in which Franco avoided being pinned down to some particular goal was by often acting through intermediaries, which made it possible for him to deny responsibility. For example, he was cautious not to seem to have sought the posts of commander in chief or head of state; as Preston puts it, “[w]ith his customary caution, Franco preferred to let others make the running and wait for the new honour to be thrust upon him” (Kindle Locations 4093-4094). But as with Cosimo de’ Medici, the point is not that Franco had plotted for a long time to gain supreme power; on the contrary, his early life suggested that he was destined to be a career military man. He was promoted rapidly, and enjoyed his many positions – in particular, he appears to have been very happy as director of the military academy in Zaragoza. For a while it was even a bit iffy whether he would participate in the military rebellion that led to the civil war; it was only when circumstances made supreme command clearly possible that we can even speak of Franco pursuing that option at all, and then only in fairly indirect ways.

More broadly, Franco’s terminal unwillingness to ever close off options made it seem like he was constantly procrastinating important decisions. The most obvious example of this is the question of restoring the Spanish monarchy (one aim of the military rebellion that led to the civil war), which Franco successfully postponed for decades, in part because it would commit himself to a definite course of action, splitting his coalition. But the same was true of his neutrality-cum-covert-support for Germany and Italy in WWII (Preston has some amusing passages where Hitler and Mussolini rage against Franco’s inability to make clear commitments to enter WWII on their side), or of his actions during the civil war.

The latter provides one striking example of the contrast between robust action and non-robust action. Franco was highly dependent on material support from Germany and Italy for his war effort. And Mussolini and Hitler both had serious doubts about Franco’s abilities to lead the nationalist side to victory. So early on, German and Italian military forces sent to aid the nationalist side were only nominally under Franco’s command. But when the one of the three divisions of Black Shirts sent by Mussolini was defeated at Guadalajara, in part due to Franco’s failure to keep his word to mount a simultaneous attack in the Jarama front, Mussolini was too committed to Franco’s victory to do anything about it except continue supporting Franco, and even accede to put the Black Shirts under Franco’s command. As Preston puts it:

Mussolini could see that he had been used but he had little choice but to continue supporting Franco. Guadalajara had smashed the myth of fascist invincibility and Mussolini found himself committed to Franco until the myth was rebuilt. Equally, however galling, it was now clear that it made more sense to work with Franco for a Nationalist victory than independently. Shortly after his letter of exculpation [a letter Franco wrote to Mussolini to explain why the promised forces did not materialize during the battle of Guadalajara], Franco had requested help for a huge assault on Bilbao. Ignoring remarks made by Roatta [the Italian ambassador commander of the Black Shirts in the civil war at the time] about the miraculous appearance of the necessary forces for Bilbao which had never materialized during the battle of Guadalajara, Mussolini ordered his commander henceforth to obey the instructions and directives of Franco. Italian forces would henceforth be distributed in Spanish units and subject to the command of Franco’s generals. When Cantalupo informed him of this on 28 March, Franco was delighted. The Italian Ambassador found him as if ‘freed of a nightmare’. Franco asked him to inform the Duce of his ‘joy at being understood and appreciated’. (Kindle loc 5320-5329).

Franco had (whether by design or not; Preston is of two minds about this) managed to shape the “choice context” of Mussolini so as to induce him to commit himself to Franco’s victory, while retaining some freedom to pursue his own independent policy, despite his material dependence on Italian and German aid.

But what enabled Franco to avoid commitment to specific goals while others could not? What made it possible for him to say to Don Juan (the exiled heir to the Borbon throne) in 1954, that “I don’t find governing an onerous task” and “Spain is easy to govern”? (Kindle loc 14428-14429). Part of the answer to this question – in a sense the more superficial part – is that, as Preston notes, Franco was very good at gauging the price of people:

For nearly forty years he would use [his very extensive formal powers] with consummate skill, striking decisively at his outright enemies but maintaining the loyalty of those within the Nationalist coalition with cunning and a perceptive insight into human weakness worthy of a man who had learnt his politics among the tribes of Morocco. The ability to calibrate almost instantly the weakness and/ or the price of a man enabled Franco to know unerringly [a bit of poetic license, but we’ll let that pass] when a would-be opponent could be turned into a collaborator by some preferment, or even the promise of it – a ministry, an embassy, a prestigious military posting, a job in a State enterprise, a decoration, an import licence or just a box of cigars. (Kindle loc 6251-6255).

And like any other successful dictator, he then used this knowledge to play people against one another and thus prevent them from coordinating against him:

The ‘families’ of the Nationalist coalition would be manipulated like friendly tribes, bribed, enmeshed in competition among themselves, involved in corruption and repression in such a way as to make them suspicious of one another but unable to do without the supreme arbiter. (Kindle locs 7395-7397).

Divide et impera is, of course, the oldest trick in the book; and Franco was good at it, in the (base) sense of using it well to remain at the top of the political system despite not being very much loved, or even very much respected, by those below him. In a revealing anecdote, Preston notes the clever way in which Franco used the corruption of his ministers as an instrument of control:

Franco showed no interest in putting a stop to graft as opposed to using knowledge of it to increase his power over those involved. He often repaid those who informed him of corruption not by taking action against the guilty but by letting them know who had informed on them (Kindle locs 14795-14797).

Here we see also a way of not foreclosing any options: both the denouncer and the denounced remain dependent on Franco, yet the onus of action is put on them, not on Franco. A similar logic of inaction applied to his agents of repression during the civil war and beyond:

Franco was aware that some of his subordinates enjoyed the bloodthirsty work of the repression. His Director-General of Prisons, Joaquin del Moral, was notorious for the prurient delight he derived from executions. General Cabanellas protested to Franco about the distasteful dawn excursions organized in Burgos by Del Moral in order to enjoy the day’s shootings. Franco did nothing. He was fully conscious of the extent to which the repression not only terrified the enemy but also inextricably tied those involved in its implementation to his own survival. Their complicity ensured that they would cling to him as the only bulwark against the possible revenge of their victims. (Kindle locs 5169-5174).

Yet I suspect the deeper reason for Franco’s ability to act robustly went beyond Franco’s particular political tactics. What enabled him to be so effective at using divide et impera seems to me to be the fact that his supporting coalition – made up variously of Falangists (Spanish fascists), Carlistas, other monarchists, conservative Catholics, and the military – was inherently contradictory (as was the supporting coalition of the Medici in Padgett and Ansell’s view), yet could only act together through him. For example, Falangists were skeptical of the monarchy, and in theory had a reformist economic programme, a promise of a grand “social revolution” to which other conservative elements of the coalition were implacably opposed. Monarchists differed among themselves about who should be placed on the throne, and differed about when the monarchy should be restored. The army, which was the group best positioned to overthrow Franco (its senior commanders having “elected” him in 1936 as Generalissimo), had its own divisions and in any case was fearful of another civil war. And so on. Yet Franco’s inscrutability – which, interestingly, was not nearly as much in evidence when he was merely a career military man, and could thus afford to have opinions – allowed him to represent all of these disparate interests with enough credibility that those concerned could at least pretend to themselves that Franco was ultimately working for their ultimate aims. (Of course, you’d need a proper network analysis to make the Padgett/Ansell claim rigorously; for one thing, we’d also need to know whether the various components of the Francoist coalition had few linkages with one another, so that they could act together only through him. This I can’t tell on the basis of the evidence in Preston’s book).

Signs of Franco’s excessive commitment to a particular goal or group were sometimes even interpreted by shrewd observers as political mistakes. For example, when in 1945 Franco’s public support of the Falange seemed to  be attracting much international criticism, José María Pemán wrote in his diary: ‘if they had told me that Franco had a lover it would have seemed bad, not to say strange, but this is worse: he has got a conviction.’ But, as Preston notes, “[i]n fact, the normally shrewd Pemán was wrong. Franco may have had an emotional commitment to the Falange but it did not undermine his capacity for ruthless calculation. He had in fact worked out that there was more benefit to be derived from keeping the Falange. Not only was it a massive bulwark of support but international criticism of it also helped him capitalize on mass resentment of foreign ‘interference’.”  (Kindle locs 12440-12446). I am not sure that Franco “worked out” these benefits consciously, but it is interesting to note that Pemán saw the sign of commitment to a cause as a political mistake because it would box Franco in and close off certain courses of action. Franco’s political strength lay precisely in credibly not being for one or another part of his coalition, and this was made possible because he seems to have had no firm underlying convictions beyond, perhaps, his commitment to a picture of himself as savior of Spain. (Was his support for the Falange in 1945 sincere, or the result of a calculated gamble? Is this question even answerable?). Or conversely, we may say that because his self-image as savior of Spain could “contain multitudes” without being threatened (Franco was rarely bothered by inconsistency) that his interests were themselves “multivocal” in the Ansell and Padgett sense.  

We might also look at the eventual decay of the regime through this lens. By the end of the 60s socio-economic changes (including rapid economic development) had eroded the original Francoist coalition, and key “ideological” questions had been finally settled (e.g., the succession was finally settled on Don Juan Carlos - the current King - in 1969; the “falangist” revolution had been definitively shelved; etc.). Franco was thus less and less able to represent a diversity of interests “mutivocally;” he had, in a sense, finally been boxed in by his own success. This made Franco less and less relevant as the lynchpin of the major coalition that controlled the state, and the institutional changes he had intended to perpetuate his regime did not last. (This is an important contrast to the story Padgett and Ansell tell about the Medici).

If anyone had now the ability to represent contradictory interests “multivocally” and engage in robust action, it was Juan Carlos, who seems to have learned a few things from Franco. Apparently when Franco told Juan Carlos that he had finally decided to settle the succession on him, “Juan Carlos replied ‘rest assured, mi general, I have learned much from your galleguismo (Galician craftiness).’ As they both laughed, Franco complimented him, ‘Your Highness does it very well.’” (Kindle locs 16666-16669). Both Franco and many other people could project their ideas onto the king, who turned out, unexpectedly for a lot of people, to be a leading force in the transition to democracy. (Or am I completely off here?)

Ultimately, all this suggests to me the limits of appealing to belief in explaining political action. To attempt to explain Franco by reference to his specific ideas is to miss the possibility that it was their basic inconsistency that made him able to avoid being "boxed in."

Update 2/3/2013: Fixed some typos.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


It's the solstice: time to take stock, and (in the Northern hemisphere, where I am right now) give thanks to the guardians of Asgard for another Ragnarok deferred.

It's been a slow year in this blog - only eight  posts, though most of them proved surprisingly popular. The post on Aztec political thought, in particular, was an unexpected hit, with more than 8,000 views so far, and my review of Randall Collins' Interaction Ritual Chains was even republished, with minor changes, as a more or less proper book review here. Many posts were about ritual, since for the first time I feel like I've "got" ritual; a friend told me recently that I was like a man with a hammer now, seeing ritual everywhere. In any case, thanks to everyone who read, commented, and shared these rather irregular footnotes!

In the season's spirit of sharing, here are some links for your reading pleasure, some older than others:
  • Phil Schrodt writes a dispatch on the insidious War on Yule:
Yes, the outward signs surround us: the evergreen wreaths on doors, the houses and streets festooned with lights against the darkness of December, the ubiquitous gaily-decorated trees—aluminum, plastic, occasionally real, all invoking the world-encompassing Yggdrasil—and festive gathering of friends and family [1] before the blazing Yule fire [2] to feast and drink mulled wine. Even that ever-present “Santa”: obviously an odd synthesis from many cultures, but coming out of the northern skies in a sled pulled by reindeer and accompanied by elves. The signs of Yule are everywhere.
But this has become shallow amid the crass materialism, the anodyne references to “the holiday season” and the confusion of social obligations. 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?

And now for your regularly scheduled solstice extremophiles blogging:

Deep Lake in Antarctica. Crawling with haloarchaea.

Happy Yule/Winter Solstice/Summer Solstice!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Age of Democracy

(Part of an occasional series on the history of political regimes. Contains some work in progress.)

This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.

Here is a figure I've been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context - new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” - a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. - and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (see data and methods note below for more details):

(Red lines indicate, from left to right, the date of the first mention of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional text, WWI, WWII, and the end of the Cold War [1989]).

The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth - mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]

Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don't think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority - monarchical, imperial, etc. - get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country's cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter's effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution's claims about the “people's democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).

I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities - e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community - led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later.

Data and Methods

The underlying texts used to construct this figure have been gathered by the Comparative Constitutions Project. What “counts” as a constitutional document is subject to some debate, especially in countries like the UK or New Zealand that are sometimes said not to have a written constitution. But all of the documents gathered by the CCP are indisputably important, describing basic structures of government and setting out the rights of citizens. Unfortunately, however, most are not publicly available through the CCP repository due to copyright complications. I thank Zachary Elkins, one of the CCP Principal Investigators, for granting me access to them; I also want to note that the work of the CCP in collecting, categorizing, and coding them is invaluable (and hopefully may soon be more widely accessible, with the Constitute website).

Anyway, in order to create the figure above, I downloaded the PDFs of all the documents in their archive and extracted the text of as many as I could using the Python PDFminer library. (Some of the older constitutions have not been OCRd, and a few are password-protected, so there's no text for them; see the “inventory” file for details). I then used this R script to extract each mention of the word “democracy” in each of these texts. Specifically, I identified each line that contained the pattern “democ” or “demok” or “mocra” or “demo-” in every extracted text file (not all of the available texts are in English, but the word “democracy” has similar roots in most European languages at least), as well as the previous and the following line, and put them in a table. I then inspected this table for false positives - instances where the algorithm picks up the word “democracy” in cases where it isn't actually mentioned in the constitutional text, or instances, mostly in poorly-OCRd Cyrillic texts, where the algorithm picks up words that contain the pattern “mocra” but are not “democracy” or “democratic” (or any variant). The exact list of false positives I found is available in the script, as well as all the changes made to the original list of mentions. Finally, I calculated earliest and latest mentions of democracy (as well as a few other variables). The resulting dataset of democracy mentions plus all code (including the code for the figure in this post), is available in this GitHub repository.


[1] It is possible that there is an earlier mention of democracy in the data; I have not manually checked every earlier constitutional document, and some of them are poorly OCRd and not in a major language. But France and Switzerland seem right.

[2] Some mentions of democracy occur only in passing, as in New Zealand, where a 1990 bill of rights (coded by the CCP as an “amendment” to New Zealand's constitution) has a section on “democratic and civil rights” and indicates that restrictions on rights must be demonstrably justified in a manner appropriate to “a free and democratic society.” One could easily come up with a story linking most of the countries that do not mention democracy: it's basically countries whose constitutional documents are still strongly influenced by a UK or USA constitutional legacy in Asia, due to a relatively stable post-colonial or post-war history (e.g., Malaysia, Singapore, Japan) and monarchies whose sovereigns are still relatively unconstrained (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Oman, Tonga).

[3] This is tricky to check with an actual measure of democracy for a variety of reasons (though I'm working on it), but at least today there's no correlation. I do wonder whether a long history of mentions is correlated with democracy today - aspiration becoming reality, as it were - or whether the correlation between mentions of democracy and actual levels of democracy has varied through time (perhaps the language of democracy once meant something but today it does not, for example).

[4] For a fuller academic argument on this point, see my piece on “Models of Political Community” here. I think a similar process once took place in the late Roman Republic, as I argued in a piece on “Cicero's Conception of the Political Community” [ungated here]: Cicero almost came to the idea of a “national” state and “representative” institutions.

Update 9 December - minor edits for clarity; fixed some typos.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Aztec Political Thought

(A footnote on Inga Clendinnen’s extraordinary “Aztecs: An Interpretation.” If there’s a better book on the Aztecs than this, I want to read it).

The Aztecs are hard to love. Theirs was a highly hierarchical society in which human sacrifice was a hugely important practice, ruling over a tributary empire oppressive enough that Cortés and his small band of Spaniards were easily able to foment rebellion among subject peoples and eventually destroy Tenochtitlan, despite being heavily outnumbered and more or less constantly on the brink of disaster. (Though I should say that Cortés himself strikes me as a great example of the Machiavellian “new prince,” a genuine conqueror of fortuna, always able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves). The usual presentation of the Aztecs as a warrior culture whose principal claim to fame is that they were able to conquer other peoples and leave behind some impressive monuments leaves me cold, and their art always struck me as difficult to relate to. But Inga Clendinnen’s superb book on the Aztecs paints such a powerfully seductive picture of their polity that I feel like I have a grasp of what is truly interesting about them for the first time. In particular, the Aztec (or better, the Mexica) view of (what we call today) “political” authority struck me as extraordinarily thought-provoking and worth thinking about, in part because it seems so alien, and in part because it shows the enormous importance of ritual in politics.

Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).

But Aztec cosmology, it turns out, goes much further than this. The ruler embodies or channels Tezcatlipoca, who is often vaguely characterized as a god of “fate and war” (and normally downplayed in favor of Huizilopochtli, e.g., in the current Te Papa exhibit on the Aztecs here in Wellington, who is more understandable as a straightforward god of war, and is viewed as the “patron” of the Tenochtitlan Mexica). But Tezcatlipoca is the more important deity: he is described at the beginning of Book 6 of the Florentine Codex as “the principal god” of the Mexica.

A representation of Tezcatlipoca from the Codex Borgia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And he is not a merciful or benevolent god; on the contrary, he represents a kind of arbitrary malice that is visited on all alike, and is variously addressed as the Enemy on Both Sides, the Mocker, He Whose Slaves We Are, and the Lord of the Smoking Mirror (for the smoky reflections in dark obsidian mirrors used by the shamans, “obscure intimations of what was to come endlessly dissolving back into obscurity,” as Clendinnen puts it [p. 148]). From the same great prayer in Book 6 quoted earlier, addressing the ruler:

O my son, O our lord, O ruler, O my grandson: Our lord, the lord of the near, of the nigh, is made to laugh. He is arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh. He willeth the manner he desireth. He is placing us in the palm of his hand; he is making us round. We roll; we become as pellets. He is casting us from side to side. We make him laugh; he is making a mockery of us. (Florentine Codex, Book 6, chapter 10; p. 51 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation. The image is of a small ball of seed dough, rolled in the hand of the god).

Human and divine authority seem equally inescapable and malicious. The entire address to the ruler in this section of the Florentine Codex does contain a number of admonitions to behave well, yet it insists that nothing the ruler does will be sufficient to escape Tezcatlipoca’s malice; good behavior is no guarantee of divine favour:

Perhaps thou canst for a time support the governed … [But] [t]hou wilt become as smut, and he [Tezcatlipoca] will send you into the vegetation, into the forest. And he will cast thee, push thee, as is said, into the excrement, into the refuse … In thy time there will be disunity, quarreling in thy city. No more wilt thou be esteemed; no more wilt thou be regarded. … And soon it is all for thee; the lord of the near, of the nigh, will destroy thee, will hide thee, will trample thee underfoot. (pp. 49-50 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation of book 6, chapter 10 of the Florentine Codex).

(Clendinnen notes many other examples of the “shared and steady vision common to the different social groupings in Tenochtitlan” concerning “the casual, inventive, tireless malice of the only sacred force concerned with the fates of men,” p. 148).  And the ruler himself is a microcosmic image of the macrocosmic arbitrariness of Tezcatlipoca; as Clendinnen puts it, “Tezcatlipoca in the Mexica imagining of him was the epitome of the great lord: superb; indifferent to homage, with its implication of legitimate dependence; all bounty in his hand; and altogether too often not in the giving vein” (p. 83). She comments at more length on the analogies between divine and political authority:

It was this principle of subversion, of wanton, casual, antisocial power which was peculiarly implicated in Mexica notions of rule, and was embodied (at least on occasion) in the Mexica ruler. … For most of the time the tlatoani functioned in the mundane world, his authority deriving from his exalted lineage, his conquests, and his position as head of the social hierarchy. But that was merely a human authority, which could be displaced by Tezcatlipoca's overwhelming presence, especially when men who had violated the social order were brought before their lord. The place of royal judgment was called ‘the slippery place’, because beyond it lay total destruction. If his careful judges reflected on the niceties of their judgments, there were no judicious metaphors in the ruler’s punishment: only obliterating sacred power (p. 80).

When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment? As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz, referring to pre-colonial Bali, once called the “theatre state.”

I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice.  Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case). And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths ... The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).

The Mexica, like most other peoples that have ever engaged in sacrificial practices, understood these rituals partly in instrumental terms – as ways to “propitiate” the gods so as to achieve some favorable outcome. (And I suspect that, given a geographical setting where the main instrumental aim of religious ritual was to avert natural dangers that came at irregular intervals, such practices were subject to an “intensification ratchet” – if your efforts did not succeed in preventing the earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane despite the previous long period of peace and quiet, the best inference is that it’s probably because you did not try hard enough. But that’s a story for another day; see Watson’s “The Great Divide” for some speculations along these lines). Clendinnen suggests that the Mexica understood what they were doing as, in a sense, catching the attention of the gods and awakening their pride:

The aim was to waken pride … The gods, those notoriously abstracted givers, had first to be attracted by performances which would catch their attention, and then coaxed to munificence by the presentation of gifts, the richer the better. There were histrionic displays of confidence in the generosity of the lordly giver (p. 72).

But the religious instrumentality of the ritual was the least important part of their function, in my view; I suspect, as I’ve said on another occasion, that here ritual is prior to belief. For one thing, Mexica rituals, as powerful intensifiers of emotion, were singularly effective at producing experiences of the sacred; it makes better sense to say that rituals were for the sake of these emotional experiences than to say that they were for the sake of certain material outcomes (like victory in war, or a good harvest, or the avoidance of natural disasters), though they were obviously rationalized in such ways (e.g., as means to ensure that the sun rose every day, or to prevent the destruction of the world, etc.). At the end of the day, human sacrifice is, instrumentally speaking, pure waste: it only makes sense from the point of view of the intensified emotions (“experiences of the sacred”) that it helps produce in ritual context. In turn these emotions bound together the community and made for a particularly intense kind of social life:

If Mexica rituals were valued for their connections and commentaries on life and their capacity to forge a particular kind of unity out of difference, participation was itself addictive. Given that access to ritual excitements was not an occasional grace note but an enduring part of the rhythm of living, ritual-generated experience and ritual-generated knowledge among the Mexica opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative (p. 241).

We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,” that contrived

by very different means, the kind of delirium that we associate not with high reverence but with Carnival. Through the chant when the priests spoke in the voice of the gods and the people replied; the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self. And only then, as the self evaporated and the choreographed excitements multiplied and the sensations came flooding in, did the god draw near (p. 258; I could quote Clendinnen all day).

Such rituals should not, I think, be understood as promoting an “ideology” of submission – in the sense of stories told by ruling classes to preserve their privileges. No “private” privileges could compare to the intensity of these manufactured collective experiences, for one thing; and, as Clendinnen notes, the rituals at Tenochtitlan did not help to compel acceptance of Aztec supremacy among subject peoples either. Though it is true that in their thoroughgoing embrace of submission to and dependence on the god, Mexica rituals did dramatize the microcosmic hierarchy as an instance of the macrocosmic one, that hierarchy is not presented as just, or fair, or otherwise as "justified" in any sense we could recognize; the power of such practices was in their sacralization of social life through extraordinary emotion, not in their "justificatory" content. At the end of the day, their deep “message” could hardly serve to legitimize anything in the sense of persuading the subjects of the ruling elite’s “right to rule.” Again, Clendinnen is a much better writer than I am:

Just how fragile our social worlds are is something normally and mercifully masked from us, perhaps because we have been too little sensitive to the difference between societies which proceed as if the cultural terms of their existence are reasonably well fixed, and those where the 'making' aspect is evident, and where the recognition of dynamic possibilities is counterpoised by the recognition of the fragility of that which is made: the subversive insight built into the texture of that which is built. … In imperial Tenochtitlan the hierarchy was privileged to watch enactments intimating its own necessary final dissolution, or at least acknowledge its carefully crafted state to be a made thing: another precarious human construct. Beneath the immediate and superficial message of the high rituals ('the Mexica, gloriously differentiated, gloriously dominate') the darkest aspect of the human condition was dramatized through this brilliant human making …

What the rituals finally and most powerfully represented was a vision subversive of human distinctions, with all the elegancies and elaborations of the social order collapsed into the carnal indifference of death. The glamour attending the warrior performance on the gladiatorial stone would seem to be in fine accord with the 'warrior ideology' and its classification as state-sustaining, as handpicked Mexica warriors delicately slit the skin of their tethered victims in a display of Mexica might; but an analysis sustained over the whole parabola of the action from the perspective of the captor and his kin suggests a much darker vision. And most ritual warrior deaths were notably less heroic: trussed like deer to be logged, heads lolling, up the pyramid steps; others, similarly trussed, cast writhing into the fire …

Honours so hardly won were denied, ignored, made meaningless as men, jealous of least indicators of rank and ordered in accordance with that rank, watched undifferentiated bipeds being done to bloody death. …

In that butchery - there was no surgical precision here - blood jetted up, heads dangled from priests' hands, violated bodies were carried away for more dismemberings and distributions. And all this where large-scale butchery of animals was unknown; where humans were the creatures men most often saw slaughtered. If (as some would claim) all ceremonial works to sustain the existing social and political order, these performances did so in most devious ways. It is a perilous business to assert over close to half a millenium and vast cultural distance what the Mexica saw, and made of what they saw. It is nonetheless difficult to see these enactments as directly legitimating the Mexica, or indeed any, social order [my emphasis]. …

What the Mexica were shown, again and again, was a hard lesson - hard because it ran counter to human passions, vanities and affections, allowing no status to individuals or peoples or castes, but speaking only to mankind: the human body, cherished as it might be, was no more than one stage in vegetable cycle of transformations, and human society a human arrangement to help sustain that essential cycle. 'Enchantment' and 'violence' are typically presented as alternative strategies for the maintenance of social stability, but that distinction is not easily drawn in Tenochtitlan, where acts of state-approved violence were at once part of the complex rhetoric of cosmically sanctioned human power, and, more profoundly, illustrative of the ferocious constraints on the merely human. (pp. 260-262).

(Incidentally, I think this should give pause to those who think that unmasking the “naturalness” or asserting the “contingency” of a social order has liberating effects. But that’s a different story, and this post is quite long already.)

There is much more in this amazing book I have barely touched. Clendinnen’s chapters on women in Mexica society are a tour de force, and her discussion of the Aztecs’ final defeat by the Spaniards is touched by a deep empathy. She sees Aztec life from their perspective, at least as much as such a thing is possible. The book left me with an uneasy feeling, though. Could one imagine a situation in which Aztec culture had not been so completely destroyed by the Spaniards? How, given the dependence of their way of life on human sacrifice, could the outcome of the encounter between Spaniards and Mexica have been any different? The incommensurability of Mexica and Spanish values was not simply a result of what they believed; it was an incompatibility of ritual practices so thoroughgoing that no understanding seems to have been possible without a complete change in the ritual context. And in the end, the Aztecs remain hard to love.

(Update 11/21 - fixed some typos).

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Perils of Public Opinion Research in Libya, circa 2000

This story of how Mabroka al-Werfalli (lecturer in politics at the University of Benghazi, previously the University of Garyounis) managed to conduct the research for her book, Political Alienation in Libya, is fascinating as a window into life in Libya under Gaddafi around the year 2000, and the difficulties of ascertaining "public opinion" in such a society:
Researchers always require an official authorization for opinion surveying in Libya. The problem was who should be contacted to get the permission? Although I was doing the research within my own society, it was difficult to identify who was in charge. Because institutions and individuals do not realize they are entitled to any sort of power, I was trapped for nearly four months in a revolving door of authorities, revolutionary committee offices and security agencies, none of which wanted to stick out their necks. It appeared that nobody wanted to shoulder the responsibility for giving the go-ahead for distributing such a daring questionnaire. (p. 1)
She then tells the story of how she gets shifted from the Basic Popular Congress, to the Head of Internal Security, to the Revolutionary Committee Liaison Bureau, to the governor of the city of Benghazi, and back again to the RCLB, all of whom require someone else's approval, or tell her they've gone on vacation, or simply refuse to meet her. Weeks pass, and she enlists friends and family members in the effort to secure a permit. Eventually, through the good offices of her uncle, she meets someone in security who is willing to grant her the permit "on the grounds that [she] was from the same tribe" (p. 2). But having a permit turns out to be a mixed blessing for her research:
It was not possible to wander around knocking on people's doors and requesting them to fill in forms. Libyans are not familiar with surveys of any kind apart from the population census that takes place every few years, so it is highly unusual for them to have individuals on their doorsteps asking them to answer unusual questions. 
The problem was how to calm people and attain their trust. I wanted to show good will by presenting the security permission, but people then suspected me of being sponsored by the security agencies, and consequently were afraid of me. When I approached people without showing my permit, they were also nervous and would not cooperate with me, fearing that I might have been doing something against the regime and wishing to avoid any involvement in this. People expressed a great deal of hesitation and apprehension when they read the questions set in the questionnaire. A number of them just said sorry and slammed their doors in my face. (pp. 2-3)
She does not give up, however. Enlisting her siblings and their close friends, she forms a team to help convince residents of the Al-Orouba district of Benghazi to answer her questions. Basically, they have to visit every house four or five times to gain people's trust, and some of the people who agree to be interviewed even help persuade some of their neighbors to cooperate with her. But even then sometimes people back out, or family members convince them that it was too risky to participate. Some people would only agree to be interviewed in a car, not in a house. And then the security officer who had given her a permit started getting nervous himself:
First he asked my late uncle to stop the process; then I was summoned to the headquarters where he worked and asked to make people write their names on the forms. I explained the irrationality of doing this, as it would jeopardize my entire project. They let me go but called me again about two weeks later and asked me to hand over all the completed forms I had by that time managed to collect. This was the most serious problem I faced while doing the survey. The decision to be made then was either to hand over the forms and lose all the months of work, or to run off with the forms in order to save them. I had to leave the country before all the forms had been collected. 
After I had left the country, security patrols visited my family to ask if I had managed all the forms so they could take them away. My family told them that I had managed to collect only a few forms, and that I had left for Britain. Because the fieldwork had taken so long, I was running out of time, and I had to go back to England to pursue my study [the book started as a PhD project]. So far, this excuse has protected my family, particularly those who were involved in the distribution and collection of the forms, from inevitable intimidation and detention [the book was completed in 2008, from the UK]. (p. 4)
Problems with the security services were not her only difficulties. There were also cultural obstacles. Interviewees did not wish to be interviewed at their homes, for obvious reasons; so they asked to be interviewed at her home. But her home turns out to be complicated to use:
It was quite difficult to do the interviewing in my home because 47 out of 76 interviewees were adult men, and because I had therefore to meet my interviewees either at the male-lounge (marbou'a) or on the roof above the flat, ... The roof was a good place when the weather was fine, but it was not convenient at all when it was raining and windy. The reason I resorted to the roof was that the male-lounge kept being occupied by guests coming for different purposes so I always had to leave immediately, not only because of violating the privacy of the interview but also because, as a female, I am not allowed to stay in the male-lounge if there is a male visitor. (p. 5)
She does get some help from the fact that she was the daughter of an Imam, but not enough. Trust was built up a little at a time; people who had completed the forms told their neighbors that it was safe to do so, and eventually the survey came to stand for something larger:
People regarded my interest in their political life as a promise to change the circumstances surrounding them, while others regarded it as a confidential and safe way to speak out, since their voices would be heard while their identities would never be revealed. (p. 5)
All of this can be neatly summed up in an observation she makes later:
For a relatively long period the state has been a strange entity for the individual in Libya. He or she has always dealt with it using extreme caution, or has avoided dealing with it altogether, believing that engaging with the state or its authorities involves a high risk to personal safety (p. 11)
The observation applies to other places as well. (One more for my file on the irrelevance of legitimacy).

Anyway, I haven't finished the book, but I think this has got to be a contender for "most difficult to carry out public opinion survey EVER." My hat is off to Dr al-Werfalli; she shows real grit, determination, and courage. I hope she is doing well in post-revolution Libya.