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Lessons from a critical sociologist [written in 2014]


In the last chapter of Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), Barrington Moore explains the value of Marxian analytical methods, as contrasted with methods that emphasize cultural factors, ideologies, subjective values, etc. Here are excerpts:


“…Materialist efforts to exorcise the ghost of idealism in cultural explanations are chanting at the wrong spook.[1] The real spook is a conception of social inertia, taken over probably from physics. There is a widespread assumption in modern social science that social continuity requires no explanation. Supposedly it is not problematical. Change is what requires explanation. This assumption blinds the investigator to certain crucial aspects of social reality. Culture, or tradition—to use a less technical term—is not something that exists outside of or independently of individual human beings living together in society. Cultural values do not descend from heaven to influence the course of history. They are abstractions by an observer, based on the observation of certain similarities in the way groups of people behave, either in different situations or over time, or both. Even though one can often make accurate predictions about the way groups and individuals will behave over short periods of time on the basis of such abstractions, as such they do not explain the behavior. To explain in terms of cultural values is to engage in circular reasoning. If we notice that a landed aristocracy resists commercial enterprise, we do not explain this fact by stating that the aristocracy has done so in the past or even that it is the carrier of certain traditions that make it hostile to such activities: the problem is to determine out of what past and present experiences such an outlook arises and maintains itself. If culture has an empirical meaning, it is as a tendency implanted in the human mind to behave in certain specific ways ‘acquired by man as a member of society,’ to quote the last phrase of Tylor’s famous definition…


“The assumption of inertia, that cultural and social continuity do not require explanation, obliterates the fact that both have to be re-created anew in each generation, often with great pain and suffering. To maintain and transmit a value system, human beings are punched, bullied, sent to jail, thrown into concentration camps, cajoled, bribed, made into heroes, encouraged to read newspapers, stood up against a wall and shot, sometimes even taught sociology. To speak of cultural inertia is to overlook the concrete interests and privileges that are served by indoctrination, education, and the entire complicated process of transmitting culture from one generation to the next… Finally, to take values as the starting point of sociological explanation makes it very difficult to understand the obvious fact that values change in response to circumstances. The perversion of democratic notions in the American South is an all too familiar example, incomprehensible without cotton and slavery. We cannot do without some conception of how people perceive the world and what they do or do not want to do about what they see. To detach this conception from the way people reach it, to take it out of its historical context and raise it to the status of an independent causal factor in its own right, means that the supposedly impartial investigator succumbs to the justifications that ruling groups generally offer for their most brutal conduct. That, I fear, is exactly what a great deal of academic social science does today.”


He’s right. An egregious and well-known example is the myth, or the Big Lie (see Mein Kampf), propagated by pseudo-scholars like Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris that we’re in the midst of a potentially apocalyptic “clash of civilizations” between the Christian (or, in some versions, secular) “West” and the Muslim “East” or “Middle East.” This cultural fault-line is conceived as the primary geopolitical fact of the present. It’s Us versus Them. The Huntingtonian hypothesis has been amply refuted since its introduction in the early 1990s;[2] it is widely known by now, or should be, that “they” don’t “hate us for our freedom” (or our Christianity or secularism or whatever) but for our savage imperialistic policies that are ripping their societies apart. Nevertheless, bipolar, culturalist, Huntington-type thinking persists, largely because of its usefulness to the powerful. (It distracts from intra-societal conflict, particularly from class and other institutional structures, and generates popular support for militaristic policies.)


Indeed, this sort of culturalism is not far from racialism, which is not far from racism. As the story goes, people in a particular region of the world—in this case, North Africa and the Middle East—acquired a long time ago, in some primeval past, something called “a culture,” which has stayed with them nearly unchanged for centuries and millennia just because cultures are the sorts of things that are very hard to change. The longer they exist, the harder it is to change them. By virtue of mere inertia, as Moore says, traditions are supposed to pass from generation to generation passively, like the ebb and flow of time itself. There is little room for human agency in this story: one grows up in a cultural atmosphere, soaks it up like a sponge, and passes it on to one’s descendants. So now, in the twenty-first century, an Arab or Middle Easterner necessarily has this tremendous cultural burden simply because he comes from North Africa or the Middle East. He cannot be other than he is; it is virtually in his blood. –Edward Said dealt with all this long ago in his classic Orientalism (1978), but, since ideological servants of power-structures continue to exist, “Orientalist” thinking does as well.


Culturalism, or idealism, comes in less obnoxious forms too. In fact, in these forms it’s almost ubiquitous. Hackneyed concepts like “American individualism” or “the competitive spirit” or “Americans’ traditional conservatism” are used to explain everything from the proliferation of guns and violence in the U.S. to the weakness of labor unions. With that simple rhetorical trick, the whole history of the labor movement, of business and state violence, of corporate propaganda and public-relations campaigns, of myriad social possibilities that were foreclosed by repression, is erased.[3] What culturalism/idealism really amounts to is anti-historical thinking. No wonder conservatives and the powerful love it: for knowledge of history is dangerous to authority, and has to be suppressed.


Even scholars who think of themselves as consummate historians are often inadvertently suppressing history by putting forward idealistic interpretations. For example, to explain political policies in terms of the ideologies that politicians use to justify them is to suppress the real history, the institutional history, in favor of a fairy-tale that glorifies the powerful. To take a random but typical instance: in The Global Cold War (2005), Odd Arne Westad argues that “the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics.”[4] He pays little attention to economic dynamics and institutional interests, relying instead on policymakers’ rhetoric and self-understanding. Thus, in addition to legitimizing powerful actors and the political status quo, his method falsifies the history, or rather “superficializes” it.[5]


But it may be unfair for me to pick on Westad: his approach is and always has been the default approach of 95 percent of intellectuals. What people who actually care about truth should do is heed Moore’s materialist admonitions.




Some obligatory postmodernism-bashing.— The ironic thing is that even honorable postmodern historians, people of a different caliber than the Samuel Huntingtons and Bernard Lewises of the world, are engaging in superficial and unchallenging (to conventional wisdom) scholarship by focusing on culture and “discourses” at the expense of concrete living conditions, institutional pressures, business practices, propaganda campaigns, and class conflicts. These are what really determine people’s lives. Postmodern historiography has prided itself on being super-historical, more rigorous than scholarship of the past, but inasmuch as it downplays material contexts, interests, and access to resources—largely determined by class relations—it fails to get to the root of the matter.


But explanation, after all, seems not to be the typical goal of postmodernists. In whatever discipline, they’re more interested in “playing” with texts, images, and ideas, somewhat like artists do. Historians dig up old sources and play around with them, relate them to each other in new ways, try to uncover new “meanings.” This sort of play has always been an important aspect of historical scholarship, but in recent decades it’s been taken to extremes—as is suggested, indeed, by the ubiquity of the concept “play” in writings of postmodern ideologists. Thus, contemporary historiography plays with notions of gender, racial and ethnic identities, sexuality, ideological constructions of nationalism, forms of religious expression, and so forth. Much can be said in favor of such an emphasis on subjectivity and discourse. People are, after all, subjective beings, whose identities are important to them. Whether they are important enough to justify an almost exclusive focus on them is another question—particularly when such focus obscures the behavior of institutions and the more “objective” facts of class location that are, indeed, essential to understanding the broader social significance of particular discourses and identities (and reasons for their propagation, for people’s adherence to them, etc.). E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) remains a model of how to fruitfully fuse an interest in the subjective and in the objective, so as to explain the former and not just fecklessly “play” with it.


At its worst, idealist historiography tends to construct a world of discourses and identities floating in the air, unanchored in any material realm, with facts of power distribution and economic dynamics not only invisible but implicitly supposed not to exist. Everything is imaginary; all that exists is “society’s imaginary.” People and groups ethereally play with ideas—or the latter play with themselves, and human agents enter only as enablers of this play. It’s all rather ahistorical—and therefore, again, not surprisingly acceptable to the neoliberal institutional matrix in which postmodernism has flourished. Corporate capitalism is perfectly happy with postmodernism and so supports it and funds it, because it distracts from class structures and doesn’t contribute to an understanding of power. Materialists like Thomas Ferguson are hounded out of their university departments;[6] idealists from Derrida to Baudrillard to Joan Wallach Scott become academic celebrities.


Other criticisms of postmodern scholarship can be given. For instance, because it so often consists of mere masturbatory play, one doesn’t know what general conclusions to draw from it. It appears to have no interesting implications, such that the implications usually stated by authors are trivialities (or, sometimes, falsities). It’s all just play—mere particularity—undertaken for the sake of itself. Here’s a review I wrote years ago of a relatively good book in this vein:



      The widely respected collection of essays Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (1997), edited by Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, is a typical product of the postmodernist impulse as manifested in historical scholarship. Like all postmodernism, it deals primarily with “discourses,” with the play of contradictory subjectivities, identities, ideas, cultures, “vocabularies,” “grammars,” etc., in this case in the context of European colonialism. Specifically, the editors and contributing authors are interested in how “both colonies and metropoles shared in the dialectics of [cultural] inclusion and exclusion, and in what ways the colonial domain was distinct from the metropolitan one” (p. 3). The authors’ purpose is to explore how in “the shared but differentiated space of empire…hierarchies of production, power, and knowledge” were shaped, paradoxically, against the backdrop of universalist ideologies such as liberalism, democracy, and human rights. A theme running through the book is the conventional postmodern polemic against “binary oppositions,” including those between ruler and ruled, white and black, and “active” metropole and “passive” colony. Things were and are complicated, not “Manichaean.” Another theme is the argument that universalist Enlightenment ideologies themselves bore much of the blame for the exclusions and violence perpetrated in the colonies. Also, of course, it is argued that the colonized had agency, resisted but participated in their own subjection, and that colonial cultures, instead of being purely passive, influenced metropolitan cultures to some degree. (The metropoles defined themselves in relation to the Other, etc.) In sum, the book is devoted to “deconstructing” supposed “meta-narratives.” Its strengths and weaknesses are those of postmodernism in general.


      The weaknesses are on full display in the introductory essay, which surveys postcolonial scholarship. The authors insist, rightly, on the complexity of the issues and the importance of subjectivity and particularity—such insistence is the main strength of all postmodernism—but aside from this, one is hard-pressed to find strengths. First of all, the chapter and the book, like most postmodernist “texts,” fluctuate between hyper-particularity and hyper-abstractness, never finding a middle ground. Furthermore, the abstractions tend to be either truisms or oversimplifications. Consider some examples: “Colonial regimes were neither monolithic nor omnipotent. Closer investigation reveals competing agendas for using power, competing strategies for maintaining control, and doubts about the legitimacy of the venture” (p. 6). That’s a truism, totally uncontroversial but presented as if it is an important insight. (When has power ever been monolithic or omnipotent? Who has ever thought it was?) “What is striking is how much the consolidation of bourgeois power at home and abroad drew on a polyvalent discourse of civility that emphasized different criteria for its measure and at different moments could move state policy in opposite directions” (p. 10). Truism. “Focus on the contingencies and contradictions of colonial rule emphasizes that political possibilities do not just lie in grand oppositions but in the interstices of power structures, in the intersection of particular agendas, in the political spaces opened by new and renewed discourses and by subtle shifts in ideological ground” (p. 18). Truism. Nothing interesting there. “As we have shown, the colonial situation was characterized by alternative projects and by the displacement and failure of such projects in colonial encounters: such processes did not begin or end with de-colonization. Meanings of institutions, bureaucratic habits, and cultural styles set up in the colonial era were continually being reshaped” (p. 33). Truism.


      The authors also tend to oversimplify or uncharitably characterize opposing positions. World systems theory, for example, argues that “colonization was one aspect of the development of a capitalist world system, through which the ‘core’ allocated itself the more complex and lucrative productive processes…and the ‘periphery’ was allocated the task of producing primary commodities through slavery or coerced cash crop production” (p. 19). The authors criticize the theory for ignoring “agency”—but that’s silly, because obviously when one is analyzing the entire world economy one cannot pay close attention to the agency of some village in Senegal or some protest movement in Ecuador. “The theory’s assumption of passivity within colonial economies,” they write, “has been amply refuted by research in different parts of the world.” It is hardly a profound discovery that people in India were not, after all, rocks, passively letting colonizers do whatever they wanted to them. But unquestionably the colonized were more “passive” (victimized) than the colonizers; this is all that world systems theory is committed to. —And yes, it’s true that by saying “colonized vs. colonizers” here I’m positing a “Manichaean” dichotomy, a “binary opposition,” but, again, in order to talk, or to explain anything at all, one has to make simplifying assumptions that abstract from the infinite complexities of lived experience while grasping essential features. This is how science proceeds, for example. If one brought postmodernist hyper-particularity and methodological qualms into the natural sciences, nothing would ever get done.


      The second chapter, written by Uday Mehta, titled “Liberal Strategies of Exclusion,” illustrates another typical fault of postmodernism: excessive idealism, i.e., the attribution of more “agency” to ideas (or discourses, etc.) than to institutions or people.[7] Mehta is puzzled by the historical contrast between “the inclusionary pretensions of liberal theory and the exclusionary effects of liberal practices” (p. 59). “One needs to account for how a set of ideas that professed, at a fundamental level, to include as their political referent a universal constituency nevertheless spawned practices that were either predicated on or directed at the political marginalization of various people. More specifically, one must consider if the exclusionary thrust of liberal history stems from the misapprehension of the generative basis of liberal universalism or if in contrast liberal history projects with greater focus and onto a larger canvas the theoretically veiled and qualified truth of liberal universalism.” It is as if Marxism never happened.[8] Let’s leave aside the bad writing and unnecessary jargon. The point is that Mehta blames practices on ideas: a set of ideas “spawned practices.” We’re back to Hegel, but without the profundity. In reality, of course, it is practices and institutional dynamics—people’s material interests, the interests of power-structures, etc.—that spawn ideas, or at least determine what kinds of rhetoric and ideologies predominate in a given society.[9] If the liberalism of John Stuart Mill’s day tolerated colonialism and various political exclusions, that isn’t because liberalism itself is somehow “necessarily” exclusionary; it is because intellectuals and power-elites consciously or unconsciously accommodated themselves to the interests of powerful institutions. Indeed, a much stronger case can be made that “true” liberalism, uncompromised by acquiescence to the interests of power-structures, is committed to the freedom and rights of all people, their right to control their economic, social, and political lives. Certainly classical liberals like Wilhelm von Humboldt would find much more to like in a Noam Chomsky than in a Friedrich Hayek, or any other apologist for the powerful.


      The rest of the essays in the book are uneven in their quality, although they do, at least, show careful scholarship. They analyze conditions in colonies from Southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa, subtly investigating the dilemmas and paradoxes of racial, class, and gender identities among Europeans, Creoles, and natives. One is uncertain, however, what conclusions to draw from them, except that…things were complicated. Identities and cultures, not surprisingly, are full of tensions and “contestations.” The authors investigate in bewildering detail all the permutations of these contestations. After reading for several hours, one closes the book and thinks, “Wow, cultures sure have been contested.” Aside from that, specialists and antiquarians would find much of interest in this book.



--One can’t fail to be impressed by the ability of many academics to ignore or deny materialist common sense. But, again, intellectual acuity and honesty rarely further the interests of the powerful, so one shouldn’t expect the privileged to be very acute or honest.




[1] This is the one point on which I disagree with him. Idealism as such is analytically and morally problematic.


[2] See, for example, Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance,” The Nation, Oct. 4, 2001; Sandra Buckley, “Remaking the World Order: Reflections on Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations,” Theory & Event 2, No. 4 (1998); Carl Gershman, “The Clash within Civilizations,” Journal of Democracy 8, No. 4 (October 1997). In fact, polls have demonstrated that the vast majority of Muslims have nearly identical values to most Westerners. See my paper “‘Eastern Muslims’ and ‘Western Liberals’: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet?,” at


[3] See David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Patricia Cayo Sexton, The War on Labor and the Left: Understanding America’s Unique Conservatism (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, Inc., 1991); Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1996); and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).


[4] Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 4.


[5] See my Notes of an Underground Humanist, 251, 252.


[6] See Chomsky, Understanding Power (New York: The New Press, 2002), 243. Chomsky himself is an exception, a radical who has been protected by his stature in linguistics and by his being an acknowledged genius who is a credit to MIT.


[7] This fault is ironic, because in other contexts postmodernists are obsessed with glorifying people’s agency.


[8] Appropriately, Mehta begins his essay with an epigram from Hegel.


[9] After all, it requires resources to propagate ideologies. Groups and institutions will favor ideas friendly to their interests, and those entities with the most resources will have the most success in spreading their ideologies (or, in many cases, in undermining democratic and emancipatory ideologies that hold sway).

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