Thursday, October 2, 2008

System tendencies?

A central theme of many of the posts here is the contingency, heterogeneity, and path dependency of social processes. I used the metaphor of a "constrained random walk" in an earlier posting to characterize many social processes. This figure is intended to stand in contrast to the idea of an inevitable development towards an optimum or equilibrium point, on the one hand, or the idea of an inevitable system failure, on the other.

The idea here is this: from starting point A, there are numerous possible states of affairs Oi that might be reached over an extended period of time. There is no sense in which the course from A to the actual historical outcome Om is inevitable or unique. (From the starting point of Europe in 1910, including the social, political, and economic realities of the nations of Europe, multiple outcomes were accessible by the time of 1920: exhausting war, emergence of new and effective international organizations that sustained the peace, inspired just-in-time diplomacy bringing hostilities to an early termination, ...). Each of the pathways leading from A to Oi might be individually explicable, in terms of the situations of structure and agency that were present during the period of development. Virtually every point in the "space" of outcomes would be accessible, although some outcomes might be substantially less likely than others. Along the way there are likely to be cul-de-sacs; but in the aggregate, the space of possible outcomes from many historical starting points covers the full sphere of possibilities. Putting the point crudely, you can get anywhere from anywhere.

This conception emphasizes deep contingency in social change. But what about the symmetrical facts of "constraint" and "imperative" -- the limitations imposed by existing institutions and organizations at any specific stage and the positive impulses to change that are often embodied in the incentive structures of existing institutions? Is the contingency of social events to some extent reduced by the relative durability of existing core social institutions? Is there such a thing as a "logic of institutions" that is embodied in a particular configuration of core social institutions, with the result that societies embodying these institutions will be most likely to develop in one way rather than another?

This description lies at the heart of Marx's analysis of social systems as modes of production. Marx believed that the core institutions that defined the property system, the system of labor control, and the distribution of wealth have deep effects on individual agency, leading and constraining agents to behave in ways that lead in the aggregate to certain kinds of social outcomes. Modes of production have system tendencies that can be inferred from their basic institutional features. A particularly clear example is his analysis of the "law" of the falling rate of profit within capitalism: firms are required to maximize profits; they have the opportunity of introducing capital-intensive technologies that lower costs, thereby increasing profits in the short run; competition with other profit-maximizing firms pushes prices down to the new cost of production; the rising capital-labor ratio in industry creates a falling rate of profit. So capitalism embodies a system tendency towards a falling rate of profit over time. Similar reasoning underlies Marx's prediction of financial crises within capitalism. (See an earlier posting on Marx's conception of capitalism.)

And in fact, if we could make two assumptions, then Marx's reasoning about the tendencies of capitalism would be very compelling: the assumption that the core economic institutions are fixed and unchanging, and the assumption that there are no other social-political-economic institutions in play that might serve as resources for policies and actions that would offset the predicted tendencies of capitalism. However, neither of these assumptions is correct. The institutions of any major social order -- feudalism, the Chinese agrarian economy, capitalism, state socialism -- are always the composite of a vast number of lower-level institutions; and these lower-level institutions are usually in a state of flux. So the core institutions are not fixed and unchanging. The traditional Chinese agrarian economy was remarkably resilient in face of a range of deep challenges over centuries; adjustment of basic social institutions permitted Chinese society to cope better with environmental and international circumstances than a modeled Chinese economy would have predicted.

Second, even more fundamentally, a society is not simply a "mode of production," constituted by an economic structure. Rather, there are a range of other, equally fundamental institutions and practices -- cultural, political, legal, community-based and national -- through which resourceful agents attempt to solve personal or social problems at various points in time. So the "logic" of the economic institutions is only one part of the overall social trajectory; instead, we have the strategic interaction and aggregation of political, cultural, social, demographic, and legal institutions that complement and offset the workings of the economic structure. And further, we can correctly say that each of these aspects of social organization has its own "system tendencies." Elected legislatures have a logic that derives from the calculations of political self-interest of the legislators, community-based organizations have their own logic, various demographic regimes have their own tendencies (for example, the favoring of boy children produces skewed sex ratios that have negative political effects), and so forth.

So the tentative conclusion that I draw from these various considerations is, once again, to give the nod to contingency while recognizing the partial imperatives created by the various sets of core institutions that are embodied in a society at a given time. Structures do of course constrain agents. But structures interact with each other, leading to surprising results. And structures change in response to a variety of causes, including the strategic efforts of agents to modify them. So the upshot is, once again, that we should expect a high degree of contingency in outcomes over extended periods of historical time. Historical experience may well support the discovery that "capitalism creates a tendency towards X" or "fascist politics create a tendency towards Y". To that extent, there are "system tendencies". But it is rare for one particular sub-system (property relations, electoral system, demographic regime) to dominate the overall historical trajectory. And so the system tendencies of one partial set of core institutions rarely become the system tendencies of the overall social whole.

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