The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020


Mark de Rond’s book Doctors at War (Cornell Univ. Press, 2017) is one the most painful books you’ll ever read. De Rond, a organizational ethnographer at Cambridge University, was embedded in a field hospital in Afghanistan, where a team of medical personnel from the U.K. and U.S. waited to operate on wounded flown in by helicopter-- allied soldiers, captured enemies, and injured civilians alike. Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the horror is not so much in the gruesome physical scenes (although that is part of it), but more in the psychological costs of trying to do something about it. It is about feeling your failure in a terrible situation beyond your control; and how the things that members of the group do to cope with their feelings circle back to make things worse.

Each kind of patient delivered to this desolate outpost by a clattering helicopter creates its own kind of strains.

Wounded warriors: This is largely a war of home-made bombs on the insurgent side-- improvised explosive devices hidden under rubble at the side of the road or anywhere an allied patrol might go. This means wounds are often horrible, not bullets penetrating the body but limbs torn off, extensive burns, all kinds of fragments. Surgeons have to extract, patch, amputate and sew back up. It is not the kind of scene that one reads about from battlefield hospitals in the U.S. Civil War or the Napoleonic wars, where in the absence of sedatives there were anguished sounds of screaming, and doctors had to decide which ones to triage. Now the wounded are brought in already sedated by battlefield medics. And triage is not really necessary, this being a counter-insurgency war-- low-intensity if endless-- the doctors are not overwhelmed by numbers but instead have a steady drip of casualties to be patched up and flown out to medical facilities far from the war zone.

No, the strain is in the minds and emotions of the doctors, nurses, and auxiliary personnel as the same kinds of cases repeat themselves, day after day, with their endless variations.

            A surgeon “had been operating for forty-one consequtive days, the last seven of which he said had consisted mostly of chucking dead or dying limbs into bins. Homemade explosives left few options other than lopping off the dying bits and dropping them in one of several buttercup-yellow buckets destined for the incinerator.” [p.31]

            “I wandered into a waft of freshly burned bacon, its source soon obvious: two badly burned Afghans occupied opposite tables, attended to by emergency staff. The first registered at 53% burns, the second at 48%, both readings the result of a standard calculation using the ‘rule of nine’: divide the body into multiples of 9, with the head, chest and abdomen accounting for 9% each if completely burned, the back and buttocks for 18%, 9% for each arm and 18% for each leg, 9% for the front, 9% for the back. Anything over 35% isn’t considered survivable in Afghanistan... so such patients are given palliative care from the word go. The first of the two died within the hour. The second would follow soon after but insisted on seeing an interpretor.... ‘He wants you to take him and his friend back to the valley where the helicopter found them.’ ‘His friend’s dead.’ ‘Yes he says he knows. He wants you to organize a car to take them both back.’ ‘Right. So where does he think we’re going to get a taxi from?’ ... ‘Tell ‘em we will see what we can do.’... The Afghan slowly moved his blackened hand over his left upper chest and looked grateful.” [117]

            “A US marine had called earlier to report the discovery of two partial legs belonging to Billy, one of the troops in his charge, and would it be all right if he dropped them off at the hospital? He and his troops had been told that if limbs could be reattached within six hours of an explosion, they’d have a chance of surviving. The legs had been cold too long, Smitty told him, and were probably too badly damaged to be reattached in any event, but the marine was not to be dissauded and made his appearance soon after.
            ‘I gather you’ve got something for me?’ Smitty said.
            ‘Billy’s legs,’ he said and handed Smitty a floppy carton box that once upon a time held US army rations.
            ‘You be sure to fix him up, won’t you?’
            ‘Leave it with us.’
            ‘Billy’s a quarterback, you know, when we get time to play. Has one hell of an arm.’
            ‘His arm’s fine.’
            ‘You look after him now.’
            “As soon as the marine took off, Smitty got hold of Ginger, a scrub nurse on his first-ever tour.
            ‘What’s this?’
            ‘Legs. Used to belong to the guy in theater three.’
            ‘Well what the fuck am I supposed to do with them?’
            ‘Walk them over to the incinerator, that’s what.’
            ‘Sure whoever gave you this is gone?’” [52-3]

Captive enemies: Doctors operate under the rules of war, which stipulate that wounded enemies are entitled to medical treatment. At the forward hospital, surgeons do their best, although they know-- and openly say to each other-- that when they are fixed up and released into custody of Afghan troops, they will probably be killed.

            “By the time I returned to the hospital the next morning, late and weary for lack of sleep, the early morning casualties had already been dispatched to the ward or the morgue, the youngest of the still warm only ten. Matching sets of double and triple amputees underlined the war’s agonizing ambiguities: which is the crueler, to prop up Afghans with quick fixes and the sort of sophisticated analgesics not available locally for the handful of hours they’d spend in Bastion, or let them cash in on their convictions pronto and meet their Maker? Ingenuity, after all, can render death quick nowadays and pretty much pain-free. All had been Afghans this morning, peeled off the desert floor by a helicopter crew after 106 pounds of AGM-114 air-to-surface missile did precisely what it said on the tin. The absurdity of the situation was plain for all to see: one budget is used to save those a different budget tried to kill only moments ago.” [11]

De Rond accompanies the transfer of three Afghan army casualties to their own hospital:
            “ ‘This guy is high on opium,’ my escort said, having wrestled back one of our oxygen canisters [from a driver]. ‘These things fetch a fair bit of money on the black market, so we want to hang onto them if at all possible.’ He crouched down next to the most serious of the three casualties. The man had already been relieved of his 60% oxygen supply and now was cut loose from his morphine drip and antibiotics...       
            ‘And the first thing these drivers do is look into the bags to see what drugs we’ve sent along. Anything morphine goes directly to the driver and never even gets to the patient. And so we leave them here to a slow and painful death. This guy here will die of pneumonia.’ ”  Doctors argue about what they should do. “ ‘If  you keep him here and treat him, he’ll ultimately die. If you take him to Kandahar, he will die too, but a little more quickly.’ ” [101]

Injured civilians: The situation with patching up civilians was much the same, with some additional twists.

            0400, four a.m. “Two local women had arrived with bullet holes in their legs. Someone who identified himself as a brother stood idly by, insisting, as they did too, that they should be treated by a female attendant. Weegee, the attending emergency department coordinator, ignored the request, saying they have no such luxury in Afghan hospitals so why give them that option here?
            “After a quiet day, at around 1900, nine casualties arrived within thirty minutes of each other, including five girls with gunshot wounds: two to the chest, the rest through the arms, legs, and belly. The girls had long eyelashes and olive complexions, their hands covered with henna tattoos. There wasn’t a tear in sight. The emergency and surgical teams were brilliant to watch. When the proverbial shit hit the fan, they salvaged what war destroyed, giddy for being productive. The curse in Bastion was never that of too much work but rather the insufficiency of it. Once the casualties had received emergency treatment and the surgeons had repaired for near beers in the Doctors’ Room, it turned out the girls might have been shot by our own helicopters in error. Their thirty-millimeter cannon rounds were designed to fragment upon impact such that anyone within ten meters of an exploding round risked serious injury, and tonight’s GSW’s looked far more like fragments, the docs said, than the usual bullets.” [125-6]

Friendly fire and collateral damage, as the jargon goes, are endemic in a counter-insurgency war where the guerrillas hide in the civilian population. The civilians in the middle get treated if allied medivacs bring them in. But there are no hospitals to release them to, and back in their villages, care is poor and many will probably not survive. But release them we must.

Sometimes the borderline between civilians and enemies disappears, green-on-blue attacks where Taliban sympathizers among Afghan army troops turn their weapons on American soldiers-- or perhaps suddenly snap under their own pressure, as indeed some American troops have done.

De Rond observed doctors talking about such incidents with the medical staff.

            One doctor “told of a British nurse who had arrived in the hospital with severe burns. She had befriended a young boy, plying him with candies, until one day he threw a plastic bucket at her, dousing her in petrol and setting her alight. The Taliban, he said, are not shy about using children to advance their interests, whether by forcing them to walk donkeys heavy with explosives toward the infidel or by leaving injured kids by the roadside as bait to attract a medivac helicopter.” [52] 

This, at any rate, is the conversational culture of the forward hospital. It does not stop them from treating everyone who comes in, to a high medical standard, in the brief time they are there. And this adds to the incongruities that make up the psychological dissonance of the place.

Isolation, boredom and surreal disconnect

In traditional wars, on the whole, the psychological pressure on doctors in battlefield hospitals was severe but not so complex. Of the three kinds of patients treated-- allied soldiers, enemy captives, injured civilians-- such doctors mainly dealt with the first. If they treated wounded enemies, they at any rate were not handed over to others who were going to kill them. In traditional battles with high casualties in a short period of time, the problem for doctors was being overwhelmed, and having to pick out those most likely to survive. This was not a problem in the Afghanistan field hospital, where there were plenty of medical staff to handle the daily influx of casualties. Their problem was that they practiced good medicine, then felt much of it went to waste. And unlike traditional battles, they didn’t even have the consolation of winning a battle or the war.

And they were isolated and bored. Their base was a fort in a hot desert, dangerous to go outside the perimeter, and nowhere to go if they did go out. They were stuck with the same people, who worked, slept, ate together, and tried to amuse themselves in the down times between the hours when the emergency alarms sounded and the helicopters unloaded. It was a total institution, in the sociological sense of the term, but not one in the Goffmanian sense of a hierarchy where a staff guarded a lower class of inmates. The wounded were in a sense like inmates, except that they were so badly incapacitated that they remained passive-- at least de Rond never noted any acts of defiance. And the medical staff were idealists and committed professionals; they didn’t pull rank on each other, and their culture was one of “we’re all in this thing together”, a common task and a common malaise. They all had the same problem and they couldn’t get away from each other.

            “Boredom hung in the air like a peasouper that wouldn’t lift except for the briefest of periods. In principle, this should have been good news-- after all, no one was getting hurt-- except that it left the docs with nothing meaningful to do. There was the occasional bit of exercise in a muggy gym to provide a temporary lift, or reading or daytime television, but little to take pride in, to feel productive about. And so they found themselves pining for work to come in, even if this invariably came at the expense of someone else getting hurt.
            “But boredom extracts its pound of flesh in other ways, too. Left with little or nothing to do, [the doctors] have begun to criticize each other’s handling of patients and discharge decisions... Left to their own devices these docs became broody and aware of the relative futility of some of what they do here, particularly when it comes to providing emergency treatment for Afghans whose chances of recovery were badly compromised as soon as they were transferred to local hospitals, or so they think.... Periods of great intensity followed periods of boredom in which it was nevertheless impossible to relax.” [70-72]

They tried to keep up a semblance of normal life. They celebrated the holidays as best the could. A Christmas party wearing Hawaiian shorts, tee-shirts and Santa Claus hats, although no one felt very jovial.

            “ ‘Sometimes I try telling my family some of these things, but they don’t understand,’ Smitty said... He went on to tell me about a double amputee who had come in over Easter weekend. One of his legs had been attached by only a skin flap and came off during the usual logroll. The attending nurse, who’d been left standing with a leg in her arms, asked one of Smitty’s team to please take it away for disposal. As the lad made his way to the morgue, crossing the ambulance bay en route, he was met by Solesky and a nurse walking the other way, sporting bunny ears and carrying Easter eggs.” [85]

            The early morning helicopter patrol brought in an American, but the tourniquets had come off as he was carried to the helicopter under fire, and he had already bled to death: “A glum band of brothers, the docs trundled back to their lair to feast on Apocalypse Now. A famous scene shows a swarm of American helicopters advancing like locusts on a Vietnamese settlement to the tones of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ It didn’t seem to strike any of those glued to the telly as ironic that less than klick away their own Apaches were taking off on similar missions... It would quite literally have taken no more than stepping outside the Doctors’ Room and onto the wooden patio to fast-forward to a similar scene. Alas, the patio door was closed shut, and the telly on, and they around it in a half circle, ‘near beer’ and homemade cookies and ginger cake and chocolate to hand.
            “ ‘My favorite line’s coming up,’ Southwark said excitedly. ‘Wait for it...ah, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Absolutely first class that is.’ ”  [64-5]

Obviously they appreciate the irony of it all, but they have gone beyond that. Gallows humour, but nobody was laughing, not even sardonically. The doctors wallowed in escapist Hollywood war films. M*A*S*H was another favorite, about a similar forward hospital in the Korean War, supplied by helicopters with wounded soldiers. Except this, like all war films, did not show the medical gore these doctors faced everyday. Their lives were not censored for the screen and there was no rollicking good fun, even when they had time away. Why didn’t they escape to something else, films that had nothing to do with war? They were obsessed, perhaps with distancing themselves from their lives by viewing the Hollywood version. But it didn’t help, only cycled through the day.

            “At the onset of sunset, just as Sloppy Joe called for volunteeers to help him lug around the weekly pile of pizzas... [the beeping of pagers carried by the on-duty medicals] heralded the arrival of a Cat A [severely wounded]. The whiteboard listed it as a US marine who’d been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade... We made our way from reception into the black hot night to where the light pollution was, signposting the makeshift square with its crude KFC-Pizza Hut combo and games room. A short queue had already formed at the shipping container’s window. The scent they gave off was unmistakable, evoking a lazy day topped off with fast food and soda and feet-up television. Stacked up on one of the two ovens were twenty-one pizzas, hot to the touch, though there’s always a risk they’ll be stone cold by the time the casualty is dispatched with. To my surprise, this happened more quickly than I expected.
            ‘Casualty’s a hero,’ Joe said.
            ‘Right,’ I replied. ‘Gone to Camp Hero.’..
            ‘The guy is dead.’
            “It was right about then and there that I became aware of a nauseating feeling ascending from my gut: a rotten-to-the-core sense of relief, less at a merciful end to years of pain and rehabilitation than at the prospect of hot pizza and companionship. The sense of shame I felt then I’ve not felt since. After all, what was a pizza compared to the life of a soldier? What the fuck was wrong with me?
            “We sat down to watch Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” [118-19]

            The doctors were becoming querulous as their beepers sound, calling them to surgery, only to return abruptly to the TV room when they find the new arrival is dead. “They sunk back into the spots they had vacated only moments before, to resume their involuntary stupor, only to be told that a fresh hail of casualties was on the way: a gunshot wound to the neck, a gunshot wound to the thigh and yet another unlucky victor in the roadside bomb lottery.” The most experienced surgeon griped to no one in particular that today he is supposed to be in charge but the other doctors are going ahead of him. No one pays attention.
            “Southwark and Fernsby, in the meantime, were taking bets (to be paid off in pizza purchases) on whether the incoming amputee would turn out to be a single or double, left or right leg. ‘A pepperoni on the left,’ Southwark said. ‘I’d say a double. If it is you’re buying Friday,’ Fernsby replied. [123]

This is beyond gallows humor, beyond cynicism. It is a way of passing the time, living in a surreal disconnect. They disconnect even from their cynicism. It is one more layer of psychological distress, piled up and revolved by the hour.

De Rond winds up: back in England, his battlefield tour over, he can’t get over the pain, and the guilt. The doctors he corresponded with say the same.

Meanwhile, back Home

A medical sociologist who reviewed de Rond’s book in an American journal was horrified. He denounced publication of the book, calling it a pornography of pain, voyeurism of medical horrors for its own sake. He saw the book as pointless, no hypotheses, no theory, no take-away. As a reader, I thought this the most unprofessional review that I can recall. No doubt the reviewer missed the standard academic formalities, reviews of the literature, and writing in bland abstractions. Perhaps de Rond writing about his own emotions in the field set off the reviewer into ranting about his own emotions as a reviewer.

Before concluding that this closes the circle of absurdities mingled with (academic and military-medical) realities, it is well to remind ourselves that de Rond’s ethnography is about surreal experiences, but the report is not surreal. It is tell-it-like-it-is, you-are-there participant observation, focusing in on micro-sociological moments in the verbatim conversations of daily life and their bodily context.

It is about the psychological costs of working in an endlessly prolonged artificial situation, without adequate social support. Does it say anything to us about doctors and medical personnel in the COVID-19 epidemic?

Obviously the kind of medical treatment is quite different-- traumatic injuries for quick surgery, vs. prolonged treatment of agonized patients gasping to breathe. One similarity, in hospitals where there are many severe virus cases, may be the stresses of social isolation. Medical personnel constantly masked and keeping physical distance from each other may experience more isolation stress than at the battlefield hospital, where medical teams are constantly hanging around together. Medicals repeatedly exposed to the virus, some of whom themselves become sick and die, are presumably isolated from their families and friends. Of course they can make contact by phone and on-line, but this was true in Afghanistan as well: the social isolation there was intensified by inability to explain to their families the emotions they were going through. In both cases, a kind of total institution may be created, cut off from the normal supports of social life. Witnessing the social isolation of the bereaved, who cannot be at bedside nor take part in funeral rituals, must create a bleak atmosphere somewhat resembling the battlefield hospital.

Such stresses build up over time. Most people can handle extreme situations for a short period of time; there is a rallying-around burst of solidarity at the outset of any public crisis. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11/01 attacks,* this period of public solidarity lasted 3 months-- but that was a period where mass ceremonies honoring firefighters and police took place at every public gathering. In the absence of this kind of ritual support, the uplifting period of shared dedication may be shorter, under a regime of enforced social distancing. The field unit in Afghanistan had been operating for six years when de Rond studied it, and some surgeons had served ten or more tours of duty. If anything like this kind of endlessness comes out of the struggle with COVID-19, the experience of doctors at war may start to converge.



* Randall Collins. 2004. “Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist Attack.” Sociological Theory 22: 53-87.

For a more formal social-science presentation of the battlefield hospital study, see:

Mark De Rond and Jaco Lok. 2016. “Some Things Can Never Be Unseen: The Role of Context in Psychological Injury at War.” Academy of Management Journal 59: 1965-1993. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020


Even the experts have a poor track record in predicting the future. Writers can be well-informed on the trends of their times and knowledgable about the best theories of social and political change. I will single out C. Wright Mills, who wrote The Causes of World War Three in 1960.

Mills expected a devastating nuclear war, and his analysis of conditions leading in that direction was realistic. Sixty years later, as we reach 2020, we have to explain how he could get it wrong. Mills was the best sociologist of his time. He was the English translater of Max Weber on power politics, multi-dimensional social stratification, and the growth of bureaucracy in all spheres of modern life; and he put this sophistication into a  portrait of the United States -- The Power Elite (1956) -- that still rings true for the mid-20th century and in many respects up through the present.

Did Mills lack the intellectual tools to predict stalemate and de-escalation of nuclear threat and other things that started happening not long after he died in 1962? Or is it inevitable that no one, no matter how sophisticated in the social science of their time, could predict the kinds of things that happened between 1960 and 2020? These are not rhetorical questions.

We can dismiss the argument that all social predictions are self-undermining, since people who become aware of it can take action to avoid the prediction happening. Perhaps a few predictions are self-undermining, but many events have happened in spite of strenuous warnings in advance. The years leading up to the American civil war of 1861-65 are just one of many examples; the wave of de-colonization in the decades after 1945 is another. For that matter, the coming of World War Two was widely foreseen; but no one was able to stop it. We should avoid all-or-nothing pronouncements that social predictions are either possible or impossible; ask instead, under what circumstances do we predict more accurately and less accurately? We should ask, too, under what conditions are we able to forestall predicted disasters-- or not?  The issue is hardly a trivial one, as widespread anticipation of global climate change will not necessarily lead to people actually doing anything effective to stop it. Whether we will or not is not a question for the natural sciences, but for social science.

What thinkers at the turn of the 20th century expected

Before examining C. Wright Mills on nuclear war, let us take a look at several predictions made around 1890-1910. Edward Bellamy was a muck-raking journalist in the era of industrial squalor and labor struggles; his 1888 book, Looking Backward, is about a man who is knocked out in an accident in 1887 and wakes up in Boston in 2000. The ugly factories are gone; there are green parks everywhere. A socialist regime has arranged jobs and housing for everyone, with near-equal wages. Bellamy takes the program of radical socialists of his time and depicts it as accomplished, with a more-or-less Marxian crisis of capitalism as the turning point in the 20th century. These views were widely shared up through the 1940s. Schumpeter-- no advocate of socialism-- wrote in 1942 that the march of bureaucracy in government and giant corporations was killing off the entrepreneurs who supplied the stream of innovations that keep capitalism going. Schumpeter was as sophisticated a sociological economist as ever existed; how did he get the implications of his own theory wrong, though the half-century after his death showed how powerful his theory of economic growth still is?

Another example. The monumental historical enterprise of the turn of the century was The Cambridge Modern History, planned by Lord Acton, and enlisting the world’s best historians to write detailed chapters on political, economic, and cultural events from the 1400s through the early 1900s. Fourteen volumes were published between 1902 and 1912. The editors, who must have been the best-informed persons in the world when they finished, summed up the volume The Latest Age (1910) through objective eyes of their all-encompassing viewpoint. They perceive the chief concern of the time is the social question-- social inequality, poverty, class conflict-- whether taking the form of social work among the poor, trade unions in varying degrees of militancy, progressive legislation or even socialist revolution. The chapter winds up: “The coming age will be occupied by the attempt to translate [these] ideals into practical politics.” (p.15) This is quite a good anticipation of the years up through the 1950s, and several decades beyond on the world scene.

What the editor misses entirely is the possibility of World War I and its follow-ups; he notes the jockeying among European powers but dismisses it as nothing unusual. He comments approvingly on the trend towards international arbitration of disputes (foreshadowing the League of Nations and the UN.) Furthermore, he has a theory of the causes of peace: the power of international finance has become all-pervasive, and “the interests of financiers are as a rule on the side of peace and tranquility... their means of persuasion can be employed against governments as well as against individuals... No Power, no person, is too great, no man too humble, to be reached by the pervasive and unseen pressure of financial interests and financial authority. This force, non-moral as it is, sordid as it may seem, is a growing factor in European politics, and, as a rule, it is exercised for the preservation of peace. ” [p.14-15]   The realistic part of this to foresee the ongoing rise of international finance capital-- which would grow even more powerful from the 1970s through the present. But something big is missing here; perhaps it is true that financiers as a whole prefer peace to run their business wherever they want, but wars and social movements are a different order of causality and can override financiers or sweep them up in their enthusiasms.

The editor of The Cambridge Modern History admits he is taking a materialist view, and in this he belongs to the atmosphere of his time shared by Bellamy, as well as other followers of Marx. The most striking example of this outlook is H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895).  This is considered one of the first works of science fiction, but Wells was a serious idea-novelist and he became famous for thirty years for his sweeping overview of human history, combining biological evolution, scientific invention, with the social issues of his time. In the story, a London inventor creates a time-travel machine, and transports himself almost a million years into the future-- to be precise, the year 802,701 A.D.  London is now inhabited by cute little people, who spend all their time playing, dancing, and making love. They don’t do any work and everything is provided for them by machines. So far this is the scientific paradise of the future. But the time-travelor discovers that these people are deathly afraid of night-time. It turns out there are openings to mine-shafts in the ground, and there is another race of underground people-- hairy, muscular, dirty-- who do all the work; in fact their eyes no longer function in daylight from centuries of working in the dark. At night they come out looking for something to eat: the happy little people are their meat.

Wells takes the class struggle of his time and extrapolates it across enough generations that biological evolution has turned humans into two races: brutalized workers, and pampered upper classes. The depiction of the latter is not a bad projection; the European upper classes of the late 19th century were a leisure class of tea-parties, concerts and balls, dressing up lavishly and amusing themselves with love affairs. (Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, produced in the same year as Wells’ novel, gives a fair idea of the atmosphere he is extrapolating; so does Proust.) The middle classes, too, were acquiring more leisure, and they too were organizing their lives increasingly around popular entertainments and sports. Wells, thinking like an evolutionist, conjectures that the privileged classes, with less and less work to do, lose their useless muscles and diminish to the size of elves; while the workers evolve into inhuman brutes. * It is a pessimistic view of the class struggle; the workers are doomed, but the pampered elite pays the price of being helpless consumers. Or we could see it as a satire warning of what will happen if social reformers don’t succeed. In any case, it is one of the best examples of applying a strong theory (biological evolution) to a possible social trend.  

* This is almost literally the theme of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape (1922), about a thrill-seeking young lady and a boiler-room worker on an ocean liner. 

The social reality that Wells was building upon need not be explained simply as biological evolution. Max Weber, writing 20 years later, saw the same trend towards a society obsessed with entertainment and sex, and theorized it by hitching it to bureaucratization as the master trend of modern history. Every sphere of life becomes rationalized and calculated-- the state, the military, election campaigns, the economy. Alienated by this iron cage of inescapable bean-counting mind-set, people retreat psychologically into their private lives, where they live for entertainment (highbrow or low) and for the meaning-giving  pursuit of sexual love (Weber 1915). Weber could see this already in the hedonistic youth culture of Berlin and Vienna before WWI; the “roaring twenties” were the triumph of self-consciously avant-garde carousing in most wealthy countries (and the topic for writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald in the US, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh in England, Hermann Hesse and Christopher Isherwood in Germany). The novelty of the hedonistic counter-culture wore off (with subsequent revivals in the 1960s and later), but Weber’s prediction is one of the most accurate we have on record; it holds throughout the 20th century, spreading worldwide (the Islamic countries fighting a rear-guard action against it), and shows no sign of abating in the 21st.

Where did these intelligent observers miss the boat?  They accurately perceived one of the powerful trends of their time: Bellamy, Wells, and the CMH editor focused on the intensification of class struggle, whether in terms of Marx or a  peaceful reformist version. Schumpeter and Weber saw the master trend as bureaucratization, trumping even socialism. * 

* In another right-on prediction, Weber in 1906, examining the revolutionary movements in Russia, wrote that if the far Left came to power, there would be a bureacucratization of society such as the world has never seen; “the dictatorship of the official and not the proletariat is on the march.” [Gerth and Mills, From  Max Weber, p.50]

The failures came from focusing on the overwhelming importance of one line of theory, and missing what lies outside it. Their theoretical tool box was too small. We can appreciate this better after examining C.Wright Mills, who put Weber’s full-strength theory to work on the situation of the 1950s. He had a wider vision than was available at the turn of the century, but what it lacked is pointed up by the things that made Mills’ predictions go wrong.

When do people have the social power to decide on their future?

Mills’ book is not a polemic, but a thoughtful marshaling of the best sociology of the time. Yet it shows how the best intellectual tools, wielded with deliberately non-partisan objectivity, can still miss key future developments. 

Mills starts off, not by denouncing the nuclear arms race, but raising the question of whether everything happens by fate, or if there is an opening for intelligent decision-making. He treats the question like a sociologist looking for causes instead of as an all-or-nothing philosophical discussion of free will. What has been traditionally called “Fate” has a sociological basis, since it is “the summary and unintended result of innumerable decisions of innumerable men” [p. 26; using the pre-feminist language of the time]. Mills is an early symbolic interactionist, viewing interaction among people as the basis of all the large patterns we can call social structures. But historical patterns of interaction have shifted drastically between traditional and modern times. “In those societies in which the means of power are rudimentary and decentralized, history is fate.” No one is in a position to control what most other people do, so even if you see bad things coming, you are not in a position to do much about them. But decisions about social directions can be made when societies become centralized, as a result of the shift from feudal to industrial societies.

Although early capitalist industrialization happened slowly and from many local sources, by mid-20th century in the advanced countries centralization had taken place in every sphere: economic corporations coordinated by big finance; huge military forces backed by logistics and weapons-procurement based on the strength of the economy; huge national government agencies to tax, administer, and control. Mills’ own research had shown the existence of a Power Elite, the intersection of these networks at the top by the circulation of  corporate executives, military officers, scientists and government officials into each other’s jobs. The prime example of the Power Elite was in the United States, having built a centralizing structure to win World War II; an analogous structure had been created in the USSR, where the combination of revolutionary socialism and war-time mobilization had produced another Power Elite.

Summing up, Mills wrote: “’Men are free to make history’, and some men are now much freer to do so than others, for such freedom requires access to the means of decision” (p. 28--his terminology echoing both Marx and Weber).

Mills draws out two consequences. For the first time in history,  extremely fateful decisions can be made; in this case, whether to destroy the planet in a nuclear war. But why would anyone want to do so? Decisions can be implicity made out of non-decisions, just letting things take their course-- in this case, in the midst of a nuclear arms race. The second inference is that the individuals who make up the power elite share a common vision of the world, a common psychology by virtue of how they have made their careers; where you sit determines where you stand. Structurally, they have the power to change the course of history; but because of their social psychology, they are unlikely to use that power to head off catastrophe. In the 1950s and heading into the 1960s, the Power Elite saw the nuclear arms race between the US and the Soviets as inescapable.

Mills made the single best statement of when and how some people have agency to move history, and when they can do nothing more than flow with the social tides.  Nevertheless, his theory missed some crucial points, and these caused his main prediction to go wrong.

Before examining what he missed, let us look more closely at his analysis of the coming nuclear war.

Mills and the Causes of World War III   

The immediate cause of World War III is the arms race. Beginning with the race between the Western Allies and the Germans in WWII,  it had produced aerial bombing, long-distance rockets, and the atomic bomb. It was taken up by the US and the USSR, soon to produce jet planes, the hydrogen bomb, space rockets, ICBMs, and nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines. It became a pattern of mutual escalation, neither side willing to be caught lagging behind. By the early 1960s, the means of destruction reached the point where contamination of the atmosphere by radiation from a nuclear war would likely wipe out human life on earth. (This is exactly what was depicted in the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove.)  Mills, like others, pointed out that although no one might want this to happen, continuous escalation of increasingly devastating weapons raised the risk that a war could break out by accident. An equipment malfunction, a misreading of a radar signal, misperceiving the other side’s intentions, could trigger off an attack through hair-trigger readiness to react immediately before being destroyed.

These are only the immediate causes. Deeper causes are in the structure that gave rise to a Power Elite. The US had gotten out of the Great Depression of the 1930s by the huge government spending of WWII.  When prosperity returned in the 1950s, big industries like automobiles, aircraft, steel, chemicals and electronics were not just producing for consumers, but their biggest customers continued to be the military. Thus the arms race in all respects-- not just nuclear weapons but all the other forms of weaponry and logistics-- sustained a military-industrial complex.  It was built so centrally into the economy that most people’s jobs depended upon it, directly or indirectly. The US had become a “permanent war economy” even in peacetime.

This in turn created a widespread mind-set. Few people questioned the direction they were going. Government spending had become the main source of funding for scientific research; scientists took it for granted that their careers in the university depended on getting such funds, if they didn’t work directly for the government or for corporations producing military materiel. The scientific, economic, and political elites coalesced in keeping the arms race going.

Mills was quite aware that opponents of the arms race existed--he was active among them.  But as a sociologist, he was alert to the need to understand the social sources of opposition. Below the Power Elite, the US was a middle-class democracy. It included politicians in Congress as well as the state and local level; professional associations of all sorts, entertainment celebrities, intellectuals, academics, and all the branches of cultural media. But their interests were narrow and local; they operated within the larger system of big organizations, and for the most part accepted them. Labour unions were still powerful, but were largely tied up with the interests of the big corporations, as long as they got a share of the proceeds. Mills called the middle class a “semi-organized stalemate” incapable of changing the military-industrial complex, and largely uninterested in doing so. Below the middle class were a powerless mass of consumers, more interested in sports and entertainment than anything else. 

So much for the American side of the arms race. What about the Soviets?  Their structure, too, had been forged in WWII, and they continued to use it in top-down fashion to bring themselves into the ranks of advanced industrial countries in the 1950s. It too was based on a military-industrial complex; hence the mentality of maintaining it must be built into the world-view of the Soviet Power Elite as well. 

But here Mills makes an prediction that looks strange in retrospect, although it was based on a realistic view of the evidence at the time. He notes how quickly Russia industralized, accomplishing in less than half a century what during the rise of modern capitalism in the West had taken 300 years. This was the result of forced industrialization, the coercive but centrally controlled Soviet policy of building modern heavy industry, which Mills judged as evidently superior to the Western model. The Soviets had been quick to put scientific expertise to work where it needed it, demonstrated by its ability to create a hydrogen bomb a few years after the US, and launching the Sputnik manned satellite into space, jumping ahead of the US in 1957. Mills quoted statistics: the USSR had been growing economically at a rate of 6%, while the US rate was 3%. Thus he predicted that the Soviets would “overtake the US economy in a decade or two” [p.80] -- and he thought this all the more likely because the state-led socialist economy would not be slowed down by the capitalist business cycle of periodic recessions. As China got its act together, it would learn from its predecessors and achieve an even faster growth rate: “what Russia has done industrially in 40 years, China may well do in 25.”  (Not a bad prediction in some respects, although the Chinese take-off did not start until the 1980s.)

The upshot of Mills’ comparison of the US and the USSR is that the Soviets were not as committed to the nuclear arms race as the Americans. From talking with Russians, he got the impression that they felt the future would be theirs; all they had to do was wait another 10 years or so, and their model would be proved superior. And this brings him back to the American Power Elite. If the US is more committed to the arms race than the Soviets, it is we who bear the most responsibility for the danger of nuclear war. Somehow, the peace movement has to get the attention of the Power Elite, to convince them to stop the arms race. But since the military-industrial complex is central to our economy, the odds of changing it are poor.

What did Mills’ analysis miss?

Obviously, there has been no nuclear war; in fact, no further nuclear bombs have been used since 1945 (although the future is still open).  In part this was due to something else not on Mills’ radar, the fall of the USSR and its satellite states in 1989-91-- 30 years after Mills wrote in 1960. He also expected the Soviets would overtake the US economically within 10 or 20 years; instead around 1975 it began to be visible that they were falling behind, and were in considerable economic strain by the time Gorbachev launched a reform movement in 1985.

Mills expected that no-one but the Power Elite could do anything about the nuclear arms race, and he was not very optimistic they would do so. Nevertheless, in 1962, soon after the Cuban missile crisis when the US and USSR threatened each other, Kennedy and Khrushchev established a “hot line” telephone link, to avoid going to war through misunderstanding.  Again in the mid-1980s--after a period when the US massively increased its nuclear forces in order to catch up with a perceived Soviet threat-- Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated a treaty limiting the numbers of nuclear weapons. Were these events within the scope of Mills’ predictions? They do fit his argument that with the centralization of decision-making in the two world powers, any effective moves towards peace would have to come from the top.

Mills had explicitly ruled out the likelihood of a movement from below challenging the arms race. But here he was proved wrong within a few years of his writing. In the early 1960s, there was a “ban the bomb” movement, most active in Britain, but with a small group of activists in the US. These were ineffective at the time. In 1965, a much bigger anti-war movement developed in the US, in opposition to the Vietnam War. It became militant, building on the demonstrations and sit-in tactics of the civil rights movement for racial integration, and even attempted to block the Pentagon in a massive march in 1968. This anti-war movement failed; it was unpopular in public opinion; it failed to get an anti-war candidate chosen at the Democratic convention at Chicago in 1968; it got such a candidate in 1972 (McGovern), who lost the election in a landslide to a pro-war President (Nixon). Even so, something was happening. The US pulled out of South Vietnam in 1973, allowing the country to go communist in 1975. But now the military was becoming wary; for several decades, military officers explicitly tried to avoid “another Vietnam”. And although a majority of the public initially always backed whatever war the US got into-- the Gulf War in 1991, the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11/01 attacks, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003-- such wars eventually became unpopular if they went on for several years.

Mills did not think conditions existed for a successful peace movement. He was partly right-- no peace movement was able to dictate government policy. Nevertheless, anti-war sentiment generally grew in the years from 1965 to 2000, and has been intermittently influential since then. The conditions for a half-successful peace movement is part of what we need to explain.

Missing in Mills’ theory:  social movement theory

Social movement theory had barely developed in 1960. It focused on mass behavior as irrational, and on right-wing movements as motivated by status deprivation. Theories shifted as sociologists paid attention to the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s. The most relevant of the new theories pointed to resource mobilization as the key to movements’ growth: Movements develop where they have networks for recruiting activists and supporters; coordination through social movement organizations (SMOs) with a full-time  staff engaging in fund-raising, seeking favorable publicity in the news media, and enlisting lawyers and other professionals to protect demonstrations from arrests, and bring lawsuits in court. Not all movements developed all these resources. They varied in their use of violence, non-violent protests, civil disobedience, and legal action; movements that used all of these tactics tended to be most successful. SMOs are crucial in keeping a movement going during the long period of time-- often 10 years or more-- it takes to gain concessions; this multi-pronged offensive was best illustrated by the success of the civil rights movement.

Most of these resource mobilization processes were involved in the development of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. From his observations of the 1950s, Mills regarded universities as conformist and careerist. But in the 1960s, universities became the major resource base for new social movements. Here new SMOs were created, networks were recruited, and emotional enthusiasm built up. And this resource base was growing rapidly: university attendance sky-rocketed, from about 2 million students in 1950, to 9 million in 1970.  Mobilization began initially with students at historially black colleges in the South, who organized the sit-in movement to desegregate public facilities; within a few years they were imitated by white students in the North. Resource mobilization builds on itself. Activists and tactics shifted from civil rights to anti-war protests; further spin-offs from these movements led the second-wave feminist movement at the turn of the 1970s.

Resource mobilization-- not in Mills’ theoretical repertoire-- explains how an anti-war movement could grow. But what explains its degree of success (or lack of success)?  Theorizing the success of social movements remains an unanswered question. But let us make some rough comparisons. The civil rights movement was successful in desegregating public institutions within about 20 years. The anti-war movement in its first 10 years failed to stop the Vietnam War; it was unsuccessful in the 1980s in stopping the massive nuclear build-up during the Reagan administration; an even bigger outcry against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 also was ineffective. At most we can say anti-war movements became bigger over a 40 year period, creating a segment of public opinion that government leaders had to worry about. 

In sum, we have a movement that achieved most of its avowed goals in 20 years; and a movement with some modest success after 40 years.  C.Wright Mills’ frame of reference helps explain the difference. Civil rights was a local problem, below the concerns and interests of the Power Elite. It could be fought out in one city and town after another; its targets were at the level that Mills regarded as the realm of competing interests. Here grass-roots movements, acting locally with the help of sympathetic news coverage, could build a chain of victories. Stopping wars and nuclear weapons, however, pitted activists against the center of national power. The fact that anti-war concerns eventually became a modest influence on international policy shows that the Power Elite could be pushed, to some degree-- at any rate, more than Mills anticipated.

The main reason that nuclear war did not happen has to be attributed to large-scale factors, outside and beyond the control of each national elite.

Theoretical weakness: Geopolitics

Geopolitical theory gives the conditions for growth and decline in the military power of states; when wars break out; who wins and loses, and when stalemates occur. Geopolitical theory was still rudimentary in 1960, consisting mainly of the mutual escalation of arms races that Mills used; plus a balance-of-power theory, based on British policy in the 1700s and 1800s, which Mills saw was inapplicable to the two-sided world of post-WWII.

In the late 1970s, I put together a geopolitical theory, combining previous formulations, and based on examining changes of state borders around the world in the past 3000 years. There are 5 main principles:

[#1] States with more population and economic resources expand at the expense of smaller and poorer territories; and these advantages and disadvantages cumulate as the big get bigger. 

[#2] States at the edges of a densely settled zone tend to expand, while states in the middle tend to fragment and be swallowed up. 

[#3] As [#1] and [#2] operate over a period of time (30-50 years for each iteration), a geographical region simplifies into 2 big states (or empires/alliances) confronting each other.

[#4] Confrontation between two big states generates a turning point with 3 possible outcomes: victory of one side, or the other, resulting in a world-empire; or a costly stalemate, draining the power of both contenders and opening the way for new states to expand.

[#5] A big state also can decline from overextension: expanding so far from its home economic base that most of its resources are used up in logistics moving and supplying its forces. Eventually it loses wars on distant frontiers, even against weaker powers. Such defeats, combined with the economic burden of the military, create a crisis of legitimacy at home, fostering revolution and regime change.

Mills was observing the situation after World Wars I and II, when the central states of Europe had lost twice fighting the big states to their east and west. Germany’s loss fits [#1] and [#2]. But the two most powerful states of the west, Britain and France, were militarily exhausted as well. The post-WWII power vacuum was filled by two peripheral states, the US and USSR, in a confrontation over world empire (whatever terminology one might have used for their drive for hegemony). This fits [#3]. Such showdown wars historically have been especially ferocious and destructive (in contrast to the polite, rule-following battle etiquette of limited, balance-of-power wars). The nuclear arms race in the US/Soviet showdown, threatening to destroy everything, fits the pattern.

Russia historically had been an expanding state from the 1400s through the 1800s, spreading from Moscow against relatively resource-poor population zones to its east and south: [#1] again. Defeats by the rising power of Japan at the far end of logistics lines in the Far East, and by the Axis armies in WWI, brought revolution in Russia. The Communist regime inherited Russia’s geopolitical position, with the advantage after WWII of having its immediate enemies to the west and east destroyed; it began to expand again, taking over eastern Europe and expanding its global influence by sponsoring revolutionary regimes throughout the world. This was the situation as C. Wright Mills saw it in 1960. US involvement in the Vietnam war started after Mills died in 1962, but it would fit [#5]-- logistical overextension-- as the US found itself in a long, costly stalemate, fighting a guerrilla war on the other side of the world, supplied in the most expensive way, by air.

So far Mills’ prognosis looked correct, up through 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the communists. Then geopolitical conditions shifted. US withdrawal from Vietnam was a precusor to North Vietnam’s victory, but it reduced logistical overextension. [#5] was no longer a problem, and the US maintained this cautious posture until 2001. The Gulf War in 1991 was an exception, but the fighting was called off by President Bush in 4 days; and no costly occupation of Iraq was attempted. While the US was improving its geopolitical position, Russia was straining theirs. The USSR kept up military expansion, invading Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a weak communist government; the resulting 9-year war became Russia’s Vietnam--a resource drain, and a crisis of legitimacy at home, leading to Gorbychev’s reform movement. Powers that enter the declining side of the geopolitical processes tend to lose territorial control faster than they had acquired them. The 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe led to the loss of its post-WWII satellites; the 1991 revolution in the USSR broke apart hundreds of years of conquests stretching from Latvia to Kazakhstan.

The 45-year confrontation between the Soviet bloc and the US-dominated bloc came to an end in the pattern of [#4] and [#5]:  prolonged 2-sided confrontation and stalemate allowed new power-coalitions to grow on their periphery. These were the “unaligned nations” or “Third World”; and would include the shift of the Middle East to its own belligerent ideology (Islamic nationalism against both Western capitalism and communism). It was in this ideological atmosphere that China pulled out of the Soviet orbit, and eventually launched its own nationalist version of state-controlled market/socialism.

Mills’ reasoning would have been accurate if nuclear war had come in the 1960s or 70s. It didn’t. Nuclear detente settled into a stalemate; and this allowed the world configuration to morph into a polycentric world by the late 1980s. By then it didn’t matter so much that the Communist campaign for world-domination (or world-liberation) no longer had much resources or enthusiasm. It was in this new ideological climate of delegitimation that Soviet regimes almost everywhere reformed themselves or collapsed.

We still haven’t explained why nuclear war didn’t break out in the years before the Cold War wound itself down. We have two further factors to consider.

Theoretical weakness: extrapolating economic growth rates

Comparing growth rates, Mills predicted the Soviets would overtake the US within 20 years, and thus would win the Cold War, since the resource-rich win. The string of predictions unravels because by the late 1970s the Soviet growth rate had fallen below US growth. It is always a mistake to assume that a statistical pattern from a particular period (in this case, the 1950s) will continue indefinitely, unless we have well-established theory for what causes such numbers. *  Mills thought that the USSR’s 6% growth rate was caused by the advantages of a centrally planned socialist economy. In fact, it was the typical pattern of a take-off from the relatively low production of an undeveloped economy into a massive industrial economy. ** The same pattern was seen later in China, which began sustained growth in the 1980s and achieved growth rates of 10-15% in the 1990s and early 2000s; subsequently trending downwards (but remaining as yet still considerably above the 3% ceiling typical of mature economies.) 

* The classic example of this fallacy was the prediction by demographers, based on population growth in the 1930s, that the US would level out at 140 million in the 1950s. Instead came the post-war baby boom-- on nobody’s theoretical radar-- with the result that US population passed 200 million by 1970, and doubled the predicted number by hitting 280 million in 2000.

** This is a matter of arithmetic. Starting from a small number, even a small absolute increase can be a large percentage. If the GDP per capita is $100, adding $15 gives you a growth rate of 15%.  This becomes progressively harder as the base grows larger.

Making his analysis in 1960, Mills would have needed better tools for explaining economic growth, both in the Soviet bloc and in the US. Without attempting a sketch of relevant theory as of today, what was needed would have to include understanding the weaknesses as well as strengths of centrally-planned socialist economies; and correspondingly of the mechanisms of economic growth in market capitalism-- especially Schumpeterian theory of entrepreneurs driving technological innovation. (Why did the IT economy take off in the US, starting with the personal-computer explosion, while Soviet technological innovation remained narrowly in the realm of weapons technology?)

Theoretical weakness: substitutes for all-out war

Mills saw the nuclear arms race as the pathway to endless escalation. And this continued for another 20 years, with the proliferation of ICBMs, long-distance bombers constantly in the air, and submarine-launched missiles. Both sides acquired arsenals capable of destroying the other many times over. The situation came to be called Mutually Assured Destruction.  The abbreviation MAD was mocked as indeed madness. Nevertheless, it turned out to be workable mutual deterrence. After the Cuban missile crisis, both sides were careful to avoid another nuclear confrontation.  One could even say it formed a tacit mutual agreement-- conflict creating a social tie, in the manner that Simmel had theorized, with both focusing on coordinating with each other in at least this respect.

This did not mean their Great Power rivalry would become peaceful. Military conflict is not a simple binary-- either nuclear war, or world peace. Both sides continued to carry on their struggle for spheres of influence, by proxy wars. The USSR armed Cuban troops to fight for communist regimes in Africa. The US used CIA aid to oppose the Russian-supported regime in Afghanistan. Both sides sent military “advisors” to help their proxies; their limited involvement was something of a pretence, as advisors often took part in combat, especially with artillery, helicopters, and aerial strikes-- keeping a little distance from “boots on the ground”. But mutually accepting the pretence that these were only advisors was a tacit agreement too, to avoid all-out conflict by staying in a less visible role. This practice has continued, even after the end of the Cold War-- for example in the 8-plus years of conflict in Syria, where the US, Russia, Iran, and other outside powers have armed their own proxy forces.

From MAD to proxy war is obviously not an ideal way to peace. Nevertheless, it shows it is possible to pull back from joint suicide. Limited wars through proxies is another illustration of geopolitical principles [#3] and [#4] and their corollary: a stalemated showdown turns back into a version of balance-of-power wars, where military aims and methods are scaled down. It does have the disadvantage that proxy wars can go on for a very long time, since the outside sponsors are not incurring much losses for themselves; it is the local population who pays the price for having multiple forces fighting in their homeland.

It is a sobering lesson we have learned since the time of C.Wright Mills: the worst kind of escalation can be avoided, while lesser degrees of conflict can continue to pile up “limited” destruction.

And so the world came through, without nuclear war. Mills hoped this would happen, but his theoretical tool-kit was unable to anticipate the crucial processes:

-- Geopolitical stalemate opened the way for a more polycentric world, with more limited forms of warfare.

-- The expensive arms race bankrupted the Soviets first; Mills failed to envision this because he extrapolated short-term growth rates instead of recognizing the initial surge of high growth as a country first modernizes.

-- The US economy eventually outgrew the military-industrial complex. The loss of heavy industry to cheaper overseas producers began the trend; its place was taken by expansion of what could be called “consumer entertainment industries” based on electronics. The roots of this go back to the invention of the phonograph and radio; from the 1950s onwards these industries produced a series of innovations in devices for playing recorded music, film, and much else.  Some of the electronics spun off from the military: after the advent of the personal computer (created by entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, around the big defense electronics companies), the Defense Department’s DARPANET became the Internet. GPS, first developed so military aircraft wouldn’t run into each other, eventually was combined with smart phones into a large number of consumer and business applications. Not only did the US lead the new wave of technological innovation, while the Soviet economy remained centered on heavy industry for its military; the American style of music, counter-culture rebellion, and entertainment resulted in the “blue-jeans offensive” that made Soviet youth jealous of American culture. The economy of cultural innovation, it turns out, is also a political weapon, insofar as it delegitimates enemies in their own eyes.

Lessons for predicting climate catastrophe

What can we take away from this episode that is relevant to the big question of our future?

First: the distinction between making a prediction and being able to do something about it. So far, almost all research on global warming, rising sea levels and other climate trends have come from the natural sciences. They tell us what is likely to happen in coming decades; but hardly anyone has seriously analyzed how likely we are to stop these these processes, and what determines how people will respond.  The prevailing assumption seems to be that if predictions are alarming enough, the world will do something about it. But as we have seen in the case of nuclear war, being alarmed is not a sufficient mechanism to predict what people will do. We need social science to ask the question, as objectively as C.Wright Mills did in his day: what social processes are leading towards impending disaster, and what social processes can stop it? And in this case, we need to be able to predict matters of degree:  what social forces would be necessary to completely control climate change; what forces would lead to a half-way solution, or virtually no solution, and so on.

Many people besides C. Wright Mills saw we were heading for nuclear war, but they saw no way out of the arms race-- for a time, their advice was to build fall-out shelters. It was processes outside their control-- shifting geopolitical patterns; differing trajectories of economic growth; the shift to proxy wars -- that prevented world destruction. Can we say something similar about reactions to climate change during the remainder of the 21st century?

What kinds of things would we want to predict?

One factor that will affect people’s reactions will be the direction of world economies: I put this in the plural, because different economies would affect what their leaders and peoples would be willing to do to combat climate changae. Would their economies support or resist measures to reduce greenhouse gases, or to shift their uses of energy? There would be different responses from the rich countries (the U.S., north-west Europe, Japan); from burgeoning economies (China; potentially India); from Russia, positioned on the melting Arctic; from other parts of the world. Would these be willing to give up automobiles or air travel? Would they all move into high-density housing and seal their dwellings against heat transfer? Would attempts to do these things bring economic prosperity or decline?

A second factor is political. On the whole, political elites in the era of global internationalism have advocated policies to curb climate change. But such elites may not always be in control; their popularity has fallen in the U.S., Brazil, Britain and elsewhere. Objectively, we need a theory that gives the conditions for internationalists winning or losing elections; and to predict whether large numbers of people resist giving up their cars (the gilets jaunes movement in France, for example).  In short, we need a theory about political conflict over responses to global warming. In Europe, populist/nationalist movements have been energized by the influx of refugees-- partly as the result of wars in the Middle East and Africa; partly as poor people use refugee pathways to seek a more favourable economic location (ditto for influx at the US border). Understanding the political dynamics of welcoming or resisting refugees will become an even bigger issue if global warming continues to the extent of displacing many millions of people living in areas threatened by rising sea levels.

Predicting whose positions will have political influence is similar to the question I raised about anti-war movements. Theory of social movements is grossly incomplete in some key respects. We know something about the conditions that allow social movements to mobilize, including organizational bases like universities; and more recently the attention-steering power of the Internet. We know less about what predicts the directions social movements will take. Liberal partisans were taken by surprise by the extent of support for Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, etc. Can we formulate, in a more generic sense, what kinds of movements we can expect during coming decades? It is unrealistic to assume that as global warming grows worse, there will be consensus on what to do about it. We need a better theory of social conflict: what determines the strength of different factions, and who wins what kind of power to take action?

This is the same question I raised about what determines how effective social movements are in achieveing their goals. I suggested that movements where action can take place locally achieve their goals faster than those who have to take on centralized systems of power. We need to rethink this further to cover movements for and against action on global warming.

The effects of global warming are not all-or-nothing, like a nuclear war destroying the earth. There is a long future trajectory of gradual change into the 21st century and possibly beyond. The most serious crises will be local rather than world-wide. It is unrealistic to assume that of course  we will act as a world community to save whoever is imperiled. It could happen-- if a certain type of altruistic social movement became dominant everywhere. It could also happen that nationalist/populist movements would be in control-- in a few countries or many-- and they could be most concerned to protect their borders against being swamped by refugees. Some conservative economists have argued that the costs of certain parts of the world becoming uninhabitable can be calculated; and these costs can be weighed against the costs of changing our entire energy, transport, and living conditions. What theory do we have that can tell us how far these various policies will win? (In countries with what kinds of social patterns will various policies prevail?)

The Power Elite, in the sense that Mills described it 60 years ago, is no longer so dominant. He saw two centralized elites, one for the US, the other for the USSR; between the two of them lay the power to decide on nuclear war, one way of the other. His theory did not foresee additional conditions that would reduce centralized control in both places, as well as in the world as a whole. No one or two countries can dictate policies to control global warming. Within the U.S., the military-industrial complex no longer encompasses massive sectors of the economy like automobiles and heavy industry. The electronic/entertainment industries that replaced them in the height of the economy are not locked into a revolving door of government and Pentagon officials. There is more structural split. I do not mean merely that we can count on the political attitudes of owners and employees of Amazon, Google, Facebook etc. to stay internationalist and dedicated to fighting climate change. That is a short-run situation, which can change. More systematically, what effects do the IT industries have on mobilizing political movements, one way or another? Conservative movements mobilize well through the social media, too (Trump, etc). There is the additional possibility that IT will demobilize many people, creating an electronic addiction to fantasy entertainment that would make them put up with almost anything. Big questions to be tackled: what will mobilize and demobilize people on crucial issues, and how many in each segment? For that matter, how stably will these patterns hold? The future may well be a series of swings back and forth.

We need a theory of conflict between rival forces-- economic tendencies, local and international ways of organizing power, rival social movements. If  movements on crucial issues are more or less evenly divided, the result is likely to be political gridlock; the default position becomes the status quo-- doing nothing, or doing little enough so that the problems of climate change are not much affected. In the years leading up to 2020, this kind of social division and policy deadlock has become widespread. That does not mean it will stay that way over the decades of the future. Can we theorize the conditions for today’s deadlocks, in such a way that we can see them as variable, and thus predict the conditions that would change deadlock in the future?




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