What Should I Ask Michael Walzer?
Things Not to Do: Part XLIV

The Barrington Moore Problematic and Its Discontents

As delivered in Harvard's Science Center B on Saturday morning:


John Stuart Mill was perhaps the last who was substantially at home in and competent in all the branches of moral philosophy.

Afterwards young scholars paying their dues found it impossible to learn everything and still have time to write anything. Since it is easier to teach undergraduates what you know, specialization in research drove specialization in curriculum. But dividing up the social sciences makes no sense for undergraduates: What use are economics B.A.s who know no political science or history? None at all. What good is a government department where, in my day, an undergraduate, without trying, could find himself assigned Graham Alison's Essence of Decision five times in five different classes?

But to try to construct an undergraduate education with its foundation as a simple injunction to read widely in the social sciences would be an enterprise doomed to failure. We think in patterns--analytical classifications and narratives. A program needs a backbone, something to give it enough structure to make sense to the minds of nineteen year-old East African Plains Apes, with our limited brains. Yet we do not want to reproduce the narrowing blinders of the disciplines? And how could such a program attract teachers when the incentives are all on the side of working on the core concerns of the disciplines in which they must eventually make their homes?

The project of building a Social Studies was "rescued," if that is the word, by history.

The Eurocentric view of the world before 1914 was of one in which the wonders of science drove prosperity, prosperity drove order, order allowed the spread of liberty, and liberty promoted peace and thought, and peace and thought drove science. All was not for the best in the best of all possible worlds but, in the words of Lennon and McCartney, getting better all the time,

Then came World War I. Lenin. Mussolini. Stalin. Hitler. Franco. Mao. Idi Amin. Augusto Pinochet. The virtuous circle turned out not to be the natural path but instead a fragile accident. No discipline was designed to or qualified to think how to get the North Atlantic world at least back to its happy place, back to something like the society of progress in which people once thought they had lived--that pre-WWI world in which the extra-judicial slaughter of thirty-five Europeans at Kishinev excited horror and condemnation, even if they were Jews.

Call this problematic presented by the history of the world from 1914 to 1945, or perhaps 1953 or perhaps 1975 or perhaps even 1989, the "Barrington Moore problematic": it is to understand the historical and social origins of dictatorship and democracy, of slavery and freedom, of ideology and rationality, of poverty and prosperity. Humanity had moved from societies of illiterate farmers producing little more than subsistence dominated by thugs with strong arms and sharp spears to urban, literate, industrial ones. That produced Abraham Lincoln but also Vladimir Lenin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt but also Mao Zedong, Konrad Adenauer but also Augusto Pinochet.

And Adolf Hitler as the sole historical member of the my-regime-killed-50-million club. Why? How? And what could be done to make it stop?

The Barrington Moore problematic provided the spine of the Social Studies major--and indeed of pretty much all the interdisciplinary social sciences majors on the North American continent for two generations. In their gallop through the issues of the Barrington Moore problematic students had, as Alexander Gerschenkron put it to those in his office he allowed to drink the good sherry, to read an awful lot of books that were very good to have read--if not fun in the moment or easyto read.

And so the major has been a great fifty-year success--and not just because budgetary restrictions capped it and the best Harvard students will gravitate like lemmings toward anything that promises to exclude some applicants.

Can the Barrington Moore problematic serve a role similar in the next generation to the one it has served in the past two?

Echoing Seyla, I would say not. For one thing, the era of modern history that the BMP was created to grapple with has indeed come to its end. For another thing, the Enlightenment preconditions for the BMP have not yet been secured.

First, Adolf Hitler is now sixty-five years in his grave. Societies in transition to urban-market-mass political-economic modernity and how to keep more Lenins and Hitlers from arising in them does not seem to be the globe's most urgent problem any more.

Second, our most recent modern monsters seem of a different and perhaps older kind: Saddam Hussein always reminded me more of the Caliph Uthman or of Mehmet II than of Hitler. Hamas, Al Qaeda, and Hezbollah seem more like updated versions of the Assassins of Syria plus plastic explosives rather than of the Comintern. Rwanda seems more like the Sicilian Vespers with radios than like the terror-famine of the Great Leap Forward.

Third, the Barrington Moore problematic assumes that we have consensus, at least within our own circle of debate, that the hard-won victories of the Enlightenment are the bedrock that we seek to protect and advance. Roosevelt had four freedoms. Freedom from want--that is, freedom to earn a living, freedom to not have to spend one's life frantically trying to avoid penury, what Locke called the right to property. Freedom from fear--that is, freedom from arbitrary arrest, from being beaten up on the street corner by people who don't like who one is, or who don't think you have a right to live here, what Locke called the right to life and liberty. Freedom of speech and expression--saying what you think and making the laws.

And, of course, there is the first of Roosevelt's four freedoms, the oldest of the Enlightenment freedoms, perhaps the most hard-won in the seventeenth century and the pattern for the others, John Locke's toleration, freedom of religion--freedom to peaceably assemble with one's fellow believers to worship one's own conception of God. You cannot even start thinking in the Barrington Moore problematic unless you start with consensus that the Enlightenment freedoms are the bedrock of what we want to protect and advance.

It is at this point in my argument that I found that I could not not notice Martin Peretz. Do I have to pretend," he asked, "that I think Muslims are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which they are so likely to abuse?" That is a speech act that not only asserts that people called "Muslims" don't "deserve" the "privilege" of Lockean toleration, but also that he will be pretending if he ever says that they do.

To this the only appropriate response is: "What the fracking frack?"

So not only are the problems the BMP addresses not our biggest problems here in the North Atlantic--they appear to have been largely solved--and not only are our current monsters arising from other sources than contemplated, but we don't even have consensus in this room on the basic Lockean bedrock which has to serve as the foundation on which the whole structure was built. We thus need something more advanced--that deals with problems we have not yet solved rather than those we have--focused on very real but lesser threats to liberty and prosperity than the high totalitarianisms--but also something more basic as well. We are thus, historically, both too late and too early for that intellectual project to make sense. In his contribution to "A Critique of Pure Tolerance" Robert Paul Wolff could claim that basic Enlightenment issues were settled, that mere Lockean tolerance was not something at which we should aim--that we should aim "beyond pluralism and beyond tolerance." But surely we cannot aim beyond tolerance until and unless we have at least gotten into its neighborhood?

So how then should Social Studies organize itself for the next generations?

What intellectual thread should you follow as a guide through the labyrinth that is the study of human society? You need to expose students to the broadest range of ideas and perspectives. You need to avoid dissolving into a blooming, buzzing confusion. And yet you need to avoid the narrowing--I would say crippling--straightjackets of our current disciplinary perspectives. And you still need to allow individual students to find and study their own ultimate interest.

We out there at Berkeley face much the same problem.

We do not have good answers.

I occasionally play with "global history" a la Gellner, McNeill, and Diamond.

I occasionally play with a narrower dialogue of centralization vs. decentralization a la John Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Joseph Schumpeter, Friedrich Hayek, and James Scott.

I have had only one really good idea: that is to invite your Chair Richard Tuck out to Berkeley this fall for our internal review of our Political Economy major this fall, so that he can come down from the mountaintop, reveal the tablets, and tell us what the answer is and what we should do.