||Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe|
The ABCs of Democracy
Section 4: Conflicts and Policies
When the word "politics" comes up in ordinary conversation, we know more or less what is meant: politics is the conscious management of social affairs. Where social life is complex, it needs to be regulated, and this is where politics comes in. According to political theorists, politics is a sphere of power, and power, in Max Weber's definition, is the ability to impose one's will, even in the face of opposition, in a given social situation. The extent of one's power depends on the means at one's disposal; these means, however varied, are always limited, a fact which, to those who wield power, is a matter of concern.
An overview of writings about politics will produce a range of concepts relevant to the subject. The most important of these are: activity, control, rule, state, and force.
Politics is a sphere of activity undertaken with the aim of achieving certain goals, in particular the goal of acquiring and retaining power. In communist politics the preservation of power was a primordial goal, but at the end of the 1980s the communist parties in East-Central Europe at least partially relinquished their power over the states. The fact of having relinquished power nevertheless did not prevent the communists from preserving and acquiring other goods. The politician who has already acquired power, while he seeks to maintain it, generally strives towards other goals as well.
In English a distinction is often made between politics and policy. Politics tends to refer to the seeking and maintaining of power, while policy is concerned with political action in particular domains. In French the equivalent of politics is la politique, while policy is translated as les politiques publiques, which can refer to political activity in a number of areas, from educational or industrial policy, for instance, to foreign policy.
Politics is sometimes understood as competition and struggle for power; at other times it describes activities in particular spheres of social life (policies). It is worth noting that the abilities and talents needed to engage in politics, understood in the general sense of struggle for power, position and influence, are different from those required for implementing particular policies. In the latter case it is helpful to have skills in the relevant areas of social life, while in the former one needs rather to have psychological and socio?technical skills, such as the ability to strengthen one's power and position, to acquire popularity and means of action, to form alliances, confound one's opponents and win the indifferent over to one's side.
The various types of struggle for power have been described by the historians of the Roman Empire, and later by Macchiavelli and Shakespeare. Such struggles have been waged with the aid of money, the sword, and the word. Today these means are still useful, although in democratic states conflicts of power are ultimately decided by the ballot box.
Simplifying somewhat, we can distinguish several stages in an action undertaken with the aim of achieving a certain goal. First, there is the preparatory stage, which consists in defining the problem and drawing up a range of possible solutions. Then a decision is made and action is taken. Finally, the results are assessed and errors corrected.
When we study politics we acquire knowledge about it. The politician, in choosing his course of action, is also acting on his knowledge, especially in the initial stage, when he defines the problem and considers possible solutions, and in the final stage of assessing the results and correcting errors. Thus knowledge of politics may be useful to a politician both before and after he has acted, in his preparation and his assessment.
This is, of course, only a rough scheme of action, much rationalized
and not always conforming with practice. We tend to make decisions without
being conscious of all the distinct elements which have influenced us in
our chosen course. Our choice of a course of action, and not only political
action, depends in large measure on intuition and psychological reactions
which we would be hard put to it to express in words. Even a good chess-player
sometimes acts on intuition when he selects one move rather than another.
The way in which a politician plans and analyses his actions often cannot
be described with any precision, either by him or by observers.
The politician's possibilities are limited because the means at his
disposal are limited, and because the reality he wants to mold resists
his influence. It is not usually possible simultaneously to satisfy a large
number of different goals or to implement a variety of values. One must
choose, and the politician rarely achieves all his desired goals; he succeeds
in his aims only partially, even if his goal is to achieve the total and
absolute power that was the rulers' aim under communism.
Because politicians are able to realize their goals only in part, they form groups and can be divided according to the goals and values most important to them, those they would select if forced to chose. Thus they might prefer the development of the welfare state over enterprise, a stable government over one that is subject to control and responsible before parliament, freedom over equality, the extension rather than the restriction of the powers of the state or vice versa. It is in their choice of such general values and goals that political parties and movements differ from each other; and since politicians, not being omnipotent, must make choices, the differences between them lead to the formation of political parties. This is quite natural and sensible; political parties are not, as some would claim, useless anachronisms. In democratic countries it is the electorate that chooses to give its approval to one political tendency rather than another.
Politicians attempt to formulate their goals and win people over to
their program. As well as defending particular causes, they must also appeal
to a wider public. In modern societies politicians have been developing
the art of compromise: divergent interests are reconciled, opponents are
met halfway, and one learns to settle for the partial attainment of various
The fact that their power is accepted as legitimate is useful to politicians, for it enables them to achieve more with lesser means. Thus the politician does his best to disseminate information about himself and his aims, to project an image of himself and his program. Politicians differ not only in political actions marked by the goals and values they embrace, and by different ways of expressing those values and implementing those goals, but also in their way of communicating with the public, of creating the image of themselves that they would have the public believe, the vision they would have it accept. These projected visions, appeals to the public and other means of persuasion are no less worthy an object of study for students of politics than legal or economic decisions.
Certain methods of persuasion and types of symbolic behavior are commonly resorted to by politicians of all parties. They include describing one's own political camp in terms that are charged with positive associations, and implying that other parties are excluded from such positive identification. The names of political parties are chosen with regard to the popularity of adjectives like democratic, national, Christian, and Catholic. Parties often call themselves unions, alliances, or congresses, in order to emphasize the value of unity. They foster an asymmetrical view of the world, stressing their own merits and exaggerating the shortcomings of the opponent. If the opposition's chances of coming to power are slight, its criticism of the government tends to be more vehement. When, however, power tends regularly to change hands, and the opposition has a fair chance of taking over, its declarations are more moderate, and more alike the government's statements.
The various spheres of political activity are nowadays the domain of distinct institutions, and constitutional lawyers work at defining the features which make them distinct and drawing up the principles of their cooperation. Thus modern states attempt to treat the legislative, the executive, the judiciary and the police as separate branches of government.
These branches, however, were not always separate. Montesquieu distinguished various branches of government, but that was not his invention, he rather described, as others had done, the gradual specialization between branches of government.
Rulers once had a council of advisers and subordinates to help them in their tasks. A king had his Privy Council, with whom he made decisions in areas that today we regard as separate: he was legislator, for he proclaimed norms; administrator, for he applied them; judge, for he settled disputes concerned with their application; and policeman, for he saw to it that they were observed, if necessary by an organized and legalized use of force.
As political life evolves and gives rise to distinct areas and branches of government, other processes, known as depersonalization and institutionalization, also develop. They consist in the separation of the individual from the function: the individual executes his functions within the legal limits and in the legally prescribed way.
When the communists were in power, they paid little attention to this
separation of powers. In this regard communism, despite its self-avowed
progressivism, was a rather primitive form of political life. The institutionalization
of politics was disturbed; functions were confused, for real power was
wielded by people and institutions other than those prescribed by constitutional
Politics is often by definition linked to the state, but this is contrary to common usage: we also speak of local politics, of the politics of political parties, of the United Nations, UNESCO, or European Union - in other words, of the politics of suprastate organizations.
The state is the supreme form of political organization in a given area. A state is frequently defined by its ability to apply force legally. But the activities of a state, including the legal use of force, can be decentralized, just as the police is often decentralized. Legislative powers are also considered to be proper to the state; but if we understand legislation as the setting down of rights and duties, then clearly the law is also made by groups and organizations other than the state.
II. Knowledge of Politics
Political science provides in large measure a description of contemporary events. Were it not for the practical side of the political sciences, one might say that they are the political history of contemporary times, just as the great part of sociology is the social history of contemporary times.
Political knowledge, or political science, goes back to Aristotle, who described and compared different types of political systems, and constructed typologies in which he distinguished between them, described their functioning, and identified conditions favorable to democracy or tyranny. This is still how political systems are described and compared today in a domain of study known as comparative politics. Sometimes it consists simply in describing political systems in particular countries, and sometimes in comparing political systems, party structures, and political cultures. Comparisons are made between democratic and totalitarian societies, between two-party and multi-party systems, or between presidential and parliamentary systems of government.
The study of comparative politics is not aimed at revealing the ideal political system. An attempt to select such a system without taking account of social conditions and political culture would be precipitate. For instance, proportional representation, until very recently, seemed well?suited to the political systems and cultures of Italy and Spain, while British and American political culture seems to be better served by a majoritarian principle.
Students of political science are taught the history of their subject, known in American universities as political thought. Sometimes it is also known as the history of political ideas or the history of political philosophy.
Political theory, on the other hand, is largely the study of the concepts one works with in describing politics. It can also consist, like theoretical studies in more advanced disciplines, of constructing models, which are simplified descriptions, and formulating statements about simplified situations. When political theory has a philosophical inclination, it is concerned with the arguments for and against particular social and political solutions; for example, one can argue for justice (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, 1971), for a minimal state (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974), or for democracy (Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics).
Political studies are, however, based on the study of policies in particular areas such as local politics, economic policies, educational, defense, and foreign policy. That requires some knowledge of the given domain and of the legal and economic problems it involves.
The teaching of political science in a given country refers to a large extent to that country's own experiences. That can be particularly interesting in countries which have recently emerged from communist rule and where the political system is still taking shape. In Poland, constitutional law and the political system, under Lech Walesa's presidency, emerged gradually through practice, as political conflicts and arguments were lost and won, and as the strong triumphed over the weak. This is how the functions of the president were defined with respect to forming a government or making decisions on matters of national security or defense.
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I have tried to show above that politics - as a competition for power and as an implementation of policies - is a useful area of activity, in spite of the often negative feelings and associations evoked by politicians. In contemporary societies social life requires both conscious guidance and competition for power. Engaging in politics implies shaping peoples' lives and coming into contact with peoples' divergent interests, and it is for that reason that political achievements can only be partial, never totally satisfactory to all parties. That is why political arguments and divisions are not senseless. Politicians differ in their choice of the most pressing social problems to be addressed and in their proposed solutions to those problems. Democratic countries have developed mechanisms to reconcile conflicting political programs. Knowledge of politics can be useful in such reconciliation. It can be helpful in assessing the proposed solutions and the results of their application.
The concept and the term "civil society" became popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they were used in connection with the freedoms of association and agreement. Civil society was contrasted with the state. That contrast was and is present in the deliberations over the steps to be taken in the transition from totalitarianism.
What is civil society? When we speak about it, we are talking about a sphere in between individuals and the state -- that is, about associations of individuals. Those associations are governed by more or less formal rules, and do not include families or groups of friends. Belonging to this area between family and friendly ties and the state constitutes one dimension or aspect of civil society. The other is independence (at least relative independence) from the state -- the autonomy of this intermediate sphere with regard to the state's activities.
In general, a monopoly over some field would not be considered a part of civil society, even if the monopolistic organization is not connected to the state. Thus civil society entails freedom of action, a consequence of which is (usually) diversity.
Civil society -- the sphere of independent and intermediary actions and institutions -- can be more or less developed in different fields: it can consist of a greater or lesser number of organizations which are more or less developed and diverse. Those institutions, organizations, and associations can be more or less stable, their members more or less inclined to support them and defend them when they are threatened. To varying degrees, civil society is accompanied by habits, knowledge, attitudes, and methods of acting which strengthen it, and which together can be described as civic culture. The presence of civil society is therefore a matter of degrees: there can be more or less of it. Which is why it makes sense to speak about the degree of destruction or the degree of development of civil society.
The word "civil" suggests to some that the concept of civil society is connected with politics, and thus that the term civil society should have a narrower sense than that adopted above. That narrower sense will not be referred to here -- yet in a certain sense it hasn't been useless, because in a totalitarian system the sphere of that which was considered political was extremely broad. The many ties between societal live and politics are loosening up, but they are still present in the transition from totalitarianism.
There is a variety of fields relatively independent of the state and belonging to the intermediary sphere that can thus be considered a part of civil society. First of all, there is non?state economic activity. The institutions of civil society (which, one has to admit, are not well developed in postcommunist countries) include companies, banks, stock exchanges. The activities of civil society include -- in so far as they are independent of the state -- investment, production, trade, insurance, the circulation of money, credit, and loans.
Another field of civil society is the dissemination of information, the exertion of influence over public opinion, and the creation and distribution of cultural goods -- when the state doesn't concern itself with these tasks. State-owned mass media, state education, and culture directly financed by the state and created at the state's request lie outside the realm of civil society, though they can become independent and be an object of compromise on the borderline area between the state and civil society.
The political sphere lies within the realm of civil society, again,
in so far as its elements -- in this case, political parties, pressure
groups, electoral coalitions and other alliances and associations with
political aims are independent of the state. Local government, in so far
as it is independent of the central authorities, is also a part of civil
society. Those who have experienced totalitarianism may not realize that
politics and state action are not one and the same. Nevertheless, the practice
of politics also takes place outside the state; politics and state action
are not identical.
The state and the laws made by organs of the state create a framework for civil society to function in. The state can either promote independent activity or hinder it. Many fields of human endeavor are governed by what might be termed "traffic laws," which are more or less clearly formulated and through which the state or particular groups try to define and systematize the rules of movement in a given area, for example, in the economy. When these rules are good, they ease the flow of traffic and reduce the probability of accidents. But in any given field it is possible to construct a wide range of rules of conduct, increasing the rights of some people and institutions at the expense of others. In civil society, such rules give rise to disputes and political battles.
There are also frequent disputes over what the state should leave to its citizens to decide, where to provide them with patterns for solving problems, and to safeguard the rights of some group or of people in a given role. We should keep in mind that the rights of employees are protected at the expense of employers (and vice versa), the rights of tenants at the expense of landlords, the rights of consumers at the expense of producers, the rights of creditors at the expense of debtors. What is gained in one social role is lost in another -- which can have undesirable effects. For example, if trade unions in a given country effectively protect workers' wages, foreign investors might decide to invest in other countries with lower labor costs.
Civil society is a vast area of organizations, agreements, and contracts regulated by law. Knowledge of civil society should therefore include knowledge about laws governing associations, corporate and commercial laws, labor law, and civil law.
Civil society -- that is, a developed sphere of agreements and associations
independent of the state -- was the ideal of conservative social thinkers
such as Edmund Burke (1729-1797). But even several revolutions, such as
the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the American War of Independence, aimed
to strengthen the independence of citizens vis- a-vis the state -- which
is why Burke, an enemy of the French Revolution, praised the British and
The region known as Eastern Europe has not been coddled by history, and civil society has fairly shallow roots there, which were in several cases torn up. World War II and the German occupation policies contributed to this state of affairs, the Germans destroyed many of the existing social mechanisms together with the region's economy, which -- according to Kazimierz Wyka's expression -- was excluded from the life of society. For over forty years thereafter, communism systematically destroyed society's independence. The private economy under communism and in the first years of postcommunist transition was little better than the economy under German occupation conditions: its participants acted frequently on the border of legality, buying and selling took place outside stores, and exchanging currency was one of the most important private economic services.
Rebuilding civil society has been a part of the opposition's programs
at least since the 1970s. The opposition's actions contributed, if only
on a small scale, to the rise of independent social life in the area that
is our subject: the intermediate zone between the individual and the state.
If the departure from communism is to endure, it is necessary to rebuild civil society and thus to realize the ideals of Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century conservatism. At the same time, this rebuilding is a break with the social order that the communists put in place, which means that revolutionary goals and deep changes must be pursued. Despite the conservatives' love of spontaneous and unplanned activity, civil society must be consciously created and at least partially planned. Moreover, dismantling the communist state structures and creating the conditions for the development of an intermediate sphere independent of the state is a task, to a large extant, for the actual state, transforming itself in the process. Paradoxically, the new state has to limit itself and help recreate civil society. One can add that it is the job of the educational system to accomplish some of the state's tasks in this area.
Why is it worth talking about civil society in the first place? The existence of activities and structures in society that are independent of the state is considered a value in itself -- a value that is widely accepted within European culture. There, it is held that the freedom, independence, and diversity of actions within society make life meaningful. Furthermore, the development of civil society is useful because it promotes the prosperity of individuals and society as a whole (the experiences of many countries prove this). Inventions that improve the quality of life are more common in countries that have a strong civil society.
The development and strength of civil society have political consequences. If civil society is well-developed and strong, if people take advantage of their freedom and produce a diversity of organizations, ideas, and economic ventures, then non-totalitarian democracy is strengthened. The adjective "non-totalitarian" is important, because democracy, understood as the majority influencing decisions, doesn't account for the content of those decisions. Decisions taken democratically -- that is, approved by a majority or its representatives -- can be quite unpleasant for a minority; they can even be unpleasant for a majority when it fails to take the consequences of ifs actions into account. A well-developed civil society protects democracy from totalitarian abuses and helps prevent minorities from taking control of the state and society.
What promotes the development and the strength of civil society? One factor is a legal system considered as a set of rules governing the actions of individuals and groups and that protects individuals and groups from one another and also from excessive and unjustified state interference. Of course there are differences of opinion as to how to protect individuals and groups and what constitutes excessive and unjustified state interference.
A part of civil society that does much to support the other parts is the economy, an area of independent activity that the communists purposefully destroyed. They said they destroyed it for ideological reasons: private property, the market, profit, and money were all considered evil. But the ideological prescriptions of the communist authorities coincided with their interest in retaining power. The authorities seemed to realize that an independent economy would strengthen society's independence in other areas.
The development civil society is promoted by a political, economic, and legal culture that favors initiative, enterprise, diversity, tolerance, and responsibility. The state and politicians can foster such a culture through legislation and by acting as role-models (in general, politicians attract the attention of the mass media and, indirectly, public opinion). Appeals and declarations by politicians are a clearly less effective means of influencing people's behavior, and thus poor tools for shaping civic culture.
When we speak about tradition, we mean something from the past that somebody considers valuable and worth passing on. Sometimes traditions clash with each other, and the question of which traditions should be passed on leads to disputes. But in general, it is possible to obtain a broad consensus (though not unanimity) with regard to that which is definitely worth passing on, especially in the area of knowledge. When there is no consensus, different traditions can be transmitted by different, specialized agencies, which is usually in society's interest.
The problem of countries leaving communism is that civil society usually lacks a compelling tradition there. The tradition was largely destroyed, so some people say -- rather paradoxically -- that it is necessary to create a tradition, by which they mean that a tradition must be transmitted and adopted. With regard to the tradition of civil society, one has to take advantage of the experience of foreign countries. Those foreign countries, however, are not completely foreign, because they share the European culture, from which the communist countries were in many ways torn away after World War II.
What is the place in all this of the education system as a set of institutions transmitting knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes? I mention values and attitudes last because schools have often shaped them indirectly and unintentionally; schools have often brought about opposition to that which they have tried to inculcate, especially values and attitudes. Their Sisyphean efforts were not only confined to the banning of the Polish cultural heritage in the 19th-Century Russian empire.
The education system is one of the institutions that transmit traditions, but not the only one. The traditions passed on by school, family, friends, the media, and others conflict with or compliment each other.
The education system -- in the way it is organized, in its teaching methods, and in its curriculum -- can, to a lesser or greater degree, be a part of civil society. The more the education system is independent from the state and the more diversified it is, the more it can be said to belong to civil society.
The role of the schools in civil society can also consist of transmitting
useful knowledge about society. Such knowledge would be concerned with
the law, the economy, the media, organizations, and associations. It's
hard to imagine transmitting a body of knowledge about society which doesn't
cover the economy (non-Marxist economics), which lacks even introductory
information on the market, prices, employment, money, inflation, and credit.
The news as it is presented in newspapers and on television can be a topic of classroom discussion. Students can discuss how the mass media function, analyzing cases of distortion and manipulation, of things left untold, of the tricks and traps used - and also news items that attempt to render the truth without distortions. One can show what kind of language is used in reports and how it differs from that of opinionated commentary or of advertising. One can analyze the arguments used by the two sides in a conflict of values when a gain from one point of view is a loss from another. Perhaps the different ways of using language should be discussed in maternal language class, although this is connected with the study of civil society.
There is no reason why knowledge about civil society should be separated from knowledge about the state. A democratic state is usually a product of civil society, although, as has been pointed out earlier, the current states are often attempting to build civil society.
Parliament (in the laws it makes) and the government (in the way it implements executive power) create better or worse conditions for the development of civil society. Among them are the financial conditions. Civil society is connected with the state through the tax system: citizens finance the activities of the state, while taxes or tax reductions discourage or encourage citizens to undertake various activities. Civil society supplements, replaces, and aids the state. The state helps or, in certain fields, hinders the activity of civil society. Political life consists, among other things, of bargains over the fields of state activity: in what fields the state will promote civil society at the expense of others, assuming that resources are limited. Knowledge about the state and about civil society together constitute social knowledge, which can serve as an aid for understanding the aims and the functioning of institutions, and thus help people to live in society.
Projects of change and ideal visions used to be worked out by individuals, but such projects had chances of implementation when an idea was supported by social movements and organizations which at first strove for power and then exercised power.
Totalitarian power is a special case of power, which strives to control the whole of societal life (which is indicated by the word totalitarian, derived from Latin totus ("whole, all-embracing"). A given authority is the more totalitarian, the more spheres of life it strives to control and the more it succeeds in that.
As in the case of social planning, it is worthwhile, when discussing the scope of power, to make a distinction between intentions and achievements. Intentions are proved by the efforts made, but the resistance of the social matter makes the results incomplete and the scope of real power is different from what was intended by those who exercise it.
All-embracing social projects which are at the foundation of social engineering have been termed utopias, and the 20th century is as well an age of social engineering as an age of implementation of utopias, which, it is true, were formulated in the 19th century and even earlier. A book on the history of the Soviet Union was entitled by its authors, Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr Nekrich, Utopia in Power.
The great social engineers in the 20th century, those who wanted to change social facts on a large scale and achieved that by making their ideas materialize, were above all dictators, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, political leaders active in the first half of the century, primarily in Europe. But changes on a large scale did not come to an end at that. They were later carried out in Asia (mainly in China and Cambodia), and partly in Africa. But on the whole, in the second half of the century, the Europeans were more concerned with their own affairs than geographically distant social engineering on other continents.
An example of social engineering, less known and much milder than in Cambodia, is provided by Iran under the rule of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. I abbreviate below the description to be found in Paul Johnson's book.
The Shah became fond of planning started in the late 1940s. The plans were vaster ant vaster, and their planned budget was growing. "...the Fifth plan, 1973-8, which started with a spending target of $36 billions quickly jacked up to $70 billion when oil prices quadrupled."
"The planners ... had the arrogance of party apparatchiks and a Stalinist faith in central planning, the virtues of growth and greatness.... The Shah boasted that his White Revolution combined 'the principles of capitalism ... with socialism ... even communism.... There's never been so much change in 3,000 years. The whole structure is being turned upside-down.' By trying to spend too much too fast he bought himself inflation. To put break on inflation, he organized student gangs to arrest 'profiteering,' merchants, and small businessmen. This merely gave youth a taste for violence and cost the throne the bazaar."
"Having given the royal lands and the confiscated estates of the clergy to the peasants, he found, predictably, that output declined; having thus turned Iran from a food-exporting to a food-importing nation, he changed the policy and embarked on collectivization. ... Irrigation project in northern Khuzestan had taken back 100,000 hectares of prime farm land, given to the peasants only five years before ... Thus yeoman farmers were turned into a rural proletariat, earning a dollar a day and living in cinder-block two-room houses, back to back in new 'model towns' The law of June 1975 in effect extended this model to the whole country. ... Large families were broken up. Menacing convoys of bulldozers and earth moving equipment, often of stupendous size, would descend, without warning or explanation, upon 2,000-years-old village communities, and literally uproot them. ... The program as a whole was a deliberate assault on tribal diversity, local patriarchs, family cohesion, provincial accents and tongues, regional dress, customs and interest groups, anything in fact which offered alternative centers of influence to the all?powerful central state. It was fundamental to the White Revolution that the ultimate freehold of all land and property resided in the crown, that is the state. Thus the Shah, despite his liberalism and his posture as a pillar of the West, was pursuing a policy of radical totalitarianism."2
That example can help us answer the question what in fact social engineers are doing. They claim that they strive for a better social system, that they know social mechanisms, and know how to achieves change, and that they have a vision of the future society and the ways in which to form it. Social engineers are moralists in social matters, they behave so as if they knew what in the social sphere is good and what is bad, and as if they had technical social knowledge, that is, as if they knew how one can attain what is good and eliminate what is bad. The last-named operation is given priority, it is said: at first the evil must be eradicated, An advocate of social engineering puts his social vision into effect in opposing the old, in opposing that which is there. He claims that that which is there is bad or at least includes so many bad elements that it requires a radical repair. Social engineering postulates changes in the law, especially in matters of ownership and such a concentration of property that the rulers may use it and thus more easily carry out their plans. The change is promoted by the application of penalties and rewards: from persuasion to economic measures to the threat of physical coercion and the direct use of the latter.
In Iran, as in the communist countries, integrated social engineering was pursued on a vast scale, and human beings were visibly treated as a material which was to be transformed. Social engineers carried out there -- as elsewhere -- such operations as the limitation of the movement of the population and, in other cases, on the contrary, coercion to such movement in the form of resettling and deportations. That which obstructed transformations, which was an undesirable element (and sometimes only alien element: unsuitable persons) was subject to isolation, that is imprisonment, internment, and physical extermination.
It seems that waves of enthusiasm for integrated social engineering intensified and abated. The enthusiasm intensified in France at the close of the 18th century, when at the time of the revolution endeavors were made to put into effect social plans and visions on a very large scale, including also the change of earlier religious beliefs and ceremonies. Thus intentions to engage in social engineering are certainly older that the 20th century. Marxism, to which social engineers often referred, was a product of the 19th century. Its adherents encouraged a revolutionary and universal social reconstruction, which they considered necessary, and that necessity was in their opinion substantiated scientifically, owing to the discovery by Marx of the laws of development in history. Today, however, social engineering on a large scale arouses in our part of the world much lesser enthusiasm than before. That disenchantment may be linked to the spreading knowledge of the results that had been achieved by social engineering.
Does the dislike of totalitarian social changes come from the fact that they are undemocratic, that they disregard the will of society, and in particular of the people understood as the majority of society or the totality of those unprivileged? It is probably not that. Both in the 20th century and earlier, one can speak about social engineering with the assent of the people, or at least with the initial assent of the people, that is a large part of society. Afterwards, those governed were either not asked what their opinion was, or the procedure was based on fiction: the conditions in which the assent would be expressed were arranged so that it was sure that such assent would be expressed.
The so-called revolutionary situation consists, among others, in that a considerable part of society wants a change and the elimination of evil. There are then experts in the verbal formulation and interpretation of experience, ideologists who pinpoint the evil and are capable of convincing the people, or rather its sufficient part, where the evil is. Support is then won of executors, collaborators, and silent witnesses, for revolutionary committees, revolutionary tribunals, special committees, various statal and semi-statal institutions whose task is to root out the evil. The people is also inclined to support institutions which promise changes assessed positively: distribution of goods, social welfare, economic and social planning.
It is usually not so easy to provide an apparatus which is to fight the evil with mechanisms which would work as a brake; such an apparatus is not easy to stop. Those who created the institution would later often like to have it function otherwise. Such intentions may even be more widespread, but when the apparatus of coercion is expanded, those intentions are usually latent and individual, and cannot be voiced in public. The abhorrence of the revolutionary apparatus of terror by its victims does not change the fact that sometimes such an apparatus was organized with the assent of a considerable part of society. Such an assent is easier to obtain if people expect that the terror would not affect them or those near to them. But it turns out later that such restrictions are difficult to enforce.
The problem of social engineering was taken up by a philosophical school active in Britain in the early 1940s, during the war against Nazi Germany, in which Stalin's Russia was, since 1941, an ally of Great Britain. Those were conditions, it appears, not conducive to clear thinking about social issues discussed here: many people at that time thought in terms of progress versus reaction. It was said that Stalin's Russia was, after all, a country of progress, even if costly one, whereas Nazi Germany was dominated by Fascism, that is a reactionary system. However, in the context discussed here, both countries can be called, in a sense, progressive. The leaders of both countries had a vision of a desirable future and both countries were promoting radical social change, having in one case a national-biological orientation, in the other - a class - economic one. In those conditions, we owe an in depth criticism of totalitarian social engineering to two Austrian émigrés from Vienna, connected with the London School of Economics, namely Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Popper.
Friedrich von Hayek, who in 1974 won the Nobel Prize in economics, published his critique of central planning, The Road to Serfdom, in 1944, but had presented the basic ideas of his book earlier in the form of papers and a pamphlet in 1938 and 1939.
The Poverty of Historicism by Karl Popper is a polemic with the opinion, voiced among other by Marxists, that the future history of mankind is predictable. His work appeared for the first time as a series of articles published in 1944 and 1945, but its ideas had been presented earlier, in the late 1930s in Brussels and at von Hayek's seminar at the London School of Economics.
It is worthwhile to note that the belief in laws of history and the predictability of history did not induce Marxists to remain passive. They supported their forecasts by action which was perhaps intended to fill some gaps in the forecasts, or maybe they thought that their actions were foreseen by the laws of history, or perhaps that action was just intended to increase the chances of the confirmation of forecasts, otherwise believed by them to be scientific.
Orwell's Animal Farm, previously rejected by several publishing houses for political reasons, appeared in 1945, and his Nineteen and Eighty Four, in 1949. Both books describe planned and transformed collectivities. Orwell had known von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, which he reviewed in 1944 in the Observer. He shared Hayek's antipathy for collectivism, but stressed that the free market did not remove all evil.
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hanna Arendt was written somewhat later than the works of Popper and von Hayek, namely in 1945-9, and had its first edition in 1951. The totalitarianism which she described was multi-dimensional, but one of its fundamental elements was the conviction that in social matters basically everything can be attained. Totalitarianism had its laboratory in concentration camps and the executor of its plans in the set of institution in the form of the state, the party, and the police intertwined.
In The Poverty of Historicism Popper made a distinction between utopian, that is all embracing, social engineering and piecemeal one. The essential characteristic of piecemeal social engineering is to be found in the description of the behavior of its advocate who tries to attain his goals by small steps, incessantly correcting his moves. Such a piecemeal patching is at variance with the political temper of many "committed" activists. Their programs, also termed social engineering are all-embracing, that is utopian. An advocate of a utopian social engineering knows in advance that an all-embracing transformation of society is necessary; an advocate of piecemeal social engineering proceeds without determining in advance the scope of the reforms.
According to Popper, neither social engineering nor its goals are to be condemned in toto. He would rather say that it depends on what social engineering it is -- in accordance with his distinction between the two kinds that differ from one another in the vastness of vision, projects, and plans. It seems that social engineering (without any additional modifier) described by Paul Johnson is the same as utopian social engineering described by Popper (and both of them criticized that kind of social engineering).
The agents of social engineering are sometimes considered to be individuals,
such as the Shah of Iran, Stalin, and Hitler. Such formulations, however,
are often abbreviations. It happens that it is institutions which are agents
that transform societies. It is true that individuals are active in them,
but such an institutional whole often moves in a direction not foreseen
by any of its members. In the national economy the so-called central planner
makes decisions although it is not a natural person. It is likewise in
the case of the legislator, referred to by lawyers when they reflect on
the content of the provisions of the law and try to reconstruct the intentions
of the legislator. Neither the central planner nor the legislator are natural
persons. The decisions which can he ascribed to such impersonal agents
are resultants of individual decisions, moreover often arrived at otherwise
than by vote. Collective decisions, however, happen to be later substantiated
as if they were made by individuals. It occurs that that is done by the
leader or that his earlier statements are used in such substantiations,
which suggests the individual nature of decisions thus made.
Voltaire treated the possibility of being subject to moral assessment
rather broadly when he condemned the earthquake in Lisbon and indirectly
the alleged perpetrator: Providence or Nature. From that point of view
we would have no theoretical problems, because any event and behavior of
Nature or inanimate objects could be subject to moral assessment. In minor
matters, we sometimes act like that: a person is angry with his telephone
or his TV set and is ready to accuse and condemn those inanimate objects.
One is indignant because his expectations did not come true, a fragment
of the world behaved not in the way he had expected. But it is legitimate
to assume that Voltaire condemned the earthquake above all because it brought
Protection against the authorities by means of intermediary institutions and by the balance of powers was also the concern of the authors of the American constitution. The advocates of the minimal state were guided by a similar idea. It is to be a state which makes it a point that its strength is not greater and its interference with societal life does not go further than it is indispensable for the defense of the country and the protection of citizens' rights. The idea of intermediary bodies is alive and practiced in British and American public life. Utopians in power destroy independent bodies and institutions, but they have not quite succeeded in that in present-day Europe, and in the case of the countries that have been governed by communists, in Poland in particular. The consequences of Stalinist social engineering will for a longer time be felt in the postcommunist countries. But it has been proved that totalitarianism can hardly be preserved if terror is weakened and applied with restraint and reservations. For all the destruction of the social tissue, the experience of some post-communist countries in spreading independence and in thus weakening totalitarianism makes one hopeful.
In the social sciences the word "theory" tends to be much more loosely applied than in other disciplines. A theory in the social sciences is more often than not simply a collection of thoughts on a given topic, later to be more systematically arranged by finding statements and their interrelations.
In this article I shall consider a few conceptual issues and mention some types of theory, using the word "theory" in the relatively weak sense proper to the social sciences and humanities. I shall be talking about directions of inquiry in connection with certain concepts fundamental to the study of conflict.
In constructing a theory one tends to lose sight of details in order to develop generalities in a way not always appreciated by lovers of descriptive prose. All the richness and color of the specific, so precious to the historian, the poet and the journalist, vanish, to be replaced by the general and repetitive patterns of behavior sought by the sociologist or psychologist. Conflicts can be also seen in their schematic forms, and general reflections about conflict apply to conflicts between nations.
Three Types of Conflict: Rivalry, Struggle and Hostility
Conflict is generally considered to be such a situation where at least two sides aspire to aims the simultaneous realization of which is difficult or impossible. On this definition, conflict arises out of rivalry over goods, usually goods which are scarce. If one side gains something, the other gains less, or loses something. Such a conflict may arise without any feelings of hostility on either side and even without any awareness that a conflict is going on. All that is needed is rivalry over goods. A conflict of this type may be called objective or situational.
One also speaks of conflict when one side hinders or harms the other in some way, regardless of whether any rivalry for goods exists. A conflict in this sense is a struggle which may or may not have its basis in rivalry over goods. In some cases of struggle the root of the conflict is unclear, the causes long forgotten or the grounds proffered by each side are no more than rationalizations.
Yet another type of conflict arises when one side considers the other to be an enemy. Such conflicts, conflicts of consciousness, are a third type, distinct from the two described above: people do think of someone as an enemy even though they are neither rivals for goods nor currently engaged in a struggle. Such conflicts of consciousness, where hostile attitudes are inherited from the past, occur in relations between nations.
It is possible to come across a case of conflict in all three of the above senses simultaneously; for this reason we may speak of three different aspects of conflict - rivalry, struggle and hostility - but each of those may also appear on its own.(2)
Rights as an Object of Conflict
A collectivity seeking rights generally does not act in unison: there are specializations and differences. Spokesmen and representatives rise to speak on its behalf; social and national movements are created which form the programs and ideologies supporting their actions. Some members of the collectivity remain indifferent, while the more active ones address appeals to them and organize activities to rouse them from their indifference. In such appeals the image of the enemy plays an important role.
The active members of the collectivity tend to split into factions which may be moderate or extreme, softer or more decisive in their methods of exerting pressure; they may resort to violence or prefer appeals to consciousness. The effectiveness of the methods used will of course depend on the enemy: for the independence movement in India, for example, the decision to refrain from violence turned out to be successful against the British. The use of a number of different methods and strategies at the same time can also be effective. In such cases politicians speak of diversification of strategies.
The Image of the Enemy
Numerous social and psychological theories have helped us to understand
the mechanisms of perceptions in conflict situations. Leon Festinger's
theory of cognitive dissonance describes how people try to be consistent
in their beliefs, even though these may contradict reality. In a fierce
struggle, when the aim is to deal as many blows as possible, the enemy
tends to be endowed with such qualities that present him as unworthy of
better treatment. The enemy is perceived as different from us; primitive
peoples and contemporary propaganda both developed that conviction of the
enemy's otherness to the point of depriving him of human characteristics.
Cultural Themes as Grounds of Conflict
Cultural themes are the foundation and proffered justification for conflicts between nations. In the past, nations might have been rivals for goods, and particularly for rights, but now conflict may consist primarily of hostility and struggle, and be reinforced by cultural themes. The driving force of such conflicts is the aggregate of simplified historical and social beliefs, based on a classification of the world, that has been handed down through culture.
Cultural themes are reinforced by consciously created ideologies, and it is through those ideologies that political parties and movements are able to make use of culturally inherited images. Thus culture and ideology are often mutually supporting. Today's massmedia similarly derive their power from images entrenched in culture: newspapers and television, as well as political movements, exploit and reinforce stereotypes and mythologies in order to kindle national conflicts.
Cultural themes and the heritage of history are nevertheless generally sufficiently supple and varied that their wealth of content may be drawn on not only in order to create conflicts but also to lay down a basis for cooperation.
Zero-Sum Games and Cooperation
In the simplest case, the game involves only two agents, each of whom has a set of possible actions available to him; his choice is limited - again, in the simplest version to deciding whether or not he will carry out a given action. Game theory assumes that each agent has his preferences: in other words, that he can assess and compare the results of various actions. If, for example, he has two possible actions available to him, he may decide either that it makes no difference which he chooses or that one or the other is better for him, given its results.
Game theory also assumes that an agent's preferences may be expressed in a simplified way by the use of numbers representing the comparative values of the results obtained; it is then possible to say that it is better to choose one particular action rather than another. The degree of simplification involved in this procedure becomes clear when we realize that the judgments we make involve many different criteria which cannot easily be reduced to a single scale of values. But such a reduction has been useful in economics, for instance, where it has been possible to develop successful theories by assuming a commensurability of values, expressed in terms of financial gains and losses.
In certain types of games - those most closely approximating reality - seeking the greatest gain turns out not to be the best strategy. Both agents gain more by adopting a strategy of aiming for restricted gains, contenting themselves with less in order to avoid greater losses. Such is the strategy adopted by politicians when they wish to avoid provoking a sharp reaction from an enemy who has suffered losses (when nations and states are involved, the reaction may be delayed by decades.)
Conflicts involving rivalry are often resolved by compromise, where each side gains something, albeit less than it initially hoped for.
We know that trade and war are activities that involve different ways
of winning. Wars are often fought on the principle that one side's loss
is the other side's gain. The same principle may at first glance appear
to apply to trade; trade as a longterm activity, however, is only possible
where the buyer and the seller are bound by trust, by a belief that a solution
exists that will be advantageous to both, and whereby both will gain. Rivalry
tends rather to arise between different sellers, but even here cooperation
may exist alongside antagonism. Game theory has formulated a precise definition
of the difference between total and partial antagonism. An extreme case
- that of total antagonism - is the "zero sum game", where any gain for
A represents an equivalent loss for B.
The zero sum game represents a simplified situation deprived of its context. In reality, total antagonism on both sides of a conflict over a given matter tends to coexist with less antagonistic relations in other matters. For a situation to be unequivocally one of total antagonism it must be taken out of context, and certain limitations must be imposed on the real events. In elections to a given post, each vote in favor of candidate A may be seen as A's gain and B's loss. That is a case of total antagonism. But even here, areas of agreement between A and B can be found: both may agree, for instance, that it is in their interests to observe the rules of the election campaign. Zero sum games are often games in a more restricted sense of the word, like chess. But even here there is room for cooperation and the avoidance of conflict: both agents wish to observe the rules and to treat the game seriously.
Conflicts, then, often coexist with cooperation and those who wish to limit and appease conflicts appeal to that fact. As Florian Znaniecki wrote, "active group conflicts can be successfully prevented only by active group cooperation."(3)
Zero-sum games tend to occur less frequently in reality than in imagination and ideologies: people claim that a given conflict is a zero sum game, with one side's losses being the other side's gains, and that the two sides have no interests in common. Such a conviction of total antagonism can often be found in the ideologies of underprivileged groups, while privileged groups tend to believe that conflict is only partial. The Marxist conception of class struggle was often formulated as an ideological image in which social conflicts were presented as zero-sum games. National ideologies, especially in the Third World, were similar, stressing the absence of common interests between colonizers and the colonized, the wealthy center and the exploited periphery. A conviction that an antagonism is deep is a strong spur to action and an important element of reality. Such a conviction is even more important if it prevails among those who are in a position to influence events, and thus particularly among political leaders and those who shape public opinion.
Sides in a Conflict
A factor which further complicates the simple image of conflicts is the environment in which they take place. Real conflicts, as they evolve, are generally influenced by the participation of a greater number of actors who might previously have been ignored but must now be taken into account. Increasing the number of participants in a conflict is frequently a conscious strategy: the weaker side may try to involve a greater number of participants, if only because taking their existence into account will limit the choice of actions available to the stronger side. That strategy plays an important role in international conflicts. Appeals to public opinion abroad and claims that the enemy has failed to observe internationally accepted rules are instances of that strategy. The outside world is appealed to as witness, judge and policeman; its task is to decide who is guilty, pronounce judgment, and restore order.
Thus conflicts, particularly those involving nations, are rarely limited to two sides, and the sides involved are rarely homogeneous. Let us notice that in considering strategies in conflict we formulate certain propositions - for instance, that it is easier to win when the enemy can be divided and when a part of the external world can be won over to our cause.
When many different participants are involved in a given situation, each of them may be faced with a choice: with whom to form a coalition and with whom to enter in conflict. States, nations, and political parties face such a choice. Hubert Blalock has arrived at a number of propositions about mediating minorities, in particular those who mediated between the peasants and the elite in matters of trade, money lending and tax collection. It turns out that the elite is more likely to ally itself with the mediating minority in times of peace and plenty; at times of tension and unrest it tends rather to ally itself with the masses, and the mediating minority becomes a scapegoat.(4)
The crises which shook empires after the World War I are an example of how the resources of an initially stronger side may be weakened. Political and national movements already in existence have been able to exploit the weakness of formerly strong states and the dominant nations in those states.
Functions and Future of Conflicts
Conflicts between nations as collectivities united by common culture
will probably last as long as nations in this sense continue to exist,
and as long as the map of such nations is different from the map of states;
and it is hard to imagine how dreams of a world where ethnic and state
territories are identical could be even approximately fulfilled without
recourse to totalitarian methods.
Sharp conflicts between nations are often struggles for cultural, educational and political autonomy waged by national movements and national elites. What is at issue is the creation of an independent state, and in particular, as Ernest Gellner has described,(8) the state's ability to choose its official language and control its education. Many of today's states and nations have been shaped by such struggles. The elites of national movements have tried to carve smaller entities out of multi-national states, entities in which their own nation would dominate and be able to impose the official language. The states which have arisen in this way may not be homogeneous in their national composition, but they are more homogeneous than, say, Austro-Hungary or Turkey before the World War I. If we look at the matter from the point of view of underprivileged nations, we see that conflicts between nations as cultural entities arise from a tendency to correct injustice, obtain rights which are due, and alter the rules of the political game so that its outcome is favorable to the deprived nation.
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