“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

by Carl Dyke

I’ve been thinking about democracy lately as one of a collection of strategies for managing complexity. The proximal stimuli are the recent American elections and their associated issues; the Eurozone ‘crisis’; and the Italian elections just now concluded. The immediate stimuli are an application I just wrote for a really interesting NEH summer seminar in Rome, titled “Italy in the Age of the Risorgimento – New Perspectives,” and a discussion of “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber.

Let’s stick with Italian politics. I’ve personally been following them more or less closely since the early 70s, when I was in Italian public school. The chronicle of this period is quite rich and contested, with the movement of the Communist Party into play for inclusion in the government (the ‘historic compromise’), right-wing paramilitary backlash sometimes called the ‘strategy of tension’, left-wing student and paramilitary activism, and in general lots of splashy violence, all of it collected under the rubric of the ‘years of lead’. This was clearly a period of crisis, although I must admit that it was not much visible in the lives of the kids I was hanging out with.

When I went back to Italy for a semester as an undergrad, Dyke the Elder plotted my political education by giving me the task of keeping a journal of the Italian press from left to center to right. Every day I would go to the newsstand and buy at least three papers, most commonly “Avanti!” and/or “il manifesto,” “Rinascita,” and “Il Secolo d’Italia.” Two things struck me at the time and have stayed with me since. The first was that having this range of explicitly partisan press in easy newsstand juxtaposition did a lot to discipline all sides’ relationship to ‘the facts’, so it was possible to get a pretty reliable skinny of events from any of the papers, accompanied with explicitly polemical analysis. The second was that Italian politics were again in crisis, this time most prominently over NATO and the placement of nuclear missiles on Italian soil, and the movement of the Socialist Party under Bettino Craxi into a position of leadership; according to many, at the expense of anything still resembling socialist principles. I could always get a good political tirade with my coffee, Totocalcio and groceries, but life went on.

When I was in Rome for my dissertation research Italian politics were in crisis over the collapse and fragmentation of the Communist party. More recently of course Berlusconi and the populist/nativist Northern League created a new state of permanent crisis, the media-savvy prime minister presiding over a circus-like political spectacle nicely foreshadowed by the notorious Cicciolina. At this point the common, and often at least half-accurate, perception of Italians that their politicians are a pack of grossly incompetent clowns who somehow also manage to enrich themselves with ruthless efficiency at public expense became the near-explicit basis of government; Berlusconi’s point being essentially that if it’s going to happen anyway, you might as well at least get some entertainment and vicarious wish-fulfillment out of it. That this shameless affrontery made enough sense to enough people to keep him in power for as long as it did (and maybe again now, even after his ‘ultimate’ disgrace less than two years ago) says something important, I think, about what sorts of functions Italians outside the talking classes take politics to perform. That more morally rigorous aspirations have been consistently damped and absorbed through succeeding regimes (see, e.g., Machiavelli, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Crispi, Turati, Gentile, Togliatti, Berlinguer, Pertini, Craxi, ‘mani pulite’ and the Second Republic) says something more. Grillo is unlikely to be a game-changer in this arrangement, but he’s the usual sort of fun intervention.

During most of this time I was also becoming a historian, which involved learning about all the ways Italian politics had been in crisis since the Risorgimento, which itself effectively created a national overlay for the regional and factional crises that had been going on since at least the Renaissance. In short, if you want to you can construct an account of Italian politics in permanent crisis for at least 500 years; although as we can see by my own short experience, the details vary quite a bit from time to time. And of course it’s self-evidently silly to call a dynamic that persistent a crisis, so it helps that the social history of Italy can be told as an account of long stretches of relative stability, relatively untroubled by the frantic political sideshows. I would now say ‘metastability’, however, since ‘the same’ outcomes kept being produced by ‘different’ means, hence the Lampedusa quote in the title. That is the story I now find the most fascinating.

To put my thesis bluntly, no one has ever gotten what they wanted out of Italian politics unless what they wanted was what they could get. I’d recommend that as a general orienting hypothesis about a lot of things, for example Iraq, Iran, Arizona, Russia, China, Baltimore, Britney Spears, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and women’s rights. What is the possibility space? How are agents built, e.g. constrained and enabled, in relation to the possibility space? What can we read back about possibility from how agents act? It seems to me that our analytical contrasts are severely distorted by the notion that intentions are a special kind of cause exempt from all the formation and interaction dynamics of complex systems. Let’s see if we can do better than Feuerbachian pseudo-theologies of empowerment, flattering though they may be. In any case, here’s how I put it in my NEH application, in pertinent part:

I’m assuming I’ll learn lots of new things and reconfigure some old ones, so any plan of study is necessarily speculative. But going in, I imagine it would be interesting to think forward from Gramsci’s contested analysis of the Risorgimento as a ‘passive revolution’ driven from above by elites, and connect that with recent developments in complex systems analysis. I’m thinking, for example, of Terry Deacon’s contrast between dynamical systems and self-organizing systems in Incomplete Nature. Just to gesture at that here, it seems to me that there’s only so much an active/passive agency analysis and abstractions like ‘modernity’, ‘capitalism’, ‘the state’, and so on can tell us about nation-forming and -forcing processes. At this point we could be looking for the kinds of emergent, self-organizing poly- or para-intentional actor networks and assemblages Gramsci was starting to notice and trying to reconcile with the structure/agency constraints of the Marxist revolutionary project and conceptual vocabulary. I guess if I were to frame this polemically I might say something about getting out of the agency metanarrative without falling through its structuralist or post-structuralist looking-glasses, but that all seems a little tired now and I’m much more interested in theories as hypotheses for figuring out what was going on and how it was going on, at various scales.

Getting down to cases and figuring stuff out is what my teaching is about at this point. So I would want to translate what I learn about the Risorgimento and its transnational linkages back to my classes in World History and Modern Europe both as content and as a model of how to do good analysis; and then extend those practices to other cases. For example, perhaps to look at trasformismo in comparison to other self-organizing, quasi-political strategies to manage the intractable complexities of modernization; or to investigate in my “Gender and History” class how the particular gender formations of modern Italy evolved around and through the opportunities and constraints created by the ‘fare Italiani’ project in its local, regional, national, and transnational contexts.

I’m out on so many limbs here I have to hope they weave together into something that will support a little weight. But I really like the idea of taking the stuff we’ve all been thinking about here at DV for quite awhile and focusing it on a notoriously hairy case study. Maybe the hair is inherent.

Which brings me to “Post-Democracy in Italy and Europe” at Crooked Timber. I haven’t read the book by Colin Crouch that’s under discussion, but it seems to me that to call the advanced industrialized countries ‘post-democratic’ they’d have had to once be democratic and now not be. And at least in the Italian case I’ve just sketched out, I’m not sure anything like that sort of categorical delimitation of the discussion can do anything but confuse us. Italy right now is more or less just as democratic as it’s been at least since the Risorgimento and arguably since the Renaissance, which is to say, not at all if we mean by democracy a formal system in which popular votes lead directly to explicit policy outcomes and intentional transformations of collective life; and amply, if what we mean by democracy is one domain of self-organizing dynamical systems – like markets, patronage networks, trade complexes, families, fashion – that take unmanageably complex inputs and constrain them into orderly outputs. And we can notice that while each of these systems creates means for human intentions to be effective, they do so by radically constraining what humans are able to effectively intend, in relation to more comprehensive systems that work the same way. Freedom is the recognition of necessity after all.


15 Comments to ““If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.””

  1. Note to self. What’s the problem with Gramsci’s ‘passive revolution’ argument? That he thought the masses were passive, and the elites were active. Neither is strictly true, and neither is entirely false. Activity/passivity is rhetorically powerful, but the wrong frame for understanding any of it.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating project. I am looking forward to hearing about what you learn. For the moment, though you may already be aware of this, I will only mention Padgett, J. F. and Ansell, C.K., Robust action and the rise of the Medici, 1400-1434, Am. J. Sociol. 98, 1259-1319 (1993). The data used this article have become a ubiquitous example in introductions to network analysis.

  3. Thanks JM, I’ll check it out.

  4. It will be really interesting to hear from someone who knows the history.

  5. Well, I’m going to be honest. I know that particular history like I know my second cousin. So I have some rough context, some plausibility screens. But that’s the boat we’re all in once we bust out of the expertise silos. And how’s that for a load of mixed metaphors.

  6. I found a pdf of that article online here. I’ll read it along with the other three things people I really like want me to read, before the other five things people I have to pay attention to want me to read, and after the fifty things my students don’t actually want me to read.

  7. From the abstract, a nice point: “Ambiguity and heterogeneity, not planning and self-interest, are the raw materials of which powerful states and persons are constructed.” And shortly after, “Control is when others’ locked-in interactions generate a flow of collective behavior that just happens to serve one’s interests.” I think Machiavelli would both agree and disagree. Ha.

  8. “The seminar includes guest lectures, a program of gallery and museum visits, guided city walks, and the screening of movies”

    Sounds like tough duty man.

  9. These NEH gigs are pretty sweet, it’s true. But since the whole idea is to get us up to the state of the art and well into a research project in a few weeks, it’s not exactly a cakewalk. Although that part is fun too, for our kind of geek.

  10. To roll out a battering ram in the age of the drone: we’ve talked before about the Italians understanding only feudal organization, hence the peculiar configurations of their various essays into democracy. While simplistic, that sticks with me as fundamental. For example, it defines a sort of Deaconian “uphill” and “downhill”: what takes work, and what simply relaxes into place. La roba; defendere la rete inviolata; etc. That may be a way to look at active/passive.

  11. Another critical moment in my political education was an observation you tossed off while the Abscam ‘corruption’ story or something like it was breaking. Some Jersey pol got stung on camera peddling influence. But the feds got it all wrong, you said. They kept offering him the briefcase of money and he kept refusing it. “No no no, there’s no need for that, we’re just taking care of business here.” Finally just to be polite and move the conversation along he takes the money and they nail him. Two entirely different concepts of how things work. From his perspective he wasn’t peddling influence, he was networking it to get things that needed doing done.

  12. Updating, I got the word today that I wasn’t selected for this. Disappointing, but also a relief because now we won’t have to figure out what to do about the cats for 5 weeks.

  13. Damn, damn, damn. But, yes, about the cats. When we had four, finding cat sitters was a huge, huge problem.

  14. Pity about the grant, but an interesting thread. I too love that Padgett article, a real glimpse of possibilities and a network analysis that almost any historian could understand. As to this:

    And we can notice that while each of these systems creates means for human intentions to be effective, they do so by radically constraining what humans are able to effectively intend, in relation to more comprehensive systems that work the same way.

    there’s a stanza from a song that seems appropriate:

    “… and the presidential candidate
    Is inviting you to play
    He’s got promises and systems
    And he says you’ve got it made
    But no matter how you play
    You always cut the Ace of Spades
    And if you’re being realistic
    You can’t hope for any more
    ‘Cause we delegate control
    Upon the hands that we can draw.”

    (Nick Saloman and friends, `Reformation Blues‘, from Acid Jam II (Woronzow 2000).)

    Keeping it happy! Yours,

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