Issac Asimov's Foundation series has as a central element the social scientific discipline of pyschohistory, a mathematically refined applied sociology that allowed its practitioners to manipulate the course of human history. Psychohistory was a sort of Illuminati for nerds. Frank Herbert employed a similar device with his Bene Geserit religious order, in which an organized group of mystically and scientifically trained women used genetics and cultural manipulation to shape history's course.
Could Psychohistory Be Possible?
Is pyschohistory possible? And, if so how?
Humanity, or at least its intelligentsia, has probably never been more self-aware than it is today. While both academic and popular non-fiction is full of sterile and useless dreck, there are also an abundance of deeply insightful examinations of what makes us tick as individuals, in social situations, in groups, in large organizations, as nations, and at the level of broad world and cultural movements. We have looked at history with rigor and scientific care. Genetic advances have informed and explained our previous understandings of individual human behavior.
Serious efforts have been made to apply the what we think we know about economics and psychology, although the social scientific knowledge applied to policy is often outdated or a crude misunderstanding of the current state of these disciplines. Sociology and government have been less successful in this regard. But this doesn't seem to be for want of material. Sociologists and political scientists are often quite adept at explaining why things that happen occur, and what is going on in the ponderous organizations and intellectual movements that shape our world.
Suppose one could distill this knowledge, and more importantly, find a way to apply it. Suppose one could find a large enough lever and a place to stand.
Could one, for example, head off China's budding imperialist tendencies and set it on a more internationalist course? Could one turn the American evangelical Christian movement into a force for positive social change instead of a force for propagating hate? Could one engineer a sudden rise in secularism, or a modern movement similar to the Protestant reformation within Islam to blunt the threat of Islamic fundamentalism? Could one craft a sense of community sufficient to build sufficient political support to implement universal health care? Could one crystallize a social movement that would modernize Africa from within in a genuinely authentic African fashion? Could one redesign the process by which we handle failing marriages that would better discrimination between marriages which should be saved and those which should not be saved, and make the experience less traumatic for all involved? Are there fundamental principals by social change occurs that could provide an underlying basis for accomplishing all of these ambitious tasks, each of which amounts of many life works alone?
Movement Politics Matters
History is full of social movements that came seemingly out of nowhere and changed whole societies. Almost every major religion and major religious sect has at its root such a powerful formative movement initiated by a small number of people. The New Deal in American history, was more than just one President's agenda, it encompassed a widespread fundamental rethinking at the grass roots level about the appropriate place of government in society and made the FDR's Democratic party the dominant force in American politics for a couple of decades. We forgot about the power of movement politics, of politics directed at securing a change in grass roots opinion for a while, but the civil rights movement, the cultural revolutions of the 1960s that followed the model of the civil rights movement, and the Christian right counter-revolution that followed in the 1980s (as well as the counter-counter revolution of the gay rights movement) have reminded us of the importance of social movements.
The cynical narrow minded politics of short term coalition building is at a loss to convincingly explain how the franchise was expanded voluntarily from a small white male landed gentry to almost the entire adult population, or why absolute monarchs and dictators voluntarily relinquish their powers. Yet, the former has been the big picture story of the last two centuries, and the latter has happened three times this spring alone and scores of times in the last decade. Similarly, a narrow view of politics is incapable of explaining why post-WWI Germany, with the most modern and democratic constitution in Europe cast aside those institutions in favor of a dictator.
Simply acknowledging the existence and importance of overarching social and political movements that transform history, however, is a far cry from explaining how they come about and whether they can be consciously and intentionally put in motion. Historians are forever split between the view that great men (and sometimes great women) shape the eras that they live in, and the view that broad inevitable social forces drive history with individuals notable in those movements serving as mere figureheads and local color in the inexorable tide of progress.
Where Does Massive Social and Political Change Come From?
Those who attribute broad historical movements to small, self-aware groups acting secretly with Machiavellian calculation are usually dismissed as conspiracy theorists forcing implausible interpretations upon the historical record in ways that overstate the importance of minor players in the historical saga. Even in movement politics, where credit does not always go to people holding formal positions of political power, history tends to assign credit and blame to the formal leaders of the organizations in civic society that led those social movements. We revere and acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, despite the fact that neither man ever held public office, mostly because the organizations that each man led were instrumental in bringing about the social movements these men are revered for leading.
Many transformative social movements can be explained through the efforts of a small number of civic organizations with dynamic leaders. Solidarity and the Catholic Church in Cold War Poland. Several groups, including the YMCA, in South Korea's resistance to Japanese occupation and movement towards more democratic government. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the anti-Vietnam war movement. ACT UP in the early 1980s gay rights movement. The early Christian church with its four Latin doctors. The list could go on and on and on.
But not all dramatic social transformations are associated charismatic leaders of non-governmental organizations. The Soviet Union, seemingly, collapsed of its own weight by informal general consensus, in the absence of any really organized effort to bring it down. The feminism and sexual revolution that so deeply transformed America in the 1960s was considerably less formally organized than the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement. Yes, there was the National Organization for Women, but it was hardly as central to the changes that took place as the NAACP was in the civil rights movement, for example. And, the existence of organizations at the vanguard of these various social movements still doesn't solve the chicken and egg question of why these particular movements thrived at particular moments in history.
Some social movements, both environmentalism and feminism in the 1960s, for example, seems to have been triggered as much by well written books released at just the right time, as by organizational efforts.
Not Everything Is Possible
Asmiov's psychohistorians had their limits. They could not prevent the galactic empire from falling. They merely strove to limit the dark ages that followed to 1,000 years, instead of 10,000 years.
One suspects that any group of people aspiring to change the course of history would likewise have limits. One might nudge religious sentiment in a more conservative or liberal direction, for example, but no amount of manipulation is capable of causing the majority of the American people to become Amish. It might so happen that consensus on universal health care is impossible until there is wider agreement on immigration, even though the two issues might not seem on the surface to be directly related -- the early adopters of universal health care system with ethnically homogeneous low immigration societies. Some political forces that seem powerful today, like those backing a strong unitary executive with broad powers to torture, spy and ignore Congress, might collapse in a manner not unlike the Soviet Union with the departure of a handful of politically adept and well placed individuals like Vice President Cheney, a few Senators, and a few influential federal appellate judges.
The Importance of Timing
The hard sciences bear witness to the notion that breakthrough ideas sometimes don't bear fruit until their time has come. The scientific basis for radar stealth in aircraft design, and the seminal works in fractals and chaotic dynamics were both produced decades before they gained relevancy. Scientific proof that the world was round existed for more than a millennium and a half before Columbus was able to apply that theory by sailing across the Atlantic. The craftsmanship and practical knowledge of kite design necessary to make hang gliders existed for centuries before someone woke up to the notion that human flight could learn more from kites than imitating birds and bugs with flapping wings. Jules Verne described the submarine and manned missions to the moon long before we had the ability to carry out those technological tasks.
On the other hand, when the time is ripe, ideas like Darwin's theory of evolution can catch on like wildfire and forever change how large portions of educated society views the world.
Social movements are probably similar. It took a century of feminist writing and seemingly futile efforts by suffragettes, before women got the vote, and the Married Women's Property Acts gave women formal economic rights a century before a large percentage of women started to enter the work force on anything approximating an equal basis with men. It took a century of emancipation for the civil rights movement to really take hold.
Not all movements take such a long time to gather speed, however. It had never occurred to me until well into high school that homosexuality was anything other than a character flaw or conscious social choice to be unmanly because one was inadequate in manly virtues, despite the fact that I grew up in a college town. One of the very liberal justice of the U.S. Supreme Court around the same time took it as obvious in a key opinion that homosexual acts were abominable and well within the province of government to forbid. A few decades later, that Justice regretted his opinion and our understanding of homosexuality as something that is legitimate and in many ways less socially constructed than racial identity has completely supplanted the older view among decent intelligent people.
The different time lines may have little or nothing to do with the merits of the leaders of the respective movements. Many of the prominent early supporters of women's suffrage and equal rights, and of racial equality, were formidable and charismatic individuals who had wide followings of equally committed and well organized movement members. Indeed, it might be the case that the reason that the women's rights and civil rights movements achieved significant formal legal success long before those legal achievements had their full measure of practical impact on daily life, is because this formidable individuals were able to win over politically influential people to their cause even though the general public was not yet ready to accept their ideas.
The Impact of Technology
Another factor may be technological. Mass communications, and more recently, the Internet, have been instrumental in all modern social movements. Histories of the civil rights movements are replete with references to the importance of television coverage to changing the hearts and minds of average people about the justice of Jim Crow laws in the South and the righteousness of the Vietnam War by bringing compelling images of each to their living rooms. Video clips have emotional power that no amount of prose can match.
The L.A. riots arose more or less spontaneously and without central organization, as a result of visceral emotional reactions to the way a jury ruled in the face of unambiguous videotaped evidence of racially biased police brutality. Nixon fell from public grace in part because the way he communicated his protests of innocence on television put the lie to his words. FDR's fireside chats, on national radio, marks the very first really effective use of mass media to change the hearts and minds of people across the nation, and helps explain how he mobilized the change in political sentiment that made the New Deal possible. The most recent Rwandan genocide was incited and coordinated by the African equivalent of conservative talk radio shock jocks.
Before the advent of mass communications, intellectual movements were geographically discrete when they began. Much of our inheritance from the classical Greeks we owe to Athens alone. The Roman Catholic Church's seminal steps in its evolution took place in the small early Christian community in the Roman empire's capitol city, starting half a century or more after its namesake's purported death and resurrection when anyone who could have been an eyewitness was dead. The Renaissance started out as a Northern Italian phenomena, then passed the torch to the Dutch. Calvin transformed Geneva before Calvinism spread across Europe. There would have been no French revolution without the ferment of unrest that brewed in Paris. Boston and Philadelphia were flash points of the American revolution. Even Einstein would probably not have been able to make his twin contributions to general relativity and quantum mechanics had talk of both fields not been circulating in the patent office where he worked.
Now, social movements can arise globally in a matter of days or weeks.
On the other hand, neither television nor radio are quite as potent political forces as they used to be in the United States. The current generation filters the information it receives more skeptically than the first generations to encounter mass media. Cable television, satellite TV, iTunes, DVD rentals, CD sales and Internet media channels broken up our society into countless media niches that are buffered from each other, in contrast to earlier days when a small number of television networks and a common musical top 40 vocabulary dominated the airwaves. Current events, like 9-11, can briefly unite the nation's attention, but even then, the spin that comes with these events quickly diverges in different niches. Far more of us have our ten minutes of fame than used to be the case, but fewer people are watching all but the most famous of us.
This isn't to say that some sociological equivalent to fate exists. Almost all of the fiction writers who have imagined some manner of psychohistorians (and this post is hardly a comprehensive listing of them) have adopted a turning point view of history, in which societies make pivotal choices about their futures that have widely divergent consequences, in narrow windows of time and place, sometimes obviously important, but at other times in decisions whose importance was not at all clear at the time.
Almost everyone recognizes that the decisions made on the eve of and in the wake of the American Civil War had profound implications and involved real choices between widely divergent possible outcomes. But probably relatively few people at the time realized what a long term impact the division of Latin American between the Portuguese and the Spanish, or the various treaties that resulted in the acquisition by the United States of most of its land area (or similar treaties in the wake of World War I in areas outside Europe) would have on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The people negotiating these arrangements were certainly aware of the comparatively modest but important short term stakes of their decisions. But they probably didn't realize how irreversibly they would shape the long term cultural geography of the world. Probably few people at the time realized how much of a long term impact formative line drawing decisions between the Air Force and the Army, and early hiring decisions in the CIA and FBI would have on how those institutions evolved.
What is the bottom line for practical, would be psychohistorians?
1. A key element of any strategy for intentional social change is to identify turning points in history and to comprehend the long term implications of the choices that can be made at those points in history. One must know when the time is ripe and what is within the realm of the possible in those extraordinary moments.
a. First in time decisions made in any institution or social arrangements that ultimately become important often have profound long term consequences hard to judge at the time when the immediate stakes are small.
b. Decisions made in connection with wars and their aftermath also often have profound impacts.
c. Well timed social movements with charismatic leaders can bring about major social change even in the absence of formative decision making opportunities and immediate and direct connections to war making, but ill timed social movements often secure formal legal change without practically changing real life circumstances a great deal.
d. Out of step systems often collapse when their handful of powerful sponsors lose power.
2. At critical moments in history the most common triggers for change (sometimes in combination) seem to be:
a. civic organizations with charismatic social leaders,
b. well timed and well expressed sentiments in books (fictional or non-fictional -- the modern American anti-nuclear power movement and the reinvigoration of the KKK in the 1920s are both widely attributable to the timing of fiction released at the time),
c. the composition of often low profile groups of people, often political committees ad hoc or otherwise, tasked with making important but mundane decisions at a critical juncture.
d. the death or removal from office of key individuals who are barriers to change.
The most effective agent of change appears to be closely linked to the reason that a moment is a turning point in history.
3. Communications technology greatly impacts the pace and the diffusion of social change.