Category Archives: civic theory

new chapter on Elinor Ostrom and Civic Studies

A newly published volume: Ostrom’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Public Policy of Elinor C. Ostrom, edited by Paul Dragos Aligica, Peter J. Boettke, and Roberta Q. Herzberg.

I contribute a chapter entitled “’What Should We Do?’ The Bloomington School and the Citizen’s Core Question.”

I argue that Elinor Ostrom’s thought offers powerful resources for people who see themselves as active members of communities (“citizens”). I discuss her emphasis on means, not ends; her vantage point as a citizen, not a state; how she deals with value questions in policy; and her work as a complement to deliberative theory and non-violent social movement theory (Habermas and Gandhi).

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 by Ramachandra Guha

Guha’s biography is the essential work on Gandhi: much more detailed, better researched, and more persuasive than the earlier biographies that I know of. Volume Two, focusing on India, is 1,104 pages long but moves at a brisk pace. It’s detailed but never ponderous. The story is often suspenseful, even if you know how it will turn out in broad outlines. For example, just when all seems lost, Gandhi suddenly pulls off the Salt March. And the end of his life has the inexorability of a classical tragedy.

Guha generally proceeds chronologically, but now and then he pauses for an essay on a special topic, such as “Gandhi’s personal faith, his personal morality, as expressed in his words and actions in this decade of the 1920s.” The narrative is enlivened by numerous quotations from original documents, many never printed before. Along with Gandhi’s voice, we hear an amazing range of human beings who interacted with him or commented on him in one way or another, from Black American pastors to anarchists to the advertisers who used his silhouette as a brand.

One of the larger themes that emerged for me was Gandhi as polemicist. The Mahatma relished arguments, even though some of his opponents alienated and infuriated him. You could summarize his thought by capturing his long-lived debates with a few key rivals, especially B.R. Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But he also sparred with many others.

For instance, I love to think of Margaret Sanger, the sex educator and popularizer of the phrase “birth control,” staying in Gandhi’s ashram and arguing with the celibate old man about first-wave feminism:

‘both seemed to be agreed that woman should be emancipated, that woman should be the arbiter of her destiny’. But whereas Mrs Sanger believed that contraceptives were the safest route to emancipation, Gandhi argued that women should resist their husbands, while men for their part should seek to curb ‘animal passion’. (p. 585)

Sanger was just one of scores of such visitors.

Guha is even-handed, judicious, and open-minded. Only at the end, in an epilogue on contemporary interpretations of Gandhi, does he emerge as a defender of his subject. By then, Guha has explored many flaws, errors, and vices, but he insists that Gandhi was far more complex and responsive than some of his critics have been. For instance:

[Arundhati Roy] presented Gandhi as a thoroughgoing apologist for caste, further arguing that this was in line with his views on race. Gandhi, she suggested, was casteist in India because he had been racist in South Africa. Roy claimed that Gandhi ‘feared and despised Africans’; this he certainly did in his twenties, but just as certainly did not in his forties and fifties. Reading Roy, one would not know that Gandhi decisively outgrew the racism of his youth, a fact that people of colour themselves acknowledged, and appreciated. … Roy has all of Ambedkar’s polemical zeal but none of his scholarship or sociological insight. … [She seeks] —by the technique of suppressio veri, suggestio falsi so beloved of ideologues down the ages—to prove a verdict they have arrived at beforehand.” (p. 876)

In contrast, Guha situates Gandhi in his time and cultural context, appreciates the Mahatma’s critics and opponents, explores his flaws and limitations (and occasional weirdness) at length, and paints a real-life portrait–which thereby emerges as a portrait of greatness.

Guha, Ramachandra. Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. See also: the question of sacrifice in politics (on Gandhi and Ambedkar); Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends; Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends; and notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King

Garret Hardin and the extreme right

Garret Hardin’s 1968 Science article entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons” has been cited more than 40,000 times. It is appropriately influential, since the problem he analyzed is pervasive and profound. The example of global warming could kill us all, as could the example with which he began his article: the nuclear arms race.

Hardin saw ubiquitous “tragedies,” situations defined by the “solemnity of the relentless working of things,” “the inevitableness of destiny,” and “the futility of escape” (quoting Alfred North Whitehead). That stance provoked Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues to identify solutions. In place of the tragedy of the commons, Ostrom observed a drama that may end as either a comedy or a tragedy, depending on how we act. I find her response to Hardin extraordinarily important.

Several recent articles have explored Hardin’s apparent connection to radical anti-immigration campaigns. These articles have been prompted by the El Paso murderer’s writings (which have environmentalist echoes) plus the recent death of John Tanton, the founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Tanton was inspired by Hardin, who served on the FAIR board. See, for example, Matto Mildenberger, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons (subtitled: “The man who wrote one of environmentalism’s most-cited essays was a racist, eugenicist, nativist and Islamaphobe—plus his argument was wrong”) and Alexander C. Kaufman, “The El Paso Manifesto: Where Racism and Eco-Facism Meet.”

I don’t have extra insights into Hardin and have not directly evaluated the charges in these articles. But I have long wondered about the strange normative claims in the “Tragedy of the Commons” article.

For instance, at one point, Hardin considers whether a system of private property plus legal inheritance is just. He answers that it is not, because “legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more.” Instead, in our system, “an idiot can inherit millions,” which we “must admit” is unjust, although it does help to prevent a tragedy of the commons by protecting property rights (p. 1247).

Hardin says that this conclusion about justice follows from his training as a biologist. But biology cannot demonstrate that the biologically fittest deserve the most property. Biology should not yield normative conclusions at all. From the perspective of science–the study of nature–there is no justice, not even a reason to prefer environmental sustainability over a tragedy of the commons.

One reason that some people try to derive ethics from biology is naturalism: they posit that there can be no truths about right and wrong, only truths about nature that science uncovers. Therefore, we should replace any ethical claims with scientific ones. In my view, this is misguided, but it isn’t necessarily pernicious; plenty of people who hold decent values are naturalists, in this sense of the word.

A different reason is some kind of enthusiasm for Darwinian nature, understood as a realm of power and selection-of-the-fittest, in contrast to our debased societies that coddle the weak. This is not naturalism but evil. Reading “The Tragedy of the Commons” many times, I always assumed that Hardin was a naturalist, but now I wonder if he was at least tinged by evil.

See also: Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”; against inevitability; is all truth scientific truth?; and does naturalism make room for the humanities?.

Gandhi versus Jinnah on means and ends

(Posted while leading the 11th annual Summer Institute of Civic Studies, on questions like this one.)

A major theme in Gandhi’s thought it the primacy of means over ends.

In 1924, some Indian political leaders proposed the immediate creation of a new, independent “Federated Republic of the United States of India.” They argued that this end justified a wide range of strategies. They wanted to “delete the words ‘by peaceful and legitimate means’ from the Congress creed, so that men holding every shade of opinion may have no difficulty in joining” the independence struggle. That would have expanded the range of means employed to achieve the goal of home-rule.

Gandhi replied, “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.” The “only universal definition to give it is ‘that status of India which her people desire at a given moment.’ If I were asked what India desires at the present moment, I should say I do not know.” For Gandhi, the means used to pursue swaraj (independence in its deepest sense) had to be good ones. “As the means so the end. Violent means will give violent swaraj. That would be a menace to the world and to India herself.”  

Drawing on Karuna Mantena, I would suggest the following Gandhian reasons to focus on means rather than ends. Human beings are cognitively limited and cannot see justice far beyond our own present circumstances. Human beings are motivationally flawed and highly susceptible to various distorting and destructive impulses. Therefore, we must choose modes of politics that channel our impulses in beneficial rather than harmful directions. Forming too sharp a definition of justice (or any of its components, such as national sovereignty) can simply excuse bad behavior. Consequences are always difficult to predict and control, and trying to pursue elaborate ends is foolish. We disagree, and what we decide about justice right now is contingent on how we are organized, so it is crucial to get the organization right. Finally, how we participate in politics helps to constitute the world. By acting, we don’t merely bring about a result (usually an unpredictable one); we immediately create a new reality just in virtue of our action.

A focus on means and a reluctance to specify ends does, however, pose a risk. A person might (whether intentionally or inadvertently) select and defend means that generate a foreseeable outcome or that foreclose the outcome that others prefer. That could be a back-door strategy for getting the ends that the person wanted in the first place. To claim that you are too humble and aware of your own limits to know the best goals is disingenuous if it’s clear what ends your favored means will lead to.

This was essentially Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s quarrel with Gandhi. Gandhi insisted that the social movement for Indian independence must involve close collaborations among Hindus, Muslims and adherents of other faiths. Immediately after saying that he did not know what India wanted, he added that he only endorsed a few values, including “truthful relations between Hindus and Mussalmans.” (“Truthful,” for him, would imply a close, sincere, and interactive relationship.) For Gandhi, the means of political action in India must incorporate interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

Although Gandhi insisted that “Congress leaves swaraj undefined,” Jinnah could see that if Hindus and Muslims won independence together, they would found a democracy with a large Hindu majority. This new country might be secular, or it might be Hindu-dominated, but it couldn’t be an Islamic republic–simply because of demographics. Jinnah identified the Congress as a Hindu organization and created the Muslim League as an alternative. He objected when Congress tried to place its Muslim President, Maulana Azad, in the provisional cabinet for British India, arguing that the Muslim League should name all Muslim members. After Gandhi’s assassination, Jinnah eulogized him as “one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community and a leader who commanded their [sic] universal confidence and respect.” Jinnah regretted Gandhi’s death “so soon after the birth of freedom for Hindustan [his term for India] and Pakistan.” Thus, although Gandhi claimed that “means are after all everything,” Jinnah saw that Gandhi’s means would prevent Jinnah’s goal, a sovereign Pakistan. And he charged Gandhi with having an implicit goal of his own: the creation of a “Hindustan.”

The broader, theoretical question is how to think about means and ends when sometimes the means that we choose for good intrinsic reasons have foreseeable ends that are subject to debate. Yet, if we propose a clear vision of our goal, how can we know that it is right, and who gets to evaluate it? Surely, that requires a process that is not simply designed to yield a given outcome.

For what it’s worth, this is my verdict on the case at hand. Gandhi joined and then led an interfaith party for swaraj that encouraged debates about both means and goals. Jinnah was a member of that party, albeit mostly before Gandhi’s arrival from South Africa. Jinnah and others had the right to quit the party and movement. Exit is a legitimate choice in movements and party politics. As a result of Jinnah’s exit, Gandhi’s means failed: Congress ceased to be a forum for dialogue and cooperation that included the kinds of people who preferred the Muslim League. But Gandhi’s failure doesn’t invalidate his general advice to focus on means rather than specific ends.

Drawing here on Karuna Mantena, “Another Realism, the Politics of Gandhian Nonviolence,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012) and various original passages from Gandhi’s works that Mantena’s article led me to. Also drawing on Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World, 1914-1948 (New York: Knopf, 2018)

the metaphor of going into a community

Researchers, students, government officials, organizers, activists–lots of people talk about “going into communities.” Although I resist the rhetorical move of “problematizing” everything, I think this metaphor deserves scrutiny. It assumes that communities are physically located and bounded, which is probably the exception, especially in the 21st century

It also assumes that we are not already “in.” If, for example, a group of Tufts students and faculty decide to go into Somerville to do some research or service, it’s worth noting that they were already in that city when they set out. A community should not be defined in a way that gerrymanders ourselves out of it. If we mean to name a demographic or social group, then we should say that. A demographic category is not a community.

If a community is a web of relationships, then to enter it you must form relationships with at least some of the people who belong to it–face-to-face or remotely. You cannot then simply leave it by moving your body away. You can break off the relationships, but that is also a way of relating to other people, with consequences.

If we decide to move to a different location to do work, that doesn’t mean that we go from a state of not being in a community to being in one. It means that we have a chance to form relationships with new people, and most of them probably move around a lot, too.

The whole spatial metaphor of traveling in and out of communities may be left over from classical field ethnography–traveling to Samoa to collect data–but it easily misleads.