“By comparing multiple nations, regions, and civilizations, the field transgresses the American-centrism and Euro-centrism prevalent in many social scientific disciplines.”

Comparative-historical sociology is one of the burgeoning fields of interdisciplinarity. Employing social scientific theories and concepts, comparative-historical sociologists explore the trajectory of large-scale, long-term historical processes, offering more holistic understanding of the origins of our times. By comparing multiple nations, regions, and civilizations, the field transgresses the American-centrism and Euro-centrism prevalent in many social scientific disciplines. One less-appreciated aspect of comparative-historical sociology is that it can also point us to political and policy practices for progressive social change. In fact, social scientific knowledge with practical relevance has to be interdisciplinary in perspective, as political and policy practices never follow rigid disciplinary boundaries as they are organized in the university.

Karl Marx, a founder of comparative-historical sociology from whom the modern variant draws a lot of insights, famously promulgated that “philosophers only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is, to change it.” What he means by philosophy is more akin to the social sciences as we characterize them today. Marx analyzed the historical development of capitalism, and he applied insights from this analysis to discern the interplay of class forces and the state in his numerous political commentaries, such as the Eighteenth Brumaire and Revolution in China and in Europe. These analyses are key to the positions and strategies taken by the international labor movement he was involved in at the time.

Guiding politics and policy

Marx’s linking of historical-sociological knowledge to political practice was not only about revolutionary politics. It also extended to centrist-liberal causes. As Robin Blackburn recently pointed out, Marx inferred from his historical study of the development of the wage labor system that extra-economic exploitation outside the system, like slavery, was always instrumental to strengthening capitalists’ exploitation of free labor.1London: Verso Books, 2011More Info → He therefore advocated that Europe’s labor movement had to support the US antislavery movement, even though the American bourgeoisie led it. Marx even wrote Abraham Lincoln a letter on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association to express his support of the Union during the American Civil War. The US ambassador in London replied, expressing Lincoln’s thanks to Marx. Marx’s position on the American Civil War was no small thing. In the early stage of the war, many liberals and leftists in Europe sympathized with the Confederacy out of the principle of free trade and self-determination, as the North was seen by many as protectionist and the secession of the South was regarded as an act of rebellion against a centralizing power. Marx’s and the International Workingmen’s Association’s support of the North was crucial in shifting Europe’s public opinion in favor of the Union. The eventual hesitation of Europe in general and the United Kingdom in particular in aiding the Confederacy, which expected such support could lend them victory over the North, contributed a great deal to the eventual triumph of the Union and abolition of slavery in the United States.

After Marx, generations of intellectuals followed in using comparative-historical sociology to guide their advocacy and practice for progressive social change. For example, Charles Tilly, based on his classic works on nineteenth-century rebellions and social movements in Europe, contended that organizational resources and political opportunities brought by intra-elite cleavages were crucial to the rise and success of contentious politics.2Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1978). These insights inspired many practitioners of social movements to see the importance of organization building and alliances with elite sympathizers. In contrast, Frances Piven and Richard Cloward investigated the history of popular movements in twentieth-century America and concluded that movements not connected to the power elite and not constrained by formal organizations were often more effective in bringing real changes, as they dared to be more disruptive and hence more powerful in intimidating the ruling elite to yield.3New York: Vintage, 1978More Info → These opposite views inform opposing strategies in movement politics.

“These two examples and those mentioned in the previous paragraph constitute core social science debates, which future comparative-historical work will illuminate.”

Comparative-historical sociology has been also involved in the debate over development strategy in the global South. In his classic “development of underdevelopment” thesis, Andre Gunder Frank compared the economic performance of Latin America over time, contesting that most Latin American countries grew rapidly when their economic linkages to North America and Europe were severed by wars or depression, while revival of these linkages stifled their growth.4Andre Gunder Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment” Monthly Review 18, no. 4 (1966). This thesis suggests trade and investment links with rich countries were detrimental to development in poor countries. Under its influence, many governments in the developing world pursued restriction of import of goods and capital from wealthy countries in their development policies. In contrast, the “developmental state” school compared the postwar development of East Asia and Latin America and argued what mattered most was not reduction in linkages to wealthy countries, but the autonomy and capacity of the state.5For example, see Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). As such, the most effective policy to promote development is to build an independent, competent, and development-promoting bureaucracy rather than severing economic ties with rich countries. These two examples and those mentioned in the previous paragraph constitute core social science debates, which future comparative-historical work will illuminate.

Recovering repressed agencies and processes

Comparative-historical sociology also recovers agencies crucial in the causal chains of historical process but often repressed in popular historical memory. One good example is the recent works that rediscover the contribution of Caribbean slave rebellions to the end of slavery in the world capitalist system. In conventional historiography, the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in the United States were largely attributed to efforts of white Christians who detested slavery as an immoral system. In popular culture, slaves of African descent were little more than passive victims waiting to be liberated by conscientious white men like William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln.

A spate of recent works have challenged this view, showing that what really helped the abolitionist movement gather steam and created the condition for its success was the wave of slave revolts in the South Atlantic at the turn of the nineteenth century.6→Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins, eds., From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
→Beverly Silver and Eric Slater, “The Social Origins of World Hegemonies” in Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, ed. Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1999).
These revolts culminated in the slave revolution in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804, during which the Black Jacobins destroyed the plantation system and founded the Haitian Republic. This revolution, which survived the attack of Napoleon’s army and British navy, sparked a wave of slave revolts throughout the region and paved the way for France’s sale of Louisiana and the widespread fear of slave revolts among American slave owners. It set the stage for the victory of the British abolitionists and the end of the slave trade in 1807. It also contributed to the rise of the US abolitionist movement that moved the North to a staunchly antislavery position. And, last but not least, these revolts fostered transnational networks of the African diaspora across the Atlantic that persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and helped connect African anticolonial struggles and the many currents of black resistance movements in Cold War America.7See West, Martin, and Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac. While historians occasionally unearth some forgotten events and peoples, it is often comparative-historical sociologists who rediscover the systemic significance of these recovered events and agencies. The recovery of these silenced voices can shed new light on many contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter.

Comparative-historical sociology also reveals historical processes repressed under dominant theories and policy discourses. A case in point is the new sociology of neoliberalism. Dominant interpretations of the rise of neoliberalism according to ahistorical neoclassical economic models asserted that deregulatory reforms in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1980s were necessary, technical, and successful responses to the stagflation crisis caused by the failure of Keynesianism in the 1970s. This orthodoxy spread fear of inflation and fomented the call for austerity even at times of economic crisis like the Great Recession of 2008. Neoclassical economists like the late Milton Friedman and his disciples, as well as the conservative politicians under their influence, believe that major increases in government spending and money supply always bring stagflation in all contexts, and they have not been shy of asserting that fiscal and monetary stimuli in the United States and Europe after 2008 would eventually bring back the nightmare of double-digit inflation. Though this prophecy has never been fulfilled, it empowered the right-wing agenda of radical spending and tax cuts in the United States and fueled the rise of austerity politics in Europe.

“Thanks to the new sociology of neoliberalism, we now know that this orthodox interpretation of neoliberalism is but a myth”

Thanks to the new sociology of neoliberalism,8For example, see
→Monica Prasad, The Politics of Free Market: The Rise of Neoliberal Economic Policies in Britain, France, Germany and the United States (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006).
→Isaac Martin, The Permanent Tax Revolt: How Property Tax Transformed American Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008).
→Greta Krippner, Capitalizing on Crisis; The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
→Ho-fung Hung and Daniel Thompson, “Money Supply, Class Power, and Inflation: Monetarism Revisited,” American Sociological Review 81, no. 3 (2016).
we now know that this orthodox interpretation of neoliberalism is but a myth. Instead of a technical and impartial remedy to economic failure, the free market reforms in the United States and United Kingdom in the 1980s stemmed from a distributional struggle marked by the political mobilization of the capitalist and middle classes against organized labor and progressive taxation. In fact, the inflationary spiral in the 1970s, driven by high wage growth and high employment, devalued debt and lowered inequality, hurting owners of capital more than debtors and workers.9Hung and Thompson, “Money Supply, Class Power, and Inflation.” The three decades of neoliberalism after 1980 restored capital’s power over labor. Its consequence is runaway financial bubbles, escalating inequality, and deflationary pressure brought by chronic wage depression. Though deflation is now a bigger risk to many developed economies, excessive fear of inflation still holds many economists and policymakers hostage. The new sociology of neoliberalism is the first step to help us shed this excessive fear of the mystical 1970s-style stagflation, and to open the path toward bold public policies that could re-inflate wages and revive the social state.


Read David Landes and Charles Tilly’s 1971 essay on history and social science here.


Armed with interdisciplinary perspectives, comparative-historical sociologists have the obligation to construct holistic theories from studies of important historical processes across time and space, as well as to uncover historical agencies and processes that have been repressed by dominant theories and ideologies. These are important for our better understanding of the world, to be sure. They are also indispensable building blocks for viable social movements and public policies pointing to progressive social change.

We are now living in a time when resistance against the status quo has become increasingly fragmented and issue-based—some examples include the movements fighting against tuition increase, against police violence, against corruption, and against digital surveillance. How to link these separate movements together to articulate a cogent, coherent, and comprehensive reform program is an urgent and daunting task. The history of large-scale and long-term power structures underlying contemporary injustices, as unveiled in many comparative-historical sociological studies, can serve as the guideposts for the fulfillment of such a task, as do the often hidden agencies working to change these structures.

Posted on June 27, 2017

References:

1
London: Verso Books, 2011More Info →
2
Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
3
New York: Vintage, 1978More Info →
4
Andre Gunder Frank, “The Development of Underdevelopment” Monthly Review 18, no. 4 (1966).
5
For example, see Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
6
→Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins, eds., From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
→Beverly Silver and Eric Slater, “The Social Origins of World Hegemonies” in Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, ed. Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1999).
7
See West, Martin, and Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac.
8
For example, see
→Monica Prasad, The Politics of Free Market: The Rise of Neoliberal Economic Policies in Britain, France, Germany and the United States (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006).
→Isaac Martin, The Permanent Tax Revolt: How Property Tax Transformed American Politics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2008).
→Greta Krippner, Capitalizing on Crisis; The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
→Ho-fung Hung and Daniel Thompson, “Money Supply, Class Power, and Inflation: Monetarism Revisited,” American Sociological Review 81, no. 3 (2016).
9
Hung and Thompson, “Money Supply, Class Power, and Inflation.”