Freud’s classic argument is that sex is a strong human drive, active from earliest childhood, but it becomes repressed by an internal mechanism. You repress yourself, eliminating consciousness of desire, driving it from your thoughts as well as your behavior. But it comes out anyway, in dreams, in symptoms, in displacements. For Freud, the world is pervasively sexualized, but in symbolic form, via transformations of sexual drive onto targets seemingly far removed from its original erotic objects.

Freud wrote at a turning point now 100 years behind us. He psychoanalyzed his patients at the end of the Victorian era, making his discoveries between the 1890s (“the gay 90s” in the original sense of the time, which meant heterosexual) and World War I. Sex was coming out of the closet-- better said, out of the corset-- and Vienna was the leading center of the action. It was the first period of the modern sexual revolution. Official prudery was being challenged; the heavy layers of clothing were starting to come off, and people were not only starting to talk about sex (and to paint it) but to act on it more overtly.

Egon Schiele, 1917

It is ironic that Freud should formulate a theory of sexual repression at just this time. In fact his patients were caught in the gap, repressed persons in a world where heightened sense of sexuality was rising around them.

Freud’s first patient cured,  Anna O.

Since then have been a series of sexual revolutions. The “roaring twenties”-- the “Jazz age” which in its original slang meant the verb to have sex (“he tried to jazz me” a young woman says in a Faulkner novel). The sixties counterculture, famous for sexual communes-- in fact not very many and all of them short-lived; the counterculture had more long-lasting effects in the shift to cohabiting without getting married, a shock wave around 1968-71 about what used to be called “shacking up” or “living in sin,” and then quickly becoming accepted almost everywhere. Cohabitation was soon followed by acceptance of what used to be called “illegitimacy," which soon changed to "out-of-wedlock childbirth,” and now is completely normalized.  The outburst of pornographic magazines and films in the 1970s, going mainstream and eventually becoming the early cutting edge of video and the Internet. The homosexual liberation movement that achieved public legitimacy in the scandal of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and transformed proper terminology into the elaborations of LGBT. Battles still take place, most recently over gay marriage. The configuration has repeatedly replayed since Freud’s time-- a struggle between one form or another of sexual repression and victorious movements of sexual liberation.

Can we say sexual repression still exists?  That is, exists in the large part of society which is liberated, outside of a few backward enclaves who have lost every battle and appear likely to lose the rest of them?

What Would Totally Liberated Sex Look Like?

Let us define complete sexual liberation as a condition where anyone can say or do anything sexual that they want.

Would there be any limitations?  Consider our own sexually liberated times. Can you go up to any person at all and say, I’d like to have sex with you?

Circumstances where one cannot say this are limitations on sexual speech. As for sexual action, consider its least intrusive form, touching. Can you touch any person you feel attracted to?

The quick answer to both questions is: no. There are very definite limitations and circumstances in which sexual speech and action is allowed.

The phrase is widely used, “between consenting adults.” But this implies a lot more sexual liberty than actually exists, even among the most liberated. “Consenting adults” applies more to action than to words; and many forms of sexual speech are strongly sanctioned-- so that even approaching the topic is socially prohibited in most situations. This doesn’t mean talking philosophically about consent.  What is prohibited is requesting personal, particular consent.

The title, “Why Does Sexual Repression Exist?” is not a rhetorical question. It is not a way of saying “Isn’t it absurd for us not to express our sexual desires any time we want to?”  It is a real question, a sociological question that asks what causes people to limit expression of sexual desire and sexual behavior.

It is a very answerable question. Sexual behavior and talk have varied a great deal historically, across societies and within any particular one. There is ample evidence for showing what determines what sex is and is not allowed.

There may be a tendency to think that the answers are obvious, at least for our own enlightened times. Obviously, certain categories of persons have to be protected; certain situations are just not appropriate.  Why do we think this? It is more revealing to distance ourselves from our contemporary point of view. Not very far in the past, people assumed different standards. It is safe to predict that in the future, people will look back at us-- including the most liberated-- with scorn and moral condemnation, just as we look backwards at our own predecessors. The power of comparative sociology is to rise above our historical self-centeredness, and to show what makes people feel this is right and that is wrong about sex.

Does “Consenting Adults” explain the contemporary sexual standard?

Social rules are embedded in tacit understandings as to when a rule is to be invoked. Freud would have called this unconscious; Durkheim called it pre-contractual solidarity. There are many persons and many situations where one cannot ask for consent, or even bring up the topic.

By way of generating some sense of the social conditions, ask yourself: how many people can you ask to have sex with you? Think of the variations of how to say it to particular persons: politely, indirectly, blatantly, using slang, using obscenity: “Excuse me ma’am (or sir), would you like to fuck?” What would happen if you said this? In some situations today one would be accused of using inappropriate language, in others, of sexual harassment. In the era before WWII, you could get your face slapped.

I have appealed to your imagination of real-life occasions because in the vast number of situations where someone has a sexual interest in someone else, it does not get expressed at all. David Grazian’s book, On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife,  shows what happens when young adults are out in the scenes where they are most explicitly looking for sex. Although both the boys and the girls* talk about what they are aiming for and what happened, they do this among themselves before they go out and after they come back. When they are on the front lines in the night club, virtually no one ever says anything like, let’s hook up. They are playing a game of pickup, but at a very distant level. Most of the excitement is in the tease and innuendo, and sexual scores are so rare that the boys end up bragging about getting a girl’s phone number, and the girls laugh about giving out fake numbers. Like most ethnographies, Grazian cuts through the ideal and shows the social realities of how the atmosphere of sexual excitement is constructed, like putting on a performance in a theatre.

*  “girls” is how they refer to themselves. [See also Armstrong and Hamilton.]

Why doesn’t this scene, about as blatantly sexual as they come, have more real sex or at least more sexual talk? This means asking about the sociological processes that repress sex. We will come to the list of causes shortly; here they have little to do with the kind of sexual repression which concerned Freud.

Compare the few places where expressing one’s sexual desire face-to-face with its target is actually done. One is in front of fraternity houses, on heightened occasions like party-night afternoons, or at the beginning of term when new student cohorts arrive. There can be a lot of raucous hooting at passing women, commenting both positively and negatively on their sexual desirability. Notice two things: This is sexual expression, but without a serious aim to get consent from any particular woman; in fact, the impersonal and collective nature of the hooting makes this impossible. Secondly, even the frat boys’ tactic of strength-in-numbers-and-anonymity does not necessarily shield them from the negative reaction they would likely get if one of them said the same things to an individual woman.  As social movements and administrative organization have mobilized, fraternities hooting at women are sometimes sanctioned or even closed down (as happened for instance at San Diego State University in 2014). The sociological pattern holds:  expressing sexual desire is limited even in the most liberated society; it can be gotten away with more if it is ostensibly not really serious, or is carried out at a safe distance. Today, the most blatant sexual talk is telephone sex [Flowers 1998]. Sexual expression also gives rise to counter-movements. The sociological pattern is not sexual expression alone, but sexual conflict.

Inside the fraternity house, the situation is not too dissimilar from Grazian’s description of downtown nightclubs. [Sanday, Fraternity Gang Rape; Armstrong and Hamilton, Paying for the Party] There is a lot of bragging talk about sex within the male-bonded group; but only a small sexual elite actually gets very much action. At parties, disguised by loud music, semi-darkness, and plentiful alcohol, the reality is that most of the frat boys are on the sidelines watching their sexual heroes. So, are they the ones who boldly ask for sex? Even here, the conversations are more tacit and oblique than blatant; the most successful approach is by sheer body language, dancing in high sync, laughing together. The less formal and coherent the talk, the more likely it is to build the mutual mood that may lead to sex. Uninhibited extroversion is favored by the scene, not the rational-legal language of discussion and consent.

The prevailing social pattern when talking person-to-person about possible sex is that explicit sexual desire is never directly expressed, until the situation has evolved non-verbally to the proper point; any violation of this tacit rule gets a negative reaction.  The main exception is in commercial sex work, talk between prostitutes and prospective clients (Elizabeth Bernstein, Temporarily Yours). But even here, the initial steps of negotiation are surprisingly round-about. Sex work illustrates a pattern found more generally in social stratification: low-class street prostitutes are most blatant in verbally offering sex; high-class prostitutes or “escorts” play out the girlfriend experience (GFE in advertisements) minimizing explicit negotiations in order to set a non-commercial atmosphere.

The most explicit sexual talk is in scenes dominated by males, not only because they control violence but because they are at the center of the carousing, “where the action is.”  This is the pattern in unpoliced  lower-class black inner city ghettos, where groups of dominant males-- both teenage gang members, and some adult men-- fling sexual banter at girls and attractive women, and humiliate those who object. [Jody Miller, Getting Played]  This fits the sociological pattern of more blatant sexual talk lower in the class hierarchy. But it isn't the whole explanation, since upper-middle class fraternities resemble lower-class gangs, except that they have the money for their own club house, and do not need to engage in street crime for income. Whether in tribal societies or enclaves in modern ones, a hyper-sexualized pattern of blatantly exploiting women occurs where the power center is a "men's house" that is also the ceremonial center of the community.

In the gender-integrated middle and upper classes, much sexual talk is tabooed even when it has nothing to do with consent.  Circumstances are rare in which persons can say directly to another: “How big is your penis?” or “You’ve got really great tits.” In the talk regime of liberal late 20th/ early 21st century, such talk would be considered over the top, if not called “politically incorrect,” “sexist,” or actually resulting in formal charges.

Socially constructed age limits

The other part of “consenting adults” is the age limitation. We take this for granted, as all customs generally are. But it is palpably constructed by social regimes, as we can easily see by comparing laws and customs in different historical periods. In this area, instead of a post-Freudian trend of increasing sexual liberation, sexual repressiveness has historically increased.

The strongest contrast is sex in tribal societies. One of the most detailed is Malinowski’s ethnography of the Trobriand Islands north of Australia. The Trobrianders have almost the opposite of the official American position (that adults are sexual and children are sexless, unless adults impose sex upon them). In this tribe, childhood is the time for unrestrained sex; whereas adults are expected to settle down and devote themselves to work.  Both girls and boys flaunt their sexual activity; both sexes go off on group sex-seeking expeditions; both show off marks of love-bites and scratches on the skin as proud tokens of sexual passion. This happens almost exclusively among what modern Americans legally define as children.

Among the Sambia tribe of Papua New Guinea, there is a homosexual version (Herdt, Guardians of the Flutes). The normal life-course pattern is for an adolescent boy to become the sexual partner of a young man, the older initiating the younger into sex simultaneously with the mysteries of the warrior men’s house. It is not lifetime homosexuality but a stage of age-graded promotion. The boy is shown the sacred flutes and also taught to suck the man’s penis and swallow the sperm, religiously interpreted as giving manhood. As William Graham Sumner said, the social mores can make anything legitimate.

A similar pattern existed in ancient Greece. Young men of the upper classes, in the long wait for marriage to upper class women (who were snapped up very young by older men), had love affairs with boys of their same social class-- preferably adolescents before the beard and pubic hair had grown. These were genuinely passionate love-affairs that would be recognizable today, except that young males rather than females set the ideal of bodily beauty. The ideal eventually became transferred to the female body, once Greek and Roman women became more emancipated. [Dover, Greek Homosexuality;  Keuls, Reign of the Phallus]

This is a striking reversal of modern homosexuality, which is legitimate among adults but harshly penalized across age lines. For the ancient Greeks, homosexual relations among adult men was considered ludicrous; and anal sex-- the predominant form of modern male homosexual practice [Laumann et al. 1994]-- was regarded only as a humiliating punishment.

What can we get out of these comparisons other than that societies change and can decree anything is right and wrong?

Sex between adults and “children”-- generally defined by the cutting point of age 18-- is now labeled child sexual abuse. It is the most stigmatized of contemporary crimes. The rationalized argument is that the child has no power of consent, and that any adult must automatically be considered as taking advantage of them. This is a legal judgment, not a sociological one.

Where sociological evidence does exist is for the pattern that children who have had sex with adults-- victims of child abuse-- have many more life problems. [Finkelhor 1986] They have more drug use and alcohol excess; more unstable marriages and sexual partnerships; they are more likely to become victims of spousal abuse and violence; to have more trouble with education and jobs. The data analyses do not always control very well for confounding factors, such as lower social class and broken family structure; but on the whole, one can make out a sociological case why child sexual abuse is a very bad thing in its consequences.

Social shame causes the damage

There is one major problem: what is the causal mechanism? One might assume that a child who has sex with an adult feels traumatized; but this is not always the case. Sometimes the adult uses force, but in many cases the adult is a parent or close relative, often when the opposite-sex spouse is absent, and the child gets an early sense of intimacy and initiation into adult sexual privileges.  The mechanism that causes the trauma, most typically, is shame.  Shame produced by the reaction of the larger society, shame transmitted to the child by having to keep the sexual relationship secret. Shame and humiliation when the case comes to official notice; even bureaucratic policies to keep such cases secret (as far as the child’s identity is concerned) have the effect of segregating the child in an atmosphere where the secrecy is itself a mark of shame. This is shown in studies of juvenile facilities where children in such cases are segregated; and where a culture of precocious sexuality is further enhanced, since the one thing these kids have over others is more sexual experience, and they share it among their peers.

Social labeling theory has been applied to explaining mental illness, retardation, and numerous other things. The theory has not always held up when controls are applied to the data. But in the case of the life-long effects of being labeled a victim of child abuse, the labeling process is by far the strongest explanation of the debilitating consequences.

As social psychologist/family therapists Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger have shown, shame is the master motive of social control. Even tiny episodes of shame from broken attunement in a conversation bring hurt reactions; and if the shame is not overtly expressed and resolved, but hidden away (by embarrassment, by shame about being ashamed) it comes out in long-term destructive rage, against self and others. In my own theory of successful and unsuccessful Interaction Rituals [Collins 2004], disattunement and its concomitant shame lead to difficult social relationships; to loss of emotional energy, and instead to a cycle of depression, passiveness, and interactional failure.  Via the shame mechanism, it is possible to explain why many sexual relationships between adults and children result in very negative life consequences for the children as they grow up.

Many sexual relationships, not all of them. We know that because of societies like tribal New Guinea and ancient Greece, where adult-child sex was honorable and celebrated, not regarded as shameful at all. In those societies, it had no negative consequences.

The purpose of this discussion is not to make sexual policy; but here is a point where sociological theory suggests what is being done wrong, and what could be done to solve it. The negative consequences of adult/child sex could be eliminated if society stopped treating it as shameful.

Who Can Touch Who When?

The formula “between consenting adults” has similar limitations in explaining the tacit social norms about touching another person.

Consider the range of touches that exist in our society, whether commonplace, restricted, or forbidden:

-- shaking hands
-- patting on the shoulder (usually clothed)
-- kisses of all varieties: air kisses, cheek kisses, gentleman-kissing-lady’s-hand, kissing the Pope’s ring, lip kisses, tongue kisses, tongue-to-genital kisses

Notice, apropos of consenting adults, hardly anyone ever asks, “Can I kiss you?”  (although social consent is explicit in the traditional wedding ceremony, with its climax “You may now kiss.”) When persons kiss, and what kind of kiss it is, is a tacit, unspoken part of a particular kind of social relationship. If it is the wrong social relationship, or the wrong kiss, there are repercussions. This is a sociological rule for all forms of touching.

Similarly with hugs. The style has palpably changed in American society, with a big shift in the 1970s towards much more hugging-- not necessarily spontaneous, because it has become so strongly expected in particular situations. Take a look at the polite hugs which are now de rigueur in social gatherings of the higher classes-- hugs around the shoulders, leaning forward, avoiding full body contact. In the 1940s, an enthusiastic hug consisted in grasping the other person’s arms with both hands, above the elbows-- more enthusiasm shown by more body contact, within the limitations of the time. The ritual of sports celebrations (victories; home-runs crossing the plate) has shifted from merely verbal, to hand-shaking, to the now-required full-body pile-on.  It is notable that body contact among American men is more extensive the more violent it is; swinging high-fives, forearm smashes, chest bumps, pile-ons are more favored than gentle contact, probably because the violence sends the message that it isn’t sexual.

Historical comparison helps explain the meanings of body contact vary. In traditional societies such as Arabs, it was common for groups of men in public to walk along holding hands or linking arms. Similarly, women in traditional societies linked arms in public.  It was an explicit show of group tie-signs. It had nothing sexual about it; it expressed the politics of the situation when kin-groups and other close solidarities were all-important. As modern societies have become more individualized, tie-signs such as hand-holding or linking arms have narrowed in meaning, explicitly confined to sexual ties. It is the same with the decay of old kissing rituals like the French official who kisses the recipient on both cheeks after pinning on a medal.

In our sexually liberated age, many bodily gestures are restricted, because the default setting is to take them as sexual.

Four causal mechanisms that control sex

[1] Sexual property regimes
[2] Sexual markets
[3] Sexual domination and counter-mobilization
[4] Sexual distraction and sexual ugliness

These mechanisms, in one degree or another, have existed in every society.  What varies is the strength of the ingredients that go into each mechanism.

[1] Sexual property regimes

Sexual property is present wherever there is jealousy. It is analogous to property over a thing, or more exactly, property over behavior-- like a professional athlete signing a contract that requires certain kinds of performance on the field and prohibits other behavior in the off season.  Sexual property is the right to touch someone else’s body sexually. Like other forms of legal property, it takes many forms: sometimes the rules are elaborate and restrictive, sometimes not; sometimes it is a permanent, life-time contract, sometimes breakable (e.g. by divorce), sometimes very short-term indeed (e.g. a half hour deal with a prostitute or an overnight with an escort).

The forms of sexual property have changed historically. But despite movements of sexual liberation, it has not gone away.  The gay liberation movement has coincided with a great deal of private fighting over sexual jealousies-- more commonly among male homosexuals than females [Blumstein and Schwartz 1983].  Legitimating a particular form of sex does not mean turning it into open access.

What determines the forms sexual property has taken? Most important are changes in the political power of the family.  The most blatant and restrictive forms of sexual property existed in patrimonial households-- roughly speaking, the medieval pattern where big households with their own warriors were the backbone of the state.  Important households were tied together by marriage politics. Women were treated as tokens to exchange with other important families, so they had no choice in their own sexuality. Any incursion into the sexual property of the household was regarded as a combination of rape and treason, with both parties punishable, sometimes by spectacularly violent death. This is the background for Romeo-and-Juliet romances, and for real-life versions in places like Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, and Pakistan. A royal princess can be assassinated, and brothers can stone a sister to death for sex or mere flirtation with an outsider to the clan. [Cooney 2014]

The era of the patrimonial household upheld a double standard, technically unilateral sexual property: males controlled females as sexual property to be used for political alliance-making, but not vice versa. The big historical changes in sexual property go in either direction from this medieval pattern-- backwards towards tribal societies, and forward to the modern state.

Tribal societies like those described by Malinowski and Margaret Mead, and that greeted sailors in Polynesia during the 19th century, seemed like sexual paradises to people from the modern West. The reason was that their politics were extremely rudimentary. Where there were no strong military coalitions, and nothing like a warrior class living in castles or big households, marriage alliances were not very important. In very simple societies without class differences in wealth, divorces were extremely easy. Sex was not politicized and therefore left up to individual discretion. Jealousies were personal and not backed up by group forces. Sexual property was ephemeral.

Coming forward historically from the Romeo-and-Juliet world toward our own is the rise of the bureaucratic state. Governments acquired their own armies and tax-collecting machinery. Households became more private and their sexual affairs depoliticized. This set the stage for the shift to the private marriage market.

[2] Sexual markets

A market exists whenever there are numbers of actors who want something and have to find someone else to trade with to get it. Markets can range from many competitors to virtually none; the more competition, the more each individual must be concerned about the “price” for what they are buying or offering. This structure exists whether its participants recognize it consciously or not. The price can be in money, but it can be in other things too-- sexual attractiveness, subservience, social status, even love. In fact a bundle of all these things has become the preferred way that people find sexual partners in the modern era of the private sexual marketplace.

The ideal of marrying for love came into existence in European societies around the turn of the 1800s. It was called the “Romantic” era because so many writers made a theme out of love affairs defying social convention and expressing the individual’s wild, uncontrolled passions. The literary ideal reflected a real change. Parents gradually stopped controlling their children’s choice of partners. In one respect this felt like an era of freedom, but it also meant that young people were thrown into a marriage market they had to negotiate for themselves.

A market is freedom but it is also constraint. The freedom is to make choices. The constraint of a market is that you do not necessarily get what you want, at the price you would like to  offer. The romantic image is that love happens like magic, a meeting of two persons with perfectly matched desires; it scorns social differences and mere material things like inheritance and money. In reality, the love ideal came along with the market of who can offer what. Many persons may desire a very beautiful, sexually arousing partner, but s/he may not find you sufficiently attractive in return. Other things get thrown into the mix: today not so much inheritance, but a good job and earning capacity.

Material things become part of  romancing, in the form of treating, paying for dinners and entertainment, gifts, not to mention the degree of attractiveness one can muster by one’s clothing and grooming.  Viviana Zelizer has shown there is no clear gulf between purely sentimental considerations and material offerings; even if the latter are ignored in the ideology of love and sexual passion, they exist in a semi-conscious underground of bargaining, an almost Freudian repression of the sexual market itself from polite consciousness.

We don’t care about somebody’s social background, and assert that all that matters is whether we really like each other. We can take this attitude with a fair degree of success because in fact what we like about another person is their cultural tastes and their social personality, and liking consists of fitting together people who find their manners match. It is not surprising to sociologists that the prevailing pattern is homophily-- personal ties with someone similar to oneself on as many dimensions as possible. And this applies to ties of all degrees of permanence: from long-term marriage down to passing affairs. In fact, the closer the homophily, the longer the relationship is likely to last.  Affairs across big social gaps do happen, but they are also more likely to break up. The shift during the last century from divorce-proof lifetime marriage, to serial monogamy, to cohabitation without getting married, to hookups, has not affected the dynamics of sexual markets. In none of these long-term or short-term relationships is it irrelevant who are the competitors, and competition always affects what one needs to offer in order to find a partner.

Sexual repression inside a sexual market

The idea of a sexual market makes it sound like everything is very blatant, but on the whole modern sexual markets repress the overt expression of sexual desires. The more people who are actively out there on the market looking for partners, whether for the evening or for a lifetime, the more likely it is that any particular person will encounter rejections. Experienced individuals in such markets-- those who often go to nightclubs, or to parties, mixers, conferences, dances, dating services, you name it-- generally get to know their own value from the way they are treated by others. Very attractive individuals become very picky-- in part because they can afford to be, in part because they are overwhelmed by advances, most of which they scorn.  A very beautiful young woman of my acquaintance complains that she is constantly being stared at by strangers, who she regards as completely boring.  Of course: by her standards, she can do much better. Interview data show the same thing [Gardner, Passing By]. This is a main reason why persons at the top of the sexual market tend to pair off with each other.

Homophily is everywhere. Systematic observations of persons who are together on streets and public places (my own research), shows that pairs and small groups tend to be similar on every dimension, including clothing style, physical size, and attractiveness-- i.e. they have sorted themselves by cultural capital and social class, but also by their positions in sexual markets.  Women tend to be friends with women of similar attractiveness, because they have similar backstage issues.

An open sexual market represses overt expression of sexual desire for several reasons. One reason why people very rarely say something like “I’d like to have sex with you,” is that most of the time they will be rejected. The target of the advance may not at all be a prude, but simply someone higher in the sexual market. And rejection is not only a downer in its own right, but it also tends to publicize one’s own level of sexual un-attractiveness. Paradoxically, the more open the sexual market, the more individual-level psychological pressure exists to avoid exposing one’s own sexual desires. The expression of desire risks a negative judgment about one’s market position.

Thus the persons who are most open in expressing their sexuality tend to be among those who are most sexually attractive.  The expression of sexual desire itself becomes stratified in a time of sexual openness.

sexual ranking at IMF meeting

[3] Sexual domination and counter-mobilization

Sex is a potential site for conflict and domination. Some feminist theorists have asserted that sex is always a form of domination, or at least heterosexuality always is. In social science, “always” is a dangerous term, since variations spread across the spectrum, and it is more useful to look for the causal conditions rather than an alleged constant. In some arenas (such as prisons), homosexual sex is more frequently the target of coercive practices. [O'Donnell 2004]

Since the aim of this article is causal explanation rather than protest and policy, let us ask the question: what settings produce the most sexual domination, both coercive and indirect? And what conditions mobilize social action against sexual domination?

Indirect sexual domination is implicit in some kinds of sexual property, especially in the patrimonial household politics already discussed. In those settings, sexual violence mostly comes out when the informal controls are challenged.* Modern sexual markets have probably increased the historical incidence of some kinds of sexual coercion, since date rape could hardly exist in societies where there was no dating, and fraternity party rapes could not exist before the era of co-ed schooling.

* This doesn’t inevitably happen.  Cooney [2014] shows that the weaker the clan’s political control and the more the family lives in modern urban conditions, the more likely they are to let off the culprits from their tribal code. When they can keep the sexual defection of a daughter or son secret, it is often indulged; but when it comes out in the ethnic community, the family may be goaded to act violently to protect their reputation.

There are at least five distinct causal pathways of rape (date rape; serial stranger rape; carousing zone rape; political rape; rape in the course of another crime.)  I will put aside the topic of the causes of rape for fuller treatment in another post.

Here I will concentrate on two arenas where opportunities for sexual domination have changed, and where counter-movements have mobilized against them. My analysis focuses on the theme we have been pursuing, what causes sexual repression.

The two arenas are age restrictions on sexual contact, and restrictions at work.

We have already seen that age limits on sexuality have grown historically. They were virtually non-existent in most tribal societies. In patrimonial household politics, child sexuality was promoted when political marriages were arranged at a young age. The category of childhood is a modern construction, at least in the sense of a social category backed up by law. Of course medieval people recognized that children were sometimes too small for adult activities, but there were no rigid dividing lines; what children did was determined by their particular capacities and the political maneuvers that took place around them. For centuries in Japan, children were put on the throne so that they could be manipulated by regents, often from the family of the child-Emperor’s wife; and child sexuality was encouraged precisely because political influentials wanted an heir from their line.

What created the sharp dividing lines that separate childhood from adulthood, legally as well as moralistically, was the rise of modern bureaucracy. The power of the household was reduced by the bureaucratic state. The state began to impose requirements for children to be educated in a bureaucratic school system; labor laws were created, under a variety of influences including both labor and humanitarian movements, which restricted or prohibited employment under particular ages. States have increasingly penetrated households; at first (starting in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s) this was done to enroll the population for military conscription, and for taxation; approaching our own times, for the purposes of social welfare, public health, equal opportunity, prevention of child abuse, and a growing list of causes.

Bureaucratization means setting out formal rules and keeping records. The rules are designed to disregard individual circumstances and lump everyone into abstract and easily measurable categories. The growth of mass education has placed increasing emphasis on age-appropriate activities, as  laws have mandated education for lengthening stretches of everyone’s lifetime.  Schools in medieval times, and up through the 19th century (as in rural schools in America), generally lumped together children of very different ages; they all learned in the same classroom, with the abler ones moving through faster at their own pace. (For instance, Sir Francis Bacon went to Cambridge University from age 12  to 14, tagging along with his older brother; he entered law school at age 15, but soon went off on an informal apprenticeship as secretary to an ambassador. This cursory formal education did not prevent Bacon from becoming the most learned man in early 17th century England.) By the early 20th century, schools were moving students through rigidly according to age-graded classes; skipping grades was allowed as an exceptional policy, but both formal and informal pressures were against it.

It was in this context that laws controlling the sexual behavior of children-- now a strictly age-graded category, with no concern for individual variation-- became formalized in law. Children are now defined by their age, not by their capabilities. Social movements have been mobilized, since the mid-19th century, to protect children, as seen through eyes and social values of the reformers. Some of these movements were notorious for imposing the values of puritanical Protestants upon immigrant families in American cities; others have dropped the religious themes, and put themselves forward in the name of humanitarian, scientific, or medical ideals. Because resources for mobilizing social movements have continuously expanded in the 20th and 21st centuries, movements to control the lives of age-defined persons (“children”) have become increasingly influential.

There is no natural, culture-free reason why persons above the age of 18 should be regarded as sexual predators against those below 18. Since boyfriend-girlfriend relationships are typically between males a year or two older than females, there comes a life-passage when what was acceptable at least informally in these age-segregated enclaves becomes illegal. Increasing pressures on courts to impose uniform penalties, has combined with the successful efforts of social movements to punish all sexual offenders not only with prison but by labeling and segregating them for the rest of their lives. The results include instances where the sexual activities of boyfriends with girlfriends end up in the public roster of sex offenders as indistinguishable from the most violent rapist. Young female teachers in their 20s who have affairs with teenage boys (probably the most sexually mature ones) are treated as if they were raping little children. The spread of surveillance cameras, where videos are routinely monitored by bureaucratic authorities and handed over to prosecutors bent on increasing their conviction rate, is one more feature of today’s impersonal organization intruding on private lives to enforce laws that are oblivious to individual differences.

Genuinely humane persons might recognize that the category of statutory rape should be replaced by more flexible consideration of circumstances.  But it is characteristic of a bureaucratic society that once rules are written into laws and standard organizational practices, unintended consequences merely become normal. Peeling back such laws and procedures is more difficult than the flurries of scandal and melodrama that first enacted them.

From the high ground of sociological analysis, we can summarize: the combination of modern age-graded bureaucracy and the ease of mobilizing social movements is a new source of sexual repression, rolling back waves of post-Freudian liberalization.

The other arena of new sexual controls is work.  Gender integration of women into formerly male occupations increased opportunities for sexual contact. The result has been two kinds of controversies. One is that men can take advantage of women working with them, either by superior force or by rank. Counter-movements have mobilized, and rules to prevent such victimization have grown, both within organizations and under government legal pressure. Since sexual advances are also made in an indirect manner, rules to control sexual domination have expanded to a wide variety of activities under the category of “sexual harassment.” One result has been that the loosening of sexual talk that happened from the 1930s through the 1980s, has been reversed. Whether this is good or bad from the point of view of men and women in the world of work, is no doubt mixed. One conclusion is clear: post-Freudian sexual liberation-- although still strong in popular culture and in the high arts-- has been turned back to a Neo-Victorian standard of official prudishness.

[4] Sexual distraction and sexual ugliness

This is a topic rarely discussed. It is more universal than our current movements for and against particular kinds of sexuality. Even if sexual domination were eliminated, this issue would remain.

Sexual arousal can be overwhelming, obsessive, shutting everything else out. This leads to practical norms to limit sexual arousal. 

Why is there a taboo against sex in public? Even in the most liberated arenas and sexual scenes of modern society, it is rare for people to actually engage in sexual intercourse in public, as well as other sexual acts. Anthropologists and sociologists [Ford and Beach 1951; Reiss 1986] have noted that with all the variety of sexual regimes around the world, there is one constant:  sexual intercourse almost always takes place in privacy.

The exceptions help pin down the sociological rule. Even in the most liberated circles, there are restrictions. Swingers groups (AKA wife-swapping), popular in the 60s and 70s, developed a rule: couples only, no unaccompanied singles [Gilmartin 1978].  The exchange had to be complete; everyone had to take part. Swinging was breaking the rule of monogamous sexual property; but it had to be equal-- both man and woman got the same license as their partner. Another rule: no meeting illicitly on the outside. What happens in swinging, stays in swinging!  If they were all going to have sex together, it was going to be in one place: group privacy, no public allowed, no side-involvements.

Studies of communes in the 1960s and 70s (Zablocki 1980; Martin and Fuller 2004)  found that the longevity of the commune was inversely related to its sexual openness.  Communes that strictly banned sex (especially religious communes) or communes composed of married or monogamous cohabiting partners lasted longest. Communes that had a policy of free love-- anyone can have sex with anyone, no questions asked-- were the most volatile. Why? In part, because their idealistic rule overlooked the sexual market and sexual attractiveness.  On one side, the men vied to have sex with the best-looking women, hence squeezed each other out. * On the other side, women sex stars were overwhelmed, and played their favorites.  And there was the snake in the garden, social rank:  a charismatic commune leader hogged most of the sex; and swingers groups among businessmen tended to fall into the pattern of the younger men with good-looking wives swapping with older men and fading wives, a trade-off of rank for sex, or sex for promotion.

*The same was observed in the bathhouse scene of gay sex in the 1980s and 90s, when the overt rule was anything goes, but in fact bathhouse participants queued up in order of personal attractiveness to get the most attractive men.

Although there is a fantasy ideal of orgiastic sex, it is structurally difficult, if not impossible. Orgies are depicted on ancient Greek drinking-bowls; but what we know about these scenes is that the group of upper-class men hired professional prostitutes for the orgy. [Keuls 1985]  Even with this commercial dominance, the border seemed to be enforced: everyone present took part in the orgy, closed to the world outside.

To repeat the question: why the taboo against public sex? The answer is that sexual arousal is distracting, it is contagious. There are rapes on record where men wandering around come upon a couple making love on a deserted beach, and  intrude themselves into the sex. Gang rapes often get started in the same way, without plan, sheer arousal-driven piling on.

The answer is a sociological transmutation of Freud. Sex is too strong a drive for people to let it go untrammeled-- which is to say, to let it go outside of privacy that limits it to just two people, or in rare circumstances, a larger but equally circumscribed group. This continues to be the pattern of Vegas-style all-girl junkets for sexual adventure. Pictures posted on Internet sites typically show a group of women of which one is having sex with a well-built man while the others watch; the partying atmosphere is displayed in their fancy clothes and their drinking. It remains a private group enclave, where everyone present is a potential sexual participant.

Sexual distraction helps explain the proliferation of sexually-inhibiting rules in the contemporary work place. In addition to the threats of sexual dominance, there is also the possibility that sexual arousals may take over and pull people from their work. It is hard to estimate realistically the strength of this threat, given that most organizations are not working at full capacity, and ideal efficiency is always hard to estimate. 

A hint is that sexual relationships at work are tolerated when they do not upset the organizational hierarchy or blur its chain of command.  On the Eastern front of World War II, it was common for Soviet commanders to take “combat wives”-- secretaries or telephone operators pressed into service in the manpower shortage, who became the sexual property of the highest-ranking officer for the duration. There was little push-back about the system. There are indications similar things happened on the Western front, at least among the Americans (such as the C-in-C Eisenhower having an affair with his chauffeur). *  But organizational sex only functioned when women did not upset the hierarchy. As women started making careers of their own, even vying for CEO in their own right, the stories that circulated in the 1970s of fast-track young women having affairs with CEOs gave way to the current standard of sexual restraint. 

* It is striking that the three most famous Presidents of mid-20th century-- FDR, Ike, and JFK-- all had illicit affairs, well-known to insiders and journalists, but no scandals were launched against them. Ari Adut  (On Scandal)  notes that in a more puritanical culture of polite discussion ("all the news that is fit to print," in the New York Times' now-outdated slogan) scandals don't happen because it is improper to talk about them in public. Bill Clinton's blow-job affair with a White House intern happened in the late 1990s when the public culture of sex was at its most blatant. Sex scandals have become part of the normal political repertoire for bringing down politicians and government officials.

A notorious example of what happens when sexual partying gets into organizational duties is the Abu Ghraib scandal. [Mestrovic 2006] The American guards carried out their torturing of prisoners with forced nudity and sexual humiliation, and in an emotional tone of joking and laughter. The presence of young women guards in the gender-integrated US Army-- one of whom got pregnant by a leader of the revels-- was a major ingredient in the partying atmosphere. Politicians supporting the guards argued it was nothing more than the fun of a fraternity initiation.  It was so much fun that they couldn't help sending out the photos that implicated them.

Bottom line:  sexual arousal upsets organizational hierarchies. The solution has been to keep it rigidly under control. 

The hypothesis this gives rise to is the opposite of post-Freudian liberation:  the more gender equality in the future, the more Neo-Victorian repression in the realm of work and politics. 

Sexual ugliness

There is another dimension of how sex disrupts everyday life. Since almost all depictions of sex are tittilating, this one runs against the ideological grain:  Sex is often ugly.

Freud himself said, the sight of the genitals is not beautiful, although it is exciting. This is confirmed by photographic evidence. There are exceptions, but these help tell the sociological story.

The history of pornographic magazines in the 20th century provides evidence on how sexuality is depicted in styles varying from idealized to ugly. The first successful magazines (Playboy, founded 1953; Penthouse, founded 1965) projected an upper-class image, a fantasy of sexual luxury. Playboy reached a peak monthly circulation in 1972, at 7 million copies-- for a time it had the second biggest circulation of any magazine of any kind except TV Guide.  Penthouse peaked in 1984 at 5 million.

Put this in context of the so-called Pubic Wars: Playboy had pioneered in showing beautiful nudes and semi-nudes, including stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, featuring bare breasts and pin-up leg shots. Under competition from Penthouse, by the early 1970s Playboy was showing similar women, in luxurious lingerie and decorator interiors, with a hint of pubic hair. Peak circulation in 1972 was early on in this process of genital strip-tease. By 1973-75, Penthouse was showing the same kind of luxurious bedroom scenes with women’s legs starting to come apart, revealing the interior of the crotch-- through a drawn-out sequence of disguising through shadows, fingers, and semi-revealing panties. Penthouse soft porn photography was famous for the heavy use of flowers, sometimes to set the atmosphere, sometimes to lend cover or suggest shape to the genitals.  Playboy followed suit for a while at a discrete distance.  But as Penthouse in the late 1970s and early 80s printed increasingly clear pictures of genitals with outer labia parted and then inner labia aroused, Playboy began to pull back  to its older pubic-tease standard of its greatest success. [Wikipedia articles; Venusobservations.blogspot.co.uk/pubic-wars]

Although Penthouse followed the pathway of increasingly edgy photos, this was not the formula for greatest market success. By the 1990s, Penthouse had lost much of its circulation, as well as virtually all of its mainstream advertisers. Like most sex magazines of the time, its advertising revenue shrank to telephone sex services. It continued to push the edge as a glossier version of hard-core smaller-circulation magazines, now showing  vaginal penetration as well as oral sex on both male and female genitals.  Penthouse with its money could still present explicit porn with better looking models, high-quality photographers, and luxury settings.  In contrast, Playboy in the 90s held to its stronger market niche of extremely beautiful, clean-cut models in slightly provocative nude poses. This was the luxury-sex market, on the conventional edge of respectability, where Playboy could get the most beautiful models by offering fees as high as $10,000 in the late 1970s (equivalent to $45,000 today)  for the monthly centerfold. Competing  magazines like Gallery in the 1990s offered $2,500 for the monthly winner of amateur nude photo contests featured in the magazine, $25,000 for the yearly winner. But it all went down hill. By 2003, Penthouse went bankrupt, then re-emerged with a modest circulation of 300,000. Playboy too was down, but held on at a respectable 3 million circulation as of 2006. The 40-year sequence is an experiment showing the greater attractiveness of idealized sex over blatant sex.

Another rendition of this history just says the porn magazine business was destroyed by sex on the Internet. This is a factor, but it doesn’t alter the point that blatant sex doesn’t sell so well. Playboy, the most conservative sex magazine, survived in reasonable shape, and was joined by new magazines like Maxim, playing for the niche of idealizing a respectably sexy life-style of successful men. Hugh Hefner’s celebrity-laden Hollywood partying style was the biggest attraction, not the amount of explicit sexual display. The most blatant sex magazines were already declining before the Internet  became dominant. A further peculiarity of Internet porn is that most of it is posted for free, by amateurs showing themselves off to each other. This resembles a private enclave of sex cultists, like swingers in a previous generation.

Compare now the sex mags that deliberately aimed at a non-elite, real-life, working-class view of sex. Hustler, founded in 1974, rocketed to a circulation of 3 million by the end of the 70s. It never rose above third place, but it did open a market for more blatant sexual display: what publisher Larry Flynt bragged about as “showing pink,”  i.e. fully lighted photos of open labia and vaginas. It should be noted, though, that Hustler during its early high-circulation years stayed closer to the Playboy/Penthouse style of luxurious settings, often with quite beautiful models. It parted company most blatantly in its cartoon features, rather juvenile satire of the scatological kind, toilet-bowl humor in pictures, with scuzzy-looking derelict characters. This was in sharp contrast to Playboy’s cartoons, which tended to feature stereotypical old roué millionaires with willing bimbos and trophy brides. The social class ambience is explainable in the trajectories of the publishers: Hefner started in the sophisticated literary men’s magazine Esquire, Flynt as promoter of a string of roadside strip clubs.

As Hustler got more blatant, more working-class in appearance, and lost its idealized  settings for pornographic displays, it lost ground in the market faster than its rivals. By the early 2000s, it was hanging on below 500,000 circulation, and offered $1500 for the monthly amateur photo winner.  Even cheaper-style presentations of sex were on the market by the late 1980s and 90s, pioneering photos of actual sexual intercourse (rather than the genital-hiding couples features in classic soft-porn Penthouse that resembled body-double sex scenes in Hollywood movies). A useful comparison is Lips, which imitated a popular feature in Hustler and Gallery: amateur nude photo contests, with cash prizes for the winners. Lips appeared to print more or less all comers, pushing the edge by concentrating on close-up photos of female genitals in their opened and aroused state. There are no luxurious backgrounds, in fact usually no backgrounds at all (although Hustler and Gallery amateur photos show that most of them are taken in cheaply furnished working-class homes or rural outdoors). Such magazines are relatively limited circulation, sold primarily in non-corporate, independent liquor stores and mom-and-pop markets-- lower class all the way around. This is sheer un-idealized genital sex, and one effect is to show how often genitals are rather ugly.

By what standard can one make such a judgment? Beautiful depictions of human bodies are very symmetrical, with clear simple geometry; long graceful curves, proportions that have been calculated as a “golden mean,” inflections of curves that gracefully change direction and convey a geometry of three dimensional solids. Art instruction books tell how to draw a beautiful woman by staying very closely in form; especially drawing the face with as few lines as possible, highlighting the curves of jaw, cheekbones, lips, eyes. Superfluous and complicated lines (not only wrinkles, but contorted body lines) are avoided. Obviously this is not the standards of abstract and expressionist art, but it is the standard of success in erotic art from the pin-up era through the peak of Playboy/ Penthouse/ Gallery market sales.

As one can see in close-up depictions of genitals, and especially labia in an aroused state, they do not often fit the criteria of graceful curves. Aroused genitals are often asymmetrical, full of bulges and pockets; colors when engorged with blood range through purple, brown and grey. This is not universally true, but classically beautiful genitals are probably rare, judging from the array of commercial porn. The 1970s era of the Pubic Wars, when photos at most showed inner labia peeking through the dark hair of outer labia, were piquant, but close-ups of hairy crotches themselves generally are more of an jumble than as aesthetic pattern. This is so even in photos of women chosen for their overall beauty.  In collections of amateur photos of ordinary working-class women, frequently what can be seen of the rest of the woman’s body is flabby, wrinkled, boney, or sometimes with skin eruptions. (This last is completely excluded in magazine porn with professional models, who are selected for their good skin, indeed as the sine qua non of every kind of modeling.) Surprisingly often the fingers and nails shown in crotch shots are unmanicured, even cracked, bandaged, or dirty. One conclusion is that the people submitting these photos (usually the husband or sexual partner of the model) find this an object of desire that outweighs any aesthetic considerations. True enough; these photos come from the lower end of the sexual marketplace, but individuals match up by desire as best they can at that level too. This underscores the point that successful porn depicts a fantasy  of the upper end of the sexual marketplace, where a fantasy of wealth matches a fantasy of perfectly sexy bodies.  And even under those conditions, female genitals are not on the whole highly aesthetic.

The same is true of male genitals. Not to say that male genitals are incapable of being idealized, like Michelangelo’s statue of David; and porn photos sometime show classically beautiful male bodies and even penises with classic proportions. The bigger circulation sex magazines started showing male genitals relatively late, in the 1990s when female genitals had been shown for about 20 years. Why this is the case has not been sociologically explained. Even the most blatant of the sex mags, Hustler, instructed amateur photographers that it would not accept photos of erections, although occasionally it printed frontal photos of “well-hung studs”  in the amateur section. When photos of erections and intercourse started appearing in the 1990s, it became apparent that an erect penis is often bulging with veins, trails off into loose skin, sometimes distended testicles; altogether quite far from the aesthetic criteria of a few smoothly inflected curves. (Depictions of erect penises in ancient pottery and statuary, included ritual door-marking herms, clearly idealized penises to an aesthetic standard, since modern porn photos rarely look so pure.)

Bottom line: comparison of un-idealized, naturalistic photos of both male and female genitals indicates that genitals per se are not the most beautiful part of the body; they rarely fit the criteria of symmetry and graceful geometry that many people display in their legs, hips, breasts, arms and faces. To underline the point: genitals are not usually attractive aesthetically, but of course they can be a powerful center of attraction as the target for sexual action.

Comparing the techniques of idealized and un-idealized pornography shows that erotic attractiveness is constructed through the total effect of the body in its setting. Professional photographers at the high point of soft porn popularity in the 1970s showed genitals in the midst of photos posed and manipulated for maximal aesthetic effect and social prestige in the non-genital features of the photo. Luxurious upper-class and fantasy settings. Women with curvy legs, firmly rounded breasts; long beautiful hair, stylishly coiffed; beautiful faces with high cheekbones and full cupid’s bow lips.  Body postures carefully posed to get at the best angles to display the curve of a thigh or a calf, the hang of a breast; awkward poses eliminated in the pile of rushes. In the midst of the picture, increasingly the peep-hole widening on the crotch. But since close-ups of pubic hair and crotch hair are not in themselves aesthetic, photographers position them as accent marks in the total picture; something like beauty-marks, actually skin blemishes that set off the rest of the face. Of course the genitals are the object of erotic interest, in the fantasy of consummating with oral touch or real penetration, but the photo is frozen in the visual moment. Dark pubic hair was especially dramatic for the total aesthetic project; that nuance disappeared with the shaved style that came in the late 90s.

An analogy is depictions of breast nipples and areolas. During the pin-up era of the 1930s through the 50s, both in drawing and photos, artists worried over the question, to nipple or not to nipple, and if so, how distinctly. Large, dark areolas can have a strong effect as an accent mark, making breasts look spectacular when they echo larger curves with concentric ones. But close-ups of breasts tend to zoom in beyond optimal aesthetic distance. Close-up, nipples and areolas are often lumpy and unsymmetrical; this appears to be especially common for women with very large breasts. Since big-breasted women display the strongest distant marker of female form, they tend to be the favorite for lower-class pornography. Here again we see a contradiction between the object of erotic action and optimum aesthetic presentation.

Finally, we should note that erotic photographs are often manipulated post-production. I am not referring here to censoring features like pubic hair by old-fashioned airbrushing, but the opposite-- making bare bodies look sexier. Photos in sex magazines are often printed in enhanced colors, especially a golden light that makes the skin look honey-blonde or coppery. (One sees this in non-erotic photography as well, especially in tourist magazine photos of hotel lobbies.) Comparison with amateur photos shows what needs to be touched up: natural skin color (even of Caucasians) is often a dull white, yellowish or brownish; the vivid hues are added by professionals. Some magazines print pictures both of the amateur photo submission and the results of the professional photo shoot; the same woman generally looks transformed, not only better coiffed and made up, but her whole body comes across as more vivid.

For all these reasons, the more blatant or hard-core the pornography, the less likely it is to be attractive aesthetically. Sexual ugliness is a fact that is widely covered up for most people in everyday life.

Social repression of sexual ugliness

Thus we have another facet of why totally out-front sex is controlled-- by most people themselves. Concern about sexual ugliness is not unconscious Freudian repression, but Goffmanian strategy of self-presentation.

Not to overlook all the changes that have happened historically in how much of their bodies people have displayed publicly. The bedrock limitation I am pointing to here is about people displaying their genitals. This is very rare throughout all societies, except in privacy with a person one is about to have sex with. It has often been noted that what someone looks like does not match very well with how their body feels up close, and that the quality of intercourse diverges widely from how beautiful or not the partner is. The point remains, that the visual repression of genital display has been widespread, and will likely continue to be so.

What has varied is displaying the rest of the body. Bodily ugliness has changed a great deal in recent centuries. In the Middle Ages, most of the population were ill-nourished, largely unwashed, often afflicted by skin diseases and other illnesses. Medieval aristocrats regarded the peasants who worked their land as dirty animals, hardly sexual objects. The sexual status of non-elite classes improved as indoor servants became better treated. In the early 20th century, working-class people started becoming much better fed, healthier, and better looking. Upper class persons, especially women, started getting more exercise and developed fitter bodies. This is one reason why shorter clothing became popular, especially in the series of economic booms since WWII. More people can wear things like bikinis (invented in 1946), because more people look better in them. The sexual revolutions of the 20th century have a lot to do with these kinds of improvements in general physical health and bodily attractiveness. If the trend continues, some forms of bodily display will further increase in the future-- but we can expect it will be confined to showing the more attractive parts of the body.

Future Limits of Sexual Repression

Further sexual revolutions in the future are certainly possible. In fact, we have been running at the rate of one sexual revolution every 15 or 20 years, since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Gay marriage is only the latest of the series. What else can happen? Sociological predictions take more than imaginative speculation, and are best made when we have a theory of what causes what.

Sexual property regimes have shifted historically depending upon the political uses of sex for family alliances; male and female incomes and wealth-holding; and the bundling of shared household property with sex and love.  All these generate possessiveness, in the form of jealousy and anger when the existing form of sexual property is violated. Whatever else is bundled with sex may well change in the future, but it seems likely bundling of sex with some kind of property will continue.

Sexual markets exist whenever people have choices of partners; this means competition, rejection, and psychological defenses against rejection. In a sexually liberated era, this is a major reason why most people are not very blatant about offering and asking for sex.

Sexual domination, in an era when it is easy to mobilize social protest movements, typically gives rise to counter-movements that restrict sexuality in arenas like work and government. Ironically, sex becomes more scandalous in an era of gender integration.  A similar process in the future may create new arenas for scandals as discrimination against homosexuality declines. Another possible future is that as social class inequality widens-- and we are rushing down that slope-- the advantages of the wealthier occupations will give more sexual leverage to the upper classes. A version of this exists already in the black lower classes of urban ghettos, where men who have jobs or even just substantial illegal incomes have many women seeking them, and can play the sex market in a cavalier fashion. (See the forthcoming ethnography by Waverly Duck, No Way Out.)

Sexual arousal is disruptive of normal routines, and will continue to be confined to enclaves where everyone takes part and outsiders are excluded (the prototype “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” junket).

The contemporary world is thus a patchwork of different arenas, some of them rigidly policed by political correctness, others blatantly displaying idealized images of sex. But sexual display is safest when it happens at a distance, not in personal relationships but for a mass audience; and when it is wrapped in aesthetic and class markers of eliteness and luxury. In the early years of the 21st century, advertisements in women’s fashion magazines-- especially those depicting the fantasy of a non-existent world of total sophistication-- show models in poses that mimic the soft porn of men’s magazines around the early 1970s.

jewelry ad, 2006

luggage ad, 2006

And the future of sexual ugliness? Further advances in electronic technology might produce virtual reality sex-- not just today’s pictures for masturbation but stimulating brain centers so as to convey the actual feelings of sexual intercourse, combined with idealized images of a beautiful body. Ordinary sexual ugliness would be side-stepped, the sexual market of person-to-person barter turned into a completely commercial market for non-human surrogate experiences. And then what? Social processes don’t go away just because of technology. Counter-movements would probably mobilize, treating virtual-reality brain-stimulation sex as dangerous as heroin. Since people generally enjoy sex most with someone they like, love and family will probably not disappear, although they would have to compete in the market with virtual sex.

In short, there will likely always be some social controls on sex. The Oedipus complex may be far behind us, along with the jealous father internalized as the Superego of the child who has to give up sexual desires for the mother. For reasons Freud could not have foreseen, there will always be some mechanisms of sexual repression.


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The term “illegal immigrant” is a contentious one today, when the words we choose are weapons in political argument. But it is possible to clear our heads about what will happen, regardless of whatever we think ought to happen, and what we call the people involved. What is happening to the United States of America now is a replay of what happened in the first great republic. Ancient Romans fought over the status of legally defined aliens in their midst for more than fifty years.

The historical comparison gives us a time perspective we lack: we know what happened down that road. The illegal aliens won. In less than 100 years, ethnic and geographical origins ceased to make any difference in Roman society.

The Fight Over Roman Citizenship

Ancient Rome was a self-governing republic.  Citizens had the right to vote, and the duty to serve in the army. Since they won every war for about 300 years, territory under Roman control expanded, first to all of Italy, then to surrounding regions. The pattern was not unlike the small thirteen colonies that became the United States of America; Romans too sent out colonies to settle on conquered territory, including the Wild West of its time, the tribal frontier of  Spain and France. The Roman state became rich in public land-- farmland, mines, forests, etc-- which it could dispose of to its citizens either as property grants or as leases. This meant that Roman citizens did not have to pay taxes, unlike the conquered peoples. Roman citizenship was a valuable possession.

Rome began as one of many small Italian city-states, and it expanded by making treaties with others. Since independent states might ally themselves with an enemy, Roman alliances tended to have strong elements of threat-- they were forced allies, similar to US policy of interfering in the internal government of weaker states during the Cold War. Rome’s allies were required to send troops in time of war (which was most of the time) and to pay for military expenses. Thus being a Roman ally had considerable disadvantages; they were “friends of Rome” but definitely not citizens. Among other things, they were not allowed to marry Roman citizens, since that would provide a legal path to citizenship (again, some similarities to American laws). Hence there was considerable pressure from the allies, especially those attached to the Roman armies, to be treated like Roman soldiers who shared in the spoils of war.

Roman conservatives resisted widening the franchise. Their center of strength was the Senate, the upper body of the Roman legislature, which appointed most of the officials and generals. Senators were from the long-standing patrician families; but new members of the Senate could be appointed, and so there was some upward mobility-- from former plebian families that had become wealthy and distinguished, and even ex-slaves and former allies who had risen in importance. Conservatives, however, looked down on the newcomers, as merely vulgar rich (although the old families were rich too), and above all lacking in the heroic virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that made up their historic (and somewhat mythological) self-image.

The True Roman Self-Image of their Heroic Past: Oath of the Horatii


The Real American Self-Image of the Heroic Past

Over time, the aliens squeezed through the cracks. The Roman army kept getting larger, as its conquests grew. War casualties, especially in the long fight against Carthage (264-146 BC), its most powerful rival, created a need to raise more soldiers from the allies, and more of them were rewarded by becoming integrated in the Roman legions. Roman soldiers were serving longer and farther away from home, and the small farmer-citizens who were the basis of the militia lost their land; hence they migrated to the city of Rome itself, where they joined in the popular assembly, exercising their voting rights, and more importantly, made a riotous crowd that pressured the decisions of the Senate. What to do with impoverished citizens became a standing problem. One solution was to plant colonies, rewarding ex-soldiers with land from conquered peoples. At first these were in Italy itself, where citizens lived in enclaves next to locally self-governing communities of non-citizen allies-- a condition that made the legal distinction into a form of ethnic segregation. Roman colonists could vote and seek favors from the Senate, but only if they traveled to Rome to exercise their right-- since voting was done only in the public assembly.

Rome’s city population also swelled by an influx of non-citizens-- favor-seekers, merchants, professionals, entertainers. Many such occupational specialists were slaves or ex-slaves. Somewhat surprisingly, being a slave in an important Roman family was a path to upward mobility, since slaves did most of the household and administrative work (being a slave in agriculture or mining was a different story) and many of them were eventually freed as an incentive for loyal service. Since old Roman conservatives looked down on business, ex-slaves became part of the growing capitalist class. Most important of all was a class of capitalists who leased the state's public land, since they had the capital to achieve economies of scale in working large plantations, mines, timber, and importing the food supply to feed the population of Rome. It was a minimalist state in most respects. Rome owned vast properties but had few public officials, and they were appointed to very short terms. Hence most public enterprises were leased out; capitalists undertook to collect taxes, advancing cash for state needs and squeezing what they could out of subject peoples. The New Testament gives us a glimpse of these Roman citizens out in the provinces: Jesus offended local ethnic loyalties by converting tax collectors; and Paul himself was a Roman citizen.  Since the most important state organization was the army, the biggest state-related business was supplying it with weapons, armor, food, ships, and harbors.  Rome thus developed its “military-industrial complex”, similar to the US since late 20th century in outsourcing as much as possible to private contractors.

The illegal alien problem came to a head after 146 BC, when Rome emerged as the hegemon, the dominant state in Mediterranean world. Partisan factions developed in the Roman elite itself; conservative defenders of the old Republic, but also a “democratic” party in favor of redistributing public land, handouts to the poor, and widening the franchise. These were not merely idealists; they had a strong practical concern, that the basis of the old Roman army-- self-sufficient small farmers-- was disappearing and needed to be revived. This the reformers never did achieve; but army reform and franchise reform tended to go in tandem. Leading liberals often came from the ranks of the most successful generals, like Marius and Caesar.  The first famous reformers were the Gracchus brothers, who ran for the highest office under proposals to extend the Roman franchise to at least some of the nearby Italian allies.  Tiberius Gracchus was killed by a crowd of angry senators in 132 BC, as was his brother Gaius ten years later.

The younger Gracchus did succeed in passing a law instituting the dole:  the state undertook to import grain to sell to citizens of the capital below market prices. Handouts by the liberal state became permanent, no conservatives being strong enough to brave the crowds’ demand for the staple of food. Rome created the early welfare state, in effect a massive food stamp program. Poor citizens were never supported to the level of the prosperous classes but their numbers as a political force kept them going for centuries on the public dole. Supplying “bread and circuses” became the path to popularity by subsequent Roman politicians. The elite undertook to keep the people entertained by sports and other spectacles, in stadiums and colosseums that Americans imitate today.

Although franchise reform was defeated, one political crisis after another kept opening loopholes for more resident aliens to become citizens. Around 100 BC, Marius reformed the army; eliminating the old militia in which all land-owning citizens were called each year, and putting in its place a standing army recruited from the impoverished proletariat. Soldiers were now long-term volunteers, supported by regular pay, and rewarded by allotment of lands when their 16-year tour was up. Such armies were much more expensive, and generals had to be capitalists in their own right to raise an army, and aggressive conquerors of new territory in order to pay for it. Marius’ nephew, Julius Caesar, would become the great master of this path to success-- a liberal reformer who made an alliance between some of the richest capitalists and the urban poor.

In the meantime, full-scale war broke out over the question of the franchise. In 91 BC, another liberal reformer, Livius Drusus, ran on a program to give the Roman franchise to all Italians. He was murdered before the vote, giving rise to the Social War that went on from 91-88 BC.  It was so called because the Latin word socii  meant allies-- the war of the long-suffering second-class non-citizens. This time the aliens had strong support, in the liberal faction of the Roman elite, and their new-style popular generals. The Social War dragged on for three years, fought in communities all over Italy. It ended in a compromise, since foreign provinces were taking the opportunity to revolt; peace terms offered Roman citizenship to all those who laid down their arms. Another bloody civil war went on down to 83 BC between the conservative general Sulla and the liberal Marius; the democrats were defeated but in the aftermath the franchise was conceded throughout Italy.  Both sides had come to depend too much upon non-citizen communities for soldiers and support; and so many Romans from high ranking families were killed and expropriated in partisan purges that it brought considerable opportunities for upward mobility.

With Julius Caesar, the pattern was repeated on a larger scale, this time outside of Italy. Caesar recruited large numbers of Gauls, Spaniards and others into his legions; and during his conquests he bargained with friendly tribes by offering some form of citizenship. By the time of his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar was planning to erase the distinction between Italy and the foreign provinces. When peace was reestablished in the reign of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC, all this came to pass. Henceforward, Senators were appointed from all over the Empire, irrespective of origin. The highest offices were open to any citizen, without distinction of ethnicity or geography (of course there were other criteria, such as being rich, and above all a supporter of the ruling faction); emperors themselves came from all parts of Italy and the distant provinces.

It was a surprising example of successful ethnic assimilation.  After about 60 BC, most of the famous authors and politicians had been born outside of Rome: Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid all came from remote parts of Italy. During the following centuries of the Roman Empire, virtually none of the famous names were born at Rome, and they came not only from Italy but from the provinces. At least in the wealthy and educated classes-- the only people that we hear about in the histories-- ethnic distinctions had disappeared. Latin became the universal language throughout the western provinces; all traces of local cultural identities disappeared. In the eastern part of the Empire, where the provinces had  been under Greek-speaking rulers, Greek continued to be spoken but Latin was used in official matters. With the end of a few areas of die-hard resistance, one hears no more of ethnic nationalist movements. The upper classes and the upwardly mobile, at any rate, lived their lives as Romans.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After?

Well, not exactly. The rich kept on getting richer, the poor more displaced from anything except seeking handouts. Generals became politicians and vice versa. Although the ethnic citizenship issue was settled, the struggles turned into civil wars over personal power, until domestic peace was finally established by a hereditary monarchy.

I am not suggesting that America’s future will resemble Rome in every respect. The political struggle between liberal democrats and conservative republicans has been much the same in the history of both countries. But there are structural differences: America is much less centered on the military as its main engine of the economy, and we are full of entrepreneurial capitalism of a kind that hardly existed in ancient times. True, there is a tendency for us to emulate-- no doubt unconsciously-- the Roman practice of franchising out all sorts of government functions, including military logistics, to capitalist big business, thereby making the upper classes even more a recipient of the government dole than the poor.  But this does not drive the economy to anywhere near the extent it did in Rome. And since our government and military are much more bureaucratically organized than in Rome, there is little basis for a struggle between generals bringing about the downfall of the Republic.

My point here is what the illegal alien struggle in Rome tells us about ourselves. Roman conservatives fought against extending citizenship even more violently than their American counterparts. But they still lost. True, the conservatives had the law on their side; and they were right when they accused reformers and ethnic aliens of breaking the law. But the laws were made in their own interest by the conservatives, and their unwillingness to reform made the struggle turn outside legal channels.

The country which is the world center, where wealth and power is concentrated, is inevitably a magnet for those who are poorer and less privileged. Sometimes the magnet does it own expanding, just as the Roman alliances and conquests brought more territory under Roman control, and attracting even more people to Rome. The USA expanded in much the same way, from colonial times, through the Indian Wars, to the Spanish-American War (when we got Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines). Today’s struggle to secure the Mexican border is the same struggle that started in the 1830s, only then it was ethnic Anglo-Americans who settled on Texas land that the Mexican revolution had inherited from the Spanish empire. All the borders that we are militarizing now against illegal aliens-- from Texas and the Southwest to California-- were part of the peace treaty that ended the Mexican-American war in 1846, including the Rocky Mountains states on up to Oregon. It was the biggest land conquest in our history; but the geography is the same and people are still moving across it.

A wealthy and powerful country attracts outsiders not only for economic reasons, but because of its prestige. Its lifestyle becomes the dominant one, setting the standards others imitate, and especially when its citizens have the most rights. Its magnetic attraction for outsiders operates whether peacefully or in the aftermath of its conquests. It has been the same with the other great colonial empires, England and France, both of whose homelands became flooded with immigrants from their former colonies. 

The Future 

Bottom line: as long as the USA is rich and dominant, immigrants will keep on coming, by legal means or illegal.

And the historical lesson is there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Nothing humane, at any rate; doggedly conservative states that stake their identity upon ethnic purity become the nastiest of regimes; when they succeed, it is only through the moral outrages of ethnic cleansing and genocide. America is unlikely to go that route, above all because we have already gone through so much ethnic assimilation in the past so that universalism has become one of our celebrated values.

The Roman comparison shows a silver lining. Despite their violent struggles over citizenship, the aftermath was surprising rapid in putting the issue behind them. Within a generation after full citizenship was granted, ethnic divisions were no longer important for Romans. If we can get to the same resolution, the time-table of our future should be about the same.


Ancient sources, especially Polybius; Appian.
Especially good is the synthesis in Michael Mann, 1986, The Sources of Social Power,  
Vol. 1, chapter 9.
P.A. Brunt, 1971. Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic.
Keith Hopkins, 1981. Conquerors and Slaves.
C. Nicolet, 1980. The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome.
Michael Rostovtzeff, 1929. A History of the Ancient World.
Paul Harvey, “Birthplaces of Latin Authors,” The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.


The Great Gatsby is considered a major classic above all for its tight plot structure. It is also the great self-portrait of the Jazz Age, and has been filmed many times for its over-the-top party scenes, not to mention the reckless driving around in flashy convertibles.

What makes it work, though, is the way it is structured: two interlocking love triangles closely packed into a short book.

The love triangle is a very old plot device that doesn’t show any sign of wearing out. A love triangle is a tense network because there are two very strong ties-- the two rivals with their love object-- plus a strong negative tie between the rivals.

How do authors and film-makers get so much mileage out of it? Aside from inserting a love triangle into different social and historical settings, there are three main possibilities:

[1] Vary the focus on different members of the triangle. Take one of the rivals as protagonist; or zoom in on the emotional struggles of the person in the middle; or give everybody equal time; etc.  Make the conflict quick or long drawn-out; highlight being faithful or flighty; end happily or tragically.

[2] Link two or more triangles together.

[3] Locate the point of view in an outsider to the triangle. If the outside narrator has to discover what is going on, it adds mystery to the inner tension of the triangle. The driving force becomes finding out what is happening, combined with the unresolved plot tension of what is yet to happen.

A simple triangle: Casablanca

The structure doesn’t have to be complicated to make it work. One of the most famous films of all time, Casablanca, consists of one simple triangle.

The story is told almost entirely from the POV of Rick, the American bar-owner. There is his on-and-off romance with the beautiful Ilsa, explained in flashbacks after she walks into his saloon in Morocco with another man. The man turns out to be Ilsa’s husband, Victor Lazlo, heroic leader of the anti-Nazi underground throughout Europe.

Unlike many love triangles, there is no conflict between the two rivals; they respect and even like each other. So the plot tension is driven mainly by the love-hate relationship between Bogart’s character and Ingrid Bergman’s character. Since Bogart has the documents that will enable a couple to get out of Casablanca and escape the Germans, Ilsa tries to get them from him by various appeals. Finally she pulls a gun on him; when that doesn’t work, Ilsa simply breaks down and tells him he’ll have to make the decisions for both of them from now on. End of triangle; end of plot tension. 

Well, not yet. The effect of the minor figures surrounding the triangle now takes over driving the plot.

The antagonistic part of Lazlo’s network are the Nazis. Bogart starts out neutral, the cynical tough guy only out for himself. But almost everyone who works for him in the saloon is in the anti-Nazi side, and Bogart gets pulled into protecting them. A third part of the penumbra are the Vichy French, like the bar women who consort with the German soldiers. There is also Rick’s quasi-friend, the chief of police Captain Renault (Claude Rains’ character), who is likewise cynical and sophisticated, but with a light and charming manner. Through a series of symbolic confrontations with the Nazis, all provoked by Lazlo, the fence-sitters start standing up for the Resistance. Bogart is pulled along by the minor part of his network--- all secondary characters and bit parts, but Rick as famous saloon-keeper is the patron of a network, which cumulatively adds up to a strong tie. In the end, Bogart goes over to the Resistance and brings his counterpart Captain Renault along with him.


Rounding it off at the end is the love story. The triangle rivalry isn’t quite over, although it takes a new twist.  Bogart and Lazlo take turns showing how noble they are.  Lazlo offers to give up Ilsa so that she can escape; Bogart finally sends her off with Lazlo so that she can support him in the great work he is doing for the cause. In the high-angle perspective of network structure, the woman at the hinge of the triangle is essentially passive, all the decisions being made for her by the men in her life. This is certainly a pre-feminist film. On the other hand, the ending does resonate with the join-the-fight message of this 1942 film: Bogart becomes the typical American soldier leaving his lover behind as he goes off to war, doing what a man has to do. Lazlo, who gets Ilsa, is not quite in the same category as a hero.

The Sun Also Rises: Multiple triangles around a hub 

In Hemingway’s signature novel of Paris in the 1920s, The Sun Also Rises, a series of triangles centered on one woman make up both the atmosphere of  “the lost generation” and the prime mover of the plot.

The central figure in the network structure is Lady Brett Ashley, a beautiful and wealthy widow, who lost her husband and her ideals in the war. In the novel, she is surrounded by past and present lovers, including: [1] Jake Barnes, a cynical American newsman; [2] Pedro Romero, the rising star of the Spanish bullfighting world; [3] Robert Cohen, a gauche young Jewish American; [4] Mike Campbell, another British aristocrat and Brett’s current fiancée, who drinks continually and views everything with cynical amusement.

We never do see things from Lady Brett’s POV, and only the network diagram brings out how central she is. * Take her out of the network and the whole story collapses. Instead, the narrator is Jake Barnes, who is both disgusted with Brett but can’t help carrying a torch for her, as the saying was. They were old lovers, supposedly idealistic ones, but he was wounded in the war and has become impotent, while everyone else centers their lives on their sex drives.

* There appears to be a punning allusion in her name: the British equivalent of the American Social Register that lists members of the hereditary wealthy upper class was called DeBrett’s Peerage.  Hemingway is implying that she represents the topmost elite of the aristocracy, who have thrown themselves into the new 1920s scene of partying, drinking and sexual affairs, like Fitzgerald’s rich young people in America.

Structurally, Jake’s impotence enables Hemingway to let one of the participants in the triangles conduct us through the story-- not that anything is mysterious for Jake, but he is dragged along nevertheless in the feeling of networked doom that Hemingway manages to evoke. Jake knows all the other characters, and in fact the novel starts by Jake talking about how Robert Cohen was a boxing champion at Princeton; and how Cohen is always hanging around his newspaper office. This sounds like starting off on a tangent, but by the end it becomes clear that it is structurally important. Looking at the network where men radiate out from Lady Brett like spokes of a wheel, the plot question is: where is a jealous triangle going to form?

The answer is: Cohen sees Lady Brett in the Paris cafe whirl, and she toys with him, while he becomes obsessed with her. Moving on with the whole group of holiday-makers into Spain, Brett picks up with a beautiful, slender young bull-fighter. Jake is even more sorry to have made this connection for her, because he knows how much bullfighters need to avoid distractions and concentrate on their craft; but there is no stopping Lady Brett. Cohen finds out about this affair, and beats up the bull-fighter in a rage-- a boxing champion being the more dangerous to human beings, especially when he doesn’t understand the code that Hemingway insiders live by.

The story ends with Lady Brett calling on old reliable Jake to get her out of Spain-- a place where an older moral code still prevails and the lost generation’s affairs are barely tolerated. Jake Barnes is more like a real-life version of Bogart’s character in Casablanca, but this time life has no romantic endings, just real regret over what might have been.

The Sun Also Rises is the most serious, and most sociologically acute, of all Hemingway’s novels; and the only one structured around a love triangle.**

** Until Hemingway’s posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, came out in 1986, 25 years after his death, and receiving little attention among his major novels. It is psychologically the most complex of all his novels, plotted around a bisexual love triangle: an attractive and creative young man; his wealthy young wife who wants to immerse herself in him so much that she tries to be the man; and a beautiful Frenchwoman who lets both of them make love to her. The ideal coupling breaks up as the wife directs the triangle more and more aggressively; the young man ends up with the Frenchwoman but without his ideals. Tersely written in the best Hemingway style, it reads like the enigmatic “Hills Like White Elephants” overgrown into a rainforest of love-cum-sex.

The Great Gatsby:  Interlocking triangles plus outside narrator solving mystery  

The construction of The Great Gatsby is especially powerful. The network structure consists of two interlocking triangles:

Triangle number one:
Daisy, the golden girl, belle-of-the-ball, debutante of the year as of five years ago; now married to:
Tom Buchanon, rich inheritor of an old family fortune, athletic and domineering;
Gatsby, upwardly mobile from nowhere into splashy riches; the antithesis of Buchanon in being unrespectable and linked to the criminal underworld; but very good looking and personally dominant.

Left to itself, we can easily imagine how this triangle would work out. Although Daisy and Gatsby had a romantic affair when he was disguised by his army officer’s uniform, in the adult world respectability and money were bound to beat disrespectability and money. Sociological theory of marriage markets shows this from empirical data: marriages tend to be homogamous on as many dimensions as possible.

Fitzgerald’s inspiration was to link this rather standard old-rich vs. nouveau-riche conflict with a second triangle:

Tom Buchanon, the rich man:
Myrtle, a floozy from the working class, the lower class version of the flapper / party girl (of which Daisy is the upper class version);
George Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, a working class looser struggling to run a gas station.

Looking at the network, we discover that the center linking everything together is Tom Buchanon. He is not presented as a sympathetic character, but nevertheless if he is taken out of the diagram, the plot collapses.

Structurally, the central character in a plot-tension network does not have to be sympathetic; nor does much attention have to be directed at him or her. The pivot of the story is inescapable, and may well be the last one standing at the end-- not only like Tom Buchanon, but Lady Brett Ashley.

Pivoting on Tom, the two triangles work themselves out at the same time:

If we take Daisy-Tom-Myrtle as one rivalry triangle, it ends in classic fashion, with Daisy killing Myrtle, her structural rival. Never mind that Daisy kills her by accident with a speeding car through a mix-up of whose car it is; and for that matter, that Daisy knows only that someone like Myrtle exists in her husband’s life although she doesn’t know who she is. Fitzgerald’s plot works with the inevitability of ancient Greek tragedy; the protagonists don’t need to know what they are doing, to bring the structure to its fated resolution.

The other triangle in Tom’s life ends with Wilson killing Gatsby, and then shooting himself. In other words, Tom gets his two male rivals to eliminate each other. This is arranged, half-inadvertently, but sensing an opportunity, by Tom, who tells Wilson (truthfully) who the speeding car belongs to. The rest of the triangles being eliminated, Daisy is back with her respectable rich husband, and they leave this sordid mess for somewhere else in the world, retreating into their vast fortune.

The two-triangle story, murders included, could have been told straightforwardly by an omniscient author or from the point of view of one of the main characters. Fitzgerald however adds a third layer:

This is his narrator, Nick Carraway. He happens to know the other main characters-- Daisy because she is his cousin; Tom because they were classmates at Yale; Gatsby because Nick rents the old caretaker’s house next to his mansion. Everybody drags Nick along with them, and reveals the backstage of their affairs. Tom takes him to the garage and to a drunken party with Myrtle and other flappers. Gatsby invites him to his grand parties, shows him around his mansion, takes him to lunch in New York with his underworld connections. And of course, Gatsby is cultivating Nick so he can re-establish the network link that will bring him and Daisy together, and launch the culminating action of the plot.

The outside narrator gets the early part of the story going, where the main interest is the parties Gatsby gives at his mansion, and all the speculation about who he is and where his money comes from. Nick Carraway is like a naive detective who has the mystery revealed for him. Nick grows in stature towards the end because he is the only person throughout the plot who learns the truth. He alone knows that Gatsby pretended he was driving the fatal car, to save Daisy from a murder rap. This raises Gatsby’s moral standing, but it also is the nail in the coffin of his affair with Daisy, since she can’t go off with a known murderer. (Even though she is a murderer herself; and her husband is indirectly.) So the naive narrator can present a moral judgment on what is going on. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch of them,” Nick says to Gatsby before he goes to the pool and is murdered. No need for Fitzgerald to preach; the structural arrangement of the POV does it for him.

The Graduate: Three consecutive triangles viewed  from inside

Finally, look at the network structure of  The Graduate, another famous film (and book). This consists in three triangles, played in sequence:

First, Benjamin, a young Ivy League graduate moping around home, responds to the wife of his father’s business partner, Mrs. Robinson, and starts a clandestine affair. This is played awkwardly for comedy, until the other parents in the network pressure Benjamin into dating the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine.  Benjamin finds her a respite from the pressures of his clandestine life, and falls in love, thereby setting up the first triangle.  Most of the plot tension in this part is between Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin; structurally mother and daughter are rivals, but the mother can’t tell her that, and so her anger has to come out on the other link of the triangle.

The unusual twist is the mother-daughter rivalry over the same young man (a structural substitution for the father-son rivalry over the same young woman that is at the center of The Brothers Karamazov). In this sense The Graduate resonates with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It also shows there are plenty more permutations possible in the old love-triangle formula, by shifting sexual taboos and gender preferences.

The second triangle develops when Benjamin finds Elaine has another boyfriend. This is Carl Smith, a medical student depicted only vaguely as good-looking, successful and conventional. Carl largely ignores Benjamin and the latter doesn’t even try to play the aggrieved rival;  this leads to another comedy sequence in which Benjamin uses his naive gaucheness as a way of mocking Carl and importuning Elaine to marry him instead.

The third triangle is latently present from the beginning. Having an affair with Mrs. Robinson makes Mr. Robinson the aggrieved husband, and therefore Benjamin’s rival. This doesn’t come out until late in the plot-- as a device to retard the action of triangle number two, when Mr. Robinson shows up at Benjamin’s rooming house and threatens him with a lawsuit. Keeping this triangle latent also makes the point that Mr. Robinson is sort of a nothing; his wife has stopped sleeping with him so he is no real rival. Benjamin never gives him a thought, and literally tells him so, in a comedic apology that makes things worse. Structurally, Mr. Robinson is just one of the cliché-spouters that Benjamin perceives as populating the entire older generation; all the more reason why this triangle is not very important in driving the action.

The final action sequence is when Benjamin breaks into the wedding to Carl Smith, calls out Elaine, and successfully fights off the families and wedding guests to escape on a bus.  This rounds off triangle two with a happy ending.

Structurally, triangle one has already played itself out when Benjamin leaves southern California, the site of his affair with Mrs. Robinson, and follows Elaine to Berkeley. In that sense, the plot sequence of The Graduate is rather simple; one triangle is succeeded by another, and it is all told from Benjamin’s POV. There is a brief period of linkage between the triangles, when Mrs. Robinson tries to alienate Elaine from him by telling her that he raped her mother. Surprisingly, Elaine gets over her outrage rather quickly. Is this a flaw in the plot? Perhaps so;  but notice that Elaine’s actions in the sequence of triangles are much the same as Ilsa’s in Casablanca.  The heroine emotes and vacillates in her triangles, but she lets other people decide things for her: taking her mother’s standpoint in the first triangle, then prevailed upon by first one man, then the other, in the second triangle. Despite the coincidence that The Graduate appeared as a film in 1967, when the 1960s counter-culture was becoming famous, it is not feminist viewpoint.

It isn’t even a counter-culture viewpoint. The irony is that some of the scenes were shot on the Berkeley campus (during production a year or two previously), but the rebellious long-haired counter-culture style is nowhere in evidence, and certainly not in the preppy Benjamin with his upper-class kid’s Italian sports car. In real life, Benjamin and Elaine of the late 1960s would not have gotten married; they would have smoked dope, joined a commune or at last cohabited, taken part in demonstrations and played around with revolutionary politics. The reason they don’t do any of these things is that The Graduate was initially a novel by Charles Webb, published in 1963 when the 60s still looked like the 50s; the author graduated from tweedy ivy league Williams College a few years earlier, and that is the atmosphere still shown in the movie. It is more The Catcher in the Rye, a 1951 depiction of existentialist alienation in an elite Eastern prep school. Benjamin is Holden Caulfield a few years older, and having discovered sex.

Triangles and sexual revolutions

Anachronisms in the setting don’t make that much difference for successful drama.  The network structure of interlocking triangles is perfect for dramatizing sexual revolutions, with new sexual behaviors filling in the content. The first modern sexual revolution was the 1920s, when the old-fashioned marriage market overseen by parents was superceded by the flirtatious partying scene depicted by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Both novelists were social observers, and their material came from both sides of the Atlantic, at virtually the same moment (1925-26). * The second sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s became far more radical, challenging marriage by cohabitation, the gay movement, and feminism.  This second sexual revolution received its iconic statement in The Graduate, not because it is an accurate portrayal of what was happening, but because the dramatic structure of a succession of triangles is so memorable.

* The best explanation of the change is in Fitzgerald’s 1936 essay, “The Crack-up.” Fitzgerald named it “the Jazz Age,” but in the early 1920s, “jazz” did not mean music—it was a slang word for sex.

We could go further back. In the 1780s, a precursor to the French Revolution was Liasons Dangereuse, where cynical aristocrats compete in manipulating triangles by the arts of seduction.  And way back, near the beginning of the Western literary tradition, there is the drama of Oedipus-- a real shocker, locating the triangle inside the family. But all great literature is anchored in major social conditions and changes.  Oedipus represents  actual events in the kinship politics of ancient Greece and the Middle East.  (explained in my blog, “Really Bad Family Values,” The Sociological Eye, March 2014)

When you read or view something that has a plot, try drawing triangles.


The tank man photo is the most famous image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement in Beijing. Indeed it is considered one of the most famous photos of the 20th century.   It has become a symbol of human resistance, a lone individual stopping a whole column of tanks. 

What the photo claims to symbolize, however, is only very partially true.  It is not a photo of Tiananmen Square, but of a boulevard nearby.  It was not taken during the crackdown on demonstrators, which took place on June 3 and the following night, but on the quiet morning of June 5, after Tiananmen Square had been cleared and government control had been reestablished in Beijing. And it was not a successful protest. The tanks stopped briefly; two men came into the street and took the protestor away.

The photo was taken by an American newsman,   from a hotel balcony 800 meters distant--about half a mile. It was shot through a telephoto lens, like so many news photos of recent decades. This is one of the marvels of modern technology, and a hidden one: how seldom do we stop to think of how the photographer got so close, so near the action where history is made? Compare the equally famous, infinitely shocking photo from South Vietnam 1972 of children running from napalm—where did we think the photographer was standing? 

Telephoto lenses allow us to intrude closely into events that the participants would probably like to keep hidden. It is one of the sharpest differences between our images of the world before about 1960 and the present. The Vietnam War was the first war in history where we could see what it actually looked like. Before then, we had to be content with what officials allowed for patriotic publication, plus (as of World War II) candid shots of soldiers, generally far behind the front lines. And not just for violence in war, but violence in all its peacetime forms, telephoto lenses have brought us first-hand records of how violence really looks. And other forms of conflict, too—the expressions on faces and bodies that give us clues to how conflict plays out, and enable us to cut through the rhetoric and the mythology that have obscured it since humans first began to tell lies about violence.

I would go so far as to say that the telephoto lens, even more than the advent of television, has changed our access to reality. Even more than the camcorder which in 1991 first showed the police beating Rodney King; even more than the ubiquitous mobile phone cameras that now flood the Internet-connected world with images. The reason I make this exorbitant claim is that all the other devices depend on being up close; the telephoto lens zooms in from a great distance. It can go where it is too dangerous or too private for other devices to go. Unlike TV, it gives us photos that are not posed, since no one knows there is a camera to pose for. And it can give photos of great detail—the emotional expressions on faces, the exact postures of bodies, that are so important for a micro-sociologist’s explanation.  The purpose of my writing, however, is not to pick a fight as to which visual technology is best; they all work together to make our times the golden age of visual sociology. 

Having extolled telephoto images, I want to raise a caveat about their limits. Taken out of context, they carry the danger of modern myth-making. To see what is distorted and what can be salvaged, let us examine the tank man photo in greater depth.

The Surrounding Context of the Tank Man Photo

The Beijing democracy demonstrations began on April 17, 1989, and went on for 50 days until they were crushed. The tank man photo was taken on day 51. Here I will summarize only the very last days. (More detail on the entire sequence is given in my post, Tipping Point Revolutions and State Breakdown Revolutions: Why Revolutions Succeed or Fail, The Sociological Eye, June 2013.) /sociological-eye/2013/06/tipping-point-revolutions-and-state.html

Over the 50 days, the size of the crowds at Tiananmen Square rose and fell. After most of the initial enthusiasm had fallen off, on day 28 (May 13), the remaining few hundred militants launched a hunger strike, which recaptured public attention, and brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to Tiananmen. On day 34 (May 19), the Communist elite purged its dissidents and declared martial law, and began to bring troops into Beijing.

The next four days were a showdown in the streets; crowds of residents blocked the army convoys; soldiers rode in open trucks, unarmed-- the regime still trying to use as little force as possible, and also distrustful of giving out ammunition-- and often were overwhelmed by residents. Crowds used a mixture of persuasion and food offerings, and sometimes force, stoning and beating isolated soldiers. On May 24 (day 39), the regime pulled back the troops to bases outside the city. The most reliable army units were moved to the front, some tasked with watching for defections among less reliable units. In another week strong forces had been assembled in the center of Beijing. 

Momentum was swinging back the other way. Student protestors in the Square increasingly divided between moderates and militants; by the time the order to clear the Square was given for June 3 (day 49), the number occupying was down to 4000. There was one last surge of violence-- not in Tiananmen Square itself, although the name became so famous that most outsiders think there was a massacre there-- but in the neighborhoods as residents attempted to block the army's movement once again. Crowds fought using stones and gasoline bombs, burning army vehicles and, by some reports, the soldiers inside. In this emotional atmosphere, as both sides spread stories of the other’s atrocities,  something on the order of 50 soldiers and police were killed, and 400-800 civilians (estimates varying widely). Some soldiers took revenge for prior attacks by firing at fleeing opponents and beating those they caught. In Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, the dwindling militants were allowed to march out through the encircling troops.

The Tank Man Photo and What It Shows

The Tank Man photo was taken the following morning. The revolutionary crowds had been beaten. Massive arrests were being made, especially of workers, whom the government regarded as far more dangerous than students. Hundreds of thousands of security agents were beginning to spread across the country, picking off suspects one by one, ultimately arresting tens of thousands in the following months. The tipping point had passed, and the regime had clearly won.

What then was the point of the tank man protest?  By his white shirt and dark trousers, we can surmise that he was a government bureaucrat, a class of people whose sympathies were strongly on the side of the protestors. But it is also a category of persons, numerous in all demonstrations, who offer support but do not take part in the actual confrontations with authority.  In virtually all photos of demonstrations and riots everywhere in the world, a small portion of crowd is at the front doing the violence, while most stand at a distance and watch. Very likely tank man had seen or heard about the previous days’ violence, and came forward in the quiet atmosphere to do something to demonstrate his own commitment.

As we can see in the photo, the streets are virtually empty. He has no visible supporters, although a small audience gathered on the sidewalk to watch from a distance. On the other hand, the tank troops too are anonymous, hidden inside their armored stations. The tanks are moving slowly, making a show of force, not an actual military operation.  – One can know this, because the tanks are in column, a parade-like movement; deployed into combat they would go into line. I would surmise that the soldiers are calm; their action has been over for 24 hours or more.

Thus it is a symbolic confrontation: the lone man, respectably dressed in the garb of the urban apparatchik, stepping in front of the column of slow-moving tanks. In that atmosphere, there is little danger of being run over. The lead tank swerved to avoid him, but he kept in its path until it stopped. Very likely the troops had returned to the orders that prevailed during days 34-38, when unarmed troops were sent to assemble in the city as quietly as possible, and had given no resistance when crowds forced them back. On the whole, the regime had used a mixture of appeasing the crowds, waiting for them to dwindle away, and sporadic application of military force. On day 51, they were back into the mode of calm normality. The government machinery was operating again; bureaucratically organized investigations and individual arrests were the regime’s weapon now. The rebellious crowd has its best chance when it is assembled in huge numbers, in an atmosphere of emotional support that flows outward, dangerously lapping at the solidarity of the government apparatus. Now the crowd has dispersed; and it is in this configuration that bureaucratic authority can exercise its unrelenting and comparatively unemotional control.

And that is what happens. Tank man steps in front of the tank column; the lead driver stops; the tank drivers behind him stop because the tank in front stops. Two men in dark suits come and take tank man away.  The column grinds slowly on.

When Does Local Resistance Succeed?

It would have been an unknown incident except for the newsmen in the hotel with the telephoto lenses. Pictures of violence on the previous days were just making their way into Western newspaper and television, so little attention was paid to the exact sequence when things happened. A famous photo showed bicycles crushed in a street where fighting had taken place—and in the absence of photos of actual bodies, these were taken as emblems of how the revolution had been crushed. It was easy to conjure up a scenario of tanks rolling over a crowd of demonstrators. And then, in the midst of this—the heroic image of the man who stopped the tank column. All was not lost: the human individual still prevails.

We are living in the realm of symbolism here, not in the realm of history. Never mind that no one stopped the tanks, or more likely the trucks that rolled over the bicycles and carried troops into the streets where fighting had taken place 36 hours earlier.  It carries a nice message, although only through the more careful retrospect of micro-sociology do we actually see what it is:  the violent confrontations between crowds and army on June 3 and the early hours of June 4—confrontations in which violence was used on both sides—did not stop the army. But at the right moment, approached with the tools of non-violence, the army was stopped. 

Micro-sociology, above all, attempts to be realistic.  Violence cannot be stopped everywhere. Sometimes force rolls on and crushes everything in its path. But—sometimes violence is stopped. It happens locally, and by persons acting in local conditions.  This is something to build on. What are those conditions?

Comparisons:  Pockets of Successful Non-violent Peace-making in Riots

Turn now to the work of Dr. Anne Nassauer, of the Free University, Berlin. Using videos posted on-line from mobile phone cameras, plus GPS maps of streets, charting time-lines from police radio traffic, in short with the whole array of tools now available, she reconstructs protest demonstrations in Germany and the US.  With this cutting-edge media high-tech, she is able to reconstruct the micro-history of protests and to pin-point just when and where a demonstration will turn violent.  On the whole, I should mention, Nassauer finds that most demos stay peaceful, and their peacefulness can prevail even when militant protestors announce in advance that they will use force; or indeed, when police announce a tough crack-down-on-everything policy.  That is to say, whether a protest turns violent or not depends on local and emergent conditions; violence-threatening events can end up peaceful, and peaceful demos can turn violent.

I will not try to summarize here Nassauer’s findings of the several pathways that lead to violence. Let us concentrate on a single point:  if violence has already broken out, nevertheless all is not lost. It is not too late to stop the violence—not everywhere, but locally, at the place where human individuals use the right techniques.  What are those techniques?

When the police surge forward and the crowd starts running and ducking, people are likely to be beaten.  Photos often show clusters of police or soldiers, attacking anyone in their path—swinging clubs at women, old people, news reporters, anyone. 

Minsk demonstration 2006

Katmandu 2006

This is an emotional rush by the police, that I have called Forward Panic.  It is like the crowd contagion of running away, except in this case forces that have been pent up by confrontational tension, run forward into the vacuum left by a sudden weakness on the other side. It is an adrenaline surge that has been kept in suspense, suddenly released into action. That is why the police go out of control, swinging at anything in their path. It is important to see that this is a reciprocal emotion—the crowd running away is the counterpart of the police running forward, the display of emotional weakness feeding the surge of dominance of the attackers. In Nassauer’s data, she often finds that when one cop at the front swings at a target—it may be a person who has stumbled and fallen to the ground—the cops just behind will also swing at the same target. One policeman’s attack leads others to repeat the attack.

But—and here is the good news—Nassauer also finds that these attacks can be stopped locally.  When an individual stands still, directly facing the police, and calls out in a strong, clear voice:  “We are peaceful. What about you?” – or words to that effect, the attack almost always stops. 

This does not mean that the riot as a whole can be stopped in this way.  There can be hundreds or thousands of persons spread out over a considerable space. Violence in a riot is not like one huge rugby scrum, not like huge battle-lines of ancient phalanxes, but a series of little clusters of violence here and there.

Each one of these clusters may be checked, could be rendered no longer violent, by the right local action.

To repeat: the details are important. The peace-making person must stand still, no longer moving. When almost everyone’s back is turned, he or she stands in direct eye contact with the on-coming forces. And one’s voice must be clear and steady, neither threatening nor fearful.

Especially important is not to scream.  Someone in the crowd, in the fear or rage of being attacked, can cry out the identical words:  “WE ARE PEACEFUL!! WHAT ABOUT YOU!!” but in this case it will not work.  The police perceive and feel the crowd as being out of control. To scream at the police does not correct this impression, but reinforces it. Screaming is an expression of being out of control; and that is precisely the problem with the interactional situation. Tension and fear pervades everything, and the violence is coming out of the situation of one-sided emotional dominance by the police. The victim who screams does nothing to change the emotional field. It is the strong, calm tone that changes it, back towards local equilibrium, where the violence stops.

A similar technique can work when it is not a confrontation of police (or soldiers) versus a protesting crowd, but a violent attack by one crowd upon another. David Sorge, in research at University of Pennsylvania (2014), shows that in an incident of communal violence in India, the technique was used that stopped violence in a specific location.  The individual under attack was a peace-maker, a citizen who had stood up in a town meeting the day before, to urge the Hindu populace not to pay attention to rumours and not to attack the local Muslims.  As often happens in the early phases of communal violence, the peace-maker became targeted as a traitor. A crowd gathered in front of his house and pelted it with stones, the usual preliminary to an attack. But the peace-maker came out of the front of his house carrying a chair. Before anyone could attack him—there is usually a time-lag of shouting before someone starts the personal assault—he stood up on the chair and started to make a speech in a loud voice. The crowd quieted down and eventually dispersed.

Notice the details. He stood up above the crowd, where he could be seen. He met them face to face. For the members of a violent crowd, usually the target is someone anonymous up there behind all the surging bodies; for the few in the front with clearer visibility, someone cringing, showing weakness and fear, usually cowering, hiding their face, or knocked to the ground where all we can see is their side and back. Standing up in a prominent position, in this instance the peace-maker remained a human individual. He spoke in a loud, strong voice, not in anger, but resolutely.  He spoke to them as individuals, and took apart the collective emotion of the crowd, where each relies on the others to carry out acts of violence that ordinarily would outrage our moral sensibilities.

Again, we must recognize, it was a local solution only.  The riot as a whole was not stopped. The crowd moved elsewhere, where emotional dominance was easier to establish. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful sign. The whole pattern of a riot consists in all its local parts; and the more of these parts that can be stopped, the less damage it does.
Practical Advice in Violent Crowd Situations

--Don't turn your back.

--In a situation of violent threat, don't hide your face.

--Don't run away in panic.

--Above all, don't fall down.

That is to say: your eyes and your face are your strongest weapon of defense.

--Keep up a clear confrontation with a potential attacker. But don't raise the level of tension; don't scream; don't make further threats; just keep it steady as you can.

--Don't get isolated as a single individual surrounded by a cluster of about half a dozen attackers. This is the configuration in photos where persons are badly beaten. Try to stay with at least a small cluster of your own side, but not in the panicky flight mode.

I should add that this advice is for non-violent participants. It is unclear that they will work if you are throwing rocks, fire-bombs, or engaging in other kinds of violence.

This advice is drawn from research on the micro-sociology of riots. Does it work in other kinds of threatening situations, both more organized or macro-structured violence such as massacres and war, and in more individualized confrontations like street fights?

Our field of research has much more to do in examining all these types. But so far, the results are optimistic. The desk clerk in the Atlanta school on August 20, 2013 [http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/21/us/georgia-school-gunshots/] who calmed down an armed man threatening a rampage shooting shows that even the most dangerous situations may be defused. Research colleagues have told me they have walked safely through a violent riot in Tehran, by keeping in mind what emotional tone they were projecting in their body language, playing neither attacker nor victim.  Stefan Klusemann's research (2010, 2012), on the tipping-points to genocidal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and in Rwanda, shows that even in the midst of a mass-murder campaign, there are micro-situational stumbling blocks, and threatened victims sometimes escape by a timely show of emotional resoluteness.

Lowering the Tension: Putting the Situation Back in Emotional Equilibrium

When the confrontation is one-on-one, the prospects are especially optimistic that violence can be avoided.  We are accumulating a significant amount of data on such situations, and two patterns stand out.

First:  The audience has an important effect.  Public fights rarely get very far without audience support.  Most angry arguments stay at the level of bluster and insult, unless the audience shows that it wants them to fight. The audience that cheers and urges them on will almost always get a prolonged fight. A neutral or uneasy audience, standing at a distance, usually results in a brief fight without much damage. And when an audience (or part of it) tries to intervene, it is almost always successful in stopping a fight. This pattern is shown in my comparison of fight incidents with different audience reactions (Collins 2008); in British research using CCTV videos of fights in pubs (Levine et al. 2011); and studies of what network relationships result in successful third-party interventions (Phillips and Cooney 2005).

There are limits to this pattern. It applies to arguments and fights in public, but not to domestic violence, which often takes place without much of an audience. (But there is ongoing research here, too, investigating the effects of indoor audiences that may be present.)  Since domestic violence is a considerable portion of small-scale violence, that is a serious limitation on our optimistic news. On the other hand, the following point applies both to domestic and public violence:

Second:  Small-scale conflict and violence peters out when the emotional field is in equilibrium.  That means:  when both sides are showing the same amount of emotional energy, the same degree of bodily agitation, the same emotional intensity.  This equilibrating effect can take place at any level of intensity, as long as both sides are evenly matched.  Research on mobile phone videos of street fights (Jackson-Jacobs) shows that even in the case of fights that have already started (and where the audience is distant and neutral) tend to wind down after both sides have thrown a few blows. On the whole, evenly matched fights do not do very much damage; the high level of adrenaline arousal makes fighters sloppy and incompetent, and Jackson-Jacobs’s videos show the fighters who have thrown a few wild punches tend to let their swings carry themselves out of range, where the fight devolves into threats, and eventually into mutual disengagement.  After all, in an honor fight, it is showing one’s willingness to fight that counts, not the result.

Let me conclude with a favorite photograph.  It was taken in Jerusalem during the height of the second Intifada, and it shows an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian political leader locked in angry conflict.

Jerusalem stalemate 2000

The news story tells there was no violence at this flash point of sacred territories that day. The angry confrontation wound down and ended. How?

The photo shows the two men exactly mirroring each other. Reading the facial expression of emotions using Ekman’s methods, we see them displaying anger, and in an identical manner: both have the hard, staring eyes, the clenched eyebrows with the vertical line between them, the square, shouting mouth. As is characteristic of angry talk, both are vocalizing at the same time, not listening to what the other has to say. Their faces, like their bodies, are tensed like muscles about to strike. But they do not strike.

They are in equilibrium at a high level of intensity.  From similar incidents observed over a few moments of time, we can surmise that they eventually become tired of the situation. No one else in the crowd is taking up their level of intensity; they are doing all the audience’s work for it. It is boring to say the same thing over and over again, getting no intelligible response. They will deescalate, going down the scale of emotional intensity simultaneously, keeping in equilibrium step by step.

They will become bored. And in situations of conflict, boredom is the pathway to peace.

The Tank and the Human Face

Micro-sociology delivers some good news. Some kinds of violence we are able to mitigate. This is on the micro-level, face-to-face with a potential attacker.

Another level is harder to handle, or at least it will take another approach. This is violence at the level of the organization or bureaucracy. 

If we take the column of tanks as a symbol of the hundreds of military vehicles and thousands of soldiers in Beijing, we are seeing the public face of an organizational network stretching far off into the distance. Orders to advance are given somewhere else, by a face we never see, a voice we never hear. Techniques of human face-to-face confrontation will not work here.


This is not to claim that the distant strategists are purely rational and coolly calculating. Their decisions are made in an atmosphere of emotions pervading the network of organized power, in counterpoint to the waves of emotions among the crowds who come into the streets over a period of weeks. It may be a long-distance chess game, but one played in shifting moods of anger or fear, confidence or deflation, righteousness and revenge-- and occasionally magnanimity.  The macro-level pattern is one of counter-escalation and de-escalation, and it has its time-dynamics that spread over weeks and months (Collins 2012).

There may be grounds for optimism about what sorts of processes can head off violence on the macro level too, although in some phases there is a kind of steam-roller momentum that is extremely dangerous once it gets rolling. We are learning about these kinds of time-dynamics, hopefully adding more tactics to the toolbox for peace.

In the meantime, as individuals in threatening situations, we can do our bit.

Appendix: How to regain calm when your heart is pounding

It's all very well to say, turn and face your attacker, call out in a firm strong voice, don't run and don't panic. But how do you manage to do this if your adrenaline is pumping and your heart is going 160 beats per minute?

There is a technique that will bring your heartbeat down, and with it, the panicky effects of adrenaline and the inability to control your voice. A useful version is described by Dave Grossman, a psychologist formerly with the US Army:

Repeat the following sequence of breathing:
-- breathe in slowly, counting 4 seconds (one-alligator, two alligator, three-alligator, four-alligator)
-- hold your breath for 4 seconds (counting...)
-- breathe out slowly, counting 4 seconds
-- hold your breath out (lungs empty), counting 4 seconds

do it again:
-- breathe in slowly, 4 seconds
-- etc.
as many times as you need until your get your breathing and heart rate under control.

Remember the details. This is not the simple cliché, take a deep breath. It is the rhythm you are after, the timing of how long each breath and holding period is. Your goal is to change your body rhythm. And after you accomplish that, to change the rhythm of the person confronting you.


Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2012. “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review  77: 1-20.
Paul Ekman,  1985. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage.
Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen,  1975. Unmasking the Face.  
Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
Curtis Jackson-Jacobs. 2011. "Social Organization in Violence." Research in progress, UCLA.
Stefan Klusemann. 2010. “Micro-situational antecedents of violent atrocity.”  Sociological Forum 25:272-295.
Stefan Klusemann. 2012. "Massacres as process:  A micro-sociological theory of internal patterns of mass atrocities." European Journal of Criminology 9: 438-480.
Mark Levine, Paul J. Taylor, and Rachel Best. 2011.Third Parties, Violence, and Conflict Resolution” Psychological Science 22 (3) 406–412.
Anne Nassauer.  2013.  Violence in demonstrations.  PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Scott Phillips and Mark Cooney. 2005.  "Aiding Peace, Abetting Violence: Third Parties and the Management of Conflict." American Sociological Review 70: 334-354.


What is charisma when you see it? Charismatic leaders are among the most famous persons of past history and today. What was it like to meet a charismatic leader? You fell under their spell. How did they do it?

One of the best-described of all charismatic leaders is Jesus. About 90 face-to-face encounters with Jesus are described in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Notice what happens:

Jesus is sitting on the ground, teaching to a crowd in the outer courtyard of the temple at Jerusalem. The Pharisees, righteous upholders of traditional ritual and law, haul before him a woman taken in adultery. They make her stand in front of the crowd and say to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law commands us to stone her to death. What do you say?”

The text goes on that Jesus does not look up at them, but continues to write in the dirt with his finger. This would not be unusual; Archimedes wrote geometric figures in the dust, and in the absence of ready writing materials the ground would serve as a chalkboard. The point is that Jesus does not reply right away; he lets them stew in their uneasiness.

Finally he looks up and says: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” And he looks down and continues writing in the dust. 

Minutes go by. One by one, the crowd starts to slip away, the older ones first-- the young hotheads being the ones who do the stoning, as in the most primitive parts of the Middle East today.

Finally Jesus is left with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightens up and asks her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She answers: “No one.” “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go now and sin no more.” (John 8: 1-11)

Jesus is a master of timing. He does not allow people to force him into their rhythm, their definition of the situation. He perceives what they are attempting to do, the intention beyond the words. And he makes them shift their ground.

Hence the two periods of tension-filled silence; first when he will not directly answer; second when he looks down again at his writing after telling them who should cast the first stone. He does not allow the encounter to focus on himself against the Pharisees. He knows they are testing him, trying to make him say something in violation of the law; or else back down in front of his followers. Instead Jesus throws it back on their own consciences, their inner reflections about the woman they are going to kill. He individualizes the crowd, making them drift off one by one, breaking up the mob mentality.

The Micro-sociology of Charisma

Jesus is a charismatic leader, indeed the archetype of charisma.  Although sociologists tend to treat charisma as an abstraction, it is observable in everyday life. We are viewing the elements of it, in the encounters of Jesus with the people around him.

I will focus on encounters that are realistic in every respect, that do not involve miracles-- about two-thirds of all the incidents reported. Since miracles are one of the things that made Jesus famous, and that caused controversies right from the outset, some miracles will be analyzed. I will do this mostly at the end.

(1) Jesus always wins an encounter
(2) Jesus is quick and absolutely decisive
(3) Jesus always does something unexpected
(4) Jesus knows what the other is intending
(5) Jesus is master of the crowd
(6) Jesus’ down moments
(7) Victory through suffering, transformation through altruism

(Appendix) The interactional context of miracles

(1) Jesus always wins an encounter

When Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, the chief priests and elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied: “I will also ask you a question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism-- where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human  origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why don’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”  Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Matthew 21: 23-27; Luke 20: 1-8) He proceeded to tell the crowd a parable comparing two sons who were true or false to their father. Jesus holds the floor, and his enemies did not dare to have him arrested, though they knew the parable was about themselves.

Jesus never lets anyone determine the conversational sequence. He answers questions with questions, putting the interlocutor on the defensive. An example, from early in his career of preaching around Galilee:

Jesus has been invited to dinner at the house of a Pharisee. A prostitute comes in and falls at his feet, wets his feet with her tears, kisses them and pours perfume on them. The Pharisee said to himself, “If this man is a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him-- that she is a sinner.”

Jesus, reading his thoughts, said to him: “I have something to tell you.” “Tell me,” he said. Jesus proceeded to tell a story about two men who owed money, neither of whom could repay the moneylender. He forgives them both, the one who owes 500 and the one who owes 50. Jesus asked: “Which of the two will love him more?” “The one who had the bigger debt forgiven,” the Pharisee replied. “You are correct,” Jesus said. “Do you see this woman? You did not give me water for my feet, but this woman wet them with her tears and dried them with her hair... Therefore her many sins have been forgiven-- as her great love has shown.”

The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7: 36-50)

Silencing the opposition

Jesus always gets the last word. Not just that he is good at repartee, topping everyone else; he doesn’t play verbal games, but converses on the most serious level. What it means to win the argument is evident to all, for audience and interlocutor are amazed, astounded, astonished: they cannot say another word.

He takes control of the conversational rhythm. For a micro-sociologist, this is no minor thing; it is in the rhythms of conversation that solidarity is manifested, or alienation, or anger. Conversations with Jesus end in full stop: wordless submission.

His debate with the Sadducees, another religious sect, ends when “no one dared ask him any more questions.” (Luke 20: 40)  When a teacher of the Law asks him which is the most important commandment, Jesus answers, and the teacher repeats: “Well said, teacher, you are right in saying, to love God with all your heart, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on, no one dared ask him any more questions. (Mark 12: 28-34)

A famous argument ends the same way:

The priests send spies, hoping to catch Jesus in saying something so that they might hand him over to the Roman governor. So they asked: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Jesus knowing their evil intent, said to them, “Show me the coin used to pay taxes.” When they brought it, he said, “Whose image is on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  And they were astonished by his answer, and were silent.  (Luke 20: 19-26; Matthew 22: 15-22)

As with the woman taken in adultery, again there is an attempted trap; a turning of attention while everyone waits; and a question-and-reply sequence that silences everyone. Jesus does not just preach. It is at moments like this, drawing the interlocutor into his rhythm, that he takes charge.

(2)  Jesus is quick and absolutely decisive

As his mission is taking off in Galilee, followers flock to hear him. Some he invites to come with him. It is a life-changing decision.

A man said to him: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus replied: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”

It is a shocking demand. In a ritually pious society, there is nothing more important that burying your father. Jesus demands a complete break with existing social forms; those who follow them, he implies, are dead in spirit.

To another would-be recruit he underlines it: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9: 57-62; Mark 8: 19-22)

Charisma is total dedication, having it and imparting it to others. There is nothing else by which to value it. Either do it now, or don’t bother.

This is how Jesus recruits his inner circle of disciples. He is walking beside the Sea of Galilee, and sees Simon and Andrew casting their net into the lake. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. A little further on, he sees James and his brother John preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father in the boat and followed him. (Mark 1: 16-20; Matthew 4: 8-22.  Luke 5: 1-11 gives a longer story about crowds pressing so closely that Jesus preaches from a boat, but it ends with the same abrupt conversion; here the influence of the crowd is more visible than in the truncated versions.)

Jesus recruits not from the eminent, but from the humble and the disreputable. Among the latter are the tax collectors, hated agents of the Roman overlord. There is the same abrupt conversion: As Jesus is passing along the lake with a large crowd following, he sees a man sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said, and the man got up, left everything, and followed him.

They have a banquet at his house (Luke 5: 27-32; Mark 1: 13-17; Matthew 9: 9-13), with many tax collectors and others eating with the disciples. The Pharisees complained, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 

Jesus perceives who will make a good recruit, and who will not.

(3) Jesus always does something unexpected

Being with Jesus is exciting and energizing, among other reasons because he is always surprising. He does not do or say just what other people expect; even when they regard him as a prophet and a miracle-worker, there is always something else.

Pharisees and teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled. They asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But as to what is inside you-- be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.”

He goes on with further admonitions, and his opponents accuse Jesus of insulting them. Jesus called the crowd to him to hear. The disciples came to him privately and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” Jesus replied: “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”
Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? ... But out of the heart come evil thoughts-- murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Matthew 15: 1-20; Mark 7: 1-23; Luke 11: 37-54)

Ritual purification is what concerns the pious and respectable of the time; Jesus meets an accusation with a stronger one. Even his closest disciples do not escape the jolt. “Are you still so dull? Don’t you see?” Everyone has to be on their toes when they are around this man.

How does Jesus generate an unending stream of jolts? He has a program: mere ritual and the righteous superiority that goes with it is to be brought down and replaced by humane altruism, and by spiritual dedication. When his encounters involve miracles, or rather people’s reaction to them, the program bursts expectations:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, and a women was there who was crippled for 18 years, bent over and unable to straighten up. Jesus called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not of the Sabbath.”  Jesus answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham... be set free on the Sabbath from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted.  (Luke 13: 10-17.  Similar conflicts about healing on the Sabbath are in Luke 6: 6-11; Matthew 12: 1-14; and Luke 14: 1-6, which ends by silencing the opposition.)

It is not the miracle that is at issue; what makes the greater impression on the crowd is Jesus’ triumph over the ritualists. It is also what leads to the escalating conflict with religious authorities, and ultimately to his crucifixion.

Nearer the climax, Jesus enters Jerusalem with a crowd of his followers who have traveled with him from Galilee in the north, picking up enthusiastic converts along the way. He enters Jerusalem in a triumphant procession, greeted by crowds waving palm fronds. Next morning he goes to the temple.

In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” (Another text quotes him:) “Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of thieves.’”  The chief priests and teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (John 2: 13-16; Mark 11: 15-19)

One text gives a tell-tale detail: Immediately after entering Jerusalem in the palm-waving crowd, Jesus went into the temple courts.  He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to the nearby village of Bethany with the Twelve. (Mark 11: 11)  Jesus clearly intends to make a big scene; he is going to do it at the height of the business day, not in the slack time of late afternoon when the stalls are almost empty. Jesus always shows strategic sense.

Why are the animals and the money changers in the temple in the first place? Because of ritualism; the animals are there to be bought as burnt sacrifices, and the money changers are to facilitate the crowd of distant visitors. But also it was the case, throughout the ancient world and in the medieval as well, that temples and churches were primary places of business, open spaces for crowds, idlers, speculators, merchants of all sorts. In Babylon and elsewhere the temples themselves acted as merchants and bankers (and may have originated such enterprises); in Phoenicia and the coastal cities of sin anathema to the Old Testament prophets, temples rented out prostitutes to travelers; Greek temples collected treasure in the form of bronze offerings and subsequently became stores of gold. Jesus no doubt had all this in mind when he set out to cleanse the temple of secular transactions corrupting its pure religious purpose.

Jesus is not just shocking on the large public scene; he also continues to upend his own disciples’ expectations. In seclusion at Bethany, he is reclining at the dinner table when a woman came with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of the disciples said indignantly to each other, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.  But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare me for my funeral.” (Mark 14: 1-10; Matthew 26: 6-13)

A double jolt. His disciples by now have understood the message about the selfishness of the rich and charity to the poor. But there are circumstances and momentous occasions that transcend even the great doctrine of love thy neighbour. Jesus is zen-like in his unexpectedness. There is a second jolt, and his disciples do not quite get it. Jesus knows he is going to be crucified. He has the political sense to see where the confrontation is headed; in this he is ahead of his followers, who only see his power.

(4) Jesus knows what the other is intending

Jesus is an intelligent observer of the people around him. He does not have to be a magical mind-reader. He is highly focused on everyone’s moral and social stance, and sees it in the immediate moment. Charismatic people are generally like that; Jesus does it to a superlative degree.

He perceives not just what people are saying, but how they are saying it; a socio-linguist might say, speech actions speak louder than words.

So it is not surprising that Jesus can say to his disciples at the last supper, one of you will betray me, no doubt noting the furtive and forced looks of Judas Iscariot. Or that he can say to Peter, his most stalwart follower, before the cock crows you will have denied me three times-- knowing how strong blustering men also can be swayed when the mood of the crowd goes against them in the atmosphere of a lynch mob. (Mark 14: 17-31; Matthew 26: 20-35; John 13: 20-38)

Most of these examples have an element of Jesus reading the intentions of his questioners, as when they craftily try to trap him into something he can be held liable for. Consider some cases where the situation is not so fraught but he knows what is going on:

Invited to the house of a prominent Pharisee, Jesus noticed how the guests vied for the places of honor at the table.  He told them a parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than yourself may have been invited... and, humiliated, you will have to move to the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to the host, “...When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you-- as your relatives and rich friends would by inviting you back-- you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14: 7-16)

It is an occasion to deliver a sermon, but Jesus starts it with the situation they are in, the unspoken but none-too-subtle scramble for best seats at the table. And he makes a sociological point about the status reciprocity involved in the etiquette of exchanging invitations.

Jesus sees what matters to people. A rich young man, inquiring sincerely about his religious duties, ran up to Jesus and fell on his knees. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked, as usual answering a question with a question.  “No one is good-- except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor give false testimony, nor defraud; honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, and sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come and follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great riches. (Mark 10: 17-22; Luke 18: 18-30; Matthew 19: 16-26)

Jesus knows who to recruit, who is ready for instantaneous commitment, by watching them. As his crowd of followers passed through Jericho, a chief tax collector wanted to see Jesus, but because he was short he could not see over the heads of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a tree. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” People began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus said to Jesus, “Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times the amount.” (Luke 19: 1-10) 

This is the theme again, recruiting among sinners. But Jesus is a practical leader as well as an inspirational one. He normally sends out forerunners to line up volunteers to lodge and feed his traveling followers (Luke 10: 1-16; Matthew 26: 17-19;); in this case, he has picked out a rich man (class distinctions would have been very visible), and someone who is notably eager to see him. No doubt Jesus’ perceptiveness enables him to pick out early disciples like Peter and the other fishermen.

Jesus’ perceptiveness helps explain why he dominates his encounters. He surprises interlocutors by unexpectedly jumping from their words, not to what conventionally follows verbally, but instead speaking to what they are really about, skipping the intermediate stages.

(5) Jesus is master of the crowd

The important events of Jesus’ life mainly take place in crowds. Of  93 distinct incidents of Jesus’ adult life described in the gospels, there are at most 5 occasions when he is with three or fewer other people. *  When he is outdoors, he is almost entirely surrounded by crowds; in the early part of his mission in Galilee he periodically escapes the crowds by going out on boats and climbing remote mountainsides in order to pray in solitude. The crowds increase and follow him wherever he goes. Indoors, 6 incidents take place at banquets, including an overflow wedding party; 3 in synagogues; 2 are hearings before public authorities. There are also 9 occasions when he is backstage with his disciples, although often there is a crowd outside and people get in to see him.  Altogether, for Jesus a relatively intimate gathering was somewhat more than a dozen people, and most of his famous interactions took place with twenties up through hundreds or even several thousands of people amidst whom he was the center of attention.

* John 1: 35-42; two of John the Baptist’s disciples seek out Jesus after John has pointed him out in the crowd of the Baptist’s own followers, and the two spend the afternoon visiting Jesus where he stays. This is before Jesus is baptized and starts his own mission.  Luke 9: 28-30; Matthew 17: 1-13; Mark 9: 2-13; Jesus with three disciples go up on a mountain to pray, where they see him transfigured.  John 4: 31-42; Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well while his disciples have gone into town for provisions; they have a one-on-one conversation, and many in her village become believers that he is the Savior of the world, among other reasons because he has broken the taboo on Jews associating with Samaritans.  John 3: 1-21; Jesus is visited at night by a Pharisee who is a member of the ruling council; no one else is mentioned as present, although the conversation leads to some of the most famous Bible passages, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Presumably someone heard this and wrote it down; not unlikely since Jesus always stayed in a house full of his disciples. Mark 14: 32-42; Matthew 26: 36-46; Jesus goes with his disciples (the Twelve minus Judas) plus at least some others to pray at Gethsemane. He then takes three close followers, goes a little further into the garden, and prays in anguish while the others fall asleep. This is the one important place in the narration where Jesus is alone, and the one time that he shows anxiety. I do not count the 40 days he spent praying in the wilderness before beginning his ministry; the only incidents described for this period are not pinned down in time and circumstance and all involve talking with the devil. I will discuss these below in the section on apparitions.

Crowds are a major source of Jesus’ power. There is a constant refrain: “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”  (Matthew 7: 29) His enemies the high priests are afraid of what his crowd of followers will do if they attack Jesus. As the challenge mounts in Jerusalem on the last and greatest day of the Passover festival, Jesus preaches in the temple courts in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” The crowds are divided on whether he is the Messiah. The temple guards retreat to the chief priests, who ask them, “Why don’t you arrest him?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards reply.  “The mob knows nothing of the law,” the Pharisees retort, “there is a curse on them.” (John 7: 37-49)

Judas’ betrayal of Jesus consists in telling the priests when and where Jesus will be alone, so that he can be arrested. Alone, relatively speaking; there are at least a dozen of his followers with him at Gethsemane, but it is for arranging the absence of the crowd that Judas receives his 30 pieces of silver. (Luke 22: 2-6) The signal is to mark Jesus with a kiss, so the guards will know whom to seize in the dark.

Charismatic leaders live on crowds. There is no such thing as a charismatic leader who is not good at inspiring crowds; and the micro-sociologist adds, being super-energized by them in turn. Crowd and leader are parts of a circuit, emotional intensity and rhythmic coordination flowing from one to the other: charisma as high-amp electric current. It is what the Bible, especially in the Book of Acts, calls the holy spirit.

Jesus as archetype of the charismatic leader also shows how a charismatic movement is organized. His life moves in three spheres: crowds; the inner circle of his twelve disciples; and withdrawing into solitude. The third of these, as noted, does not figure much in the narration of important events; but we can surmise, from sociological research on prayer, that he reflects in inner dialogue on what is happening in the outer circles, and forms his resolve as to what he will do next.

The inner circle has a practical aspect and a personal aspect. Jesus recruits his inner disciples, the Twelve, because he wants truly dedicated followers who will accompany him everywhere. That means giving up all outside commitment, leaving occupation, family, home town. It means leaving behind all property, and trusting that supporters will bring them the means of sustenance, day after day. In effect, they are monks, although they are not called that yet. Thus the inner circle depends on the outer circle, the crowds of supporters who not only give their emotion, but also food, lodging, whatever is needed. Jesus is the organizer of a movement, and he directs his lieutenants and delegates tasks to them. Early in his mission, when the crowds are burgeoning, he recognizes that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” and sends out the Twelve to preach and work miracles on their own, accelerating the cascade of still more followers and supporters. (Luke 9: 1-6; Mark 6: 7-13; Matthew 9: 35-38; 10: 1-20.)

When Jesus travels, it is not just with the Twelve, but with a larger crowd (who are also called disciples), somewhere between casual supporters and his inner circle. These include some wealthy women-- an ex-prostitute Mary Magdalene, women who have been cured by Jesus, the wife of a manager of King Herod’s household-- and they help defray expenses with their money. (Luke 8: 1-3) Even the Twelve have a treasurer: Judas Iscariot, pointing up the ambiguity of money for a movement of self-chosen poverty.  With  big crowds to take care of, Jesus expands his logistics staff to 70.  (Luke 10:1-16) He concerns himself about whose house they will eat in. Jesus accepts all invitations, even from his enemies the Pharisees; he especially seems to choose tax collectors, since they are both rich and hospitable and recognize their own need of salvation. It is the size of his peripatetic crowds that bring about the need for multiplying loaves and fishes and turning water into wine. Jesus’ crowds are not static, but growing, and this is part of their energy and excitement.

The inner circle is not just his trusted staff.  It is also his backstage, where he can speak more intimately and discuss his concerns and plans.  “Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks the Twelve, when the movement is taking off. They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”           

“But what do you say?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone. Jesus goes on to tell them that the Son of Man will be rejected by the chief priests, that he must be killed and rise again in three days. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Jesus turned and looked at the rest of the disciples. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” he said. “Your mind is not on the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Mark 8: 27-33;  Matthew 16: 13-23)

There is a certain amount of jostling over who are the greatest of the disciples, the ones closest to Jesus. Jesus always rebukes this; there is to be no intimate backstage behind the privacy shared by the Twelve. Jesus’ charisma is not a show put on for the crowds with the help of his staff; he is charismatic all the time, in the backstage as well. Jesus loves and is loved, but he has no special friends. No one understands what he is really doing until after he is dead.

Jesus is famous for speaking in parables. Especially when referring to himself, he uses figurative expressions, such as "the bread of life," "the light of the world," "the shepherd and his sheep." The parables mark a clear dividing line.  He uses parables when he is speaking to the crowds, and especially to potential enemies such as the Pharisees. Their meaning, apparently, did not easily come through; but audiences are generally impressed by them-- amazed and struck speechless, among other reasons because they exemplify the clever style of talking that deflects questions in unexpected directions. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” Jesus proclaims. (Mark 4: 9)

His Twelve disciples are not much better at deciphering parables, at least in the earlier part of his mission; but Jesus treats them differently. It is in private among the Twelve that he explains the meaning of parables in ordinary language, telling “the secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4: 10-34; Matthew 13: 34-52; Luke 8: 4-18 ) They are the privileged in-group, and they know it. Jesus admonishes them from time to time about their pride; but he needs them, too. It is another reason why living with Jesus is bracing. There is an additional circuit of charismatic energy in the inner  circle.

But it is the crowds that feed the core of the mission, the preaching and the miraculous signs. As his movement marches on Jerusalem, opposition mobilizes. Now Jesus begins to face crowds that are divided or hostile.

The crowd begins to accuse him: “You are demon-possessed.” Jesus shoots back: “Stop judging by appearances, but instead judge correctly.” Some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask each other, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Here he is speaking publically, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded he is the Messiah? But we know where this man is from; when the Messiah comes no one will know where he is from.” Jesus cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.”  At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him... Still, many in the crowd believed in him. (John 7: 14-31)

Another encounter: Those who heard his words were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” But others said: “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10: 19-21)

The struggle shifts to new ground. The festival crowd gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you did not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish... My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s  hand. I and the Father are one.”

Again his opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “...Why do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?  Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. (John 10: 24-42)

Jesus can still arouse this crowd, but he cannot silence it. He does not back off, but becomes increasingly explicit. The metaphors he does use are not effective. His sheep that he refers to means his own crowd of loyal followers, and Jesus declares he has given them eternal life-- but not to this hostile crowd of unbelievers. Words no longer convince; the sides declaim stridently against each other. The eloquent phrases of earlier preaching have fallen into cacophony. Nevertheless Jesus still escapes violence. The crowd is never strong enough to dominate him. Only the organized authorities can take him, and that he does not evade.

(6) Jesus’ down moments

Most of the challenges to Jesus’ charisma happen during the showdown in Jerusalem. A revealing occasion happens early, when Jesus visits his hometown Nazareth and preaches in the synagogue. First the crowd is amazed, but then they start to question: Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Aren’t his mother and brothers and sisters among us? Where did he get these powers he has been displaying in neighbouring towns? When Jesus reads the scroll and says, “Today the scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” they begin to argue. Jesus retorts: “No prophet is honored in his home town,” and quotes examples of how historic prophets were rejected. The people in the synagogue are furious.  They take him to the edge of town and try to throw  him off the brow of a cliff. “But he walked right through the crowd and went his way.” (Luke 4: 14-30; Matthew 13: 53-58) Even here, Jesus can handle hostile crowds.  Including this incident of failure gives confidence in the narrative.

Another personal challenge comes when he performs one of his most famous miracles, bringing back Lazarus from the dead. Jesus' relationship with Lazarus is described as especially close. He is the brother of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, whose house Jesus liked to stay in; and Lazarus is referred to as "the one you (Jesus) love." Jesus had been staying at their house a few miles outside Jerusalem, a haven at the time when his conflict with the high priests at the temple was escalating. When the message came that Lazarus was sick, Jesus was traveling away from trouble; although his disciples reminded him that the Jerusalem crowd had tried to stone him, he decided to go back. Yet he delayed two days before returning-- apparently planning to wait until Lazarus dies and then perform the miracle of resurrecting him. First he says to his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him up." When this figure of speech is taken literally, he tells them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe."

When he arrives back in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days.  A crowd has come to comfort the sisters. Why were they so popular? No doubt their house was strongly identified with the Jesus movement; and thus there is a big crowd present, as always, when Jesus performs a healing miracle.

But this is the public aspect. For the personal aspect: Each of the two sisters separately comes to meet Jesus, and each says, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." After Mary, the second sister, says this, Jesus sees her weeping and the crowd who had come with her also weeping, he is deeply moved. (The King James translation says, "groaning in himself.") "Where have you laid him?" Jesus says. "Come and see," she answers. Then Jesus wept.

They come to the tomb; Jesus has them roll away the stone from the entrance. Again deeply moved, Jesus calls out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!"  For some time afterwards, people come to Bethany to see Lazarus, the man who had been raised from the dead. (John 11: 1-46)

Leaving aside the miracle itself and its symbolism, one thing we see in this episode is Jesus conflicted between his mission-- to demonstrate the power of resurrection-- and his personal feelings for Lazarus and his sisters. Jesus let Lazarus die, by staying away during his sickness, in order to make this demonstration, but in doing so he caused grief to those he loved. The moment when he confronts their pain (amplified by the weeping of the crowd), Jesus himself weeps. It is the only time in the texts when he weeps. It is a glimpse of himself as a human being, as well as a man on a mission.

Jesus’ next moment of human weakness comes in the garden at Gethsemane.  “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” Though he left his disciples nearby with instructions to “pray that you will not fall into temptation,” they all fell asleep, exhausted from sorrow. Jesus complains to Peter, “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for one hour?” But he adds, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” But their eyes were heavy, and they did not know what to say to him. (Luke 22: 39-46; Mark 14: 32-42; Matthew 26: 36-46) Everybody’s emotional energy is down.

Particularly personal is the passage when Jesus on the cross sees his mother standing below, “and the disciple whom he loved standing near by. Jesus said to her: ‘Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, the disciple took her into his house.” (John 19: 25-27)  What is so telling about this is the contrast to an event during Jesus’ early preaching in Galilee, when his mother and siblings try to make their way to him through a crowd of followers. Someone announces, “Your mother and your brothers are outside waiting to see you.” Jesus looks at those seated in a circle around him and says: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 8: 19-21; Mark 3: 31-35) But on the cross he is not only thinking of fulfilling scripture, but of his own lifetime relationships.

Pierced by pain, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” “And with a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.” (Mark 15: 21-41; Matthew 27: 30-55)  Ancient myths of dying and annually resurrecting nature-gods are not described like this-- i.e. humanly; nor are the heroic deaths of Plutarch’s noble Greeks and Romans.

Other than in the anxious hours of waiting at Gethsemane, and the torture of the crucifixion, Jesus confronting his accusers is in form and on message.  When the high priests and temple guards approach to arrest him, Jesus calmly asks who they want. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they reply. When he says, “I am he,” they shrink back. Jesus takes the initiative: “If you are looking for me, let these men go.” When they seize Jesus, one of his followers draws a sword and cuts off the ear of a priest’s servant. “Put away your sword!” Jesus says to him, “for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.” To the hostile crowd, he says, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not dare to arrest me. But this is your hour.” (Matthew 26: 47-56; Luke 22: 47-55; John 18: 1-12)

Then all his disciples deserted him and fled. Peter, the boldest of them, followed at a distance to the outer courtyards when Jesus was being interrogated within.  But Peter too is intimidated when servants question whether he isn’t one of Jesus’ followers. Peter denying Jesus shows how Jesus’ own crowd has been dispersed, broken up and unable to assemble, and in the face of a hostile crowd lose their faith.  Strength is in the crowd, and now the opposing crowd holds the attention space.

But indoors, in a smaller setting of rival authorities, Jesus holds his own. Before the assembly of the high priests, Jesus wins the verbal sparring, if not the verdict. Many hostile witnesses testify, but their statements do not agree. The priests try to get Jesus to implicate himself, but he keeps a long silence, and then says: “I said nothing secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me.”  When Jesus said this, an official slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” Jesus replied, “If what I said is wrong, testify as to what is wrong. If I spoke the truth, why do you strike me?” The chief priest asks him bluntly: “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replies. (Mark 14: 53-65; Matthew 26: 57-63; John 18: 19-24)

Finally Jesus is taken before Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus gives his usual sharp replies, and indeed wins him over. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asks. “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asks in return, “or did others talk to you about me?” Pilate: “Your own people and chief priests have handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would prevent my arrest.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered: “You say I am a king. In fact, I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  “What is truth?” Pilate replied, and breaks off before an answer. (Mark 15: 1-5; Matthew 27: 11-26; John 18: 24-40)

And he goes to the crowd gathered outside the palace to say he has found no basis for a charge against Jesus. Pilate tries to set him free on a legal loophole but gives in to the crowd demanding crucifixion. After Jesus dies, Pilate gives permission for a sympathizer to take the body away instead of leaving it for ignominious disposal. Pilate’s style of behavior, too, comes across the centuries as real.

In the crises, Jesus’ interactional style remains much the same as always; but the speaking in parables and figurative language has given way to blunt explanations. Parables are for audiences who want to understand. Facing open adversaries, Jesus turns to plain arguments.

Charisma, above all, is the power to make crowds resonate with oneself. Does that mean charisma vanishes when the power over crowds goes away? *  But that would mean charisma would not be a force in drawn-out conflicts; more useful to say that charisma has its home base, its center in enthusiastic crowds, even when the charismatic leader is sometimes cut off from base.

* Historical examples include the public popularity of Gorbachev rocketing like fireworks in the middle of the 1980s in a movement for Soviet reform, but dissipating rapidly in 1991 when he is overtaken by political events and shunted aside. Jesus is a stronger version of charisma that survives adversity. More on this in a future Sociological Eye post on theory of charisma.

Charisma is a fragile mode of organization because it depends on enthusiastic crowds repeatedly  assembling. Its nemesis is more permanent organization, whether based on family and patronage networks, or on bureaucracy. Jesus loses the political showdown because the authorities intimidate his followers from assembling, and then strike at him with a combination of their organized power of temple and state, bolstered by mobilizing an excited crowd of their own chanting for Jesus’ execution. But even at his crucifixion, Jesus wins over some individual Roman soldiers (Luke 23: 47; Matthew 27: 54), although that is not enough to buck the military chain of command. This tells us that the charismatic leader relates to the crowd by personally communicating with individuals in the crowd, a multiplication of one-to-one relationships from the center to many audience-members. But charismatic communication cannot overcome a formal, hierarchic organization where individuals follow orders irrespective of how they personally feel.**

**  The “cast the first stone” incident shows, in contrast, how a charismatic leader takes apart a hostile crowd by forcing its members to consult their own consciences. 

As we have seen, Jesus can handle hostile questioning from crowds in the temple courts, even if opponents have been planted there by an enemy hierarchy. It is not the crowd calling for crucifixion that overpowers Jesus, but the persistent opposition of the priestly administration. Sociologically, the difference is between charismatic experience in the here-and-now of the crowd, and the long-distance coordination of an organization that operates beyond the immediate situation.

(7) Victory through suffering, transformation through altruism

When Jesus is arrested in the garden at Gethsemane, he tells his militant defenders not to resist. “Do you think I cannot call my Father, who will send twelve legions of angels? But how would the scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”  (Matthew 26: 47-56) Jesus does not aim to be just a miracle worker; he is out to transform religion entirely.

Miracles, acts of faith and power in the emotionally galvanized crowd, are ephemeral episodes. As Jesus goes along, his miracles become parables of his mission. He heals the sick, gives the disabled new life, stills the demonic howling of people in anguish. He lives in a world that is both highly stratified and callous. The rich are arrogant and righteous in their ritual correctness-- a Durkheimian elite at the center of prestigious ceremonials. They observe the taboos, and view the penurious (and therefore dirty) underclass not just with contempt but as sources of pollution. Jesus leads a revolution, not in politics, but in morals. From the beginning, he preaches among the poor and disabled, and stirs them with a new source of emotional energy. Towards the rich and ritually dominant, he directs the main thrust of his call for repentance-- it is their attitude towards the wretched of the earth that needs to be reformed. The Jesus movement is the awakening of altruistic conscience. *

* It does not start with Jesus. John the Baptist also preaches the main points, concern for the poor, against the arrogance of the rich. Earlier, Jewish prophets like Isaiah and Amos had railed against injustice to the poor. Around Jesus' time, there may have been inklings of altruism in the Mediterranean world but if so they had little publicity or organization. Greek and Roman religious cults and public largesse were directed to the elite, or at most to the politically active class, and do not strike a note of altruism towards the truly needy. Ritual sacrifices of children for military victory carried out by the Carthaginians took place in a moral universe unimaginable to modern people.  Middle-Eastern kingship was even more rank-conscious and ostentatiously cruel. See my post, “Really Bad Family Values”  The Sociological Eye, March 2014.

The moral revolution has three dimensions: altruism; monastic austerity; and martyrdom.

Altruism becomes an end in itself, and the highest value. Giving up riches and helping the poor and disabled is not just aimed at improving material conditions for everyone. It is not a worldly revolution, not a populist uprising, but making human sympathy the moral ideal. Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the humble, Jesus preaches, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Luke 6: 17-23) Altruism comes on the scene historically as the pathway to otherworldly salvation. ** What is important for human lives is the change in the moral ideal: it not only gives hope to the suffering but calls the elite to judge themselves by their altruism and not by their arrogance.

** The mystery cults of the Hellenistic world (Orphics, Hermeticists, Neo-Pythagoreans and Neo-Platonists, various kinds of Gnostics etc.) had the idea of otherworldly salvation, but not the morality of altruism. Their salvation was purely selfish and their pathways merely secret rituals and symbols. They were still on the ancient side of the revolution of conscience.

The movement is under way at least a little before Jesus launches his mission at age 30.  John the Baptist preached repentance before the coming wrath. “What should we do?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they said, “what should we do?” John replied, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely-- be content with your pay.” (Luke 3: 1-14) Repentant sinners were baptized in the river.  To the Pharisees and Sadducees-- who will not repent and be baptized-- John thunders, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”  Later, when John’s disciples come to visit Jesus’ disciples, Jesus speaks to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? ... A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet.” Jesus goes on to compare his mission to John’s.  “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners. But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”  (Luke 7: 18-35)  Jesus not only amplifies John’s mission, he also moves into another niche: not the extreme asceticism of the desert, but among the lower and middle classes of the towns and villages.

Monastic austerity.   Jesus’ disciples give up all property, becoming (as John the Baptist did *) the poorest of the poor. But they are not as the ordinary poor and disabled. They retain their health, and have an abundance of the richness of spirit, what they call faith-- i.e. emotional energy.  Committed disciples who have left family, home and occupation, rely on the enthusiasm of a growing social movement to provide them with daily sustenance. They live at the core of the movement. Since this location is the prime source of emotional energy, there is an additional sense in which living by faith alone is powerful.

*  Matthew 3: 1-8 stresses John’s asceticism, a wild man living in the wilderness on locusts and honey, dressed in clothes of camel’s hair.

Later this arrangement became institutionalized as the relationship between monks and lay people. ** During the missionary expansion of Christianity, monks were the pioneers, winning converts and patrons on the pagan frontiers through personal impressiveness-- their institutionalized charisma, which is to say Christian techniques of disciplined austerity generating emotional strength. Still later, movements like the Franciscans, deliberately giving up monastic seclusion to wander in the ordinary world among the poor and disabled, combine austerity with a renewed spirit of altruism and thereby create the idealistic social movement. Altruistic movements first used modern political tactics for influencing the state in the late 1700s anti-slavery movement, but the lineage builds on the moral consciousness and social techniques that are first visible with the Jesus movement.

** There were precedents of monasticism in the 300s BC such as the Cynics, who lived in ostentatious austerity--- such as Diogenes living in a barrel. Cynics denounced the pitfalls and hypocrisy of seeking riches and power, but they lacked any concern for the poor and did not advocate altruism.

Martyrdom.  The crucifixion of Jesus becomes, not the end of the movement, but its rallying point. The cross becomes the symbol of its members, and a source of personal inspiration for individuals in times of suffering and defeat. We are so used to this symbol that the enormity of the shift is lost on us. Crucifixion, which existed for several hundred years previously in the authoritarian kingdoms of the Middle East before spreading to Rome, was an instrument of death by slow torture, a visible threat of state terrorism. When the Sparticist revolt of gladiators was put down in 71 BC, the Romans crucified captured gladiators for hundred of miles along the roads of southern Italy. To turn the cross into a symbol of a movement, and of its triumph, was a blatant in-your-face gesture of the moral revolution: we cannot be beaten by physical coercion, by pain and suffering, it says; we have transformed them into our strength. Martyrs succeed when they generate movements; and are energized by the emotional solidarity of standing together in a conflict, even in defeats.

That is why ancient cultural precedents of fertility gods who die by dismemberment but are resurrected like the coming of the crops in the following year do not contain the social innovation of Christianity.  Fertility gods may be depicted as suffering but their message is not moral strength, and their cult concerns recurring events in the material world, not otherworldly salvation. **

** Euripides is the nearest to an altruistic liberal in the Greek world; but his play The Bacchae-- depicting an actual contemporary movement of frenzied dancers that challenged older Greek religious cults--  breathes an atmosphere of ferocious violence and revenge, the polar opposite of the Christian message of forgiveness and charity. Euripides’ plays focus the audience’s sympathy on the sufferings of individual characters, but these are members of elite families who suffer in from shifting fortunes of the upper classes. There is not even a glance at the poor.

Martyrdom also becomes institutionalized in the repertoire of religious movements. In its early centuries, Christianity grows above all by spectacular and well-publicized martyrdom of its hero-leaders. (There is also a quieter form of conversion through networks attracted to its moral style, its care for the sick, and its organizational strength.  Stark, The Rise of Christianity).  Martyrdom becomes a technique for protest movements, and movement-building.

“What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” Nietzsche was to write. Ironically: for all his attacks on the moral revolution of Christianity, this is a Christian discovery he is citing. Religious techniques set precedents for modern secular politics. Protest movements win by attracting widespread sympathy for their public sufferings, turning the moral tables on those who use superior force against them. This too is world-changing. It is little exaggeration to say that the moral forces of the modern world were first visible in the Jesus movement.

Appendix.  The Social Context of Miracles.

Some modern people think that Jesus never existed, or that the stories about him are myths. The details of how Jesus interacted with people in the situations of everyday life consistently show a distinctive personality. All texts about the ancient past are subject to distortion and mythologizing tendencies; but an objective scholar, with no axe to grind one way or the other, would conclude that what we read of Jesus is as valid as what Plutarch summarizes from prior sources about Alexander or Pericles, or what other classical writers reported about exemplary heroes. The gospels have an advantage of being written closer to the lifetime of their subject, and possibly by several of Jesus’ close associates.

What about the miracles? I will focus on what a micro-sociologist can see in the details of social interaction, especially what happens before and after a miracle. I will examine only those miracles that are described as happening in a specific situation, a time and place with particular people present. Summaries of miracles by Jesus and his disciples do not give enough detail to analyze them, although they give a sense of what kinds of miracles were most frequent.

Let us go back to a question that has been hanging since I have discussed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus attracts big crowds, by his preaching and by his miracles. He preaches an overthrow of the old ritualism; an ethic of humility and altruism for the poor and disabled; and the coming of the true kingdom of God, so different from this rank-conscious world. He also performs miracles, chiefly medical cures through faith-healing; casting out demons from persons who are possessed; and bringing back a few people from the cusp of death. There are also some nature miracles and some apparitions, although these should be considered separately because they almost never occur among crowds.

The roster of miracles described in detail include:
22 healing miracles, all happening in big crowds;
3 logistics miracles, where Jesus provides food or drink for big crowds;
5 nature miracles, all happening when Jesus is alone with his inner Twelve disciples, or some of them;
2 apparitions: 1 with 3 close disciples; 1 in a crowd.

So is Jesus chiefly a magician? And as such, are we in the realm of wonders, or superstition, or sleight of hand tricks? I will confine the discussion to some sociological observations.

Which comes first, the preaching or the miracles? The gospels are not strictly chronological, and sequences vary among them, but clearly there are a lot of miracles early on, and this is one of the things that attracts excited crowds to Jesus. People bring with them the sick, the lame, blind, and others of the helpless and pathetic. This is itself is a sign of incipient altruism, since on the whole ancient people were quite callous, engaging in deliberately cruel punishments, routinely violent atrocities, and a propensity to shun the unfortunate rather than help them. Jesus’ emphasis upon the lowly of the earth meshes with his medical miracles; they are living signs of what he is preaching in a more ethical sense.

Jesus’ healing miracles always happen in the presence of crowds. If that is so, how did the first miracles happen? What brought the first crowds together must have been Jesus’ preaching. This is particularly likely since John the Baptist was attracting large crowds, and had his own movement of followers. John did not perform medical miracles or any other kind, and he preached the same kind of themes as Jesus at the outset: humility and the poor; repentance; the coming kingdom of God, except that John explicitly said someone else was coming to lead it.

The plausible sequence is that Jesus attracted crowds by his preaching, and it was in the midst of the crowds’ enthusiasm-- their faith--  that the healing miracles take place. * That miracles depend on faith of the crowd is underscored by Jesus’ failure in Nazareth, his home town.  “And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” (Luke 4: 14-30; Matthew 13: 53-58) 

* Origins of the word enthusiasm are from Greek enthous, possessed by a god, theos.

Jesus’ healing miracles divide into: 4 cures of fever and other unspecified sickness; 9 events where he cures long-term disabilities (3 with palsy/paralysis, crippled, or shriveled hand; 2 blind, 1 deaf/mute; 1 with abnormal swelling; 1 leper, and later a group of 10 lepers); 6 persons possessed with demons; 3 persons brought back from death. The various types may overlap.  The 3 who are brought back from death include the 12-year-old daughter a rich man whom he thinks is dead, but Jesus tells him she is not dead, but asleep (Luke 8: 41-42,49-56); a widow’s son who is on his funeral bier, i.e. recently pronounced dead (Luke 7: 11-17); and finally Lazarus (John 11: 1-46).  Their illnesses are not described, but could have been like the cases of fever in Jesus' other miracles.

The disabilities that Jesus cured also overlap with the persons described as possessed by demons: one is “robbed of speech” and foams at the mouth (Mark 9: 14-29; Matthew 17: 14-21; Luke 9: 37-43); another has a mute demon and is also blind (Luke 11: 14-28; Mark 9: 32-34; Matthew 12: 22-37); another is vaguely described as a woman’s daughter possessed by an unclean spirit (Mark 7: 24-30; Matthew 14: 21-28).  At least one of these appears to have epileptic fits.  Another is a naked man who sleeps in tombs, and has been chained up but breaks his chains (Luke 8: 26-39; Mark 5: 1-20; Matthew 8: 28-34). Casting out demons appears to be one of the most frequent things Jesus does, mentioned several times in summaries of his travels “preaching in synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1: 39) “many who were demon-possessed were brought to him” (Matthew 8: 16). This is a spiritual power that can be delegated; when his disciples are sent out on their own they come back and report “even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 10: 17; Matthew 10: 1).**  One of his most fervent followers, Mary Magdalene, is described of having 7 demons cast out (Luke 8: 2); possibly this means she went through the process 7 times. She is also described as a prostitute, one of the outcasts Jesus saves; we might think of her as having gone through several relapses, or seeking the experience repeatedly (much like many Americans who undergo the “born again” experience more than once). 

** Sometimes the disciples fail in casting out a demon. In one case, the boy’s father says the spirit throws him to the ground, where he becomes rigid and foams at the mouth. When Jesus approaches, the boy goes into convulsions. The father says to Jesus, “If you can, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus replies: " 'If you can’? All things are possible for one who believes." Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed: “I do believe;  help me overcome my unbelief.” When Jesus saw a crowd running to the scene, he commanded the spirit to leave the boy and never enter again. The spirit shrieked and convulsed him violently. the boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took his hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. (Similar to raising from the dead.) After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9: 14-29)  Jesus recognizes different kinds of cases and has more subtle techniques than his disciples.

What does it mean to be possessed by a demon? A common denominator is some serious defect in the social act of speaking: either persons who shout uncontrollably and in inappropriate situations (like the man who shouts at Jesus in a synagogue, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are-- the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1: 21-28); or who are silent and will not speak at all.  We could diagnose them today as having a physiological defect, or as mentally ill, psychotic, possibly schizophrenic.  But in ancient society, there was no sharp distinction between sickness and mental illness. There were virtually no medical cures for sicknesses, and religious traditions regarded them as punishments from God or the pagan gods; seriously ill persons were left in temples and shrines, or shunted onto the margins of habitation. Left without care, without human sympathy, virtually without means of staying alive, they were true outcastes of society.

Here we can apply modern sociology of mental illness, and of physical sickness. As Talcott Parsons pointed out, there is a  sick role that patients are expected to play; it is one’s duty to submit oneself to treatment, to put up with hospitals, follow the authority of medical personnel, all premised on a social compact that this is done to make one well. But ancient society had no such sick role; it was a passive and largely hopeless position. Goffman, by doing fieldwork inside a mental hospital, concluded that the authoritarian and dehumanizing aspects of this total institution destroys what sense of personal autonomy the mental patient has left. Hence acting out-- shouting, defecating in the wrong places, showing no modesty with one’s clothes, breaking the taboos of ordinary social life-- are ways of rebelling against the system. They are so deprived of normal social respect that the only things they can do to command attention are acts that degrade them still further. Demon-possessed persons in the Bible act like Goffman’s mental patients, shouting or staying mute, and disrupting normal social scenes.*

* This research was in the 1950s and 1960s, before mental patients were controlled by mood-altering drugs. The further back we go in the history of mental illness, the more treatments resemble ancient practices of chaining, jailing or expelling persons who break taboos.  

One gets the impression of a remarkable number of such demon-possessed-- i.e. acting-out persons-- in ancient Palestine. ** They are found in almost every village and social gathering. Many of them are curable, by someone with Jesus’ charismatic techniques of interaction. He pays attention to them, focusing on them wholly and steadily until they change their behavior and come back into normal human interaction; in every case that is described, Jesus is the first person in normal society with whom the bond is established. Each acknowledges him as their savior and want to stay with him; but Jesus almost always sends them back, presumably into the community of Christian followers who will now take such cured persons as emblems of the miracles performed.

** A psychiatric survey of people living in New York City in the 1950s found that over 20% of the population had severe mental illness. (Srole 1962)  It is likely that in ancient times, when stresses were greater, rates were even higher.

Notice that no one denies the existence of demons, or denies that Jesus casts them out. When Jesus meets opposition (John 10: 19-21; Luke 11: 14-20) the language of demons is turned against him. Jesus himself, like those who speak in an unfamiliar or unwelcome voice, is accused of being demon-possessed. The same charge was made against John the Baptist, who resembled some demon-possessed persons by living almost as a wild man in the wilderness. The difference, of course, is that John and Jesus can surround themselves by supportive crowds, instead of being shunned by them.

Similarly, no one denies Jesus’ medical miracles. The worst that his enemies, the religious law teachers and high priests, can accuse him of is the ritual violation of performing his cures on the Sabbath. This leads to Jesus’ early confrontations with authority; he can point to his miracles to forcefully attack the elite as hypocrites, concerned only with their own ritually proper status but devoid of human sympathy.

Jesus’ miracles are not unprecedented, in the view of the people around him; similar wonders are believed to have taken place in the past; and other textual sources on Hellenistic society refer to persons known as curers and magicians. Jesus works in this cultural idiom. But he transforms it. He says repeatedly that it is not his power as a magician that causes the miracle, but the power of faith that people have in him and what he represents.

A Roman centurion pleads with Jesus to save his servant, sick and near death. The centurion calls him Lord and says he himself is not worthy that Jesus should come under his roof. But as a man of authority, who can order soldiers what to do, he recognizes Jesus can say the word and his servant will be healed. Jesus says to the crowd, “I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” Whereupon the servant is found cured. (Luke 7: 1-10; Mark 8: 5-13)

In the midst of a thick crowd pressing to see Jesus, he feels someone touch him-- not casually, but deliberately, seeking a cure. It is a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years.  Jesus says “I know that power has gone out from me.” The woman came trembling and fell at his feet. In the presence of the crowd, she told why she had touched him and that she was healed. Jesus said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”  (Luke 8: 43-48; Mark 5: 21-43; Matthew 9: 20-22.)  While passing through Jericho, a blind man in the crowd calls out repeatedly to Jesus, although the crowd tells him to be quiet. Jesus stopped and had the man brought to him, and asked what he wanted from him. “Lord, I want to see,” he replied. Jesus said, “Receive your sight, for your faith has healed you.” (Luke 18: 35-43; Mark 10: 46-52; Matthew 20: 29-34)

Failure to produce a miracle is explained as a failure of sufficient faith. In another version of  the demon-possessed boy, the disciples ask privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” Jesus replied, “Because you have so little faith. If you have faith, you can move mountains. Nothing is impossible for you.” (Matthew 17: 19-20) The message is in the figurative language Jesus habitually uses, the mastery of word-play which makes him so dominant in interaction. 

The faith must be provided by his followers. When asked to perform a miracle-- not because someone needs it, but as a proof of his power, a challenge to display a sign-- Jesus refuses to do it. (Luke 11: 29-32; Matthew 12: 38-39; 16: 1-4) 

As Jesus’ career progresses, he becomes increasingly explicit that faith is the great end in itself. The goal of performing miracles is not to end physical pain, or to turn it into worldly success. Jesus is not a magician, or conjurer.  Magic, viewed by comparative sociology, is the use of spiritual power for worldly ends. For Jesus it is the other way around.  Healing miracles have an element of worldly altruism, since they are carried out for persons who need them; but above all those who need to be brought back into the bonds of human sympathy. Miracles are a way of constituting the community, both in the specific sense of building the movement of his followers, and in the more general sense of introducing a spirit of human sympathy throughout the world. Miracles happen in the enthusiasm of faith in the crowd, and that combination of moral and emotional experience is a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus presents it.

Jesus’ logistics miracles consisted in taking a small amount of food and multiplying it so that crowds of 5,000 and 4,000 respectively have enough to eat and many scraps left over (Luke 9: 10-17; Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 30-44; Mark 8: 1-10). It has been suggested that the initial few fishes and loaves of bread were what the crowd first volunteered for the collective pot; but when Jesus started dividing them up into equal pieces and passing them around, more and more people contributed from their private stocks. (Zeitlin) The miracle was an outpouring of public sharing. Jesus does something similar at a wedding party so crowded with guests that the wine bottles are empty. He orders them to be filled with water, whereupon the crowd becomes even more intoxicated, commenting that unlike most feasts, the best wine was saved for last (John 2: 1-11). Possibly the dregs of wine still in the casks gave some flavour, and the enthusiasm of the crowd did the rest. Party-goers will know it is better to be drunk with the spirit of the occasion than sodden with too much alcohol.

Miracles show the power of the spirit, which is the power of faith that individuals have in the charismatic leader and his intensely focused community. Such experiences is to be valued over anything in the world; it transcends the ordinary life, in the same way that religion in the full sense transcends magic.

The significance of miracles is not in a particular person who is cured, but a visible lesson in raising the wretched of the earth, and awakening altruistic conscience. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus says to a crowd that is following him eagerly, “You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”  They ask him, “What sign will you give that we may see it and believe you?” Jesus answered: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He goes on to talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, speaking in veiled language about the coming crucifixion. It causes a crisis in his movement: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”  (John 6: 22-52) Those who wanted to take miracles literally were disappointed.

Jesus’ nature miracles differ from the others in not taking place in crowds, but among his intimate disciples. Here the role of faith is highlighted but in a different sequence. Instead of faith displayed by followers in the crowd, bringing about a healing miracle, now Jesus produces miracles that have the effect of reassuring his followers.

A storm comes up while the twelve disciples are on a boat in the weather-wracked Sea of Galilee. They are afraid of drowning, but Jesus is sleeping soundly. “Oh ye of little faith, why are you so afraid?” he admonishes them, after they wake him up and the storm stills. (Matthew 8: 23-27; Mark 4: 35-41; Luke 8: 22-25)  Jesus is imperturbable, displaying a level of faith his disciples do not yet have.  In another instance, he sends his disciples out in a boat while he stays to dismiss the crowd and then to pray in solitude on the mountainside. They are dismayed while Jesus is away and the water grows rough and they cannot make headway with their oars. After a night of this, just before dawn they are frightened when they perceive him walking across the water, and some think he is a ghost.  Jesus calms them by saying, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” He enters the boat and the wind dies down, allowing them finally to make it to shore. (Mark 6: 45-52; John 6: 16-21) In one account, Peter says, “Lord if it is truly you, let me come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and Peter begins to walk. But he becomes afraid and begins to sink. Jesus immediately catches him with his hand: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14: 22-33)

The pattern is: for his disciples, who are supposed to show a higher level of faith, Jesus performs miracles when they feel in trouble without him.*

* Other miracles on the Sea of Galilee: when Jesus recruits Simon and Andrew, first by preaching from their boat, then pushing off from shore, whereupon they make a huge catch of fish. (Luke 5: 1-11); and when  Jesus responds to a tax demand by telling Peter to fish in the lake, where he will catch a fish with a coin in its mouth to pay their taxes. (Matthew 17: 24-27)  At the end of the miracle of curing a demon-possessed man, Jesus sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine (presumably polluted under Jewish law), whereupon they rush madly off a cliff and drown themselves in the lake. (Luke 8: 26-39; Mark 5: 1-20; Matthew 8: 28-34) One nature miracle happens on dry land: on his way into Jerusalem to cleanse the temple he curses a fig tree which has no fruit for him and his followers; and when he returns in the evening, it has withered. (Mark 11: 15-19; Matthew 21: 18-21) The miracle is a living parable on the withered-up ritualists whom Jesus is attacking.

Apparitions, finally, are subjective experiences that particular people have at definite times and places. There is nothing sociological to question about their having such experiences, but we can notice who is present and what they did. The event called the Transfiguration happens when Jesus takes three close disciples up a mountain to pray--  a special occasion since he usually went alone. They see his face and clothes shining with light, see historic persons talking to Jesus and hear a voice from a cloud. The disciples fall on the ground terrified, until Jesus touches them and tells them not to be afraid, whereupon they see that Jesus is alone.  Jesus admonished them not to tell anyone about what they had seen. (Luke 9: 28-30; Matthew 17: 1-13; Mark 9: 2-13)

When Jesus' mission in Jerusalem is building up towards the final confrontation between his own followers and increasingly hostile authorities and their crowds. Jesus announces “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” A voice from heaven says “I have glorified it.” Some in the crowd said that it thundered, others that an angel spoke. Jesus tells them that the vision is for their benefit, not his; and that “you will have the light only a little while longer.” When he finished speaking, he hid from them. (John 12: 20-36) The crowd was not of one mind; they disagree about whether Jesus is the Messiah who will rule and remain forever, while Jesus sees the political wind blowing towards his execution. The subjective feeling of a thunderous voice in the crowd, but variously interpreted, reflects what was going on at this dramatic moment.

Finally I will venture an interpretation of what happened when Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. (Matthew 4: 1-11; Luke 4: 1-13) This happens after hearing John the Baptist preaching about the coming Son of God, and Jesus must have decided he was the one. The next thing he does is to imitate John the Baptist by going to live alone in the desert. Here he has apparitions of the devil (which we read about because presumably he later told his disciples). Living in the desert for 40 days is a life-threatening ordeal, and at some point he considers that he has the power to turn stones into food. He rejects this as a thought coming from the devil, since his aim is not to be a magician; the internal dialogue ends with the kind of aphorism that Jesus would pronounce throughout his mission: "Man shall not live by bread alone." Up on the mountain cliffs, he considers whether he should jump down and fly, and rejects that too; another devil-temptation to use magic for trivial marvels like entertaining stories in the Arabian Nights. He envisions the devil showing him the whole world spread out below, and giving him the evil thought that the Kingdom of God would make him the mightiest of worldly kings. 

Mt. Temptation, traditionally where Jesus spent 40 days in wilderness

Modern research shows that internal dialogue takes place not only through talk but also visual images taking their turn in the argument. (Wiley 1994; Collins 2004) Through these apparitions, Jesus is thinking out what kind of power he has and what he will do with it. It is the power to inspire crowds, to recruit followers, to work a moral revolution, and reveal a life-goal that is not of the world as people hitherto knew it. It is, in short, the power of charisma.


Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies. (chapter 3 on ancient religious and philosophical movements)
Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains.  (chapter 5 on internal dialogue)
Randall Collins. 2010.  The Micro-sociology of Religion.” (research on prayer) http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/Collins.asp
Emile Durkheim. 1912.  The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.
Michel Foucault.  1965.  Madness and Civilization.
Erving Goffman. 1961. Asylums; 1971 “The Insanity of Place,” in Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order.
Paolo Parigi.  2012. The Rationalization of Miracles. (16th century Catholic Church focus on medical miracles when nominating saints)
Leo Srole. 1962.  Mental Health in the Metropolis.
Rodney Stark. 1996. The Rise of Christianity.
Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. 1983. Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World.
Norbert Wiley. 1994.  The Semiotic Self.  (research on internal dialogue)
Charles Tilly. 2004.  Social Movements 1768-2004.
Irving Zeitlin. 1984.  Ancient Judaism. Biblical Studies from Max Weber to the Present.
Lindsay Olesberg. 2012. The Bible Study Handbook. (very contemporary methods)


Family values have allegedly declined in recent times. It depends, of course, of what you compare it to. It would be a mistake to assume that the family has been steadily weakening, and therefore the further back in history we look, the stronger the family is.            

To pick a period when family histories were well documented, let us turn to ancient Greece, Persia, and the Middle-East. Specifically, the court of Philip II, King of Macedon, and father of Alexander the Great. It is 338 BC; Alexander is 18 years old, and his father is about to marry another wife, relegating Alexander’s mother Olympias to the background. At the nuptial celebration, the uncle of the new bride, one of Philip’s generals, invites the guests to drink in honor of a new legitimate heir. Alexander shouts: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” and throws a drinking cup in his face. Philip drew a sword to cut down his son, but staggered from all the heavy drinking and fell. Alexander jeered: “This is the man who would pass from Europe to Asia, and he trips passing from couch to couch!”  Alexander and his mother went into hiding, she back to the kingdom of Epirus where she was sister of the King. Since Epirus was a politically important ally, advisors patched up the quarrel, and Alexander was allowed back into court.

That was not the end of it. On the eve of Philip’s departure with his army to conquer the Persian empire, while the royal procession paraded the streets with pomp and circumstance, an assassin broke in and killed Philip with a dagger. Olympias and Alexander were suspected, but Philip’s other generals supported Alexander-- who already had a reputation as a soldier.  Once her son was installed as King, Olympias had her rival’s baby killed, and forced the mother to hang herself; the uncle was sent off with the advance guard to Asia and murdered.  Alexander took over the Persian expedition and conquered his way to fame far eclipsing his father. *

* More on this in "What Made Alexander Great?" The Sociological Eye, February 6, 2014.

Father tries to kill son; son and mother are implicated in a plot that kills the father; mother has her rival wife (step-wife? we need a term for these relationships) killed along with her son’s half-brother. No one expressed remorse about any of this, implying that what they did was not considered sinful or immoral. No one was prosecuted, since there was no judiciary other than the King, and under these circumstances possession of power was ten-tenths of the law.

These kinds of events were not unusual in that period. Philip’s predecessor as King of Macedon killed his own step-father, who was his guardian, in order to take sole rule in 365 BC. When he in turn was killed in battle in 359 BC, his son and rightful heir was a child; so Philip, an uncle, was appointed guardian. Soon after, he deposed his nephew and became King in his own right. The child was lucky to be left alive (as far as we know). There was not a lot of sentimental attachment in these families. Philip probably never had seen the boy, since he had been dispatched as a youth to be a hostage in another Greek state (Thebes), a typical procedure when alliances and treaties were made between states that didn’t trust each other. Philip’s take-over did not go uncontested; another pretender to the Macedonian throne-- i.e. another relative of these convoluted royal families-- had been living in exile, and the foreign power that hosted him (Athens) sent a fleet to try to put a friendly ruler on the throne, but failed. All quite normal; Philip took advantage of yet another pretender, his own half-brother who was sheltered by a nearby state, to declare war on it and enlarge his conquests.

Notice that no one disputes the importance of the family. Legitimate rule is passed along as family inheritance: family members fight over the inheritance (sounds familiar today?)  Matters are exacerbated because these states are unstable; borders are changing, conquests are made and lost; alliances and federations are created and torn apart. In this situation, in most states there are factions who are in and others who have been thrown out.  Prominent members of the outs go into exile, where they are happily received by some other state ready to use them as pawns in the struggle to make favorable alliances, or indeed conquests, of their neighbours.

Structural Conditions for Murderous Family Infighting

These are not just really bad people; the structural conditions in which they live are conducive, not to love and family solidarity, but to family jealousies and strife. To briefly list the conditions:

-- Marriages are typically arranged as political and diplomatic alliances. The women have no choice in who they marry; rulers regularly offer a daughter, or sister, to gain an ally or buy off a foe. This is an attractive deal on the receiving side, since the children of such a marriage have a claim to the succession of the family state they came from-- not that they will automatically succeed to the throne, since there are probably other candidates, but it is a good investment. And sons too sometimes are used by their fathers in the same fashion, or pawned as hostages. This means young persons of high rank normally expect they will go to live among people they do not really trust; on the other hand, people don’t trust each other that much where they grew up (among other reasons because most people are married to someone they didn’t choose), and there are good opportunities for personalities who develop the skills to plot and manipulate. Some women (for instance, Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who plays a major political role when he is away and after his death) can become quite powerful by playing the game. If women are pawns, they also have close access to the networks of power, and network opportunity is more important than abstract cultural definition of status.

-- Love has nothing to do with marriage. But the term love does exist; we read in the ancient sources that Philip fell in love with the daughter of his general Attalus, and decided to throw off his political-alliance wife in her favor. Later Alexander will choose a wife, Roxane, who he finds captivating beautiful and falls in love with her during his conquests in central Asia; it doesn’t hurt that her father is an important chieftan and the marriage cements an alliance. On the other hand, it does not prevent Alexander, after returning to the Persian capital at the end of his conquests, from arranging a mass wedding of thousands of his soldiers to Persian wives, he himself taking a daughter of the conquered Persian King. (Roxane is still around, and she is still considered mother of the legitimate heir.) Falling in love had more or less the superficial meaning it has today, being smitten by someone’s beauty or sexual charm. We hear about Alexander’s soldiers who want leave to go back to Greece because they are in love with a courtesan; and one of Alexander’s most important generals, Ptolemy, sends for a famous courtesan from Athens to entertain them in Persia; she becomes his mistress and bears him several children, while he becomes King of Egypt.

This shows a way that ordinary women could rise in social rank. Although only women from royal families could play marriage politics, women who were beautiful and accomplished could make themselves so attractive that powerful men would fall in love with them, and even marry them. They were courtesans-- prostitutes; but exclusive enough so that they had to be courted.  It was not a pathway that would be open to middle-class women of respectable families, who were closely guarded, even locked up at home; but courtesans who learned the arts of allurement had an arena where they could meet men of the highest rank-- they were famous entertainers at their banquets and drinking parties, and thus they too got a network connection with the elite. Once again, network closeness trumps mere abstract status.

One gets the impression that courtesans, although obviously gold-diggers, were not as cynical as the upper-class women in arranged marriages. We do not hear of courtesans murdering anyone, although they would have had plenty of opportunities. Their lack of family connections made them too vulnerable to risk it.

-- Geopolitics takes the form of multi-sided unstable conflicts. There are more than two great powers; there are three, four, five of them. And there are a lot of smaller players who can maneuver on the margins or in the interstices of the major conflicts, building little local empires without much notice, then intruding into the major conflicts, just as Macedon blindsided the bigger Greek players Athens, Sparta, Thebes, the Boeotian League, and their Asian opponent Persia.  Weakening one of the major powers did not mean reducing the number of players, since others’ gains were only temporary. This was not the balance-of-power strategy employed by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, where they would intervene on the Continent on the side of whichever coalition was weaker; that was a strong third party intervening into a two-sided conflict, whereas the Greek situation was more highly multi-sided. Geopolitical theory of conflict needs to recognize that conflicts among 4 or more are inherently more unstable than conflicts among 3 or less.

-- Combine this multi-sided geopolitical instability with external support for internal rivalries, and the ingredients are present for murderous family conflict. Exiles sheltered by a foreign power; hostages who become acclimated to a foreign point-of-view; these create the danger of “pretenders” to the throne awaiting the opportunity to return. Notice the mixture of altruism and calculated strategy: sympathy for exiles in hard times was also a device for expanding one’s power. (Similar in this respect is the modern practice of humanitarian interventions.) The result is a network of states who are used to receiving and sending well-known persons among each other, and have an interest in each other’s internal affairs. Interfering in the internal affairs of another state became an habitual practice. Rich states, who had a lot of gold, would send funds to the faction they wanted to support in another state, whether a rival state, an ally or one that could swing either way. These could be called bribes (usually by the opposing faction), gifts, subsidies, or even tribute (if the recipient construed the money as a sign of the giver’s inferiority). Today's equivalent would be foreign aid (in the altruistic language of American foreign policy), or subsidies (like those sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebel factions in Syria, thereby prolonging its interminably multi-sided civil war.)

To sum up: combine hereditary monarchy, arranged political marriages, unstable multi-sided geopolitics, networks of exiles and pretenders, and foreign intrusion in domestic affairs: the result is violence in the heart of the family, uninhibited by love or loyalty.

Succession Crises and Family Murder

The family of Alexander the Great is only the most famous in which this sort of thing happened. In the centuries just before and after his life, family murders were a recurring feature of top-level politics.

Consider the Persian Empire. The founder, Cyrus (reigned 559-530 BC, two hundred years before Alexander) unified the tribal chiefs in the highlands of Iran; conquered the major nearby states (Media, Babylon), then expanded west (into the Greek kingdoms and city-states of Asia Minor) and east (into the tribal zone of Central Asia). His methods sowed the seeds for the troubles that would come later. Where he conquered by force, he always legitimated himself as successor to the local kings or restorer of the local gods. Many of his accessions were peaceful, since his reputation preceded him and smaller chiefs welcomed him as a “friend”-- which is to say, a political friend, involving obligations of military support and material or monetary tribute. In cities which had strong internal politics-- such as the Greek city-states-- Cyrus operated more by subsidy/bribery, resulting in takeovers that the losing faction regarded as treachery. Superficial political friendships were the prevailing manner; underneath was an atmosphere of side-switching and distrust.

When Cyrus the Great King died, the regions of the empire took the opportunity to revolt. Violence broke out in the royal family; the first son inherited and killed his brother, who ruled the eastern provinces, to eliminate opposition. This pattern would repeat itself, with a succession crisis after each death of a King. Sometimes the new King that emerged was weak, sometimes the process filtered out the weak and created someone strong.

The third King, Darius, rose from being son of a provincial satrap. He got his chance when the previous King, Cambyses, was away putting down a revolt in Egypt, whereupon an impersonator of the King’s brother was placed on the Persian throne. Cambyses died of a wound during the struggle to regain the throne; Darius joined the conspiracy to assassinate the pretender and emerged on top. Darius reigned 522-486 BC, spending his first two years traveling around the Empire with a mobile army putting down revolts, and started the first Persian invasion of the Greek mainland, which was turned back at the battle of Marathon (490 BC). After Darius died came the usual round of revolts, temporarily derailing the Greek enterprise, while his son Xerxes had to deal with revolts in the major provinces of Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes put together a huge army for another invasion of Greece, which eventually petered out through problems of logistics and maintaining connection via a mercenary fleet. Xerxes was assassinated in a palace plot in 465. His son Artaxerxes I ascended the throne, but his brother revolted (with the support of Athens-- both sides could play the game of interfering in internal affairs of the enemy); eventually all the royal brothers were assassinated. Next came Darius II (reigned 424-405), an illegitimate son, who killed his illegitimate brother, who had killed his legitimate brother, Xerxes II, a murderous game of tag. Darius II married his half-sister, a cruel woman who controlled him and ruthlessly suppressed all enemies.

And so on. Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-338 BC) came in with the usual round of violence, in which several dozen brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins of both sexes were killed. Now we hear of killing royal women; apparently connections on the female side were becoming increasingly important. Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his favorite court eunuch in 338 BC, followed by several years of royal family plots and assassinations; so many were murdered that the succession had to turn to a distant cousin. In the same year Artaxerxes III was murdered, Philip of Macedon won a great battle over the Athenian alliance (with his 18-year-old son Alexander leading the cavalry), making Macedon hegemonic in Greece, and setting the stage for the invasion of Persia. It was precisely the bloody succession crises that made Persia look like an easy target.

The atmosphere of betrayal and revolt spread into the administrative structure, even beyond the royal family. In the struggles and revolts under Artaxerxes II around 390 BC, a rebel satrap was betrayed by his son, who switched sides to line up with the victorious ruler, and had his father crucified. This sort of thing goes beyond family rivalry; it was a cruel public display of family hatred. Artaxerxes II is remembered mainly because his brother, Cyrus, with the support of his mother the former Queen, recruited the famous Ten Thousand mercenaries from Greece for an expedition to capture the Persian throne. This Cyrus died trying to cut through the bodyguards to reach his hated brother.

Murderous Succession Crises in the Hellenistic Era

The Hellenistic period of Greek and Middle-Eastern history is not a popular one, because there are no heroes to simplify our memory, and above all because it is too complicated.  Alexander’s conquest did not change the pattern of succession crises. As soon as he died, at least 10 contenders came forward to take control of the Empire, including the older generals Alexander inherited from Philip, plus his own important commanders. This produced a volatile situation of multisided conflict that took over 20 years to settle down.

The first three years after Alexander’s death were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances, side-switches, and deals. The senior commander of the infantry phalanx proposed as successor Alexander’s half-brother, a feeble-minded illegitimate son of Philip (under his guardianship, of course); rivals proposed Alexander’s infant son by Roxane.  Perdiccus, the senior cavalry commander, proposed as a compromise that both should rule jointly, then had the phalanx commander murdered, leaving himself as sole guardian. Perdiccus then alienated Antipater, the Macedonian viceroy, by jilting his daughter to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra.* Perdiccus in turn was betrayed by his own troops to Antigonus, a one-eyed general whose lineage would eventually get the Macedonian part of the empire. It wasn’t just family members who killed each other in this atmosphere of betrayal.

* Not the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt 51-30 BC, had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and ordered the murder of her own brother Ptolemy, her adolescent co-ruler. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were both popular Macedonian names.

Eventually the 10 contenders winnowed down to 4 or 5. After the initial free-for-all, the strongest concentrated on hunting down and eliminating Philip and Alexander’s relatives, all the contenders and pretenders. Alexander’s son by Roxane, who should have been the legitimate heir, was killed at age 13. The Empire began to settle into a pattern of 3 states: Egypt; an Asian state in the heart of the old Persian Empire (Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria); and Macedon/Asia Minor. But they kept trying to take each other’s territory-- general Ptolemy in Egypt for instance used his fleet to control the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea-- and wars and betrayals kept on happening. In Macedon, a surviving son of the monarchy, now called Philip III, was manipulated by his wife into allying with the son of the viceroy Antipater; they were opposed by Alexander’s mother, Queen Olympias, who engineered the death of yet another of her stepsons, until she herself was executed.

Forty years after Alexander’s death all his relatives were dead, but the sons and daughters of his generals were still at it. The current ruler of Macedon, Lysimachus, was persuaded by his third wife, Arsinoe, to put his own son to death, in favor of her own children. Lysandra, the widow of the slain man, allied with her brother Ptolemy II and the Asian forces of Seleucus to invade Macedon and kill Lysimachus; at which point Ptolemy II had his ally killed so as not to share the spoils with him. And this was another sibling quarrel, since Arsinoe, Lysandra and Ptolemy II were all half-brothers and half-sisters, all children of the many wives of Ptolemy I. It was a chain of revenges and murderous ambitions such as the Greek dramatists described as divine powers of the Furies, or Nemesis.

When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real, Not Mythical

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes/ Electra story were first made popular in Greece, in the century before Philip and Alexander?  These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490-466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

* Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.

The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past--- not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece-- Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad  plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus-- a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

* Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.

In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man-- a road-rage dispute-- and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker,  but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King-- the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

 * Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents.  That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21).  Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander's attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.

The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son-- a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other.  The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics).  The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme-- bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king-- tyrannos-- eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults-- and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions-- would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.

The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome

And so it went. The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.

Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina-- she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir.  That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.

Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son-- just to make sure; then killed his own mother-- the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.

It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina.  The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.

I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars. 

Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family.  This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina.  Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.

The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.

Contemporary Relevance: the Family Curse of Big Money

Are there any wider theoretical implications, any lesson for our own times? One might say that family problems as they exist today-- child and spousal abuse; the one-third portion of the murder rate that takes place in families-- are  mild compared to what the ancients did. But there are some structural parallels. The really bad families of ancient times were the  elite families, not the poor families which today are the site of most violence and abuse. Annette Lareau, in research at the University of Pennsylvania, finds that the troubles of rich families in raising their children revolve around their expectations and disputes over family money; the result, in our pacified era, is not physical violence but emotional struggles, hostile breaks between and within the generations, sometimes carried out by lengthy lawsuits. In our society, where not much of importance is hereditary, the exception is among the very rich, and there the situation is structurally similar to the unstable empires of ancient politics.

Freud and the Oedipus Complex

Freud overemphasized the paternal side, as has been recognized in many critiques. The central importance of the Oedipus complex in Freudian psychology is that the conflict is normally resolved by the child identifying with father, internalized into the unconscious self as conscience or Superego.  This is the key step in socialization, turning the barbaric drive-driven infant into the responsible adult. For Freud, too, the internalized father is crucial in explaining religion, since God is explained as a projection of the Father. For this reason Freudians have made convoluted explanations of the development of the female’s Superego, since it is depicted as an internalized male authority and religious ideal. The sociological approaches of Durkheim and of George Herbert Mead give an alternative way of explaining childhood development of a social conscience; it is not internalization of the father per se, but internalization of adult authority. In Mead’s nicer, more democratic version, it is internalization of the Generalized Other, of society in general, the capacity for taking the role of the other, any other; hence what the child develops is the capacity for universal sympathy and altruism, as a guide to one’s own conduct. This is an ideal, and not everyone is so altruistic; some individuals for reasons not yet well theorized are more altruistic than others.

We can now pin down why the classic version of the Oedipus complex-- and for that matter, the Electra complex, where the daughter wants to kill her mother and loves her father-- is so father-centered. It came from the specific political structure of family succession in ancient hereditary kingship. Its primacy in particular historical periods is not psychological, but political.


J. B. Bury. 1951.  A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.
R. Ghirshman. 1954.  Iran: From the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest.
F. W. Wallbank. 1981.  The Hellenistic World.
Sarah B. Pomeroy. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.
Arrian. Campaigns of Alexander.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander.
Heradotus. Histories.
Appian. The Civil Wars.
Tacitus. Annals.
Old Testament Bible.  Book of Esther.
Aeschylus. Orestes Trilogy; Seven Against Thebes.
Sophocles. Antigone; Electra; Oedipus Rex; Oedipus at Colonus.
Euripides.  Electra; Orestes; Iphigenia among the Taurians.


A previous post considered Napoleon as CEO.  It focused on how he led organizations and structures in transition, and how networks intersected for a moment in time to pump up a central individual with huge emotional energy. It takes apart the genius/ talent/ ability cliché and shows what makes such careers happen. Alexander the Great is a good comparison: a chief contender to Napoleon, with an even better record of military victories, and similar historical fame. So: what made Alexander great?

Here is a preliminary checklist:
[1] His father’s army and geopolitical position
[2] Tiger Woods training
[3] The target for takeover
[4] Greek population explosion and mercenaries
[5] Alexander’s victory formula

We will also consider:
Was Alexander’s success because of or despite his personality?
Did Alexander really achieve anything?
Why did Alexander sleep well, but Napoleon never slept?

[1] His Father

That is to say, his father’s army and favorable geopolitical position. Alexander is famous for having conquered the Persian Empire. It was the greatest empire in the world at that time, covering 3000 miles from west to east, 1500 miles north/south. The expedition was planned and prepared by his father, Philip II of Macedon, and was ready to go when Philip was assassinated at the farewell party. The 20-year-old son took command, waited two more years to make sure the Macedonians and the Greeks were behind him, and then carried out the epic campaign of conquest in 10 years.

Instead of kicking the causal can down the road, we need to ask: how did Philip come to build this invincible army? The answer is in the organization and the opposition.

The Macedonian army was an organizational improvement on the Greek hoplite army. The Greeks had developed the practice of fighting in solid ranks, forming a combat block of shields, armor, and spears. The whole aim of battle was to keep one’s troops together in a rectangular mass; with their heavy armor, they could not be hurt by arrows, stones or javelins-- a Roman version was called a Tortoise because it was impervious to anything.

The Greek phalanx, developed in the 600s and 500s BC, was a huge shift from the traditional mode of fighting depicted in the Iliad (around 750 BC). The traditional form could be called the hero/ berserker style.  An army consisted of noisy crowds of soldiers clustered behind their leaders, who didn’t really give orders but led by example. Heroes like Achilles, Hector, and Ajax would work themselves into a frenzy, roaring out onto the battlefield between the armies, sometimes fighting a hero from the other side, but more often going on a rampage through the lesser troops, cowing them into a losing posture and mowing them down with sheer momentum, i.e. emotional domination. This berserker style remained the way “barbarian” armies fought-- that is to say, armies that did not have disciplined phalanxes. The hero-berserker could never beat a Greek or Roman phalanx that stood its ground; the Greeks were always victorious over the barbarians to the north and east of them, and so were the Romans over their respective hinterlands.

On the other hand, when one Greek phalanx met another, the result was a shoving match. Unless one side broke ranks and ran away, few soldiers were killed. Most battles were stalemates, and city-states could avoid combat if they wished, sheltering behind their walls. The main purpose of cities all over the ancient Middle East, many of them just fortified towns, were these defensive walls, impervious to berserkers. Phalanxes only fought by arrangement, when both sides assembled on chosen ground for a set-piece battle.    

Greek hoplite battle

The main weakness of the hoplite phalanx was that it was slow-moving. Hoplites were heavy troops, quite literally from the weight of armor they carried. An enemy that hit and ran away could harass a Greek phalanx but would be beaten if it stayed to fight head-to-head. This was brought home to the Greeks when Xenophon returned from a campaign in Persia during 401-399 BC, writing up their experiences in his famous Expedition of the Ten Thousand. A contender for the Persian throne had hired them as mercenaries; but once they reached the Mesopotamian heartland, the Persian leader was killed in battle, and the Ten Thousand had to fight their way back, first against the Persian army and then against primitive hill tribes on their path to the Black Sea.  The Persians troops were somewhere between the berserker style and the disciplined Greeks. They relied on large masses to impress their enemy into submission; typically these were grouped by ethnicity, each with their own type of weapons. Among these weapons of terror were rows of chariots with scythes attached to their axles; sometimes there were war-elephants. Troops recruited from tribal regions were used on the flanks, as clusters of stone-slingers, archers, and javelin-throwers; these were light troops, without armor since they fought from a distance. The Persian armies that Alexander fought had the same shape.

None of these troops could beat a disciplined phalanx that held its ground; the chariots could get close only if they ran onto the phalanx’s spears, which horses are unwilling to do; elephants, too, are hard to control and shy away from spears. The Greeks soon recognized they could beat armies of almost any size if they stuck together. A bigger problem was that enemy light troops, and attacks by tribal forces with arrows and slings, could be repelled by their armor and discipline, but hoplites were too heavy to chase them down and keep them from repeating the attack.

The solution was to add specialized units around the phalanx; hiring their own barbarian archers and slingers, and adding cavalry, mainly for the purpose of finishing off the enemy when they are running away. But in the Greek homeland, most battles were simply phalanx-on-phalanx; in the democratic city-states, this was as much a display of egalitarian citizenship as a military formation.

Philip’s Macedonian army, which he put together between 360 and 336 BC, incorporated all the most advanced improvements. Most importantly, he added heavy cavalry, operating on both flanks with the phalanx in the center. Philip’s cavalry were not just for chasing-down after the enemy broke ranks, but for breaking the enemy formation itself. Philip was one of the first to perfect a combined-arms battle tactic: the phalanx would engage and stymie the enemy’s massed formation, whereupon the cavalry would break it open on the flanks or rear.

This was one of the advantages of Macedonia’s marchland location; having only recently transitioned from tribal pastoralists to settled agriculture, it could combine military styles. Philip’s phalanx was recruited from the peasant farmers, his cavalry from the aristocracy, used to spending their time riding and hunting. Philip’s-- and thus Alexander’s-- cavalry were called the Companions; they were the elite, the carousing drinking-buddies of their leader. The Companion cavalry, usually on the right wing of battle, was complemented by another cavalry on the left wing, recruited from the Thessalian plains people, but commanded by Macedonian officers.

In addition to improving on the best-of-the-barbarians, Philip also borrowed from the most scientifically advanced Greeks, the colonies in Sicily, for techniques of attacking fortresses. These included catapults and engines, underground mining (to undermine walls), siege ladders and protected roofing to cover the de-construction engineers as they worked on the fortress. 

The third of Philip’s innovations was to travel light. Greek city-state armies, if they went very far from home, traveled with huge baggage trains: servants carrying armor and supplies, personal slaves, women, camp followers, often doubling the size of the mass. Philip made every soldier carry his own equipment; he prohibited carts, since they are slow moving and clog the primitive roads; he kept pack animals to a minimum, since they add to the number of attendants. When an army has to engage in long-distance expeditions, overcoming the logistics problem becomes the number-one issue. As we shall see, Alexander followed his father exactly in this regard.

The Geopolitical Position, as Philip Left It

Macedonia was a late developer, a peripheral area north of the zone of city-states.  Moreover, it was essentially an inland state, not a maritime power; its strength was its extensive agricultural lands, and its access to the plains with their horses and pastoralists.

To the south was the Greek peninsula, broken by mountains and inlets of the sea, a land of walled city-states. Rarely able to expand their land frontiers, they engaged in maritime expeditions, lived by trade and booty, and by sending out colonies around the Mediterranean littoral. The same pattern held on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. The result was that Greek city-states could rarely conquer each other. Some did become more prestigious than others, and forced the others into coalitions. This Athens did when it became the center for the massed fleet that repelled the Persian invasions, subsequently becoming a quasi-empire in their own right collecting duties to support the fleet. *  But as land powers, the city-states were essentially deadlocked. 

* The cultural prestige of Athens starts at this time. Before 460 BC, Greek poets, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists were spread all over; they concentrate in Athens when it becomes the biggest, richest, and most powerful city. The cultural fame of Athens is a result of its geopolitical rise. It became the place where all the culture-producing networks came together, and remained the place for centuries as the leading networks reproduced themselves.

Simultaneously, the Persian empire had reached the limits of its logistics and its administrative capacity for holding itself together. There was no longer any real danger of Persian expansion into Greece; it was just another player in the multi-player situation. The Persian invasions were in 490 and 480-79 BC; both failed because the Persians could not sustain an army across the water against navies equal to what they could raise. The last Persian forces on the European side of the straits were thrown out by 465 BC. The Athenians played up the Persian threat as the basis of their own power, down to about 400, when they lost a long domestic war of coalitions.**

** The defeat of Athens by Sparta was not the end of democracy, or anything of the sort. Greek history is dominated by Athenian propaganda, because the great historians of this period-- Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon-- were all Athenians or sympathizers. It helped that Socrates and Plato were Athenians, and their dialogues make the Athenian scene come alive, as do the comedies of Aristophanes. That is why we moderns, styling ourselves inheritors to Greek democracy and science, have such a narrow Athenian peep-hole view into the history of Greece. 

The period from the 390s BC down to the rise of Macedonia in the 340s, is one where numerous powers and coalitions vie with each other. Sparta, Athens, Thebes, the Boeotian league, the Phocians, all have a try at becoming hegemon. The term itself is revealing: it means, not conqueror or overlord, but leader, preponderant influence. The situation has settled into a multi-sided, unstably ongoing set of conflicts.

Outside the deadlocked heartland, there was opportunity for a marchland state to grow. Since the major players had their attention locked in, a peripheral actor could grow in its own environment, becoming dominant through a local elimination contest. This is what the Macedonian kingdom did. First its settled agricultural zone expanded inland to incorporate nearby hill tribes, recruiting them into a victoriously expanding army; then growing north and east into Thrace (what is now Bulgaria and European Turkey) by beating barbarian kings and weak tribal coalitions. Philip, who grew up as a hostage in one of the civilized city-states, had an eye for what counted there; after returning to Macedon, he made a point of conquering barbarian land that had gold mines, as well as seaports as far as the straits, where the grain trade passed upon which Athens and the other Greek city-states depended. In short, he started by becoming the big frog in a small pond, while learning the military and cultural techniques of his more civilized neighbours, and combining them with the advantages he could see on the periphery. 

At a point reached around 340 BC, the city-states woke up to find that their biggest threat was not Persia, nor one of their own civilized powers, but a semi-barbarian upstart, whose armies and resources were now bigger and better than their own.

[2] Tiger Woods Training

Alexander was born in 356 BC, a time when his father was reforming the Macedonian army and beginning his conquests. Obviously Philip was away from home a lot and would not have taken a small child with him to the wars. But it is apparent that from an early age, he trained Alexander by informal apprenticeship, having him around him when he could. The famous incident with the horse Bucephalas happened when Alexander was 10 years old, and his father was buying warhorses. One magnificent horse was too shy and unruly to be ridden, and Philip was going to send it back until Alexander begged to have a try at taming it. The story goes on to say he had noticed the horse was frightened by its moving shadow, so he turned the horse’s face into the sun, soothed it by stroking, and finally jumped on its back and galloped off. Leaving aside the usual hero-foreshadowing and prophetic comments that went along with the story, we can note that Alexander was already a careful observer who figured out how to manage those around him; that he was both impetuous and calculating, biding his time for the moment to act. This was not just a colorful story of a boy and his horse; it shows a remarkably mature 10-year-old; and the qualities Alexander shows are much the same as his father’s. 

Though father and son butted heads and engaged in mutual jealousy, it was clear that Philip regarded Alexander from an early age as the kind of officer he wanted to follow him. At age 16, when Philip was away on campaign, he left Alexander as regent, and he jumped right in, putting down revolts by leading the army in person. Thereafter, Alexander accompanied him on campaigns, commanding the key unit in battle, the Companion cavalry.

Philip had other sons he could have groomed for this role. Alexander’s mother was Philip’s fourth wife out of an eventual total of eight, and Alexander had a number of step-brothers (most of whom came to a bad end, since infighting over succession was common and bloody). We can infer Alexander had opportunities to show his aptitude early; which is to say, he picked up his father’s military art quickly and thus was given still further opportunities, in a self-reinforcing virtuous circle. He was already distancing himself from all rivals.

Famously, Alexander was taught by Aristotle, in a private school lavishly endowed by Philip. This happened between age 13 and 16. Alexander enjoyed the learning, largely in literature like Homer, rather than technical philosophy. But it could not have been too cloistered a period, since at its end, Philip gives the 16-year-old his own army command; and Alexander’s school-mates, sons of the Macedonian aristocracy, come along with him as companions and generals in his future exploits.

What is it that Alexander learned during his apprenticeship? Obviously, Philip’s tactics for leading an army in battle; also how to recruit and train it, since during Alexander’s 10-year expedition he replenished his army several times over. He must have learned how to travel with a light baggage train, since this is what Alexander did on his Persian campaign. Perhaps this was the province of his father’s generals, notably Parmenio, an older man of his father’s generation who gave cautious advice on some famous occasions. (“If I were Alexander, I would accept the offer...” to divide the Persian empire with the defeated Persian King. “And so would I,” Alexander retorted, “if I were Parmenio.”)  Parmenio was delegated ticklish problems like commanding non-Macedonian troops, arranging logistics and baggage trains; and it may well be that in the early part of Alexander’s campaign, officers like Parmenio took care of the essential grunt-work.

Even so, it would be an extended apprenticeship for the 22-year-old. What Alexander showed he had learned, when he left Parmenio and the old advisors behind for the Eastern part of his conquests, was the crucial combination of logistics and diplomacy.

Why do these two go together? We have already discussed the problem of baggage trains slowing down an army’s movement. On long-distance expeditions, the question is whether an army can get there at all. The basic problem, as modern researchers have figured out, is that the people and animals that carry food and water use them up as they go along, and the more mouths in the supply train, the less gets through to the army. *

* This had to have been understood by professional soldiers like Alexander, but ancient historians never wrote about it, since they concentrated on heroic personalities and dramatic incidents and ignored banal realities. They also exaggerated enormously the size of enemy armies, part of the hero narrative, claiming impossible numbers like 1,700,000 Persians invading Greece in 480 BC; and 1,000,000 on the battlefield at Gaugamela. These numbers are impossible because such troops would need huge empty spaces just to stand on; and stretched out marching on narrow roads they would have covered 300 miles, making it impossible to feed them.

Using animals to do the carrying doesn’t solve anything. A horse can carry three times as much as a man, but it consumes three times the weight in food and water; camels can go four days without water, but then they have to drink four times as much.

Solution: live off the land. But there are two problems. One, it only works in good agricultural land. But ancient agriculture was mostly around the cities-- to put it the other way around, ancient cities had to be adjacent to agricultural land or to water transport, or they would starve. Inland, cities and good agriculture were like oases, with poor land in between supporting at best a sparse population. So traveling across poor land, or worse yet, deserts like those in Iran or Egypt, posed a life-or-death problem for an army. The bigger the army, the more deadly it was to itself.

The second problem is that a big  army would have to keep moving, because even in fertile places, food and fodder would be exhausted in a steadily widening circle. And agriculture gets exhausted as the army passes through. The bigger the army, the more it creates a path of no return, since if it comes back (or a rival army, or a reinforcing one tries to use the same route), it will find nothing to eat. At best, it must wait til next year, next harvest season-- assuming the army has not killed off the farmers by eating up all their food so that they starve.

How did Alexander’s army solve this problem? Essentially, by diplomacy. It would send scouts or messengers ahead, seeking out availability of food and water. * Local chieftans or government officials presented themselves at the camp as word got around about an approaching army. Typically they would surrender to the conqueror, whereupon he would usually confirm them in their positions, enlisting them as allies. This meant they were obligated to help his army pass through their territory. Diplomacy on the whole meant generosity and persuasion. Alexander didn’t have to conquer everybody; leveling one resisting city and selling the population into slavery would be enough to bring the others around. In places where there was distrust, the invaders would leave a garrison, or demand hostages. It was a mild form of conquest, which left everything locally as it had been.

* We see the same thing in the Bible, when Jesus and a growing crowd of followers travel from Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem, a distance of 100 miles. Jesus sends out 70 forerunners to find towns to host them. It is not a military expedition, but Jesus calls down religious sanctions on the villages that refuse to receive them. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! ... And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades.” [Luke 10: 1-16] Logistical issues recur throughout Jesus’ career, since big crowds overstress local resources: hence the need for miracles of multiplying loaves and fishes, and turning water into wine.

The essential thing was that new allies or friendly natives were obligated to provide stores of food and fodder along the route; pack animals to replace those lost by  malnourishment, or to marshal their own local pack trains.

For Alexander’s army, the method worked well. It also explains why it took 10 years to conquer the empire. Conquering the eastern part meant more marches through deserts and mountains, careful planning of when harvests were available, and more advance diplomacy.

Alexander fought relatively few battles. After each one, he would stay in a well-provided location, receive visits of capitulation, and arrange logistics for the way ahead. His father, building a mini-empire on the barbarian fringes of Greece, was ruthless when he needed to be, but on the whole Philip expanded by diplomacy. It all meshed together: his fast-moving army, his combined-arms victories, and his diplomatic agreements that solved problems of logistics. His son operated the same way.

Philip, too, had been a keen-eyed youth. His adolescent years were spent as a hostage in Thebes in the 360s. At the time, its famous general Epaminondas was dominating Greece by building a full-time professional army, inventing combined-arms tactics and the strategy of holding forces in reserve; instead of the one-shot shoving match between hoplite phalanxes, Epaminondas created a two-stage battle where after the intial melée had tied up the enemy, his fresh troops would hit them on the flank. Philip developed a version of this tactic, using heavy cavalry.

Philip took over as King at age 24, not much older than Alexander at 20. Both learned their craft young, from the best of the previous generation. Both hit the ground running.

[3] The Target for Takeover

Alexander's expedition 334-324 BC

Most importantly, Alexander’s success depended on the fact that the Persian Empire was there for the taking.

Let us unpack this. The Empire was already an organized entity. Cyrus, Darius I, and their successors had created a unified administrative structure out of what previously had been several major kingdoms (Media, Babylon, Egypt), plus lesser kingdoms, plus a vast area that never before had been a state in the strong sense of the term. Back in the time of Cyrus in the 500s BC, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two great fertile river valleys of the Middle-East, had already gone through their elimination contests and winnowed down to a few strong states based on big populations held together by water transport. But Iran, the uplands of Asia Minor and Armenia, and the adjacent plains of Central Asia, were still areas inhabited by sparse populations. Some were moving pastoralists, who formed at most shifting tribal coalitions. Others lived in pockets and valleys where agriculture could support a mid-size population and therefore petty kingdoms; but they lacked the logistics to supply an army big enough to conquer anybody, by carrying enough food and water to get across the infertile areas between them.

Cross-section of mountain barriers to Iranian plateau

What Cyrus did was essentially what Alexander did later: starting from the major pockets of population and agriculture, he would win a few exemplary victories, then use his prestige to invite or overawe the outlying areas, with their lower level of production, to enlist as friends and allies. We could call this a system of tribute; the Great King, as Cyrus and his successors were known, was more than just an ordinary King, but overlord of lords.  He did not change much locally; the same chiefs and petty kings remained in place, but they had to pay tribute. Above all, they had to provide goods in kind, especially the animals and foodstuff so that royal armies could pass that way.*

* In this respect, the expansive emperors, Darius and Xerxes, regarded the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the other side of the Aegean sea as just so many more candidates for incorporation into the system of overlordship. Greek historians, and some contemporary politicians, saw this as a life-or-death struggle between democracy or despotism, but this was an exaggeration. From the Persian point of view, the Greek city-states were a version of small remote kingdoms, too much trouble to be directly controlled. The city-states of Ionia under Persian overlordship were left to run their own internal affairs; some continued to be democracies, others were oligarchies but this was the same spectrum as the Greek mainland. On the whole tribute was light, in fact generally less than what the Athenians demanded to maintain the anti-Persian fleet.

This was a thin administrative system.  In some places, a tributary empire could be turned into a thicker, more intrusive system. Cyrus, Darius, and their stronger successors put their own administrators in place: high-level satraps, intermediate level governors, local garrisons. In richer places, older city-kingdoms like Babylon, taxes could be collected in money for the royal treasury. Paved roads were built, facilitating the faster movement of  armies to keep things under control; messengers connected administrators and sent policy edicts throughout the Empire. With only moderate success, to be sure; satraps were often near-autonomous; and since they ruled over layers of locals most of whose traditional leaders were kept in place, they often had little effect except keeping the taxes or tribute coming in.  Under the stronger Persian regimes, regional power was divided among a civilian head of government, counterbalanced by a chief treasury officer, and a military commander. There also was a service called “Eyes and Ears of the King,” roving inspectors with their own military escorts.

To repeat: Alexander’s success depended on the fact that the Persian Empire was there for the taking.  Now for the second part.

That it was for the taking was a common observation in Greece from the 390s onwards. The success of the Ten Thousand in fighting their way back from the heart of the Empire convinced them that Greek forces (and Greek democratic spirit) could always beat the servile Asians.

Spartan generals and other military stars of following decades put themselves forward as prospective leaders of such a conquest. Such names were popular in the panhellenic movement, what was left of the Athenian anti-Persian crusade. The famous Athenian orator Isocrates proposed that the solution of Greece’s problems was just such an expedition: not because Persia was still a menace, but because it was an easy target.  Greece’s problem was there were too many poor men wandering around joining armies. In the past Greece had taken care of its excess population by founding colonies around the Mediterranean. But that area was getting politically filled up, with menacing states in the west like Carthage and Rome. The solution was to expand eastward, conquering land from the Persians. The most recent of these prospective saviours was named: Philip of Macedon. Left unsaid was the fact that Philip was becoming a threat to the Greeks; better get him off to Asia and out of the way. After Philip’s assassination, Alexander made a foray into Greece with his army, and got himself confirmed as commander in chief (hegemon) of the panhellenic army, which now really would set out on this task.

Why an easy target? The Greeks could see clearly enough that their military forces were tactically better than the Persians. Moreover, Persia had long since stopped expanding. It had become a familiar player in Greek geopolitics, much like any other contender, taking part in one coalition, then another. Most striking of all must have been the way the Empire was periodically roiled whenever a King died. The satraps would revolt, and several years went into getting them back under control.  And Persian succession crises were filled with betrayals and assassinations, decimating the royal families several times over. It last had just happened in 338 BC, and had not yet settled down when Philip was ready to launch his invasion two years later. 

All this was true. Alexander was able to pick apart the Persian Empire in Asia Minor with ease. Beating one Persian army at Granicus soon after he landed, and besieging one holdout city (a Greek city, by the way, Miletus) was enough to make the rest of the polities, Greek cities, semi-Greek kings, and Persian satraps alike, all come over to his diplomacy, and to supply his logistics.

It wasn’t until next year that the newly installed Great King could muster troops to meet Alexander in Syria, already in reach of the Mesopotamian heartland. Darius III was a survivor, not a particularly vigorous ruler, who got the crown mainly because he was almost the last of the lineage still alive.

That Alexander’s takeover of the Persian Empire went off without a single defeat was less a result of his singular qualities as a general, than of the weakness of Persian administrative and military structure. Alexander spent 10 years on the takeover, not because it was difficult, but because it was so large. Logistically, he needed that much time to make a grand tour of his Iranian and Eastern possessions after, in the 4th year, he had occupied the major cities, defeated Darius, and assumed his crown.

But also, the Persian Empire had enough structure so that is could be taken over-- as opposed to crumbling to pieces. Even in the wars among Alexander’s successors, the central part remained intact, while the Macedonia/ Asian Minor segment and the Egyptian segment broke off, leaving the big state outlines more or less where they were.  The Persian Empire, under whatever name, had coherence as a network, and it didn’t matter who headed it. In this perspective, the bloody, protracted and treacherous 20-year fight among Alexander’s successors continued the pattern of succession crises whenever the Persian Great King died. And this is what Alexander, in title, had become.

Sheer military force cannot take over a territory before it has developed to an economic level at which the conquering forces can be sustained. At the cusp of civilization, large armies couldn’t even traverse such places if economic organization isn’t complex enough. Conversely, a state with a strong enough infrastructure to support its military rulers also can support a conquering army.  No Greek general, like Alexander or anyone else, could have conquered an empire spreading into the Iranian plateau and beyond into Central Asia, in the 500s BC when those places were still isolated agricultural oases amidst tribes and pastoralists. It required the intermediate step such as Cyrus took, to build the logistics networks. 

A person-centered way of saying this would be: no Cyrus, no Alexander. I have already said something similar about Philip’s relationship to his son. But to focus on names is to miss the point about how structures change.

Alexander made no changes to the Persian administration. His methods of conquest were the same as those of Cyrus: he accepted surrenders, then usually reconfirmed the former official in office-- sometimes even after they had opposed him in battle. Perhaps he did this out of gallantry; or recognizing competence where he saw it. Also it was the easiest thing to do, much easier than trying to create an administration of his own. In some places he left garrisons, and in the heartland regions he installed his own officials as satraps, and tried to reinstitute the 3-official system (administrator, treasurer, military commander) where it had fallen into disuse. But the end result was essentially to put the organization of the Persian Empire back in working order.

The panhellenic prognosticators were right. The Persian Empire was ready for a takeover. But the end result was no different. Alexander was not great enough to make a structural change.

[4]  Greek Population Explosion and Mercenaries

Greece had been in a population explosion from the 600s BC (when it had about half a million people) until 400 BC (when it reached 3 million). The city-states sponsored colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, North Africa, and around the Black Sea, without slowing down the population surge, so the overall growth must have been even larger. One big result of Alexander’s conquest was to open the Asian Middle-East and Egypt to colonization. This time it worked; Greece’s population started falling, down to 2 million by 1 AD, a loss of about one-third. During this same period, the Persian Empire and its successors (the Macedonian and Hellenistic successor states in Asia and Egypt), grew from about 14 million total in 400 BC to 17 million in 1 AD, with most of the growth in the Greek-dominated areas of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt.

One could say Alexander’s conquest solved the problem of Greek overpopulation relative to its resources, which Greek observers had seen as the result of growing concentration of wealth, dispossession of poorer farmers from their land, and the creation of a dangerous class of rootless warriors.

Reversing the gestalt, it was not so much Alexander who made possible the migration of the Greeks, as the other way around: the mobile Greek surplus population, already employed as warriors, made up the armies that carried Alexander to success. We see this in the growth of mercenaries, starting at least 100 years before Alexander.

Already at the time of Darius the Great, the Persian king was employing Greeks to command a fleet surveying the coast from India to Arabia, and even to survey the coast of Greece preliminary to invasion. Around 450 BC, Greek mercenaries were employed by Persia to put down an internal revolt by a satrap in Asia Minor. The famous Ten Thousand hired by the pretender Cyrus to overthrow his brother Artaxerxes in 401 BC were the first time Greek hoplites were seen on the plain of Mesopotamia. By the 350s, Artaxerxes III was hiring his own Greek mercenaries to regain Egypt. Thus it was no surprise when Alexander, in his first battle of conquest, at Granicus in Asia Minor 334 BC, fought an army made up of Persian cavalry, local infantry, plus a force of Greek mercenaries who fought longer and harder than anyone else, and were massacred by Alexander after the end of the battle. At the climactic battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, King Darius III surrounded his personal bodyguard with Greek mercenaries.

In part this was the professionalization of warfare. Most fighters in the Greek wars of the 400s BC were part-time citizen-soldiers; the following century turned increasingly to full-time professionals. Greek hoplites acquired the reputation as the best brand, and their services were bought ever farther away in the international market. Greek generals offered to hire out to any city, tribe or kingdom that needed them. Political loyalty and nationalist ideology were nowhere near as important as the Athenian panhellenists made them out to be. Some soldiers were ideological, many were not. Already in Xerxes’ invasion of 480 BC, Arcadians (Greek soldiers from the interior) offered their services to the Persians, out of poverty. In the city-states, mercenaries were regarded with suspicion for precisely this reason; they were apolitical roughnecks, ready to fight for whoever had money to pay them; hence when the Ten Thousand completed their great escape from Persia, the Greek cities viewed them with distrust and refused to admit them. But even in ideological wars mercenaries were used; the Athenians for instance used them for the dirty work of massacreing enemy cities during the Peloponnesian war.   Eventually everybody used them; Alexander too had mercenaries in his army, although he preferred to rely on his native Macedonians, and reserved officer positions for them.

The panhellenic ideology of Greeks vs. Persians was never a widespread reality. Already at the time of Cyrus the Great, most of the Greek cities of Asia Minor were brought into his empire by subsidies, bribes, and treachery. Even Athens and Sparta wavered between pro- and anti-Persian positions; it was generally the democratic faction who favored Persian protection and peace, the conservatives who favored war. After the invasions were thrown back, there was a Sparta-Persia alliance during most of the 400s BC; Persian tribute in Ionia was less than the Athenian exactions, and some cities preferred Persian to Athenian imperialism; and Persian subsidies-- Persian gold-- financed Sparta to victory in the Peloponnesian war.  During the 300s, the fluctuating Greek powers were all willing, at one time or another, to make Persian alliances.

One thing that connected mercenaries with Persian foreign policy was money. Mercenaries, by definition, fought for pay; and they flourished in the same milieu where subsidies/ aid/ bribery were a weapon of statecraft. The entire Middle-East, and its peripheral zones like Greece, were becoming better organized: in infrastructure of roads, shipping and ports; in administration, travel and communications; in agricultural production to support larger populations, in trade, tribute, and taxation. Coinage and a layer of monetary economy above the subsistence sector existed by the 500s, and was widespread by the 300s. In that sense, the argument about the spread of mercenaries is the same as the argument that the advanced organization of the Persian Empire made it a candidate for conquest. Not only was there a population explosion in Greece, but also a market flowing towards the better-organized East, where there was money to buy the thing that Greeks were best at producing: top-flight military labor. From a higher level of analysis, the growth of mercenaries, the shift of Greek population to the East, and Alexander’s conquest were all the same process.

[5]  Alexander’s Victory Formula

Besides diplomacy and advance logistics, how did he actually conduct a battle? Not quite what you’d think: not just a headlong attack, but a mixture of caution and impulsiveness.

A better word would be patience. Alexander took risks once battle began, but his strategy of when and where to give battle was the opposite of risk-taking.

Alexander recognized that a big Persian army could not stay in one place very long. The bigger it is, the less it can live off the land; and bringing in supplies generates the vanishing-point mathematics of pack animals and humans eating up the supplies they are carrying, not to mention clogging the available roads.

Facing huge armies, Alexander delayed accepting battle. Before Issus, Darius assembled several hundred thousands on a plain near the Syrian Gates, where the Macedonians would be expected to come out of the mountains of Asia Minor. The plain gave unrestricted maneuverability for a large army, and there had been time to stockpile ample supplies. Alexander, crossing them up, went on a 7-day campaign westward against the mountain tribes. Then he returned to a city where he was well supplied by sea, made elaborate sacrifices to the gods; held a review of the army; athletic and literary contests; even a relay race with torches. Finally Darius had to move, and went seeking Alexander in the narrow region of mountains and swamps, throwing away his advantage of open ground. After two weeks inland, no doubt hurting for supplies, Darius finally met Alexander at the Issus River, where the Persian army-- now down to about 150,000-- was packed in and unable to use superior numbers to outflank or surround  him.

At Gaugamela 3 years later, Darius had an even bigger army, on a wide plain supplied by the main roads of Mesopotamia. They even cleared away bushes so that their scythe-bearing chariot wheels had room to roll.  Alexander brought his army, now grown to 45,000, to a hill overlooking the plain, where at night the torches seemed to go on forever. Since the Persians were not going to move, Alexander gave his army four days rest. Alexander was also playing psychological warfare, not letting the Persians fight in their first flush of enthusiasm (the adrenalin rush, we would say).  Their suspense grew even worse, since they began to expect a night attack, so after several sleep-depriving nights of this, Alexander chose to attack in the daylight.

Alexander always started the battle. His formula was to seize the initiative, establish emotional domination as quickly as possible. His open-field battles all became walkovers. The units of the Macedonian army—infantry phalanx, light troops, heavy cavalry on both wings—advanced at different times, but the key was always Alexander’s assault.  Once the Companion cavalry broke the Persian ranks in an intense but usually short fight, the Persians' advantage in numbers was turned against themselves.

At Issus, the Persians had large numbers of troops, realistically perhaps four times the size of Alexander’s, lined up along a river bank. But most of those tens or hundreds of thousands could never engage the Macedonians, because they couldn’t get close to them. Once their defense crumbled on the right, Alexander turned obliquely against the center; this threw the Persian army into a stampede, particularly disabling when so many men trample each other in a traffic jam. In every major battle, the Persians lost 50 percent or more, the Macedonians a small fraction, perhaps 1 percent or less. The disparity in casualties seems unbelievable, but it is commensurate with complete organizational breakdown of one side, making them helpless victims. In violence on all size-scales, emotional domination precedes most physical damage. 

At Granicus, Alexander positioned himself opposite where the Persian commander was surrounded by bodyguards. He waited for the moment when he saw a wavering in the Persian line, and charged his cavalry at that point. Alexander led 2000 or so cavalry splashing through the water and up a steep bank. This might seem a risky thing to do. But psychologically, relying on favorable geography for defense is a weakness; once the advantage of terrain turns out to be ineffective, the defending side has set itself up to be emotionally dominated.  In every respect, Alexander aimed at the point of emotional weakness-- a point in time and space, visible to a good observer.

Alexander did not have to fight the entire Persian army; he picked a unit about his own size, and counted on the superior quality of his troops-- the superiority they created by generating emotional domination.

All three of Alexander’s fateful victories-- Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela-- ended the same way, with the enemy commander (in the last two, the King himself) running away in his chariot, setting off a general panic retreat.  At Gaugamela, the Persian forces were so large and spread out that Parmenio, commanding on the left, had a stiff fight with Greek mercenaries and other Persian forces who did not know the rest of their army was routed. It took longer but Parmenio, too-- the other cavalry commander-- emerged victorious without Alexander’s help. This shows that the Macedonian style was not personal to Alexander alone.

There is another respect in which Alexander attacked the weakness of the Persian army. It was an army of an empire, a polyglot of 50 different ethnic groups, with their own languages, each fighting in their own formation. The army that invaded Greece under Xerxes had 30 generals, all Persian aristocrats; the armies of Darius III were probably similar. We can surmise that central control of the army, once battle began, was minimal. We can also infer that morale and loyalty of each ethnic unit was shakey; they had been recruited by going over to the victor, and they were aware of the possibility of going over to the other side if things did not go well. * There was also the rigid hierarchy of the Persian army-- something all the Greeks commented on.

* This was the pattern of warfare in India before the arrival of European officers. Battlefields were displays of ferocious weapons-- chariots, elephants and so on-- but outcomes were decided mostly by side-switching in the midst of battle but arranged beforehand. (Philip Mason. 1976. The Indian Army.)

Why this would make a difference is illuminated by observations by Western troops serving in today’s Middle-Eastern wars. American and British forces in Afghanistan, for instance, have commented that local troops can be ferocious in combat, and like the action of getting into a fight. (I have this from personal accounts, and military publications.) Their main weakness is in their officers, especially the NCOs. Whereas American NCOs are trained to take initiative, especially when higher organization gets disrupted during the fog of battle, Middle-Eastern officers are wary of doing anything they might be criticized for. ** Success as an officer is not necessarily a good thing. Outstanding success makes one a political threat; it also could be interpreted as showing up one’s superiors. Extrapolating backwards to Alexander’s time, there are numerous reasons why ethnic troops and their lower officers would not fight vigorously for their Persian commanders, if the battle started going against them. Generals who failed risked being executed; but generals who succeeded were potential rebels, and many of them got executed or assassinated in a few years anyway, in the distrustful politics of the Empire.

** In this respect, the Roman army was more like the contemporary American one. Centurions-- leaders of a company of 100-- were widely regarded as the backbone of the army, and treated as such by successful generals. Also similar were the widespread opportunities for upward mobility in the revolutionary French army at the time of Napoleon.

A puzzle: by the time of Alexander’s invasion, the Persian army had its own Greek hoplite mercenaries. At Gaugamela, King Darius deployed 15,000. Since the tactical quality of the troops was the same, why didn’t the Persians’ Greeks stymie Alexander’s? Most likely because of the organizational atmosphere of the Persian army. The Greek mercenaries were hemmed in by the status-conscious Persian command structure. Proof by comparison is in the wars that took place, in the same region, among the Hellenistic successor states after Alexander’s death. When the composition of the armies became the same on both sides, outcomes went back to pretty much even.

For Alexander, a few big battles were enough to make the loyalty structure crumble, setting in motion the massive side-switching and the diplomatic offensive at which Alexander was adept.  We should add a number of sieges, first on the Ionian coast, and then in the Levant, above all the sieges of Tyre, the harbor stronghold of Phoenician naval power, and Gaza, on the road to Egypt. Alexander’s sieges were no different than anyone else’s. It took patience, and he spent 7 months at Tyre, determined to break through its strong-walled defenses. His eventual victory came by employing the most advanced Greek engineering methods of the time; but also through a strategic move. The Phoenicians could not be starved out, since they were supplied by sea. Alexander found a way around this by making diplomatic deals with other seaport cities, to bring their fleets to attack Tyre from the water. This worked; a combined land and sea attack breached the city. When he got to Egypt (which simply surrendered), he founded his most important colonial city, Alexandria, as a new naval center. This had the effect of giving him secure sea routes at his back, and quicker resupply lines for reinforcements from Greece. In military perspective, it was a fine combination of strategic and tactical plans.

Finally, there are the stories about Alexander’s clever strategems where his advance was blocked by an extremely strong position, like a fort in a mountain pass. As always in such stories, someone discovers a little-used pathway over the dangerous mountainside, leading around to the rear of the enemy. Alexander leads a body of intrepid troops on this action-adventure, and all is well in the end. Using bad weather as a cover also helps take the enemy by surprise. I don’t doubt the truth of these stories; but they are commonplaces about generals throughout history (there are similar stories in Xenophon). Most of these battles were minor; none of them broke the back of the enemy organization.

Was Alexander’s Success Because of or Despite His Personality?

“Personality” is a noun, but that is merely how it operates in our grammar. What we mean by personality, what the word points to, is not a thing at all but a series of actions. Personality is the sum total of someone’s personal interactions.

Some incidents of Alexander’s personal dealings with others were scandalously famous. In the seventh year of his campaign, his army was in Samarkand, far away in what is now Uzbekistan. At one of their frequent drinking-parties, Alexander got into a dispute with one of the Companions of the elite cavalry. It was his oldest friend, Cleitus-- his foster-brother, since Cleitus’ mother had nursed and brought up the two of them together. Both were drinking heavily. Cleitus began badgering Alexander about introducing Persian customs, especially making everyone who approached him prostrate themselves on the ground, treating him as a god on earth. Cleitus said it was offensive to his old friends, that an army wins as a group but he was taking all the credit for himself, that he is forgetting who-- Cleitus-- saved Alexander’s life at Granicus.

Alexander grew angrier and angrier. Cleitus’ friends tried to pull him out of the room, but he barged back in through another entrance, shouting another insult. (This is the typical escalation of a bar-room quarrel; it is usually when one of the partisans in a face contest has been ejected and makes a return, that somebody gets killed.) What happens next is revealing in the way Alexander was treated by his personal companions and servants. Alexander called on his guards to sound the alarm-- the signal that would have roused the entire camp to arms. None of the guards obeyed the order; they must have been used to such quarrels, and defied their god-playing King to keep the situation from getting out of hand. Since no one obeyed him, Alexander grabbed a spear and hurled it at Cleitus, killing him.

Immediately he calmed down. He tried to kill himself with the same spear but his guards prevented it. He retired to his room, and stayed there berating himself for days. Finally his advisors prevailed on him to put the incident behind him. He resumed acting like a Persian king-god, at least in public. About this time began a series of plots, rumoured assassinations and real executions. Two of his favorite Companions had drawn swords on each other; Alexander settled the matter by telling them he would execute them both if they quarreled again. He also delegated them separate tasks, one to convey orders to the Greek-speakers, the other to the Persians and foreigners in his army.

A flashback reveals something deeper in the interactional style of Alexander, and the Macedonian court where he grew up. When Alexander was 18, his father had taken a new wife, and at the wedding party the girl’s uncle-- one of Philip’s generals--- gave a toast to a new heir. Alexander threw his drinking cup at the man’s head and shouted: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” Philip drew his sword to cut down his son, but failed because he was too drunk to stand up. Alexander and his mother had to go into exile, but eventually he was recalled. Not long after, Philip was assassinated by another intimate with a dagger, Alexander’s mother had the new wife and her baby killed, and Alexander became the new King.

Heavy drinking, brawls, plots and assassinations were common at the Macedonian court (as the latter were in Persia too, although it is not clear that drinking was involved.)  There are striking similarities between Alexander killing Cleitus, and Philip trying to kill Alexander. Philip was a tough, brawling fighter, years of violence having left him with one eye, a crippled hand, and numerous wounds. Alexander was wrecking his own body the same way. Both did heavy drinking with the aristocratic heart of their army. Both relied on the same battle tactics, leading the charge, inspiring the cavalry attack. There was no way Alexander could avoid keeping up these drinking bouts; he continued them until he died from one of them  Drinking was the ritual of bonding among the group that won his victories. Alexander’s carousing seems to contradict his patience in arranging logistics and awaiting the proper moment for marching or battle. But these were parts of the same thing: having to wait around so much gave occasion for carousing, a way of keeping up morale during dead time.

Now Alexander is in a structural bind. As Persian King, and in constant diplomacy playing King of Kings to the chieftans around him, he is caught in the ceremonial that exalts him. As leader of the world’s best military, he needs to keep up the solidarity of his Companions. The ambiguity of that name-- more apparent to us than it would have been at the time-- displays the two dimensions that were gradually coming apart: his companion buddies, a fraternity of fellow-carousers, fighters who have each other’s back; and the purely formal designation, members of the elite with privileged access to the King.*

* Compare the protocol of King Xerxes (reigned 485-465 BC) described in the Old Testament Book of Esther. She is a beautiful Jewish woman who has become Queen, top rank in the harem. But she risks her life in leaving her house to enter the King’s presence uninvited.  Fortunately for Esther, and for her people, the King is happy to see her, and she is able to countermand an order sent out by royal messengers that would have killed all the Jews in the Empire. The storyline in Esther hinges repeatedly on who is allowed into the royal presence; at the outset, the previous Queen is deposed because she refuses to come when the King wants to show her off at one of his all-male drinking parties. Which way the royal scepter pointed meant favor, or death. Similar protocol at Babylon is described in the Book of Daniel. Alexander was moving towards being that kind of Oriental potentate-- and the Greeks were the first to formulate the ideas of Orientalism.  Thus it is striking how much freedom from deference, how much equality existed in Alexander’s drinking parties. It is astounding that his guards refused to obey his orders, and even laid hands on him forcefully to prevent his suicide. They too were part of the team.

Philip and Alexander have the same double personalities. ** Philip, though a bad-tempered brawler and ferocious battle leader, also is the master of diplomacy. We have seen that Alexander’s conquest would not have been possible without having learned to solve logistics problems by diplomacy. After some battles he could massacre the defeated; but also he could be magnanimous. With some conquered kings and other high aristocrats, Alexander not only would restore them to their position, but treat them with great courtesy.  Such magnanimity would also have been good for his diplomatic reputation, encouraging side-switchers to approach him. I am not suggesting it was simply a strategy Alexander played. Personality is made from the outside in; habitual styles of interacting with people become part of the way one is. Since Alexander’s daily life fluctutates among different kinds of situations, he has many personality facets-- to fall back on talking in nouns, an unavoidable but misleading feature of our language. His life consisted of situations when he played the hard-drinking fraternity boy, and when he played the diplomat; increasingly as he took over Persian organization, he took on the side of arrogant ruler, paranoid about plots.

**  One respect in which they differ is that Alexander was not very interested in sex. He joshes his friends for their love affairs, but seems to have been a virgin until age 23, when Parmenio gave him a captive Persian woman. Plutarch records that the captive wife and daughters of the King and women of the court were “tall and beautiful”, but Alexander would say sardonically “What eyesores these Persian women are!” Nor does it appear that he was homosexual-- although that would have been normal in Greece-- since he forcefully rejected a present of two beautiful boys.  Alexander was a monomaniac about the army and dangerous physical action-- he preferred hunting lions. Very likely he regarded women as dangerous entanglements, sources of strife and assassination. Observing not just his father, but his mother, would have taught him that.

Here are some other facets, or episodes:

The Impetuous Leader

The only route from the royal city of Persepolis in southern Iran to Ecbatana, the old Median capital in the northwest mountains, led over a 8000 foot pass, often blocked from winter until April. But in March 330 BC, Alexander was eager to get through. The ancient historian Curtius describes it with a touch of melodrama: “They had come to a pass blocked with perpetual snows, bound in ice by the violence of the cold. The desolation of the landscape and the pathless solitudes terrified the exhausted soldiers, who believed they were at the end of the world, and demanded to return before even daylight and sky should fail them.” Alexander reacted by leaping from his horse, seizing a mattock from a soldier and furiously attacking the ice, chopping a path through. It was the same way he led the cavalry charge in combat, pulling his troops behind him.

In summer they are marching through a desert, suffering from heat and lack of water. One day, an advance party found a gulley stream, and were bringing water up on pack animals as Alexander marched by on foot with his soldiers, sharing their misery. A soldier filled a helmet with water and held it out to Alexander. As he was raising it to drink, he saw his cavalry soldiers looking at him thirstily. Alexander shook his head and dashed the water to the ground-- his cavalry shouted they could all go another day without water and they galloped off together. One wasted helmet of water, Plutarch comments, invigorated the whole army.

Flashforward four years. Alexander’s army is preparing to leave Bactria, in far-off Central Asia. The campaign has been successful; they are laden with booty, rugs, silks, luxuries, probably a throng of camp followers. Alexander looks at the loaded supply train, just the kind of thing that would drag them down. Burn it all! And he starts in with his own wagons and pack animals, tearing off the bundles and throwing them into a fire. There is a shocked moment: then his soldiers join in, one after another; soon they are yelling in contagious joy, throwing things into the fire.  It is a combination potlatch and display of military dedication, waking up from the soporific dreams of peace.

Why does he act so much better on campaign than he does in court or in camp? He is an action junkie; the soft life repels him. But it is part of being a great King, and that has been his life’s goal. As long as there is another battle to fight, another danger to brave, he in in tune with his men, his buddies, his Companions.

Two Mutinies

Eastward into India, crossing one tentacle of the upper Indus River after another, the army penetrates the exotic tropics. They win a great battle against a huge host, armed with elephants; Alexander receives the Indian King’s surrender, then returns his kingdom to him with an exchange of royal compliments. The war-plus-diplomacy formula is still working. Then: his troops refuse to go on. Not just the men; his officers come to explain what the soldiers are saying, they agree with it too. Alexander is devastated. He retires into his tent, refuses to talk with anyone. He announces the rest can go back; he will go on with whoever will accompany him. No one offers. It is like the days after he had murdered Cleitus. But Alexander is harder now, older too; he gets over it, reluctantly agrees to lead his army down the river to the sea, starting their return to the West.

But his mood has changed. Already, since the murders and suspicions and executions in Central Asia, Alexander had grown more personally violent. He shot with an arrow a barbarian chief brought to him for rebelling.** Later, reprimanding his administrators for corruption in his absence, he killed one with his own hand by the stroke of a javelin. When Parmenio’s son is implicated in one of the alleged plots, Alexander not only killed the son but sent orders to assassinate the father.

** Millenia later, in the same part of the world, this was still a style of the super-toughguy leader; in the Russian civil war around 1920  the chief of the partisans/bandits would personally execute a captive in front of a crowd, this time with a pistol. (Felix Schnell. 2012. Räume des Schreckens. Gewalt und Gruppenmilitanz in der Ukraine 1905-1933.)

Thus we should not be surprised at the following incident: Beginning the march home in the Indus valley, Alexander fought all the tribes that would not submit. In one city, the citadel held out. Growing impatient with the siege, Alexander himself mounted one of the ladders, fending off a shower of missiles from above with his shield. He reached the top with three others when the ladders broke. His friends called Alexander to jump down; instead he jumped into the fortress. His tiny group fought ferociously, but were almost overwhelmed in the midst of the enemy by the time the Macedonians had frantically driven pegs into the earthen wall to make the ascent. One companion was dead; Alexander had been pierced by an arrow in the chest and fainted from loss of blood. His infuriated troops killed everyone in the place down to the women and children.  Alexander was always heedless of himself in battle, but now one wonders if he cared whether he lived or died. His soldiers had betrayed him; if they wouldn’t follow him now, they would see!  There must have been some satisfaction as his litter passed by boat along the camp shore, the army shouting as he raised a hand to show he was still alive.

After a long and devastating march, the following year they were back in Mesopotamia. ** 

** The big obstacle was the Gedrosian desert, the dryest part of Iran. Alexander could have come back the way he had gone out, looping across the northern, more fertile edge of the Iranian plateau; but Alexander sent a subordinate with part of his troops that way-- he wanted to try something new, maybe something especially dangerous. Usually careful of logistics, he planned for his admiral Nearchus to sail parallel to his route along the coast of the Indian ocean, to supply him with food and water. It was a rare miscalculation: they did not know the monsoon winds blew the wrong direction that time of year, and Nearchus’ fleet was stuck in port while Alexander’s 150,000 were marching west. Three-quarters of them died in the desert. It was the worst loss of Alexander’s career, more men than all his battles put together. It was like Napoleon's retreat from Moscow.

Then came a second mutiny. He called an assembly of his Macedonian veterans, by now down to a fraction of his troops. He formally discharged those who were too old or wounded for further action, sending them home with ample rewards. The army’s mood was sullen. The cry went up: Discharge us all! And some yelled taunting insults about the Asian gods in whose name he would fight his further conquests. Alexander leaped down from the platform and pointed out the ringleaders to his guards, to seize them and put them to death.  In the silence that followed, Alexander remounted the platform and bitterly discharged the whole army. From now on Persian nobles would fill the high posts; names of Macedonian regiments would be transferred to the new army. For three days the Macedonian soldiers lingered, uncertain what to do; finally they laid down their weapons and begged to be admitted into Alexander’s presence. What followed was a tearful reconciliation. The quarrel was patched up, in the usual ritual, by massive drunken feasting.

Partying to Death

The triumphant return to the center of the Empire was one carousing celebration after another. There was a drinking contest with a prize; the winner drank 12 quarts of wine and died in three days; another 40 guests died because they were too drunk to cover themselves in a sudden storm of cold weather. At another great feast, featuring 3000 entertainers imported from Greece, Alexander’s closest friend Hephaestion fell ill after swallowing an entire flagon. When he died, Alexander went into a veritable potlatch of grief; he had the battlements of nearby cities pulled down, and massacred the entire population of a nearby tribe who had been causing trouble; the physician who failed to cure his friend was crucified. Hephaestion was more than a friend; he was his fellow Persianizer, the one who like himself wore Persian robes, the one who had fought the leader of the pro-Greek faction after the murder of Cleitus. Now Alexander was alone, the Persian King of Kings, without a friend. Someone stepped forward, one of the original Macedonian Companions, inviting him on an all-night drinking binge. They did it again the next night. Alexander woke up with a fever, steadily worsened, and died.

It was alcohol poisoning, of course-- literally drinking himself to death, like his companions.

Copy of a statue of Alexander regarded as good likeness

Are we surprised at how he looks? The statue made by his favorite sculptor is certainly not of a youth; probably from the last years of his life when he was back from campaigning. He stood out from his bearded contemporaries because he kept himself clean-shaven. Alexander was short but stocky, with something twisted looking in his face and neck. He was thirty-two years old when he died. Is this dying young? Think of him as an aging athlete, engaged in the roughest action for 16 years; about the time professional athletes start to retire, beat up from injuries. Alexander had been wounded in almost every battle, sometimes severely; wounded in the leg, bludgeoned in the head and neck, arrows that shattered bones and had to be painfully removed from shoulder, thigh and chest. It accumulates; and there were no steroids to prolong an athletic career.

Alexander did not die of disappointment, or for want of places yet to conquer. His fatal drinking binge took place days before another expedition was to be launched, the conquest of Arabia, preliminary to Carthage and the western Mediterranean. But the atmosphere was different. The court was swarming with priests and soothsayers, making all manner of sacrifices and oracles for the upcoming expedition. Alexander was conventionally religious for his time-- i.e. giving ample display of rituals before and after battle, no doubt enjoying the Durkheimian center of attention. But there is no indication he ever let the oracles tell him what to do. Flashback one last time, to Alexander in Greece, 21 years old, getting ready for his Persian expedition. Following good form, he visits the oracle of Delphi. But the oracle is closed; it is not a propitious day. Alexander forcefully drags the priestess to her shrine. “My son, you are invincible,” she protests. It is all he wants to hear.

Did Alexander Really Achieve Anything?

He took over the Persian Empire. He did not change its structure or even its extent. The mutiny in India happened when his army passed the Persian frontier; it was just too far, by everyone’s sense of what the Empire could hold. I take this to mean a logistics sense. There is a silly conjecture that if Alexander had not died, he would have conquered Carthage and Rome, and created a true world empire. This is hero-rhetoric of historians. As if anyone had the administrative capacity at the time: Italy had still not gone through the elimination contest that would have made it the kind of target Persia had become. Even 500 years later, when the Romans shifted from a thin tributary overlordship to a degree of bureaucratic penetration, they never could get beyond the western edge of Iran.

Could anyone else have done as much as Alexander did? Very likely. His father Philip was all set to do it; and he probably could have carried it out, if he didn’t get killed at some other drinking party along the way. They used the same army, the same tactics, the same diplomacy of rule. Perhaps the only difference was that Alexander was somewhat better, after all, at holding his liquor at drinking parties.

The main structural innovation that Alexander attempted was to promote mutual assimilation between Greeks and Persians. * The god-king protocol was what his Greeks objected to; but it was a necessary form of rule in the tributary overlord structure of the Persian Empire, depending on impressiveness and ceremonial obeisance that left local potentates in place. Greek city-state democracy (and even the version of egalitarian equals inside the Macedonian aristocracy) was structurally incompatible with the vertical hierarchy of an oriental empire. What Alexander’s innovation came down to specifically was an academy to train Persian noble youths, by making them, in effect, into Persian-speaking Macedonian officers.  This is what the second mutiny was about. He couldn’t integrate the Empire; the best he could try was integrate the office corps. Even this didn’t take.

* Alexander was not so “Greek” as Greek-centered historians have assumed. Certainly he was not a panhellenic anti-Persian. When he left Macedon, he gave away all his property, acting like he expected never to come home. His heroes were the Persian empire-builders, Cyrus and Darius I, even though the latter invaded Greece. In fact, Macedon became a client state of Persia at the time. Macedon was a buffer zone between two culture areas, and such locations can go either way.

The biggest consequence of the Macedonian conquest was creating a zone on the eastern and southern edges of the Mediterranean in which the dominant language and culture were Greek; and thus a zone where travel was facilitated, and social movements could spread. The main results were two: when the Romans started being drawn into Greek coalition-wars, starting with Epirus (on the Adriatic side of Greece-- near present-day Albania, and the place where Alexander’s mother came from), they were drawn onwards until they were interfering in the alliance system of the Greek-speaking states, all the way around to Syria and Egypt. And when Rome interfered, it never withdrew. 

The second result can be seen in where Christianity spread: exactly these Greek-speaking places. Paul the great missionary to the Gentiles is a native of Tarsus in Asia Minor, near where Alexander fought the battle of Issus. The letters that make up the New Testament (itself written in Greek) are almost entirely to Christian congregations in Asia Minor and Greece. The subsequent great centers of the church, and of the monastic movements, were Greek-speaking Antioch and Alexandria. The inadvertent consequence of Alexander’s conquest was to create the conditions for the linguistically unified networks that became the great universalistic religion of the West. The panhellenic Greek spokesmen who in the 300s BC advocated colonizing land won from the Persian Empire thought they were exporting Greek democracy.  This did not happen. What got created, instead, was a cosmopolitan network structure, with Greek as its lingua franca. In it the very idea of universalism-- of a religion free from worldly entanglements and local loyalties-- could take hold.

Why did Alexander Sleep Well, but Napoleon Never Slept?

The preceding blog observed that Napoleon was so energized that he worked 20 hours a day, and on campaign never slept for more than 15 minutes at a time. Alexander was not at all like this. Alexander bragged that he never slept better than the night before a battle; that Parmenio had to shake him three times to wake him up before they went out to fight at Gaugamela. This is entirely plausible. Alexander was much more physical than Napoleon, a muscle man who tired himself out with vigorous exercise.

They both had high emotional energy, pumped up with confidence and pumping up others around them. But they did it by different means. Napoleon got his energy in center-of-the-network rounds of meetings, taking care of all the many branches of administration and moving around the pieces that had to assemble for battle. Things were simpler in Alexander’s day; administration was a thin ceremonial hierarchy; battle preparations were simple, and he did not so much direct his forces as launch the attack and create a bolt of energy that would stream behind him into the heart of the enemy army.

Who was the greater general? Consider this a way of seeing how much had changed from ancient organizational structures to incipient modern ones. If we imagine Napoleon going up against Alexander, it would have to be either in one time or the other. On an ancient battlefield, Napoleon would have been too small to play much part. On a modern battlefield, Alexander would have been one of the wild barbarians whose cavalry charge got mowed down by Napoleon’s artillery. Maybe he was, in the form of one of the native armies Napoleon annihilated in Egypt or Syria. Alexander won all his battles, Napoleon lost at least one big one. But Alexander fought perhaps a third as many battles, all of them one-sided, the most advanced military organization of its day against inferior ones. Napoleon fought armies much like his own, and towards the latter part of his career, his enemies caught up with his best techniques. It is foolish to attribute their respective records to such transcendental impossibility as sheer decontextualized talent.

Bottom line: Heroic leaders, if we unpack the designation of what we are talking about, have to be energy stars. They are persons in the center of gatherings, where they recycle emotions into group action. It can be done in different ways. Napoleon did it mainly by turning enthusiasm into speed; Alexander by spreading a reputation mixed of domineering, sudden anger, and magnanimous generosity.

They lived on opposite sides of a moral divide. Alexander was far more personally cruel than Napoleon, or other modern people, could be. Getting into Alexander’s world makes us realize how different are human beings under different social circumstances. Today someone like Alexander would be on death row. Napoleon one could have liked. As Durkheim explained, morality, as well as emotional energy, are products of social morphology.


Arrian.  History of Alexander.
Plutarch. Life of Alexander.
Xenophon.  Anabasis.
Old Testament Bible. Book of Esther; Book of Daniel.
J. B. Bury.  1951.  A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.  chapters XVI- XVII.
Donald W. Engels. 1978. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army.
Peter Green. 1970. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC.
R. Ghirshman. 1954.  Iran: From the Earliest Times to the Islamic Conquest.
Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones. 1978. Atlas of World Population History.  
H.W. Parke. 1933. Greek Mercenary Soldiers.
Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. 1983. Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World.
Randall Collins. 1998. The Sociology of Philosophies. chapter 3.
Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.


Napoleon Bonaparte was a person of extraordinary energy.

At the height of his career, he worked 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, every day, from 7 a.m. until evening. He read reports, sent orders, met with one department after another; he could rapidly sum up each topic, amazing his staff with his memory and grasp of issues, and then shift gears to a new delegation and topic. He spent no more than 15 minutes at meals, wolfing down his food, drinking little; but found time to keep up on backstage gossip with the servants. In the evening he spent several hours in the formalities of court and fashionable entertainment-- for him another kind of duty-- then went to bed for a few hours of sleep; got up again in the middle of the night for another couple of hours of work, back to bed again, and up at 7 for next day’s round. His tone, except sometimes during evening formalities, was generally upbeat; if he was a workaholic, it energized rather than exhausted him.   

Napoleon 1803 (age 34)

When he was commanding an army in the field, he slept even less: 15 minute snatches here and there. Before battle, he was up all night, preparing battle plans and orders at 1 a.m. while the troops rested to move before dawn. Napoleon’s attention was everywhere, dispositions, artillery, logistics, coordinating far-flung troop movements; he made sure to praise or sanction officers’ performance and to encourage the ordinary soldiers. He never got battle fatigue or made bad decisions from tiredness; his soldiers got enough sleep to keep them fresh but Napoleon thrived on his own rhythm. His armies were famous for being faster than anyone else, his own energy transmitted outward in a network where he held all the threads. 

Napoleon 1796, General of the Army of Italy (age 27)

How did he do it? To call it genius or talent is just a word, not an explanation. Napoleon had an extremely high level of emotional energy [EE]. It consists in confidence, enthusiasm, pro-activeness, and yes, sheer bodily and mental energy. In Interaction Ritual [IR] theory, successful interactions generate EE, by means of tightly focused mutual attention and a shared emotional mood, as the group becomes rhythmically entrained; Durkheimian collective effervescence becomes apportioned to participants, depending on how central they were in the micro-interactional flow, in the amount of EE that they take from  the encounter.  Failed IRs depress EE for hours or days thereafter. And even in successful IRs, some persons get more EE than others, since some are more in the center of the process and others are peripheral, excluded, or dominated by it. Thus stratification, as it happens in everyday life, especially at the peak of achievement, is stratification of emotional energy.

In Napoleon’s career, we can trace the rise and fall of EE, and thus its conditions.

Napoleon as a youth and young man was confident and energetic, but we don’t hear of feats of working 20 hours a day or over-aweing his companions.  As his military and political career took shape, there were periods when he was down, shy and unconfident.  Towards the latter part of his career, too, some of the extraordinary EE slipped, and we find him at times exasperated, bored and passive. At the very end, in exile from the center of action, he fell into a deep lethargy, and died at an early age.  Napoleon’s was a career of emotional energy, and its ups and downs provide the comparisons we need to understand the micro-interactional conditions of extraordinary success, and the limits of living on sheer EE.

Young Napoleon

Napoleon was sent away to military schools in France when he was 9 years old. He didn’t return home to Corsica until he was a newly commissioned 16-year old Lieutenant in the French army. It would be anachronistic to regard this as a deprived childhood; in the 1700s people started working much earlier than in our credential-inflated times, and there was little sentimentality about children nor indeed any recognized status of “teenager” (which appeared only in the 1950s). Young Napoleon came under the usual pressures of a boarding school total institution; he was small, and spoke French with an Italian accent, thus was the butt of other boys who ragged him about his strange name. In retrospect, Napoleon said he avoided the others, concentrating on reading with pen in hand about the great generals of the past. The bully boys found his hideout on the school grounds and tried to attack it; Napoleon faced them down, apparently without coming to blows. It is, in fact, the effective way to deal with a violent threat: not to cower or turn one’s back, but to maintain a strong and determined presence, quite literally using one’s eyes and voice as one’s strongest weapons.  Napoleon learned early that emotional dominance precedes physical violence and determines who will be its victim. We lack further details, but soon Napoleon’s schoolmates were making snowforts and engaging in snowball battles under his confident command. He was already finding that confronting opponents was a situation where he gained emotional energy. 

Napoleon age 16

Things were different when he reached the elite military academy in Paris. Sons of France’s wealthy aristocracy looked down on someone from a minor provincial Italian lineage; their snubs could not be so directly countered. Napoleon concentrated on military lessons, impressed his instructors, and graduated a year early. For years Napoleon would be awkward in high society; the experience also made him a ready advocate of the anti-feudal and egalitarian Revolution, which broke out when he was a low-ranking officer at provincial garrisons.

In the meantime, his father died; his older brother was training as a priest, so Napoleon as second son became de facto head of his family (there were six more younger brothers and sisters, all of whom played some part in the political maneuvers to come). He took long periods on leave in Corsica. Through his father’s politics, he was closely connected with the nationalist movement seeking Corsican independence from France; on the other hand his father had won favor from the French administration by supporting their rule, in fact Napoleon received his elite schooling as patronage for his father’s political switch. The Corsican sojourns allowed Napoleon get out of subordinate duties far from the action in Paris; Corsica was an arena where his family already constituted a political network, and he could jump into a leading role. *

*  The pattern of building up in a backwater away from the center of competition is found also in business careers. Sam Walton, in the first phase of creating a fortune from a chain of discount stores, and thereby overturning the standard model of retailing in the US, did not begin by challenging the big department stores in the major cities; instead he began in rural Arkansas, where his competitors were mom-and-pop stores selling a limited assortment of goods at high prices. (Villette  2009)

As a school for practical politics, in Corsica Napoleon promoted the ideals of the Revolution, but now cast in his loyalty with France as the spearhead of modern reform. This put him in conflict with the independence movement. Napoleon organized a local patriotic militia, led some local shows of force, and successfully petitioned the National Assembly to make Corsicans free and equal French citizens. In early 1793, the nationalists took power in Corsica and Napoleon had to flee with his family to Marseille. It was a political defeat, but young Napoleon gained experience organizing and commanding troops on his own; and he quickly learned the winding stairs of political fortunes and the dangers of ideological fanatics. Henceforward he would be a political realist, using ideologies to muster support but not allowing them to sway his personal judgment.

In Marseille, Napoleon was temporarily in one of his down periods. He had stored up some experiences of how to generate EE, but he was out of his favorable arena now. Before examining how he revived his upward trajectory, let us consider the matter of luck.

Luck as Location in Structure and Change

Napoleon was lucky to be born when he was. He was a 20-year-old lieutenant in 1789 when the revolution broke out, too young to take any significant part in the rapid escalations of the years of attacking the king, the fear of emigré aristocrats, the paranoia of internal enemies and the resulting murderous purges. He wasn’t high enough in the aristocracy to have privileges to lose and wasn’t tempted to emigrate; and since two-thirds of the officers did emigrate, there were plenty of vacancies for young officers, especially after the army began to expand in 1793. Artillery was an unfashionable and low-ranking branch, but it was becoming the determining force on the battlefield, hence just the right location to make one’s reputation.

But an officer had to get a command in order to make one’s reputation, and in the situation of revolutionary upheaval, that took politics and network connections. Napoleon got the jump on other officers his age, because he could go back to Corsica and play the big fish in a small pond. He could have joined the local independence movement (its leader was his youthful hero), but once on the spot he found he made a bigger splash, and had more room for action, if he led the pro-French reformers. This brought him favorable notice from delegates of the central government as an energetic and reliable local follower. Playing on the periphery but with useful connections to the center, Napoleon was ready to try a bigger stage.

The danger was that 1793-4 was the period when paranoia and political killings were at their height. The royal family was executed January 1793; Marat assassinated in July;  Hébertists and Dantonists fell to Robespierre in spring 1794. Top contenders for power were killing each other. Napoleon was far enough down not to be a target. By the time he made enough military reputation to become a political figure, public mood had shifted to weariness with the violent struggles of revolutionary factions. There was a structural opportunity to play the restorer of order; and it was in this role that Napoleon was initially welcomed.

Thus, a general theory of political luck: What appears fortuitous  from the point of view of a particular person, is predictable when seen in terms of structural locations and structural change. It is a matter of reversing the gestalt.

Leading political actors in a period of violent struggle are going to knock each other off.  In France, once the royalists were gone, the radicals turned against the moderates; and when they were gone, turned against each other. Eventually when most people are exhausted, there is room for an outsider detached from the ideologically polarized factions to act as peace-maker, establishing a more stable regime. If the structural bases for contending forces are still strong, this outside restorer of order will have opposition that tends to provoke an authoritarian solution; but the restorer will have support in public opinion, in the time-period when they are tired of seemingly endless ideological projects and violent strife. Such a detached outsider cannot be entirely without network connections, but they must be distant and flexible enough so that he is not brought down by old faction struggles. In other words, the situation will select someone like Napoleon in terms of age, peripheral sphere of activity, and multi-sided connections with the center. [See Appendix on the age and careers of other successful generals.]

At a more general level: the timing of major change in political structures affects what persons are selected for each of the periods of time-dynamics. After the struggle leaders, comes the demand for a stabilizer.

Big structural changes, and times of dramatic struggle, generate charismatic leaders; among them, the type of leader who is an energy center, an energy leader, someone who pulls all the strings in his or her hands. To tie everything together demands very hard work, great energy, going from one situation to another getting people energized and attuned to a collective project. Situations of major structural change, where the demand (or advantage) is to centralization and coordination, select persons who are high-energy in this way. But finding such persons is not a sheer lucky accident, for the micro-level operation of such a sequence of interactions-- think of Napoleon’s daily routine as Emperor-- generates the conditions for successful interaction rituals, that fills the person in that slot with extraordinary emotional energy.  Extraordinary structural changes, especially centralizing changes, generate extraordinary EE.

Periods when structural change is most rapid generate the conditions to shape such a person. Consider the many things that are attributed to Napoleon: the legal code that replaced feudalism with egalitarian and rationalized procedures for litigation, property, criminal punishment and civil procedure; the destruction of feudalism in territories at least temporarily under French control; administrative centralization and uniformity of government; modern methods of government finance; government regulation of education and patronage of science. Now reverse the gestalt: the shift from patrimonial-feudal structures towards centralized bureaucracy had been going on in France, as well in Prussia and elsewhere, for a century or more; but contending structures were in gridlock, and the French Revolution, precisely because of its mobilized crowds and violent conflicts, destroyed many structures, opening the way for a more consistent system of organization. As Tocqueville recognized, the Revolution extended the trend towards bureaucratic rationalization that had been going on surreptitiously. Some of this bureaucratic rationalization was done by administrators of the Republic; but the period of stability in which it was carried through was Napoleon’s regime.

In hero-centric or person-centered historical narratives, too much credit-- too much causal force-- is attributed to one person. Nevertheless, when big structural momentum is swinging but is held up by struggles or chaotic distractions, a structural opening is available for a regime to consciously and deliberately carry through the trend so that the transition is clear.  (I resist saying, “to its conclusion”, since history rarely has conclusions, but there are times when it becomes a palpably different organizational and social universe.) When this happens, the leader of the team who does the reorganizing gets a great reputation, not only among contemporaries but in historical downstream. * The days and years when this is going on are going to be times of intensely coordinated action; and those are the conditions where someone can play the role Napoleon played-- so much to do that is consequential and important; that involves many networks of people, all of them crossing at a center where the energizing leader meets them.

* The glory days of the 1930s New Deal had this same quality. Again, to attribute it to the hero-leader is inaccurate; Franklin D. Roosevelt and a dedicated team are at the center of the action, and they simultaneously generate structural changes-- regarded as long overdue-- emotional energy, and charisma. Great times make Great Men, and vice versa. I could say this in non-sexist language, but this is a swipe at the Great Man theory of history. Why it is men that so far in history have played this role is another question; the nearest to it played by a woman has been Margaret Thatcher, although the long-term significance of the structural changes she championed remains equivocal.  

The energetic action of the leader, sometimes with clear articulation of a vision, are real. But this is the effect of being in a structural location, at the time when major changes are accelerating past a turning point.  After that exciting time is passed, there is no longer a demand for that kind of person; it is no longer important that some one should hold all the networks together, thereby becoming a super-energized leader of a team on a mission. The mission is institutionalized, organizations are routinized, other kinds of daily considerations come to dominate. The day of the super-energized charismatic leader is over.

Networks that Made Napoleon

If we flip the gestalt again, we see Napoleon thrown upward by lucky connections. Political defeat in Corsica was a down moment, but exile to Marseille brought orders to rejoin his regiment in Nice. Having tasted revolutionary politics, Napoleon tries his hand at writing a political pamphlet. It was rather clichéd compared to his incisive utterances when he had made it to the top; he is not yet sure of himself, his pathway gives him little more to think with than the rhetoric of the day. But it draws the attention of his political connections, the Jacobins then moving towards dictatorial power in the Committee of Public Safety, and their influential local agent, who happened to be Robespierre's younger brother. It is a time of military crisis; there are enemy armies on several fronts, and the English fleet has taken the French naval base on the Mediterranean, at Toulon.  There are royalist revolts in Marseille, Lyon, and Toulon. 

More luck: the commander of the French artillery besieging Toulon is wounded, and Napoleon is appointed to replace him. He is already the secretary to the council of war at Toulon, and he makes up a plan for the assault, training artillery on the weak point between the inner and outer harbors, to drive out the enemy fleet. The plan is approved by officials in Paris; after several months delay in preparation, the assault is carried out; the higher officers know of Napoleon through previous connections in the army and give him a free hand; Napoleon places the guns himself and leads the assault. The fort is taken and the English are driven out. It is a rare and welcome victory for the Jacobin regime. Napoleon is celebrated and promoted to Brigadier General at age 24, and made planner for the Army of Italy.

Flipping the outline of the gestalt: networks favor appointing an officer on a crucial front, who is favorably known to army superiors and politically connected with the civilian authorities on hand; they are sophisticated enough to recognize a problem for an artillery officer. The wounding of the previous artillery commander is sheer chance, more of less equivalent to how professional athletes get their chance in the lineup when some previous starter gets injured. This is a mechanism by which individuals get selected for action that will change their careers if they succeed. The system is selecting for someone like Napoleon.  If not him, would it have made an equivalent?

But although victory over the English is welcome news in Paris, it is far from being the center of attention in a period when the Reign of Terror is raging. Robespierre purges his main rivals in spring 1794, then himself is overthrown in the Thermidorian reaction of July; both Robespierre brothers are guillotined. Now Napoleon’s connections count against him; he is arrested but released in a few weeks.  More luck: he is too far from Paris to be quickly guillotined; his local political connections from Corsica and in the army give him support; his skills as artillery officer are scarce and valued; above all, he is not important enough to be a serious target. *

* A similar pattern of luck launched Michael Collins into leadership of the Irish Revolution. In 1916, at the time of the Dublin Easter uprising, Collins was 25 years old, active as a middle-ranking organizer, but not old and prominent enough to be among the leaders executed by the British when the uprising failed. He was imprisoned but released after 8 months.  Virtually all the older leaders were dead, the rest still in prison, so Collins was one of those who stepped into the vacuum. He became the center of the remaining network by collecting and distributing funds for families of dead or imprisoned rebels; then, as the person who knew everyone in the underground, and who had money to buy guns, he became the logistics hub as the movement expanded on a wave of public sympathy. Collins became the ultra-energetic, perpetually busy leader that Napoleon became in his years of success, simultaneously more at the center of things than anyone else, more sociable and popular, and more politically astute. When the underground operation in Ireland was threatened by British undercover agents, Collins recruited his own armed force-- essentially counter-espionage assassins-- and this gave him a leading military reputation in the small-scale operations of the guerrilla war against British occupying forces. It was only a step from here to becoming chief negotiator, head of the army, and head of state-- until internal splits within the revolution got him assassinated at age 31.

But the following 12 months are a downer in Napoleon's political career. He is assigned an unfavorable post-- away from his Mediterranean network, sent to an infantry command against the peasant rebellion in the Vendée, military dirty work with no possible glory. He lingers in Paris, seeking other appointments. He makes himself better known to the top rulers, then in political struggles over a new constitution, led by a Directory of Five with two legislative councils. Napoleon stays clear of political maneuvers, but gets a choice military appointment: one of the five Directors, Barras, had seen him in action at Toulon, and since Barras headed the Army of the Interior (i.e. the security forces, which he had used to overthrow Robespierre), he made Napoleon his second-in-command. In October 1795, there is a royalist uprising: like so many successful demonstrations before it, a crowd descending upon the seat of government at the Tuileries, aiming to overawe the assembly. Napoleon had seen an attack in this very place, in August 1792, when a mob invaded the Tuileries and carried off the king and royal family to prison. Years later, Napoleon recalled thinking that a failure of nerve led to the fall of the monarchy, while a resolute defense would have saved it. This time he was ready with artillery.

He recalled the occasion: “I made the troops fire ball at first because to a mob who are ignorant of firearms, it is the worst possible policy to start out by firing blanks. For the populace, hearing a great noise, are a little frightened after the first discharge but, looking around them and seeing nobody killed or wounded, they pluck up their spirits, begin immediately to despise you, and rush on fearlessly, and it becomes necessary to kill ten times the number that would have been killed if ball had been used in the first place.” He was a cool-headed observer of people’s behavior, above all in moments of violent threat. He did not try to defend the government building with infantry lines, who so often waver when civilian crowds press up close to them, that they are unable to fire. Artillery is a more distant and therefore psychologically easier weapon to operate; Napoleon coolly dispersed the attacking crowd, killing 100. The whole thing was publicized as the failure of royalist enemies of the revolution, and Napoleon was promoted to Major General. Barras wanted to keep him as commander of the Army of the Interior, but Napoleon wanted something more than head of the palace guard. In January 1796, he got the Army of Italy. So far, it was largely his political connections that got him his military posts. Now it would be the other way around.

Napoleon’s military style

When he arrived, French forces were bogged down in the northwest corner of Italy, facing two armies: the state of Piedmont, and an Austrian force sent to aid them. French troops lacked supplies and were behind in their pay. Within weeks Napoleon put them on the offensive. In front of you is the richest part of the world, he told them; conquer it and we will have everything we want!  Style trait number one: always active, never passive; for an organization (in this case 40,000 men) this meant galvanizing everybody, pulling the organizational threads together. The soldiers immediately liked him; officers quickly respected him, and soon it was clear that many other young officers-- and rankers too-- would win promotions.

There were two enemy armies, together outnumbering the French, but spaced apart. Just the configuration Napoleon typically would try to achieve. Style trait number two: move faster than anyone else. In effect, this meant a high degree of energetic cooperation and hands-on leadership since it was an organization that had to move. He cut off first the Piedmontese, winning a series of rapid-fire battles over a period of two weeks and forced them out of the war, taking Milan as his new seat of operations. Then he turned on the Austrians. They sent a succession of armies to drive him back; Napoleon marched rapidly to hit each one separately. This trait was an extension of French military doctrine; since large armies clogged roads and ate up local provisions (especially fodder for horses), they had to move in separate columns. The key was to converge rapidly when they met the enemy. The doctrine was standard; Napoleon was just better than anyone else at executing it rapidly.

Since the Austrians did not easily give up, this part of the war took longer; in all, he won 8 major battles in 10 months.  His troops were exhilarated by the victory string. One regiment created, as a standing joke, the story that Napoleon was a little corporal who got a promotion after each battle. Style trait number three: morale outweighs material by a factor of three to one, as Napoleon said, and he knew how to generate morale. Wellington later said that Napoleon’s presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. It was a conscious effort. Napoleon started two newspapers during this period; one to spread the news of his victories back home; the other for the soldiers. This was a new kind of army, not just discipline and obeying orders; the soldiers were to be informed and motivated by the same ideals as the highest officers.

Military style point number four: concentrate the artillery. This too was doctrine, but Napoleon pushed it as hard as he could. He favored light, rapidly moveable field artillery over heavier guns; the effort was not so much a massive shelling of fortresses (the older style of artillery), but substituting cannon fire for infantry firing; mixed arms, the artillery moving around the battlefield in close connection with infantry movements. His favorite kind of gun became known, in armies throughout the world, as the Napoleon 12-pounder.

There is a deeper point here in theory of violent conflict. As the French officer Charles Ardent du Picq was to document for the Crimean War, infantry have a strong tendency to misfire, or fail to fire entirely, in the stress of closely confronting an enemy. Since most muskets were inaccurate except within 40 yards (wait ‘til you see the whites of their eyes), a battle charge was a war of nerves; if the defenders could not get off their volley at the right time and with sufficient coordination, the oncoming attackers with their bayonets would usually panic defenders into a retreat. * Napoleon, who was an excellent observer of such things, recognized that artillery was more accurate and easier to keep under emotional control than infantry.  This was the finding later elaborated by a military sociologist, S.L.A. Marshall, after World War II, showing that only a minority of front-line infantry fired their guns steadily at the enemy; and also that crew-operated weapons had a better performance, because there was more social support.

This meant artillery officers had to be out there on the front line, placing the guns, in tune with local conditions. Napoleon and his counterpart officers were visible heroes to their troops.

* This was shown already in the battle of Valmy September 1792, when what remained of the French army turned back an restorationist invasion, by breaking their attack with a concentrated cannonade. It would take a few years-- and Napoleon’s example-- to make it clear that artillery trumped infantry. Napoleon himself summed up the change: “It is with artillery that war is made... Missile weapons are now become the principal one; it is by fire and not by shock that battles are decided today.” Shock meant the battle charge, which as noted was primarily a matter of emotional domination.

Activeness; speed; morale; dispersed movement and rapid concentration to achieve local superiority; mobile artillery in infantry battles: these were a package, each one reinforcing the other. The whole army got on a positive spiral; they believed they were invincible. Eventually they were.

On a Roll

Napoleon fought 9 military campaigns over the period of 20 years from 1796 to 1815: 2 in Italy, 1 in Egypt, 1 in Spain, 3 in Germany and Austria, 1 in Russia; plus 1 defensive campaign during the comeback of the Hundred Days, the only campaign Napoleon fought on French territory.  Of his first 6 campaigns he forced the enemy to yield a favorable peace treaty in 5 of them, resulting in a huge aggrandizement of French hegemony.  The list of capital cities he  triumphantly marched into includes Milan, Cairo, Rome, Vienna (twice), Berlin, Madrid, and Moscow. At one point, he had won 22 major battles in a row without a defeat; he was reputed so unbeatable that it created a stir when two battles against Austria and Prussia merely ended in draws. Through 1809, when he was 40 years old, he was like the greatest baseball pitcher of all time, a record of 22-0 in 24 starts.* One campaign he didn’t win was Spain, where he wasn’t present most of the time, but when he was he beat the English troops (the most dangerous opponent) and almost annihilated them.

 * This was a better record than Julius Caesar; the only comparables I can find are Alexander the Great, who never lost a battle although there were setbacks during sieges and some campaigns aborted; and Stonewall Jackson, 7-1 when personally in command, and overall 14-1 including subordinate (but generally independent) roles. Altogether, Napoleon said he fought 60 battles, including minor ones.

The French army, particularly at first, was superior, for reasons Napoleon hadn’t invented. The Revolution brought mass conscription combined with patriotic and ideological appeal, generating armies as big or bigger than those of enemy states, and better-motivated ones. French officers had developed better tactics, command structures in larger divisions, more use of massed artillery and especially mobile artillery, more systematic organization of recruitment, training, and logistics. Napoleon was a well-trained French officer of the new model. But other French generals were only intermittently successful, a backdrop against which Napoleon stood out as a marvel.

How explain his success, against the time when things didn’t go so well? Compare the last three campaigns: Russia; the holding war that followed as Germany went into revolt; and the Hundred Days. Even then Napoleon continued to win most of the battles; there were some costly retreats where rearguards and garrisons became cut off; in the total sum of battles, there was only 1 real defeat, Waterloo. Why Napoleon started to lose, campaigns if not head-on battles, is part of the general question of what made him win. Later on, opponents got better by adopting French methods: organization into divisions, use of artillery, and especially in Germany, recruiting and motivating mass armies by patriotic appeal. By the time they had been fighting for 15 years, English troops could recognize French tactics and withstand them by strongly disciplined and carefully timed mass infantry volleys. In other words, opponents learn from each other, and the losers catch up if they haven’t disappeared. Parceling out the element that Napoleon personally added, we still have the fact that during the time when French armies were superior, he did far better with the instrument that other generals; and during the catching-up period, when his armies further suffered the consequences of being overstretched, Napoleon still dominated on the battlefield almost always.


Napoleon got himself into three major binds.

He tied up hundreds of thousands of troops in Spain, in a war that lasted five years and eventually was lost. He started by pushing an ally whose naval power he coveted as a weapon against England; then got involved in squabbles inside the Spanish royal family, tried to set up a puppet, and finally put his own brother on the throne; this provoked a nativist resistance by introducing the usual French revolution policies, which were anti-clerical and anti-feudal. Spanish guerrillas were largely ineffectual but they were dispersed all over the peninsula, tying up multiple French armies and disunifying military command. On the whole, the French were winning but an English force, securely supplied by sea, landed in Portugal and kept making forays into Spain, intermittent and then increasingly successful under Wellington’s command. When Napoleon commanded personally in Spain, his armies won; the trouble was he was fighting in Germany and then Russia, and in his absence the French generals often lost battles or got bogged down, and the dispersed commanders were jealous and quarreled among themselves. Napoleon had the energy and prestige to coordinate his subordinates when he was present; in his absence, other French commanders weren’t as good (this also happened in Italy; the main exception were some of the French armies fighting independently in Germany). Why not? This is a structural weakness of relying on a charismatic leader who centralizes everything by having much more energy than everyone else; Napoleon’s success in controlling things fed his energy but diminished the emotional energy of the next level of commanders when he wasn’t there.

A second mistake or bind was the strategy to beat England by economic warfare, an embargo on trade with the European continent. It was a reasonable policy in the abstract, since France could not beat England’s naval superiority nor transport an army to the island; and for a while the English were hurt economically. (In reverse, this was the policy of England against Germany in World War I, responsible for the naval escalation that brought the US into the war; in the end, the policy worked.) But in practice embargo meant closing every port to English goods; this provoked local resistance, and required sending in French troops or coercing allies into agreeing to enforce the embargo on their coasts. This was a slippery slope. Napoleon did not start the policy, having inherited it from the revolutionary regime; but as his military successes grew, he was tempted to annex more territories to enforce control directly (eventually including Belgium, Holland, northern coastal Germany, and parts of Italy). From being greeted as liberator and revolutionary modernizer, the French became regarded as old-fashioned empire-builders. Even his Russian campaign-- the glaring mistake recognized by everyone after his invading army was destroyed not by defeat in battle but by overextension and attrition-- was motivated in the first place by Napoleon’s attempt to force the Russians into joining the embargo.

Why didn’t Napoleon recognize it as a losing policy and change course? He did just that when he decided the Revolution’s anti-clericalism prolonged social strife in France; he successfully resolved the situation by making a Concordat with the Pope bringing Catholicism back into France, under terms favoring government control and without giving back confiscated church property. On religion, Napoleon was a typical radical secularist, but the issue didn’t matter that much to him, and political peace was more important. With the embargo, it had become too tied up with his military successes. Most enemy diplomatic coalitions against him had been provoked by the embargo policy; but each time, Napoleon won more battles and extended the reach of French power; it was the issue that had made him master of Europe. Even if he saw its strategic down-side, it had been a winning trajectory overall. And since the thing that Napoleon was better at than everyone was battlefield command, the policy was bringing him indirectly a series of just the kinds of situations that most pumped up his emotional energy. His grand strategy became a EE trap, where the external realities eventually were going to overstretch French capabilities. *  But while it lasted, Napoleon was on a roll.

* Micro-details of how Napoleon's mind and emotions worked: When speaking with his advisors he listened at length to unwelcome news and contrary opinions, expressing his own views spontaneously and posing sharp questions. His ambassador to Russia describes a discussion in 1811 on whether to go to war (with all due warnings about the Russian plan to retreat into the depths of the country and let winter defeat the French):   "After listening to me attentively, the Emperor began enumerating the troops and resources at his disposal. When he reverted to this theme I realized that all hope of peace was at an end, since it was enumerations of this kind which, more than anything, intoxicated him..."  After making up his mind, Napoleon cheered up, and left his critic with jokes and good humor. [Caulaincourt]   

Above all: what got Napoleon "intoxicated"-- pumping himself up with his own self-dialogue-- was thinking over the array of troops in his army; in other instances, we hear him doing the same with the units of the enemy's forces. It was the topic that entrained him; it was at the core of his professional competence; in effect, a Durkheimian sacred object, a monk chanting his mantra. In this vein, what most infuriated Napoleon was anyone disparaging his troops.

The third mistake-- dilemma or slippery slope as it may be-- was gradually doing away with the forms of  Revolutionary equality and democracy and substituting the aristocratic ranks and protocol of the old regime. At first, Napoleon’s personal rule was popular because he ended the bloody faction-fighting that had roiled France from 1789 to 1800. Too much democracy was unstable, when factionalism was so intense and ideologically aggressive; and Napoleon was successful in getting France to calm down, by a mixture of repression and concessions. He put through policy changes that the divisive national assembly would have killed each other about: placating the Catholics and their peasant uprisings; reconciling emigré aristocrats and luring many back to France, sometimes giving them positions in government where they were rewarded for efficiency, putting by-gones in the past by working alongside their former enemies. Napoleon regarded his policy as the career open to achievement, like himself making his way up through the French artillery; he endorsed the Revolution abolishing hereditary aristocracy, but now set up a new elite that everyone could aspire to by proving themselves effective military officers or civilian administrators. Since his regime was heavily involved in war, reorganizing conquered territories, and changing the legal and governmental structure of France and elsewhere, there was a lot to be done and clear criteria of success and failure. Napoleon wanted to reward that success. He was a skilful organizer, and recognized the importance of having a good team, especially in the middle ranks.

Because it seemed the easiest thing to do abroad, he created new Kings, Grand Dukes and other titled entities, using them to reward his best generals and political allies. The same system expanded at home, after Napoleon made himself Emperor and surrounded himself with a court made up of aristocratic ranks, again rewarding his allies.  Personally, Napoleon did not enjoy the stiff protocol he had introduced (or re-introduced), which shows it was a matter of deliberate policy: he wanted to calm down domestic politics, even to stifle it under rigid forms; formality was designed to eliminate court intrigues, and succeeded by enforcing boredom in his immediate entourage. The Emperor’s court contrasted sharply with Napoleon’s way of acting in other circumstances-- when he wanted to negotiate with foreign leaders, he could be charming, lively, humorous. In his informal mode, people liked Napoleon; his soldiers loved him. He even liked to sneak out at night and walk through the streets of Paris incognito, with only a single companion. Napoleon at the height of his power, however, had decided to rule through forms, and the forms he found were traditional ones. He rewarded his special favorites with hereditary titles, estates, even regimes, contradicting the other strand of his policy, the abolition of hereditary privilege so that all careers were open to talent. Political struggles bring compromises; but Napoleon’s compromises over time choked off emotional energy, both his own and in the people around him. 

Napoleon 1810 in Imperial Regalia (age 41)

Napoleon’s Down Moments

Spring and summer, 1795.  Napoleon had been stricken off the rolls of army generals for failing to take up his command in the Vendée. A lady recalled what he looked like while living in his parents’ house is Marseille:

“He entered with awkward, uncertain steps, with a shabby round hat pulled down deep over his face, his disorderly hair falling on the collar of his gray coat; without gloves, which he regarded as a superfluous expense; in badly made, badly heeled boots-- In short, when I call up in memory his whole miserable appearance and compare it with his later picture, I can hardly recognize him.”

Napoleon 1796 (age 27)

Taking allowance for the fact that Napoleon was one of the first to take up the new fashion of wearing his hair natural instead of the old style of wearing a wig, it is the picture of a man down on his luck as well as down on his finances. He took himself to Paris to work on his political connections. The city seemed to him in a mad dream, pursuing luxury and pleasure; an atmosphere that made him uncomfortable. The danger of a royalist plot perked things up. Napoleon got himself taken on by Barras, a corrupt politician, and by October he was placing the artillery to defend the Tuileries against an overthrow. A whiff of grapeshot was what Napoleon, the action-seeker, needed too. Soon he was frequenting Barras’ salon, and even getting ready to marry Josephine Beauharnais, Barras’ former mistress, an accomplished society lady 6 years older than himself. 

18th Brumaire, Year Eight of the Revolutionary calendar (November 9-10, 1799).  Napoleon has hurried back from Egypt, having gotten wind of another government crisis. Besides a crisis of government revenues due to weak central control over regional authorities, armies were not being paid, debt and inflation mounted. Another purge was being contemplated on the Directory and the Councils, between the ex-Jacobins who wanted to return to the dictatorship and reign of terror of 1793 to crush the danger of traitorous emigrés, and the moderates who wanted to strengthen central authority by purging the radicals.  Napoleon was enlisted by Sieyés, the anti-Jacobin leader, to provide the force to coerce the Council. Napoleon held a strong hand; he was greeted enthusiastically by crowds on his return from Egypt. Both sides made feelers to him; the Jacobins and their favorite generals (Bernadotte, Augereau) suggested a military dictatorship to get him on their side, but Napoleon had no desire to represent an unpopular faction. Napoleon made a deal with Sieyés; the new constitution must take the form of a triumvirate of Consuls, and he would be one of them. 
Napoleon 1799 (age 30)

Distrusting the politicians on all sides, but assured of military support and the people of Paris, Napoleon became impatient while the two Councils debated receiving the resignation of the Directors and the new arrangement of Consuls. He finally barged into the Council of Elders, and made a long and badly delivered speech. Opponents interrupted him-- an unaccustomed event for a military officer, amid politicians whose favorite tactic was shouting each other down. He turned to his aides and loudly called for protection if he were declared “hors de loi”-- outlawed, the cry that had brought down Robespierre. His companions pulled him out of the room to the hoots of the politicians. In the Council of Five Hundred, Napoleon was surrounded by angry deputies who beat him with their fists, and had to be rescued by his soldiers. Napoleon was overwhelmed by a different kind of crowd he could not face down. For once in his life, he lost emotional domination.

His brother Lucian, who was President of the Council of Five Hundred, took charge of the situation. On a legal maneuver, he kept the councilors from taking a vote on hors de loi, and went with Napoleon to address the Council guards-- the military force sworn to protect the politicians. Lucien dramatically reported the Councils were being infiltrated by agents of the English, armed with daggers, an appeal in the paranoid language of the time. Napoleon echoed his brother, and showed blood on his face. The rumour spread there had been an attempt in the Council to assassinate Napoleon. The mood turned; there was no resistance from the guards as Napoleon’s soldiers dispersed the Council with bayonets, some even climbing out the windows. Napoleon had made it through, preserving the semblance of legal proceeding, although personally he was badly shaken. Henceforward, he would face no further divisive assemblies. His nerve was specific to the battlefield; it did not work in this alien environment.

The Emperor’s court assembly, January 1809. Napoleon has just made a hurried return from Spain, where he had beaten an English expedition and propped up his brother on the throne. The source of his haste: a rumour that Talleyrand, his Foreign Minister, and Fouché, the Chief of Police, had made a secret agreement to name a successor in case something happened to Napoleon in Spain. “Thief! You are nothing but a thief!” Napoleon shouted at him. “You would sell your own father. You are nothing but shit in a silk stocking.”

Talleyrand, the imperturbable diplomat, waited until the fit of rage was over. After the Emperor left the room, he remarked: “Too bad, that such a great man is so badly brought up.” He had judged it correctly; Napoleon’s threat was too overwrought to be serious. Napoleon was showing signs of weakness. Why? The Spanish situation was an irritant; his own family as puppet kings were not doing well. There was a continuing rumble of plots and assassination threats at home. And he didn’t like these formal levées anyway; for several years, when he got bored, his was known to make cutting remarks at the expense of the ladies present.  Fortunately for Napoleon’s equilibrium, another enemy coalition gave him a challenge he could handle. By April he was off campaigning against Austria, on his way to his most grandiose battle victory at Wagram.

Napoleon 1812 (age 43)

Moscow, September-October 1812.  It had been the most difficult of all Napoleon’s campaigns, but he had reached the goal. The enemy’s capital city was taken. Of the invading army of 600,000 only 100,000 remained, most of them having fallen off along the way (especially the non-French contingents raised from his unwilling allies), another 30,000 lost at the battle of Borodino where the Russian army was smashed. He had pushed forward the offensive in August, after two months on the march: “In a month we’ll be in Moscow; in six weeks we’ll have peace.” The city was deserted, every door and window shut, the streets deserted-- not the welcoming or at least curious crowds Napoleon was used to. Two days after the French arrived, fires burned most of the city, set by the Russians themselves. Napoleon occupied the Kremlin and awaited the Czar’s messengers to discuss terms of a peace treaty. It was early September, weather was still good; to avoid spending the winter in Moscow, this would be the time to leave. 

Napoleon was uncharacteristically indecisive. For five weeks he waited for the ambassadors who never came. His meals, usually so short, grew longer. He seemed stunned, lolling about in deadly boredom with a novel in his hand. He had never appeared so low in emotional energy.

Finally, in mid-October, he gave the order to retreat. The French troops had lost their discipline and spent their time looting the city; now they were weighed down with spoils. The oncoming winter, lack of food along the route, lack of horses, harassing attacks by the Russians took their toll. The dramatic story Napoleon was to tell blamed it all on the weather; in fact most of the losses of the invading army had happened on the way to Moscow, not the way back, but this is what impressed people. His image as the unbeatable conqueror was gone. The Russian army, when it had finally harried the French out of their land, was down to no bigger numbers than Napoleon’s remaining troops, and in no position to make an offensive. But the Germans and Austrians were suddenly emboldened to throw off their enforced alliances, their treaties with France; the initiative had swung. This was an emotional energy shift, a tidal wave of emotions on the macro-level, spreading among popular militias in Prussia and elsewhere, sweeping the German rulers along however hesitant they had been to unleash the kind of enthusiasm they associated with Jacobin class upheavals. For Napoleon, it was a geopolitical disaster, above all in what Weber called power prestige.

Nevertheless, on the march, Napoleon was more upbeat than he had been in Moscow. In the coldest weather, he made a point of marching along with his Imperial Guards, on foot and in a fur coat, for several hours a day. In early December he decided to hurry back to Paris; one of the generals had attempted a coup, acting on the rumour that Napoleon was dead; it was imperative to show himself and rebuild another army. They were finally out of Russia, but had to cross now-hostile Prussian territory. Napoleon traveled by coach with his ambassador Caulaincourt, disguised as his secretary. On the way he ragged this dignified gentleman about what would happen if they were captured: the Prussians would turn them over to his arch-enemy, the English.  “Can you picture to yourself, Caulaincourt, the figure you would cut in an iron cage, in the main square of London?”  The ambassador recalled: "And there he was for a quarter of an hour, laughing at this foolish notion... Never had I seen the Emperor laugh so heartily, and his gaiety was so infectious that it was some time before we could speak a word without finding some new source of amusement."

He handled defeat fairly well, when it came. During the end game in 1813-1814, he kept parrying the oncoming Prussian, Austrian and Russian armies advancing on France, but could do little about Wellington crossing the Pyrenees from the south. A French marshal who went over to the Russians advised: “Expect a defeat whenever the Emperor attacks in person. Attack and fight his lieutenants whenever you can." He could not be everywhere at once. When an enemy column took Paris, Napoleon still had an army in the field; but his other generals saw the situation was hopeless, and made a truce that forced Napoleon to abdicate.  He salvaged a tiny principality, the island of Elbe near his Corsican home, and retired there to wait the outcome of events. The Bourbon monarchy, recalled to power in France, quickly proved unpopular; the victorious powers fell out at the conference to redistribute territories. Ten months later, Napoleon landed in France, roused his army veterans, and fought the showdown again. As in 1814, he was outnumbered by enemy armies; his attempt to beat them separately by fast maneuver before they combined failed at Waterloo.

He ordered a fast frigate to take him to America, but the British blocked the Atlantic port. Napoleon decided to take asylum in England, perhaps a romantic memory of other Continental exiles who had gone there is the past. Though their nations had been bitter enemies, on board ship he got along extremely well. It helped that he was treated like royalty, the English Admiral even taking off his hat to him. In England crowds came out to see the celebrity; he bowed and men generally took off their hats.  It was a bitter blow when the government, putting aside personal sympathies and as a matter of policy, sent him into the furthest possible exile at St. Helena in the south Atlantic. For a moment Napoleon’s valet was afraid he would commit suicide. He soon recovered; on the voyage he chatted and played cards with the Admiral. When his entourage (a full complement of servants and companions) arrived at St. Helena, he was lionized by the British settlers; everyone wanted to meet him, and he was the life of the party, on occasion putting aside personal dignity to banter with children and adults alike.

Eventually the situation began to wear on him; the novelty of his adventure among the English was gone; quarrels with the martinet British governor, fading hopes that he would be recalled to Europe. He grew fat and lethargic. This man of supreme energy, deposed at age 45 with nothing to do, grew idle, sickened, and died. He was 51. 

Napoleon in exile at St. Helena, 1819 (age 49)

Napoleon on his death bed, 1821 (age 51)

Ability, What is it?

Napoleon was a man of highest ability, if we want to use that term. He was a better general than anyone; an administrator who got things done and left permanent effects. He chose his officers and civilian officials for their abilities. What does it mean? A tautology; ability, capability, such words all imply a subjunctive mode, it could well happen, we have every reason to expect that this person will make it happen-- but only because of what they have done in the past. Capability is a false noun; it can only be judged in action.

On the whole, the action we call ability is emotional energy, compounded with good judgment, realistic observation, and the techniques of human interaction that bring other people to join in a collective project and thus make big things happen. 

To say that someone has ability but doesn’t use it, means they sometimes show what they can do, but most of the time they don’t. Why not? It is the obverse case of Napoleon. Having traced his ups and downs, we can see even someone at the supreme level is riding in and out of networks and situations where they can generate EE. It is rare that someone can be at the center of networks of networks, hold the connections together, and make big things happen that have been hanging on the cusp of previous developments.

Such positions in historical time and social space are rare, and so supremely energized persons are rare. Their moments come, raise them up, as they focus and raise up the people around them, and who in turn ripple the focused energy outwards among thousands or millions of people. The networks stutter and hitch; the actor at the center loses grip, regains it, goes on again. The network configuration changes, the moment is past. The circle of rippling focus narrows. The energy dims. The Great Man dies... or rather,  the circuits no longer flow, the lights go out.


Volker Ullrich. 2004. Napoleon. 
Felix Markham. 1963.  Napoleon. 
Marquis Armand de Caulaincourt. With Napoleon in Russia.   
Edward Coss.  2010. All For the King’s Shilling: The British Soldier Under Wellington.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary. 1984.
Randall Collins. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains.
Peter Hart. 2005. The Real Michael Collins.

Donald Black. 2011. Moral Time.  A general theory that inequalities do not produce conflict, but only changes in social distance do so; the more rapid the changes in social distance, the greater the conflict. This gives a wider context to my point that “Great Men” arise when a long-deadlocked social change suddenly happens; for such persons are experts at winning social conflicts.

Andrew Walder. 2009. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. The upheaval of the Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-68, with an aftermath until 1976, reveals dynamics similar to the volatile purges in the French Revolution during 1792-99, “the revolution devouring its children.” The Red Guards factions did not differ in their class backgrounds or social bases, but by an ongoing factionalization between radicals and moderates. Each attack by Red Guards on a government institution gave rise to another faction attacking them for going too far, or not far enough. The dynamic was internally unstable because it had no stopping point. (If we model it as a closed system of feedback loops, it is self-perpetuating.) Both the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the French Revolution ended with an authoritarian solution. To end the chaos, Mao sent the Red Guards into exile in the countryside; its instigators (including Mao’s wife) were executed, and the Deng Xiaoping regime that followed reversed much of the Communist path, as Napoleon did with the Jacobin program in France. Walder’s analysis points up what it means for a period of political infighting to be internally unstable. See my comments above about the Reign of Terror, and the struggles in the Directory that Napoleon finally brought to an end at the 18th Brumaire.

Appendix: an Era of Youthful Success

Napleon’s success at an early age seems remarkable to us. But he was not without experience; when he got his first army to command at age 26, he had been an officer for 10 years. 

Most of the important French generals during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were about his age. Of 13 Marshals and other Generals, their ages and first general commands were as follows:

Napoleon / loyalists:

Napoleon 1769-1821; first general command age 26.

Soult 1769-1851; first command age 25 under Massena; w. N in German campaigns; mixed victories in Spain. Supported N in 1815.

Lannes 1769-1809;  first command age 27; rose through ranks under N in Italy; active in Brumaire coup.

Davout 1770-1823; first command 28; military schoolmate of N; in Egypt and later campaigns; War Minister during Hundred Days.

Junot 1771-1813; first command 27; with N in Italy, Egypt.

Marmont 1774-1852; 5 years younger than N. first command 24; w. N in Italy, Egypt. Made truce 1814, compelled N to abdicate.

older than Napoleon:

Bessières 1768-1813; first command 31; rose from private (1792) to captain 1794; w. N in Italy, Egypt.

Murat 1767-1815; first command 32; rose through ranks; w. N in Italy, Egypt; led forces to disperse Council of Five Hundred in Brumaire coup. Supported N in 100 Days.

Augereau 1757-1836; 12 years older than N. Rose through ranks; under N in Italy. Opposed N in 1815.

independent of Napoleon:

Bernadotte 1763-1844;  6 years older than N.  first command age 31. rose from private (1780); victories in Germany 1796; under N 1805-8. Distrusted by N, in 1810 elected heir to Swedish throne, joined opposing Coalition.

Moreau 1761-1813; 8 years older than N. first command 33.  Led volunteers 1789; under Dumouriez at Valmy; victories in Holland and Germany; defeated Austrians 1801.  Assisted N in Brumaire coup 1799; suspected of treacherous dealings, exiled after 1804 assassination attempt on N; switched to Russian side 1813.

Massena 1758-1817; 11 years older than N. Officer in Sardinian army; first French command 1793 (age 35); independent of N in Italy campaigns, Spain. Refused to follow N in 1815.

Dumouriez 1739-1823; older generation career officer; supported Girondist moderates for constitutional monarchy; first command age 53, 1792 Valmy victory saved Paris. After Jacobin purge went over to Austrians.

In summary: Napoleon's generals were mostly younger than himself, at most years 2 older (with 1 exception).  The young ones got their first command at ages 24-8 -- some even younger than Napoleon at 26.  Generals independent of him were a good deal older, and got their first command in their 30s. Many of both kinds came up through the ranks; it was not just a saying that every private carried a marshal's baton in his pack. On the whole, the amount of warfare during this period speeded up military careers quite a lot; compare the old regime's Demouriez, who got his command at 53-- not unlike American generals of the 20th and 21st centuries. The young generals stayed loyal to Napoleon throughout; the older ones eventually went over to the enemy.

Why Youth Could Rise Then and Not Now

What makes them seem so young for their rank is our own career structures: a bureaucratic education system extended by credential inflation to take up most of the young years; and the bureaucratic organizations (including the military) where large numbers compete for promotion through an elaborate series of ranks. Ironically, our age of meritocracy is more of a gerontocracy that the pre-bureaucratic era. The exception is young business entrepreneurs in Information Technology (because they don't wait for credentials), although not in finance and management.

Another Great Man, Rising Young

Napoleon was not the only young leader of a state in his time. William Pitt (the Younger) 1759-1806, was Prime Minister of England during most of the years between 1784 and 1805, and thus was France’s, and Napoleon’s, chief opponent. He entered Parliament at age 22 and became PM at 25. How did he manage it so young? His father was a former PM, who did not send the boy to school but reared him to be an orator and politician. Pitt entered Parliament when the Tory ministry in power was disgraced by defeats in America; and the opposition Whigs were split between Old Whigs and a Young Whig faction that Pitt’s father had led. Pitt joined neither, but began by fighting loudly for parliamentary reform, refusing office until the King gave him carte blanche. He carried through a series of  government reforms, raising the House of Commons above the House of Lords, making the head of the Treasury supreme in government, and sharply reducing electoral corruption; government sinecures were abolished, revenue was rationalized by reforms in taxation and trade duties, finances were put in order, thereby enabling the huge military effort against France. In many respects Pitt paralleled what the French Revolution and Napoleon accomplished organizationally. Here again the “Great Man” emerges when large structural changes, long-proposed, are finally brought about by a super-energetic and impressive leader.

Pitt could impose his will, just as Napoleon could, because he had a clear goal and a sense that his quarreling compatriots could not carry it. Their micro-interactional skills were different; Pitt the master of swaying parliamentary factions by oratory; Napoleon the master of command in war and of holding together all the threads of organization. Both rose rapidly to the top in a political arena riven by multiple conflicts, which they resolved by a strong course of action that pulled others along with them. And both were workaholics, Pitt if anything even more so; he never married, apparently had no sexual interests, and avoided society. He was worn out and died as soon as he left office, aged 47; almost exactly the age that Napoleon was overthrown.

Finally, we should note:

Lucien Bonaparte 1775-1840:  N’s younger brother; age 23 member of Council of Five Hundred, elected its President just before N’s Brumaire coup. Became Minister of Interior and ambassador. At age 18, a young hothead, denouncing the Corsican independence party, precipitated N’s break and exile from Corsica. Ablest of N’s brothers, he refused the crowns of Italy and Spain under condition of divorcing his wife for dynastic marriages. Estranged from N. 

Napoleon was not the only strong-willed person in his family. The two cooperated uneasily, then butted heads. Two such energy centers could not coexist in close proximity.


The aftermath of the school shootings at Newtown Connecticut has focused on searching for a motive. Why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza kill 20 children and 6 adults at the school, after shooting his mother in her bed? The report of the State’s Attorney, released in November 2013, concluded the motive will never be known. Searching for a motive is misguided; what we want to know are causes. Whatever went through the head of Adam Lanza in the hours or years leading up to the shooting on December 14, 2012 is less important than what were the conditions that made this happen. Above all, what was the chief cause, or causes, that if it had been different, the shootings could have been avoided?

Clandestine Back-stage Cult of Weapons

In a previous post [Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement; posted Sept. 1, 2012], I argued that the most distinctive clue that someone is planning a rampage killing is that they lead a secret life of amassing weapons and scripting the massacre. The point is not that they acquire a lot of guns; many people do that. But mass killers keep them secret; their life becomes obsessed with plans and fantasies of the attack, and energized with the excitement of being able to dupe other people about their secret life. Foremost among those who are duped is their family.

The Sandy Hook shooting had all these traits, with a few additional twists. The would-be shooter kept the bedroom windows of his room taped over with black trash bags; so were the windows of the nearby computer room where he spent most of his time. No one was allowed into his room, not even to clean, not even his mother. In fact, no one was allowed into the house; all workers and deliveries had to meet the mother outside in the yard or at the end of the driveway.

What did he keep hidden in there? A semi-automatic rifle; two semi-automatic pistols; a semi-automatic shotgun; another rifle;  a large amount of ammunition.  Also, many weapons such as knives, swords, and spears. He also had books and newspaper photocopies about shootings of school children and university students;  a spreadsheet of mass murders; a large amount of information especially about the Columbine shootings; Hollywood movies about mass shootings; a video dramatization of children being shot; and a computer game “School Shooting” in which the player enters a school and shoots students.

He also had in his secret chambers: photos of a dead person covered in blood and wrapped in plastic; images of himself with rifle, shotgun, and pockets stuffed with ammunition magazines; images of himself holding a pistol or rifle to his head; videos of suicide by gun. His fantasy life apparently centered not only on a large number of violent video games which he played at home-- like millions of other boys-- but on famous school shootings of the past, on killing children, on portraying himself armed to the teeth, and on a scenario that we can infer was to end in suicide. 

Violent video games are so ubiquitous that he did not have to keep them hidden. But for this young man they had a special meaning, private enough that he played shooting games only at home; at local theatre he played video games 4 to 10 hours a day, but only non-violent ones in the presence of other people. His clandestine excitement would have come from his ultra-private fantasies and preparations, never spoken about to anyone including his game playing compatriots at the arcade. Even things that he innocently could have talked about--  such as different kinds of weapons, or shooting at gun ranges-- were never mentioned, although he was obsessed with them in his closely-guarded rooms at home. He was very guarded about his on-line activities too, frequently reformatting his computer hard drive to minimize his Internet trace.  As I argued in the earlier post, it is this kind of secret life centered on weapons that indicates the pathway to mass killing, where more normal gun-owners keep their weapons above-board.

The Killings: Superfluous Arsenal and Emotional Domination

When Adam Lanza shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School by breaking through the locked glass entry doors, he was wearing a black shirt over a black T-shirt, black cargo pocket pants, black socks, black sneakers, black fingerless gloves.  This all-black costume-- probably depicting a fantasy-culture image of the outlaw or avenger-- was supplemented by some practical items: a green pocket vest to carry ammo; a combat camouflage holster; and yellow earplugs of the kind used on shooting ranges. As I pointed out in other mass shootings, covering oneself with layers of gear and shutting out sounds of firing has the effect of insulating the shooter from ordinary human contact, letting him descend into the deep emotional tunnel of self-propelled violence.

Like other rampage shooters, he brought far more weapons than  he actually used. He had four of his five guns-- only lacking was the rifle he used to kill his mother, which he left on the floor by her bed, three bullets still loaded. (Why did he leave it?  Was it specific to that particular fantasy scenario, the gun he had planned to kill her with?) Altogether, the shooter carried over 30 pounds of guns and ammunition-- a significant weight for a bean-pole of a young man, six feet tall and weighing 112 pounds. After he committed suicide, police found he still had over 250 live rounds on his body, with more in his car. He had used up about 150 rounds in breaking in and killing 26 people.  He could have kept on firing, but he stopped. He could have fought it out with the police, but he did not-- rampage shooters virtually never do, either killing themselves or giving up when real opposition arrives.

Two implications:  Much of the weaponry he carried was not for practical purposes. It was his symbolic accoutrement, like his black costume and his earplugs, his fantasy surrounding him in the real material world, his comfort zone hugging his own body-- even the weight of the ammo he didn’t need. It was a continuation of the clandestine playacting that had filled his life for the months leading up to the attack. Ordinary street fighters don't wear this kind of gear, and they don't wear earplugs-- they have other kinds of social support for their violence. Loners need more symbolic support.

And secondly: He fired only when he had emotional domination over the people around him. We are revolted at someone killing small children. He choose them as victims precisely because they are defenseless, because they would be afraid of him, because they were the only people he could emotionally dominate. The adults-- the teachers and aides, the principal who tried to stop him in the hallway-- were shot because they were in the way.  His fantasy materials hidden at home were all about shooting children.

He had no fantasies, it appears, about shooting it out with the cops. After his 11-minute rampage, and within one minute of the police arriving, he shot himself. He was dead before the police reached the classroom; he never had to confront them.

Jack Katz, in a conference presentation at University of Giessen (October 2013), pointed out that rampage shooters never have an escape plan. This is very unlike most other criminal plans-- armed robberies, revenge murders, hit-man assassinations, guerrilla attacks-- where getting away is a major part of the prepared scenario. Nor can the rampage killer use anonymous weapons, like bombs or poison; his problem is a spoiled self, and he can only correct his social image by appearing in person, confronting the scene of his humiliation, and make others see him as the powerful figure he has now transformed himself into. And that is the whole aim of the project. Getting away, escaping-- back into ordinary life?  As what?  As a fugitive, a clandestine shadow-- would be to fall back into the spoiled self he wants to transform. That is why the rampage shooting is a dramatic climax, end of story.

Katz’s analysis is correct, as far as it goes. I would add there is always the interactional problem of all violence: confrontational tension. Straight-on face-to-face confrontations threatening violence are hard for everybody. Professional criminals, hardened tough guys and military combat experts are a minority who learn how to master their adrenaline and keep down their heartbeat to the level where they can actually shoot straight (at least some of the time-- Adam Lanza, who fired about 140 shots at persons in close range, missed with about half of them). It is easier to carry out violence at a distant target, especially one that is never seen personally; but a rampage shooter has to confront, because his aim is to get a social acknowledgement of his new self. The solution is to find a weak target. And the weakness is not just physical: in violence of all kinds, a close micro-analysis of the event in time shows that emotional dominance is what precedes and allows physical violence to happen.

For Adam Lanza, targeting small children was the only way he could gain emotional dominance. He was described, by everyone who knew him, as timid, compliant, never aggressive, never threatening. The only persons he could converse with were other computer nerds and video gamers.

Is there a puzzle about why he chose Sandy Hook Elementary School?  He had attended grades 1-5 there; reportedly he wasn’t bullied or teased, and he is said to have liked the school. It was in middle school and high school that he had more trouble, becoming more withdrawn; he developed an aversion to sports-- the popularity-setting and attention-dominating collective ritual of those age groups-- and to noisy crowd activities in general.  So if his self-image problem was with the higher schools, why didn’t he take out his revenge there? The answer seems clear enough if we try to imagine Adam Lanza going into a school basketball game-- which presumably he would have hated-- and shooting up the cheerleaders and players.  In fact, turn-the-tables shooters never confront their opposition on its territory of greatest emotional strength; they always seek to catch their enemies in a down moment.  This is what Adam Lanza did by attacking elementary school children-- and in fact the weakest of them, the first graders. It was the only target he could manage.

Mental Illness

Of all the cases of rampage killings, the Sandy Hook case is most clearly characterized by mental illness. Does that settle it? Hardly.

Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s Disorder at age 13, with social impairment, lack of empathy, rigid thought processes, literal interpretation of communications, and extreme anxiety about noises and physical contact with others. At age 14, the diagnosis added Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  His mother adopted this characterization of her son, and collected books on Asperger’s syndrome. She said he was “unable to make eye contact, was sensitive to light, and couldn’t stand to be touched...” He wouldn’t touch door knobs and had somebody else open doors for him, or else pulled his sleeves over his hands to touch objects. He repeatedly washed his hands and changed his clothes during the day-- although at school and in the video parlor he always wore the same clothes, so it wasn’t style he was concerned about. 

But these features of mental illness were not directly connected to the shooting. Asperger’s syndrome is considered a mild form of autism, and is not related to violence. The report mentions  that in preschool  (before the family moved to Connecticut from New Hampshire) “his conduct included repetitive behaviors, temper tantrums, smelling things that were not there, excessive hand washing and eating idiosyncracies.” That is to say, obsessive compulsive behaviors were allegedly seen early, although this is something different from autism; and obsessive compulsives are typically not violent.

His social behavior was not constant over time. Some remembered him in elementary school as participating in play groups and parties, enjoying music and playing saxophone (not yet sensitive to noise, touching, etc.) In middle school (i.e. the years when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s), he became more of a loner, began to dislike sports; although for a while he performed in concerts, he dropped out of the school band and stopped playing soccer. In high school (10th grade) he went to meetings of a “Tech club” and even hosted a party for it at his house. (He wasn’t yet hyper-secretive.) This looks like the typical adolescent status system split between jocks and nerds.

He did not like the noise and confusion of having to walk through school halls to change classes-- exactly the occasions when the sociable kids are greeting each other, jokes and snubs are made, and the non-regulated teen status system is in full display. The noise he disliked was the chatter of the other students; he could sit through a teacher’s lecture. In 9th and 10th grades, he stopped riding his bicycle and climbing trees and mountains, and began to shut himself in his bedroom and play video games all day long. At school he was excused from physical education. He was labeled a Special Education Student (in teen culture, the lowest of the low). His mother began to home school him, and combined with individual tutoring at the high school, and classes at a local college, he was able to graduate at age 17, and escaped from the teen status system.

It was at the time of transition from the relative comfort of elementary school to the competitive world of adolescent status ranking that his school writing became obsessed with the topic of violence.

So what does the mental illness analysis help explain? Nothing about violence. At most, it adds to the difficulty of negotiating passage through the social system of adolescence.

Mental illness, although it is a noun, is not a thing; it is a behavior pattern that is seen when persons interact. Some of these patterns may have a physiological component. But interaction is a two-way, indeed multi-sided process; it isn’t just ruled by something in one person’s physiology.

This comes out most clearly in Adam Lanza’s way of interacting with his mother.  She regarded him as mentally ill, and had said she did not work because she needed to care for her son, and worried about what would become of him without her.  In his school years, she drove him everywhere. Only after he had been out of school for a year, ostensibly doing nothing but playing video games, that he finally began to drive (did she put her foot down on this, for once?) At home, he ruled her life. Because of his obsessive changing of his clothes, she had to do the laundry for him every day.  No help was allowed into their home; she had to meet all deliveries outside. Although he could cook for himself, he demanded his mother make very specific combinations of food, which had to be served in just the right position on the plate, and certain dishes were prohibited for certain foods. One could call this obsessive compulsive; you could also see it as using mental illness as a form of control. He made her get rid of her cat because he did not want it in the house. He vetoed celebrating birthdays and holidays, and would not allow her to buy a Christmas tree. Since these are festive family occasions, he was attacking any effort she might make to celebrate their family.

Freud referred to taking advantage of the effects of neurotic behavior on other people as “secondary gain.” Goffman goes more deeply into the process by which something happens in people’s lives, the particular kind of trouble that can’t be resolved and wrecks everyone’s life until it ends up by labeling someone “mentally ill.” 

“Mental symptoms... are neither something in themselves nor whatever is so labeled; mental symptoms are acts by an individual which openly proclaim to others that he must have assumptions about himself which the relevant bit of social organization can neither allow him nor do much about... Havoc will occur even when all the members are convinced that the troublemaker is quite mad, for this definition does not in itself free them from living in a social system in which he plays a disruptive part.”  (Erving Goffman, “The Insanity of Place,” in Relations in Public, 1971, p. 356.)

Mental illness in the home, then, is a conflict, a struggle over control; and the strongest weapon on the side of the wrecker of conventional amenities is that the others love him or her, or at least want to keep the peace.

The Mother as Facilitator: Folie à Deux

Adam Lanza not only ordered his mother around in all sorts of trivial but insistent ways.  He also got her to buy into his violent fantasy.  All five guns that he possessed were bought by her, along with the large supply of ammunition. She also bought him all the weapons in his cult collection of swords and such. She was the perfect buyer, a respectable citizen, no criminal record, possessor of a pistol permit. She kept on buying him guns up to the very end. Even though tension had been building up, in December 2012, just before he shot her, she wrote a check for him to buy a pistol as a Christmas present. Was this her way of trying to get around his prohibition of Christmas? If so, it was clever in a delusional sort of way, since she obviously knew how much he liked guns.

Police investigators in the aftermath of the murders spent much time looking for an accomplice, anyone who had  aided Adam Lanza in his plan. They missed the main accomplice, perhaps out of respect for the dead, the long-suffering devoted mother.

How could she be so blind? Everything her son did, she interpreted as a manifestation of his illness. The windows taped shut with black plastic were to her just a sign of sensitiveness to light-- even though he could go outdoors when he wanted to. The possibility that he was hiding something in the rooms she was forbidden to enter was masked in her own mind by the feeling that she must do everything possible for her son. He had drawn her into his mental illness, building up a family system where he was in complete control. She may have felt something was wrong, wronger even than having an mentally ill son she loved. Though it seems unlikely that they quarreled in an overt way, some signs of tension came through. According to the report, “a person who knew the shooter in 2011 and 2012 said the shooter described his relationship with his mother as strained” and said that “her behavior was not rational.” He told another that he would not care if his mother died. As usual, when one person loves the other much more than is reciprocated, the power is all on the side of the less loving.

The mother entered into and supported his obsession with weapons, while carefully staying out of his clandestine world. In this, as in the rest of their arrangements, they tacitly cooperated.  The mother lost her capacity to make independent judgments. This is very close to the classic model of the mental illness shared among intimates, the folie à deux.

Shooting Together: the Only Family Ritual that Worked

One feature of the mother’s background accidentally facilitated her complicity with her son’s violent plot. She had grown up in rural New Hampshire, in a culture where hunting and shooting were popular pastimes. For her, an interest in guns was normal, and the fact that her son began collecting them was a good thing. It appears that his gun collecting developed after age 14, when he had already been diagnosed as mentally ill, and started becoming obsessed with violent fantasies. His mother saw his guns as a healthy sign, since it was something the family could do together.

During the time when his older brother was living at home (i.e. up until 2006 when he went off to college, when the Adam Lanza was 14), the three of them would go to a shooting range, the mother and her two sons. The father, who had been separated and divorced when Adam was around age 9-11, would come and visit him until he was age 18; besides hiking together, they sometimes went shooting. 

Altogether, it appears that as family relationships deteriorated and Adam withdrew more into video games and seclusion, guns were the one thing that mother and son positively had in common. It was the one interaction ritual that worked, where they focused on something they both liked. For her, it must have been the last remaining marker of mother-son solidarity.

The Precipitating Process

Why did it all come to a head on December 14, 2012? Most of the surrounding social relationships for Adam were disappearing-- whether to call them supporting relationships may be questionable, but his world was shrinking down to little more than video games and his violent fantasies. His brother, 4 years older than himself, went away to college when Adam was 14.  When his brother first left for college, Adam began to think about joining the military, but this never happened.  After college (Adam was now 18), the brother moved out of state; though he tried a few times to maintain contact with Adam, they had not spoken for 2 years at the time of the shooting. At the time of their break, Adam was out of high school already for a year, but had no plans to go to college or get a job. The gap between his brother’s status and his own was widening; his brother was no longer a role model for his own future, if he ever was.

Adam’s father had visited regularly since the separation, but he remarried in 2011. Adam apparently reacted negatively, and they never saw each other again after the end of 2010; though the father tried to reach him by email and proposed places they could meet, Adam stopped responding.

His sole remaining link was his mother. Relationships were strained in fall 2012. She worried because he had not left the house for 3 months. He was treating her worse and worse; he would no longer talk to her directly, and communicated with her only by Email. In November she notified him she planned to sell her house and move to another state, where Adam could go to a special school or get a computer job. Adam at least overtly agreed to the move. But there were conditions; he refused to sleep in a hotel during the move, so the mother planned to buy an RV where he could sleep.  The issue came up in October 2012, when Connecticut was hit by Hurricane Sandy, but Adam refused to leave the house even when electricity was out. Now his familiar place of refuge, his backstage guarded against all comers, the place where he kept his plots and weapons, was being taken away from him.

On December 10, the mother went on a 3-day trip to New Hampshire. She arrived home late in the evening of December 13, and went to bed without seeing her son, who was still incommunicado.  He had had 3 days to finish his plan. Apparently she was part of it. Next morning, before 9 a.m., he went into her bedroom and while she slept killed her with 4 shots to the head. Now he was on a roll, emotionally taking the initiative, starting with the easiest target of all, the one person he could dominate. At 9.30 a.m. he was shooting in the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Can We Learn Anything That Will Head off Mass Shootings?

The single outstanding cause of the murders that took place in Newtown, Connecticut that day-- the condition without which the murders would not have happened-- was the behavior of Adam Lanza’s mother. He had neither the contacts nor the interactional competence to acquire the guns and ammunition on his own. Without her complicity, he would have been just another alienated nerd, sunk in the world of computer games and violent fantasies. None of the other conditions-- his mental illnesses, the problems of adolescent transition, the ubiquitous entertainment culture of fantasy violence-- in itself is strongly correlated with mass killings; the latter two conditions in particular affect tens of millions of youths, but only a miniscule fraction of them turn it into a program of murder.

As Katherine Newman and colleagues have pointed out, in virtually all rampage killings the plot leaks out somewhere; clues are evident, although missed at the time. Newman et al. are particularly concerned with clues missed by teachers, and hushed up by the teen peer culture. What we have here are clues that are strongly visible in the home. Anyone without this mother’s particular way of relating to her son could have seen that something was being concealed, and that it had something to do with stockpiling firepower.

Given that most school shootings are perpetrated by students or recent ex-students, the home is where most clandestine preparations are made. And this is no sudden episode; in every case we know, there was a long period of build-up. The deep tunnel of self-enhancing motivation is dug for months at least.  And that means that parents and other members of the household are in the best position to read the cues for what is going on.

The lesson should be taken to heart above all by parents who own guns. Almost all school shootings happen in communities where gun ownership is widespread, where guns are part of the local culture. The vast majority of gun owners in such communities are respectable and non-criminal (for the statistics, see my Sept. 2012 post). Nevertheless, teens on the path of alienation, with the underground culture of prior mass killings to guide them, find it easiest to get guns when their parents and neighbors have them.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me repeat my previous conclusion. It is not the possession of guns that is the warning sign; it is hiding an arsenal, and clandestine obsession with scenarios of violence. When clues like this appear in one’s own home, the gun-owning parent should be in the best position to recognize it.

It is not simply a matter of teaching one’s children proper gun safety. One can be well trained in an official gun-safety course-- as Adam Lanza was, along with his mother-- and still use the gun to deliberately shoot other people.

What is needed, above all, is a commitment by gun-owners to keep their own guns completely secure, and not to let them fall into the hands of alienated young people, including one’s own children or their friends.

My recommendation is to gun-owners themselves. The issue of gun control in the United States has been mainly treated as a matter of government legislation. That pathway has led to political gridlock. That does not mean that we can do nothing about heading off school shootings. Simply put: keep alienated youths from building a clandestine arsenal where they nurture fantasies of revenge on the school status system, or whatever problems they have with their personal world. Gun-owning parents are closest to where this is most likely to happen. We need a movement of gun-owning parents who will encourage each other to make sure it doesn’t start in our home.


Report of the State’s Attorney on the Shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown Connecticut, December 14, 2012

Katherine S. Newman, Cybelle Fox, David Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth. 2004. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. Basic Books.

Jack Katz. 1988.  Seductions of Crime. Basic Books.

Jason Manning.  2013.   "Suicide and Social Time."  [unpublished, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, West Virginia University]

Randall Collins, "Clues to Mass Rampage Killers: Deep Backstage, Hidden Arsenal, Clandestine Excitement."



Erving Goffman pioneered numerous intellectual trends in the close analysis of everyday life. Of course he didn't do it all by himself.  Intellectual life is prone to retrospective hero-worship; yet this can be defended, practically speaking, as a convenient simplification whereby a particular person becomes an emblem for a broad front of intellectual advance.  In talking about Goffman and his following, we are talking about an extended family, and a somewhat quarrelsome one at that. Goffman happens to be the most memorable representative of this family; his work abounds in crisp formulations: frontstage and backstage, facework, total institutions, interaction rituals, frames, and more. I will sketch a select few of the downstream channels opened up by Goffman's students and successors.

Micro and macro 
The terms were not used by Goffman and others of his generation. * But the theme was in the air. Already in the 1950s, George Homans was declaring-- against Talcott Parsons-- that society is no more than the actions of individual persons; ergo sociology reduces to the explanations of behaviorist psychology. Herbert Blumer was spearheading a militant version of symbolic interactionism: attacking  statistics and "the variable" because they do not actually do anything.  In class at Berkeley, he used to say things like: where is social class? Where do you see it? In another part of the battlefield,  Garfinkel developed his position (not yet called ethnomethodology) in the 1950s, but he was a shadowy figure until the mid-1960s, when he acquired creative followers such as Harvey Sacks, Emmanuel Schegloff, David Sudnow and others. But they were at Berkeley, not UCLA; Harold was notoriously difficult to work with, and the young radical ethnomethodologists were Goffman's PhD students, even though Goffman was teaching a different line.

* At any rate, not until the last year of Goffman's life.  I was among the first to use this pair of terms (in the sociological sense) in a 1981 article in Amer. J. Sociol. "The micro-foundations of macro-sociology." This has nothing to do with the economists' sense; micro-economics studies the behavior of the firm in a market; macro-economics studies the movement of entire economies over time. From a sociological point of view, both of these are macro. As Greg Smith pointed out (at the Cardiff University symposium, 2013) Goffman's comment in his 1982 ASA presidential address was a rejection of my claim about the micro-foundation of macro-sociology, published a year before. "...some... argue reductively that all macrosociological features of society, along with society itself, are an intermittently existing composite of what can be traced back to the reality of encounters-- a question of aggregating and extrapolating interactional effects. This position is sometimes reinforced by the argument that whatever we do know about social structures can be traced back to highly edited summaries of what was originally a stream of experience in social situations.... I find these claims uncongenial." [Goffman, 1983. "The Interaction Order." Amer. Sociol. Rev. 48: 9]

The common denominator of these figures is that all pointed to everyday life, where the action is. Having said this does not settle what the research program would be.  Homans and his followers said it's the actor's calculus of maximizing rewards over costs; at the time it was called exchange theory, later renamed rational choice, after economists got on board. Blumer's symbolic interactionism emphasized actors' definition of their situation, stressing the possibility of reinterpreting the situation, and thus giving volatility to social life. This line of analysis was brilliantly developed by Norbert Wiley in his 1994 book, The Semiotic Self, with its empirical elaboration of the process of internal dialogue (AKA verbal thinking) and internal rituals inside the mind.  Garfinkel's ethnomethodology locates the key in commonsense everyday reasoning. The model is conservative in just the opposite of the sense in which Blumer is radical; Garfinkel's famous breaching experiments show that persons do not like to have their taken-for-granted assumptions upset, and they try to restore order as quickly as possible.

Garfinkel raised a lot of hackles by declaring sociology does not exist, and should be replaced by ethnomethodology. A more acceptable development came from Sacks and Schegloff, who invented a new research method and field-- Conversation Analysis-- using tape recorders to capture exactly what people say to each other in real situations, getting at the local production of everything. And since the data are recorded and minutely inspectable, this led to discoveries such as the importance of rhythms in talk-- points not necessarily brought out by CA theorists themselves, but by the broader movement of micro-sociologists-- which show the micro-mechanisms by which solidarity is manifested, as well as alienation and conflict. This is the pattern no gap, no overlap (originally stated as a fundamental rule of conversation, by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, 1974); and the ways this can be violated: no gap/no overlap generates a strong rhythm which is the ultra-micro mechanism establishing solidarity; long gaps evince alienation; persistent overlap is conflict.

In this array of theoretical possibilities, Goffman took an ostensibly modest position. Society exists and is primary, he said; I'm just studying the social in everyday life, sideshow though it may be. What kind of intellectual impression management was this? In one his few explicit references to his own intellectual ancestry, in an early paper Goffman cited Durkheim on the point that society constructs the individual self and makes it a sacred object; hence minor rituals like saying hello, goodbye, handshakes and kisses, mirror the grand rituals of religion, but in this case they give obeisance to the self. More precisely, they give ritual respect to the other's self, in return for reciprocity in upholding one's own. Moreover, these everyday rituals are obeisance to the collective definition of the situation-- adding a touch of symbolic interaction, even though Goffman was generally critical of that theory.

Although Goffman said society is primary, he never studied it in the large. He shifted the center of gravity to the situation itself; social life becomes a string of situations. This is not an ontological claim: it is a research strategy. If you want to understand mental illness, go into the schizophrenic ward and see how people so labeled interact with each other and with their guards and medics. If you want to see social class, go in and out the kitchen doors of a resort hotel and see how the waiters put on a face for their upper-middle class clientele; and then see how these proper Brits dress for dinner in their own private backstage regions, putting on costume and manner to act out their frontstage identities. Goffman had such a powerful influence because he led by dramatic example; he provided both a research strategy and a theoretical mechanism for what causes what and with what consequences.

What is the value of reframing all this as micro and macro?  In my 1981 article, I argued it is not a matter of what kind of research people should do, or be prohibited from doing; if you want to study revolutions à la Marx and Skocpol, or world-systems à la Wallerstein, go ahead and do it; by their fruits you shall know them and if they come up with something important let's learn it. By the same token, the followers of Goffman, Garfinkel et al. were making discoveries and opening up frontiers. Pragmatically it is pointless to demand that we should all do this instead of that.  But many sociologists at the time said exactly that, the positivist methodologists on one side putting down researchers on everyday life as either unscientific or trivial; and Garfinkel at the other extreme saying society is nothing but a gloss on commonsense reasoning. Calling the choices of what to study micro-and-macro was a way of saying that all sociologists occupy the same empirical universe; some of us are looking at it up close, through ever-more-sharply-focused micro-scopes; others were widening the vision, to larger swaths of time and space.

Ontologically micro and macro are not distinct realms. The macro can be zoomed in on everywhere. A young ethnomethodologist at San Diego (Ken Jennings) once convinced me of this by saying: since you want to do historical sociology, if you could get in a time machine, exactly what would you want to see when you got there? This made me realize not only that you always enter the macro at some micro point; but that what macro-historical sociologists are doing is grappling with a scale where stretching out beyond every micro situation are other situations in the past and future; other situations spread out horizontally, contemporaneously populated by other interactions, as far out to the horizon as we have the methods to see. Macro is not different from micro, it is just more micro-situations, viewed as they are clumped together in larger slices of time, space, and number. 

Pragmatically there are always going to be different kinds of sociologists doing research at different scale, not to mention anthropologists, linguists, historians etc. So what is the point of saying that micro is the foundation of macro, while at the same time saying let everyone approach the micro-macro continuum from their own angle?   I proposed a bet on the micro-researchers: because macro-sociologists deal with things that they refer to by nouns-- states, world-systems, societies, organizations, classes-- they can be led astray when they write as if these are entities that don't depend on the people whose actions make them up. The more positivistic act as if statistics are more real than the actions that they summarize. In this respect, micro-sociologists have made a dent in how macro-sociology is now perceived. There has been a shift from looking at societies as entities, to viewing them as networks-- and networks of varied and changing shape and extent, with ties of differing strengths.*  It is not accidental that the era during which network sociology has risen in importance has also been the era of militant micro-sociology.

* Two representative works are Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, 1986-2013, demonstrating across world-history there are no such things as unitary societies, especially as conventionally glossed by the names of states or ethnicities, but a shifting and overlapping mesh of networks of economic, political, military, and cultural exchange and power; and John Levi Martin, Social Structures, 2009, which derives social change as well as dead-ends from the transformative possibilities of various kinds of networks. For a summary of the latter, see my June 2011 post, "Why Networks Change their Shape, or Not."

Macro-words such as "the government of France," or "the Wall Street stock exchange", may be convenient terms for referring to networks that tend to hang together and reproduce themselves from year to year; but if macro is really composed of the linkages of micro-situations in time and space, the dynamics of macro should be found in the micro. And this means, when government rise and fall, or markets go into booms and busts, we should zero in, get into the streets and palaces of Paris on February 23rd 1848, or the streets of Cairo on a sequence of notable days between 2011 and the present, and look for the mechanisms by which micro processes drive macro events.

Sociology of emotions

This becomes clearer with the theory of emotion work, developed by Arlie Hochschild, one of Goffman's students at Berkeley in the mid-60s. Emotions are often performed rather than simply experienced, Hochschild notes (The Managed Heart, 1983). There are professions whose chief skill is putting on a particular emotional tone; she studied airline flight attendants and bill-collectors; her students studied lawyers and strip-tease dancers. If one wants to take on the core dynamics of macro political and economic power, one could focus on those professional mood-spinners, politicians and investment counselors. Hochschild's inspiration is Goffmanian; people work on themselves to project emotions that fit the situation, or that serve to control other people in a situation. In short, emotions are performed on a frontstage, they are impression management, dramaturgy.

Hochschild has been criticized for ignoring emotions which are spontaneous, but not so; persons have to do emotion work precisely in situations where their spontaneous emotions don't fit what is expected of them. There is an emotional backstage, but here emotions are not just spontaneous, but scrutinized, strategized as to how they can be transformed into frontstage emotions. Arlie has a wonderful argument that, contrary to stereotype, men are more emotional then women. At least in their relations towards each other, where men are more powerful, they can express what they feel or at least what they lust, while women have more to lose if they let their romantic emotions carry them away. Women do more emotion work than men, precisely because they talk more about their emotions-- especially in backstage privacy with their girlfriends, trying to talk each other into calculating which man is a good choice to let one's emotions roam free with. Thus women are considered to be more emotional than men but this really means women talk about emotions more, in backstage situations; men talk less about their emotions, but simply act on them. The evidence is that men are more likely than women to fall in love at first sight. The whole question of who is more emotional is simplistic, unless one considers the front and backstage dimensions of emotion work.

From Hochschild and other contemporary researchers there developed the field of emotion research-- Tom Scheff  (another of Goffman's former protégés), Theodore Kemper, Jonathan Turner, Jack Barbalet and many others. What makes this more than just another subspecialty?  It has a driving theoretical significance because emotions are the glue of the social order, and the energy of social change. Perhaps the social change aspect is more visible, with the anger, enthusiasm, and exalted self-sacrifice found in political and religious movements; but there are also the quiet emotions that sustain the social structure when it does not change, i.e. when it repeats itself day after day and year after year. Garfinkel and the ethnomethodologists had a blind spot for emotions, but they are apparent in the breaching experiments: when commonsense assumptions are breached, the reaction is bewilderment, shock, even outrage. One can reformulate Garfinkel as holding that the merest glimmer of these negative emotions-- these breaching emotions-- cause people to recoil and put back normal social order as fast as they can.  Tony Giddens picked this up and turned it into the existentialist formulation, that ontological anxiety is what holds the social order together. How far can we go with this? Recall, Garfinkel has a conservative view of social institutions, where other micro-sociologists are more inclined to a volatile view.  Garfinkel's world, in my summary exposition, rests on a crude exaggeration, since people don't always succeed in putting social routine back together; and "as fast as they can" refers to just the temporal magnitude of the breaching experiments, more or less a few minutes or an hour at most. A frontier area of research now is time-dynamics, how long emotional sequences take, and what happens to the emotions after a few days, a few weeks, a few months. The shifting moods in Tahrir Square over 30 months give some indication of the kind of pattern we are trying to capture.

Here again a path looks more promising that comes via Goffman (and behind him, from a combination of Durkheim and Blumer)-- more promising in giving us the mechanism, the switch that shifts social situations between reproduction and change. This brings me to my third point, the micro-sociology of stratification.

Interaction Rituals as the mechanism of stratification
Let us go back to 1967.  Goffman had just published his book Interaction Rituals, composed of papers which he had published in the 1950s in relatively offbeat places. Goffman was the subject of much discussion and gossip among Berkeley graduate students; and not just for his quirky personality, such as why his wife committed suicide by jumping off the San Rafael Bridge.  Interaction rituals opened our eyes to what we now could see all around us: everything that people were doing, minute by minute, was not natural but socially constructed; it was all social rituals, and they all operated (more or less unconsciously) to enact a certain kind of social order. And that social order was power, it was class, it was organization and authority.  (This was a few years before it occurred to us that it was also gender and sexuality.) And we jumped to the conclusion-- not necessarily shared by Goffman himself-- that if social order was constructed it could also be de-constructed  (not that we used that term), it could be challenged, it could be torn down.  Whether something else would be put in its place was an open question, since this was the age of the cultural revolution, AKA the psychedelic revolution, and some in the counter-culture proclaimed that artificially constructed social order would be blown open just by turning in on how it is done, and dropping out from it. The utopian phase of this revelation was relatively short-lived.

Goffman and Garfinkel became intellectual heroes of a generation that had experience challenging the taken-for-granted institutions of macro-power. Some of us had taken part in campaigns against racial discrimination in the South, and in the North as well, and had found that institutions of deference and demeanor that supported white dominance could be broken. At Berkeley, and many other places, students found that the traditional authority of university administration could be successfully challenged, by collectively bringing the organization to a halt.  In the student movement of the 1960s, sociologists were prominent-- not because they were the most alienated, but because they had the intellectual tools to see what they were facing. Herbert Blumer took no part in the university demonstrations, but in his classes he would refer to students taking over the administration building as an example of his point: an organization does not exist just because it is a thing-like noun, but exists only to the extent that people act it out; when they stop interpreting it as existing it stops existing.  This is not idealist solipsism-- it's all in your mind-- but rather it is situationally real or not depending on how a group of persons act together to change a collective definition of a situation.

In the event, universities did pull themselves back together, although in ways that incorporated some of the newer definitions of what they should be doing. My purpose is not to trace the activist counter-culture politics of the 1960s and its permutations in following decades; but to note that many then-young sociologists saw Goffman and Garfinkel as having apocalyptic implications. Its political fate is not the crucial point for this intellectual development; the New Left did not win in the end; there were swings to the New Right, the Neo-Liberalism of the 1990s, the revival of religious activism, and so on. The fact that the counter-culture did not win in the long run is no disproof of Blumer's radical symbolic interactionism; the social order of any given time is the result of all the various groups of people who mobilize themselves to define what social institutions are.  The student Left had no monopoly on mobilization; religious mobilization shifted techniques for stirring up collective effervescence from Left to Right; political movements were mobilized not just in the name of oppressed races, ethnicities and sexual preferences but also in tax revolts by self-defined economically oppressed middle-class; Western techniques of revolt spread to the Soviet bloc and many other places, with results that may seem paradoxical in macro perspective but which show the power of micro-techniques to transform so-called big structures.

The story I am telling is about Goffman's downstream; the main point is that Goffman's theory of interaction rituals became radicalized, used in the service of stripping existing practices of their legitimation. And then, when politics settled down and it became apparent radical definitions were not going to go unchallenged by opposing definitions, Goffman's micro-analysis came to be seen as a tool for seeing how the dominant order makes itself dominant.

My take on it was as follows. What makes classes strong or weak happens in micro-situations. Some people get more out of their micro-interactions than others. Why? Goffman had already given some clues: polite rituals like introducing oneself, leaving calling cards, gentlemen taking off their hats to ladies, were means by which stratified groups constitute themselves; persons who didn't carry out these rituals properly were left outside their boundaries. Goffman's own examples were historically rather backward-looking, and it seemed ironic that he was taking them from old etiquette books at the time when a massive shift towards informalization was going on-- at the time I used to think of it as the "Goffmanian revolution". I attempted to generalize the model by expanding on its Durkheimian basis, the theory of religious rituals which constitute religious communities. I emphasized that rituals succeed or fail; some gods are deserted because their worshipers no longer find their ritual attractive, or because a rival ritual draws them away. The ingredients that go into rituals must be seen as varying in strength: bodily assembly (i.e. opportunities to mobilize as a group); techniques for generating a mutual focus of attention, and for stirring up a shared emotion; when these ingredients are favorable, they accelerate through mutual feedback, generating collective effervescence, which seen through a micro-sociological lens, is visible in rhythmic entrainment of people's bodies. Goffman helps us see that little micro-rituals are going on all the time, varying in strength.  Where these interaction rituals are strong, they generate feelings of group membership-- in this case, membership in a social class; feelings of moral solidarity-- the belief that their group is right, what Weber would call legitimate, and should be defended against rival ways of life. On the individual level, a successful interaction ritual gives what I called, modifying Durkheim, emotional energy: feelings of confidence, initiative, enthusiasm; conversely, failed rituals are emotionally depressing.

All these are elements in what makes some social classes dominate others. Dominant classes are better at rituals, or monopolize the successful rituals; dominated classes are weak in ritual resources, because they have no opportunity to assemble for rituals of their own. This fitted well Goffman's analysis of the British resort hotel (in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, 1959), where servants are underlings in higher class rituals. But ritual resources can shift; sometimes subordinated groups get more ingredients for themselves to mobilize; in the 50s and 60s there were vivid examples  before our eyes in the black mobilization for civil rights, turning themselves into a committed, energized, self-sacrificing group that gathered supporters by staging massive public rituals which swung legitimation to themselves and away from the segregationists.

One could go on with a histoire raisonnée of dramatic social movements,  analyzing their micro-techniques for successful interaction rituals; as well as the decline of movements as they are undercut by other ritual mobilizations  (e.g. the proliferation of gang rituals after the 1950s, which made black people appear threatening, at just the time the civil rights movement was making them respectable).  To drop to the level of spare analytical abstraction, let me list a number of ways in which researchers in Goffman's wake have explained who situationally dominates whom:

-- One version is that higher classes are frontstage personalities, while lower classes are backstage personalities.  Higher classes appear in the center of attention, on the stage of big organizations and networks, where they get to formulate the topics and set the emotional tone.  The lower classes are audiences for the higher. It does not necessarily follow that lower classes are taken in by upper class rituals; insofar as lower classes have enough privacy to gather on their own backstages, they can carry out little interaction rituals among themselves, complaining and satirizing their bosses. The result is a difference in class cultures: the higher classes portray themselves in lofty ideals, the lower classes are cynical.

-- Another version is higher classes have more refined manners, and spend more time policing their boundaries. They generate refined rankings, some persons being judged more polite or sophisticated than others; persons who might challenge class domination become drawn into elite tournaments of micro-interactional skill. Goffman wrote incisively about techniques like the aggressive use of face-work, coolly insulting others in ways that those of lesser sophistication cannot respond to except by losing emotional control and damning themselves by their own outbursts. Such techniques, Jennifer Pierce (Gender Trials: Emotional Lives in Contemporary Law Firms, 1995) has shown, are part of the interactional skill that make a successful courtroom lawyer.

--- A related argument is in research by Lauren Rivera (Northwestern University) on how some candidates become successfully chosen in job interviews for elite financial and consulting firms; the key is not so much how the interviewer rates the candidate's technical background or skills, but whether they have emotional resonance.  Manners, an easy flow of topics to talk about, all serve as ingredients that make for successful interaction rituals, which act as gatekeepers to the elite.

-- Another argument is that the higher classes have more emotional energy-- they have gone through a sequential chain of interaction rituals where they have been successful; this gives them a store of confidence and enthusiasm that enables them to dominate the next interactions in the chain. Conversely, the lower classes have less emotional energy; they are less confident of themselves, take less initiative, are poorer at impressing others with their emotional tone. Successful entrepreneurs and financial manipulators are not just cold calculators but energy centers with investors chasing at their heels. Careers of  successful politicians, seen through the microscope of interaction rituals, shows them developing the techniques that make others into followers; but the trajectory of the chain can shift; rising politicians can become overmatched, undergoing crises where they can no longer control the emotional tone of situations, and lose their charisma. (Instances to ponder include the rise and fall of Gorbachev, and the ongoing vicissitudes of Obama.)

These mechanisms of class domination are not mutually exclusive; together they may give an overwhelming impression that class domination is impregnable. Nevertheless, class orders do shift historically; individuals do move up and down in their lifetime; and in the very short run of daily situations, interactional dominance can fluctuate. I have referred to the latter as situational stratification. Without trying to summarize all the ways micro-mechanisms can change stratification, let me move to my fourth and last point, violent conflict.

Violence and conflict as impression management

Conflict is the main way the caked-on sediment of custom is broken; not that the challengers always win, but conflict is volatile, and can rearrange the resources that make stratification, if it is renewed in the aftermath, different than it was before. I will concentrate on violence, which is both the most extreme and perhaps the best studied form of conflict. To say that violence hinges on impression management is to say that the success or failure of violence is based on micro-mechanisms.

Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street (1999) gives an ethnography of the most violent zone of the inner-city black ghetto, in such cities as Philadelphia and Chicago. His most striking argument is that most people are faking it. The code of the street is a style of presenting oneself: tough, threatening, quick to take offense. But Anderson shows, by years of careful observation, that most people in the ghetto consider themselves to be "decent"-- pursuing normal middle-class goals of a job, education, family; but under conditions of the ghetto, where policing is non-existent or distrusted, decent people-- this is a folk term in Philadelphia--  have to be ready to defend themselves.  "I can go for street, too," they would say, referring to a different category of people who are called "street"-- people who are committed to violence and crime as a way of life.  These are two different styles of presenting oneself, and most people can code-switch. The switch is micro and patently visible: a young man walking on an empty street at the edge of the ghetto appears relaxed and happy, but at the sight of another male drops into a hard demeanour, muscles tensed, shoulders swinging and torso dancing with a nonverbal message emphasizing ownership of his personal space. 

This is situational impression management. Anderson developed his analysis under the influence of Goffman, who was his colleague at University of Pennsylvania. It is putting on a public face, don't mess with me.  Anderson goes on to argue that performing the street code is an attempt to avoid violence, and in two different ways. One is to protect oneself from being a victim by looking tough.  But this can backfire on occasion, since two men (or two women) can become locked into a contest of escalating face-work that leads to violence.*  Anderson gives a second technique: when both persons show that they know the street code, they can establish membership, and both can pass through the situation with honor without violence. 

* Shown also by research on homicides arising from escalated face contests. Luckenbill, David F. 1977. "Criminal Homicide as a Situated Transaction." Social Problems 25, pp. 176-186.

More detailed field observations on this point are given by Joe Krupnick's research on the streets of Chicago.** When gun-carrying gang members approach each other, their concern is generally to avoid violence, since they are experienced enough to know its cost. They use a micro-interactional technique when getting into hailing distance-- brief visual recognition, no prolonged stares, studied nonchalance, brief formulaic greeting, moving on past without looking back. Failing to play this particular interaction ritual can result in getting rolled on, with indignant charges-- "who he think he is, act like he rule the street!"  The proper performance of interaction rituals is fateful in the most violent neighbourhood.  Similarly detailed participant observation of Philadelphia street gangs has been done by Alice Goffman, Erving's daughter, in a dissertation rich with all the ways that performing the impression of violence is more important than the violence itself.

Krupnick, Joe, and Chris Winship. 2013.  "Keeping Up the Front: How Young Black Men Avoid Street Violence in the Inner City." In Orlando Patterson (ed.) Bringing Culture Back In: New Approaches to the Problems of Disadvantaged Black Youth.

In Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, I argued that violence is difficult, not easy; the micro-details of a threatening confrontation show that persons come up against a barrier of confrontational tension and fear that makes them hesitant and incompetent even if they consciously want to commit violence. This shared emotion will inhibit violence from happening, unless one side or the other finds a way to get around the emotional barrier. Violence is successfully carried out when one side establishes emotional dominance over the other. And this is done chiefly by a dramatic performance; emotional dominance precedes physical dominance. A typical way to seek dominance is bluster: threatening, angry gestures, loud voice, an attempt to dominate the communicative space. If the two sides are in equilibrium, violence does not usually come off. The crucial technique of violent persons, then, is violent impression-management: subtle micro-moves in gesture and timing to get the other side into a passive, de-energized stance, thereby allowing them to be subjected to violent force. Violence is a learned skill, rather than merely a lack of self-control or an outburst of past resentments; and what is learned is a specific way to manage the micro-cues of self and other in violence-threatening situations.

Violence is an area where we can palpably demonstrate that the micro makes a difference. This is a counter to the position often taken in the micro-macro debate that micro merely reflects macro-- that micro behavior just reproduces the macro structure.  Several versions of the argument have been recently popular: the Bourdieu version is that habitus is the individual's disposition to act in accordance with their sense of position in the structural field. Another version is that people act out cultural scripts, that they know what to do in any particular micro-situation because they follow a cognitive script or schema. The trouble with both these types of argument is that they are static; nothing ever changes because the same habitus, the same script constantly operates; social structure simply reproduces itself. Against this is the dynamism of symbolic interactionism, bolstered by Goffman's tools for looking at the micro-details that determine what happens in interactional situations. It is not a matter of looking inside the individual for what habitus or script each happens to carry, but the interaction between those individuals in the emotions and rhythms of the situation itself.  We see this most clearly in the micro-contingencies that determine whether violence will break out or not.  And violence so often is a cutting point, spreading through escalations and reactions, a micro-point that gets dramatic attention and permeates the macro-space, sometimes setting off major structural changes.  At such times, micro really does causally determine the form of the macro.

Goffman, by Goffman

In conclusion, a few words about Goffman himself. I said at the outset that Goffman is an emblem, a figurehead for the moving front of researchers who explored the micro-sociology of everyday life. Can we turn a Goffman lens on Goffman himself? I once asked him what he thought would be the micro-sociology of the intellectual world, but he brushed it aside with a characteristically sarcastic remark.  Perhaps he did think about it, in his own backstage. He did seem to operate with a strategy as if designed to make himself the leader and emblem. He rarely cited any predecessors; he did not put himself in the lineage of those who went before-- whereas we ourselves rule out the possibility of claiming to be emblems, precisely because we talk so much about our predecessors. Goffman occasionally criticized his rivals, but only in dismissive footnotes: trashing Schutz and his followers (which is to say Garfinkel's movement, which Goffman never mentions) in a few lines appended to Frame Analysis; occasional lines about taking the role of the other that only the cognoscenti would recognize as a putdown of Blumer and Mead. Goffman never gave his rivals even the attention that comes from direct attack.  Some prominent micro researchers have complained that Goffman never cited them when it would have been appropriate, citing instead more obscure sources. No other intellectual loomed up on Goffman's pages.

To be sure, he himself did not loom up overtly; he affected a modest manner (in his writing, that is-- his behavior in everyday life is legendary for his aggressive face-work), but with an artfulness, indeed archness to his words. Goffman is difficult to connect from book to book because he never used the same terminology over again, nor explained how newer concepts might have improved from the older ones-- how frontstages related to rituals and then to frames. This may be part of the impression management that Goffman engaged in about his own intellectual career. He was always reincarnating himself as an innovator, covering his own tracks. As sociologists downstream from Goffman, we have learned to see some of the tricks. He rested more on a larger movement than he himself ever admitted. In that sense, he was an ordinary intellectual, closer to ourselves. But as a personality-- his life was a masterpiece of singularity.

Then again-- can't we say the same about Harold Garfinkel?


Harold Garfinkel’s work can be located in the two great waves of realignment that took place during the 20th century, the first in the 1920s and 30s, the second in the 1960s and 70s. Garfinkel, I am going to argue, was one of a very few sociologists who centered oneself on the realignment in philosophy in the 1920s-30s, when he was growing up. But his reputation did not take off until the 1960s and 70s, when a school-- indeed a cult-- formed of ethnomethodologists who made up the radical wing, in the Anglophone world, of the second big realignment to hit the human sciences.

The First Realignment: From Neo-Kantians and Idealists to Phenomenologists and Logical Positivists

Let us start with the realignment that took place in philosophy when the dominant positions at the turn of the 20th century gave way to a new set of oppositions in the 1920s and 30s. At the beginning of the century the major schools were the Neo-Kantians, along with vitalists and evolutionists (the latter two sometimes combined, as in Bergson). In the Anglophone world, the center of attention remained the Idealists:  the most famous philosopher in Britain was F.H. Bradley—who performed a dialectical dissolution of all concepts as incapable of grasping Absolute reality, with a capital A. Idealists included Bertrand Russell’s teacher McTaggart, and Whitehead, who published an Idealist system as late as the 1920s. In the US, Idealism as even more dominant, and was part of the worldview of persons we otherwise think of as pragmatists: William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, the early John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead on down to his death in 1931.  Earlier, the most famous Idealist was Josiah Royce, whose name is on Royce Hall next door to the sociology building at UCLA.  Idealism was partly a defense of religion in rationalized form--  one reason why Idealism was so important in the transition of American higher education from Bible schools to research universities. Idealism was also a sophisticated epistemology that holds that no one ever sees the so-called real world, but only through the eyeglasses of one’s categories. The only sure reality is the mind.

Neo-Kantianism dominated on the European Continent, led by such figures as Dilthey, Windelband, and Cassirer. Unlike the older Idealists, it was no longer concerned with defending religion and no longer built metaphysical systems, and had made its peace with natural science. Neo-Kantians took their topics from investigating the constitutive logics of the various disciplines; Dilthey distinguished Geisteswissenschaft from Naturwissenschaft, each valid in their own sphere, but using distinctive methods of hermeneutic interpretation or seeking causality. In Windelband’s view, they wore different eyeglasses, idiographic or nomothetic, seeing particulars or general laws.  The newly organized social sciences were especially good territory for Neo-Kantian meta-theorizing. Economics might seem naturally to be in the Naturwissenschaft camp, but in Germany, economics had been historical, not mathematical, and the so-called Methodenstreit-- the battle of methods that Max Weber took part in the early 1900s-- concerned what approach should govern economists’ work. Weber’s ideal types were a Neo-Kantian solution, designed to allow bifocal eyeglasses, so to speak. Psychology was a favorite Neo-Kantian hunting ground; sociology and anthropology also became targets. In the founding generation of sociologists, Weber, Simmel, and to a degree Durkheim were all Neo-Kantians.

Vienna Circle positivists of the following generation rejected the Neo-Kantian way of drawing borders, and launched an imperialist campaign for unification of all the sciences, including the social sciences. But for the moment we need to focus on the earlier positivists, figures like Ernst Mach in the late 19th century. In our own day, positivism has become a term of abuse, for number-crunchers, dogmatic materialists and naive objectivists who regard natural science as the only true reality. But positivism at the time of Mach meant almost the opposite. Mach held that scientists do not observe reality, but only construct it out of readings of laboratory instruments; hence the reality of science might as well be abolished, replaced by instrument readings, which are always provisional. Machian positivism was close to Neo-Kantianism, and a popular expression of the position was published by Vaihinger in 1911 as The Philosophy of As-If.   

The 1920s and 30s swept away the dominance of the Neo-Kantians and their allies, and replaced them with a new opposition: phenomenology, and the much more radical logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. At first glance, phenomenologists like Husserl and Scheler seem similar to Neo-Kantians: the same search for the conceptual eye-glasses through which we see the world. One difference is that the Neo-Kantians were much more concerned with academic disciplines, whereas the phenomenologists shifted towards everyday life. Was phenomenology, then, the stream of consciousness, just then in the early 1920s breaching the literary world in the novels of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf? An interesting question, which I will pass by, with the remark that only Proust had much philosophical input, and that was from Bergson. Phenomenology seems closer to psychology, and one might be tempted to link it with the Freudian movement, or with the Gestalt psychology that was being developed in Germany in the teens and twenties. But no, phenomenology was militantly anti-psychological; psychology was merely the phenomenal level of experience, governed by causal laws on the level of the natural sciences; phenomenology was deeper-- in Husserl’s famous epochê, bracketing the phenomenal contents of consciousness in order to seek the deep structures, the forms in which consciousness necessarily presents itself.

The roots of phenomenology in the foundations of mathematics

The pathway into the phenomenology movement was not from psychology, but from elsewhere: its predecessors in the previous generation were in the foundational crisis in mathematics. (There is an echo of this in Husserl’s 1936 title  The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.) Issues had arisen in late 19th century because the new highly abstract mathematics had invented concepts with no counterpart in ordinary 3-dimensional reality, concepts impossible to grasp intuitively: imaginary numbers, non-Euclidean geometries and alternative algebras, higher orders of infinities called transfinite numbers, etc. Some mathematicians declared these monstrosities, products of illegitimate operations and lack of rigor; others held that higher mathematicians had broken into a Platonic paradise where they could create new objects at will. The dispute eventually would become organized, around 1900, into the camps of formalists and intuitionists, each with a program for how to logically carry through the foundations of all mathematics. The most important moves were made around the 1880s  and 90s by Gottlob Frege, a German mathematician who distinguished between sense and reference in the manipulation of symbols. In the verbal expression, “The morning star is the same as the evening star,” this is a mere tautology because the two stars are both the planet Venus; but the statement is not meaningless [Venus is Venus], because the two star-names are being used differently in the syntax of the sentence. Frege was concerned above all with mathematical symbolism, for instance the meaning of the equals sign [=] at the center of a mathematical equation, or the plus sign [+] used in addition, which is not simply the word “and” used in ordinary language. The various mathematical symbols are not on the same level, but are different kinds of operations, place-holders, and pointers. In short, mathematics is a multi-level enterprise; things we had thought were clear, such as numbers, have to be reanalyzed into a much more meticulous system of formal logic.

Husserl was in the network of Frege’s allies, and simultaneously connected with its most hostile critics; he eventually left mathematics for philosophy and generated the phenomenological program with an aim to provide secure foundations not only for mathematics and science but for all knowledge. This proved to be an endlessly receding finish line, as Husserl launched one program after another down to the 1930s; its chief results, as far as we are concerned, were offshoots such as Schutz and Heidegger. But for a moment, let us pursue Frege’s connections in a different direction. In 1903, Bertrand Russell, who had been working on a program deriving basic mathematics from a small number of concepts and axioms of symbolic logic, began to correspond with Frege over a paradox in his attempt to build a system of numbers out of the logic of sets. The conundrum is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves; is it a member of itself? If yes, no; if no, yes. The point is not trivial, on the turf of set theory, since this was Frege’s way of defining zero and beginning the ordered number series which is the basis of all mathematics. Frege threw up his hands, 20 years of work down the drain! -- but Russell worked out a solution, in the spirit of Frege’s distinctions between levels of operations, and what is allowable on each level.  Russell’s theory of types led to further controversy; and at this point, Ludwig Wittgenstein, a young German engineer who had interested himself in Frege’s work, arrived at Cambridge and took up Russell’s problem. Published in 1921 as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein’s argument hinges on the distinction between what is sayable  and what is unsayable, which we can see as a widening of the kind of distinction among incommensurable operations such as Frege’s sense vs. reference, or later what linguistics would call use  vs. mention, and echoed still later in ethnomethodology as resource  vs. topic.

Within the realm of the sayable, however, Wittgenstein’s approach is like that of the mathematical formalists, building a system on a logically perfect language, starting with simple elements (proper names with purely internal properties, logical atoms unaffected by external connections), out of which all meaningful elementary sentences can be constructed, and so on until giving complete knowledge of the world. By the late 1920s, the Vienna Circle  logical positivists were welcoming Wittgenstein’s methods as a means of unifying all science on a secure basis. Not that the Vienna Circle’s leaders were followers of Wittgenstein; Schlick, Neurath and others were already well-launched, with their own networks coming from physicists like Planck and Einstein, from leading mathematicians of both the formalist and intutionist schools, from neo-Kantians like Dilthey, and late pupils of Frege such as Carnap. I will skip over the internal struggles of the Vienna Circle, including such explosive developments as Gödel’s undecidability proof and Popper’s falsifiability criterion, and only note that the outcome of the Vienna Circle for social science, above all in America, was a kind of militant positivism that declares meaningless anything that cannot be put into the strict methodology of empirical measurement, statistics, and derivation of testable observation statements from covering laws. (Carnap, the most militantly reductionist of the old-line logical positivists, become a professor at UCLA in the 1954 [and died at Santa Monica in 1970]—apparently he and Harold had nothing to do with each other.) The people who wrote sociology methods textbooks around 1950, like Hempel, laid it down that what sociology needed to become a true science was the guidance of Vienna Circle positivism.

Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language

This sounds like the triumph of the Evil Empire. But I can only expound one side of things at a time. The intellectual world operates by rivalries and conflicts; and I should mention here the movement in England of ordinary language philosophy. By the 1930s G.E. Moore was reacting against the tendency of mathematically-inspired philosophers to move further and further from the world of ordinary experience, into a realm of abstract sets and meta-rules about what is permissible or impermissible in operations upon them. Moore began to argue for simple statements of ordinary language as incontestable truths (“Here is one hand, and here is another...” 1939)-- and therefore as a better standard of epistemology than convoluted systems of logical axioms. Wittgenstein, distancing himself from his Vienna Circle admirers, switched over to the anti-formalist side, repudiating much of what he had written in the Tractatus-- but retaining the key distinction of sayable  vs. unsayable. His own later comments describe mathematics as an everyday practice that one can observe in detail, stressing that the key to all the foundational disputes are to by found by this method (that we now would call micro-observations of situated practices), rather than elaborating long hierarchical derivations from concepts of sets. This emphasis on the ordinary practice of language was made into an organized program by John Austin, whose 1956 book  How to Do Things with Words, resonates with Frege’s use vs. mention, now elaborated as speech acts and illocutionary forces. (And in fact Austin had begun by publishing, in 1950, a translation of Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic.)

Husserl's followers branch into everyday life

I need to fill in one more pathway, and we will have arrived at Garfinkel. This is the pathway of Husserl’s followers. I will single out two: Alfred Schutz and Martin Heidegger. Schutz set out to examine Max Weber’s notions of verstehen, and the ideal types of rational and non-rational action that Weber proposed as tools for the analyzing the social bases of modern capitalism. But Weber had operated as a typical Neo-Kantian, more or less inventing these ideal types out of his own head; whereas Schutz applied the more rigorous phenomenology of Husserl. The result was Schutz’s 1932 book, The Phenomenology of the Social World, which attempts to lay out some basic rules of the everyday construction of reality, such as the reciprocity of perspectives. Garfinkel encountered Schutz teaching at the New School for Social Research around 1950.

Heidegger was a pupil of Hussserl who had been given the task of making a phenomenological analysis of the experience of time. His Sein und Zeit, in 1927, is the first famous statement of what became existentialism. What is striking about Heidegger is the religious dimension, perhaps not surprising for a former Catholic seminar student, but one who had thrown off religion. In effect, Heidegger propounds a theology for atheists, where God is dead and there is no afterlife and no transcendence of the world. Nevertheless, the human individual is Dasein,  being-there, thrown into the world at a particular time and place, with no fundamental reason for the arbitrariness of why we are here; more broadly, in the background, no reason why anything should exist at all rather than nothing. This is like the sheer arbitrariness of why God created the world in the first place, a question that is no more answerable if one translates it into the naturalistic language of the Big Bang or some other scientific cosmology. Dasein is being-towards-death, the conscious being that projects itself towards the future but knows it is going to die. Hence the underlying motive, or at least deepest human experience, is existential angst.  Heidegger resonates with the most sophisticated positions of philosophical rivals: with the paradoxes plaguing the foundations of mathematical logic, with Gödel’s soon-to-be-discovered incompleteness theorem; with Wittgenstein’s unsayability and the inability of language to encompass practice. Heidegger well dramatizes the philosophical realignment: a long way from the comfortable world of the Neo-Kantians, as well as making the strongest possible opponent to the science-is-all viewpoint of the Vienna Circle positivists. Above all, Heidegger’s existential phenomenology holds that meaningfulness does not exist in any objective sense; it has to be created and posited, at every step of the way. He doesn’t say, created collectively, as an interactional accomplishment; Heidegger was not yet a sociologist. But the step was there to be taken.

Garfinkel as existentialist micro-sociological researcher

Garfinkel, in my view, is largely a combination of Schutz and existential phenomenology. Of course there are other strands: Garfinkel at Harvard was impressed with his teacher Talcott Parsons’ argument [in The Structure of Social Action, 1937] that the basic problem of sociology is how is society possible in the first place, given the Hobbesian problem of order, and Durkheim’s argument that society is held together not by conscious, rational contracts but by pre-contractual solidarity. But what is this tacit level and how does it operate? Garfinkel set out to discover this by phenomenological methods, just as Schutz had done for Weber’s categories of action. Moreover, by the 1950s, Garfinkel was operating in a milieu in which studies of everyday life were growing, with or without philosophical impetus: in France, Henri Lefebvre, a Marxist philosopher who published in 1947 a Critique of Everyday Life; Fernand Braudel and the Annales  School grounding history in the details of ordinary activities and things; Jean-Paul Sartre, doing phenomenology of everyday life with the eye of a naturalistic novelist; in America, Goffman’s early ethnographies, and those of Howie Becker and other symbolic interactionists; George Homans and others abjuring grand abstractions in favor of studying behavior in small groups. Some of this incipient micro-sociology was done in the laboratory, but so were a number of Garfinkel’s breaching experiments, under grants from the US Air Force office of research. One might say Garfinkel exploded the American research establishment from within, breaching the walls of the laboratory and making the entire world of everyday life a laboratory for experiment on the order-making and meaning-constructing methods of folk actors.

I was struck, visiting Harold’s home library in the 1980s, by how few sociology books he kept there-- mainly a few of Durkheim, but shelves full of the philosophy and literature of phenomenology and existentialism. Here I want to suggest how much Garfinkel resonated with Heidegger, even translating existentialist concepts into findings of ethnomethodology. All action is situational, arbitrarily thrown into a context. The human reality constructor projects towards the future, assuming that ambiguities will eventually be resolved in retrospect. But ambiguity lurks everywhere, as key aspects of communicative action, with others and with oneself, are indexical, not capable of translation into an objective system of references; Dasein is by definition indexical, inhabiting the thus-ness of the world in those exemplary indexicals, here and now. But actors avoid questioning what they tacitly feel, hiding from the unsayable. Human practical actors assume meaning, take it for granted, and interpret even the most contrived or accidental events as if they had meaning.

In Heidegger’s terms, persons strongly prefer to inhabit the world of the inauthentic, what Sartre called ‘bad faith’; the primary ethnomethods are all about keeping up comfortable appearances, a gloss of normalcy. Why? Breaches are highly uncomfortable; we rush to restore order, especially cognitive order, first by socially acceptable accounts, and if these fail, by labeling, exclusion, and attack. The most striking detail for me, reading Harold’s breaching experiments, is the reaction of the victims of the breach: bewilderment, shock, outrage. And not just because of momentary embarrassment, but because the arbitrary foundations of the social construction of reality have been temporarily revealed. What breaching reveals is Heidegger’s world of Dasein, thrown-ness, Being-towards-death, existential anxiety. Ethnomethods for finding and restoring order look like a way of pasting over Heidegger’s world lurking just below the surface.

If you want more evidence for the crucial important of Heidegger in opening the way for Garfinkel, bear in mind that Heidegger overturned the primacy given to mind by both Idealists and phenomenologists. Existential phenomenology is embodied, inhabiting the material world in the sense of the here-and-now Umwelt; this means physicality not as a theory or philosophy about matter—which Neo-Kantians could easily dissect as a dogmatically asserted Ding-an-sich—but as the primary existential experience of Dasein. This conception is central in Garfinkel’s repeated admonitions on how to do ethnomethodology, always focusing on “incarnate, embodied  activity—not the primacy of mind (the mistake of superficial critics who called ethnomethodology mere subjectivity) but the mind/body doing something practical in the lived bodily world. And “incarnate” also has a religious resonance, since Jesus is incarnated, not transcendental; and mystics—especially in many lines of Zen—emphasize that Enlightenment is not elsewhere but in grasping the here and now as such.

I am aware that my existentialist reading of Garfinkel is not the only one. There is also a Wittgensteinian reading, rather more optimistic in tone, which marvels at the ongoing creativity of human actors in creating order out of situations, again and again, “for another first time.” Here, the tacit, unsayable processes are all to the good. This has been ably argued by John Heritage, and may be more characteristic of the Conversation Analysis branch. Nevertheless, I am inclined to think an existentialist theme is more central to Harold himself, in his own intellectual biography, in the distinctive emotional quality of his work. This aspect of his personality struck those who encountered him personally, and made up an important part of his charisma.

The second realignment: from existentialism to language-centered structuralism and deconstruction
I am near the end of my account, and so far have arrived only at the doorstep of the second “great turn” in the human sciences, that of the 1960s and 70s. Harold, born in 1917, and spending a number of years in World War Two, is an intellectual product of the post-war years, beginning graduate work at Harvard in 1946.  The early 60s found him still crying in the wilderness.  What made Garfinkel famous was not merely the publication of Studies in Ethnomethodology  in 1967, and the emergence of a network of former students with a program of ethnomethodological research, but another great realignment in the larger intellectual world.

The shift of the 1960s and 70s is still too close to us for unpolemical analysis. It has no generally agreed-upon name. Most famously, it was the rise of the counter-culture, attacking the academic and every other Establishment, throwing off traditional manners, politics, and the hegemony of science. It was a time of political radicalism, spearheaded this time by student movements rather than workers or peasants. But although radicalism penetrated the intellectual world in a revival of Marxism and in other politically engagé stances, these had little direct influence on ethnomethodology, with its resolutely high-intellectual outlook. A major component of the reception of ethnomethodology comes from winds blowing from a very different direction. Above all was the rise of linguistics, as a formal discipline, harking back to earlier mathematical formalisms.

In America, the new-found prestige of linguistics centered on the program of Chomsky [1955 Univ. of Pennsylvania PhD; 1957 Syntactic Structures].  This had started by the late 1950s  (and got its first fame in polemical opposition to the behaviorist-reductionism program of B.F. Skinner), but the Chomskyian movement became a beacon for other disciplines only in the 60s and 70s. Anthropological linguists, of course, had long been cataloguing languages, but the field was dispersed and lacked widespread interest, until the Chomskyian program of generative grammar, proposing to unify all language studies around layers of deep structures and transformative rules. This resonated with the burgeoning of cognitive psychology and the incipient field of cognitive science fed by the computer revolution, and gave new prestige to anthropologists who took a linguistic-theory approach to their materials.

In Europe, above all in France, American developments were paralleled by movements that even more strongly gave the linguistic model a kind of hegemony over the human sciences. Structuralist linguistics had existed since the 1910s in Saussure’s work, although not recognized as widely important for another half-century. In 1949, Lévi-Strauss produced The Elementary Structures of Kinship, a formalist comparison of kinship structures as systems of rules that might be combined in various ways and result in distinctive sequences; an appendix by the mathematician André Weil tied this to mathematical theory of groups. In the 50s and 60s, Lévi-Strauss rose to fame as figurehead of a structuralist program; his method was to compare tribal myths for their underlying combinations, oppositions and sequences of formal elements, thereby proclaiming a universal code of the human mind.

The structuralist movement was widened by the influx of Russian Formalism into France in the 1950s. The origins of the Russian Formalists goes back to the early 1900s, among literary critics and folklorists; their accomplishments included Vladimir Propp showing the basic elements from which folk tales are produced, and Viktor Shklovsky’s analysis of literary texts as a combination of devices that migrate from one text to another. One result was to radically downplay the author: if Cervantes had not lived, nevertheless Don Quixote would have been written. This alliance of literary theorists and folklorists combined into a distinctive school of linguistics, migrated to Prague with Roman Jakobson, and eventually to Paris. By the 1960s, Foucault, Lacan, Barthes and others were using Formalist methods to decode texts of all kinds, focusing on the textuality of the entire world, and declaring the death of the author, now seen as mere conduit for a stream of intertextual rearrangements.

On the whole, the structuralists were rivals of the existentialists, attacking their subjectivism and focus upon the individual consciousness. But a tie-in with phenomenology was made by Derrida, whose earliest book, Edmund Husserl’s Origins of Geometry, in 1962, brought textually oriented structuralism into connection with the deep roots of the early 20th century intellectual transformation, the mathematical foundations crisis and the grappling between formalist and intuitionist programs. Derrida thus became the philosophical heavyweight of the later structuralist, or deconstructionist movement.  Derrida’s own texts are famously multi-leveled and self-ironicizing, but one could also say this is in keeping with the whole tendency of philosophy from Frege to Wittgenstein: having emphasized what is unsayable, then going on if not to say it, at least finding devices for talking around it.

The anti-positivist wars in America and the fame of ethnomethodology

Back in the USA, Garfinkel’s ship was finally floating on the crest of a flood tide.  A more adequate metaphor might be, a multiplicity of raging rivers overflowing their banks:  The relatively quiet stream from Husserl to Schutz, and the more dramatic one from Heidegger and the existentialists; the purely academic growth of Chomskyian linguistics, and the growing community of anthropologists and cognitive scientists who became the best audience for ethnomethodologically-inspired work in conversation analysis. Then also the raging flood of the academic political revolts, and the anti-establishment psychedelic revolution, with its slogans “It’s all in your mind” and “Blow their minds.” Back inside the serious work of scholarship, came a growing academic stream of micro-sociologists and ethnographers of daily life-- it is not coincidental that the first round of young ethnomethodological stars-- Sacks, Schegloff, Sudnow-- were Goffman’s protégés at Berkeley. (According to Manny Schegloff, they were all brought there by Philip Selznick to staff his new Institute for Law and Society, but quickly rebelled.) And finally, by the 1970s, all this was enveloped in the European tide, the prestige of structuralist/deconstructionist literary theory, although in America  largely confined to departments of literature and anthropology, and the institutionalized insurgencies of feminist theory and ethnic studies.

I have tried to contain this whirlwind tour of the 20th century in two metaphorical bags, a sequence of two big realignments in philosophy and the human sciences. It would be misleading to think of this as a shift from one gestalt to another, a simple Kuhnian paradigm revolution. One way this is inadequate is that there is never a single dominant Zeitgeist  or “turn”, but always rival positions; and each of these big camps is always a mixture and jockeying among various campaigns. The first big realignment, in the 1920s and 30s, replaced Neo-Kantians with the opposition between phenomenologists and logical positivists, plus an ordinary language movement revolting against both. Garfinkel combined much of the impetus in phenomenology, coming from the foundational crisis in mathematics and therefore in theory of symbolism and symbol-use, with an increasing micro-focus of research on the details of everyday life. The second big realignment, the 1960s and 70s, was in some respects an advance by a later generation of phenomenologists, with further support from literary formalists and code-seeking structuralists, in a fairly successful attack on the logical positivists. But of course other versions of positivism survive and prosper, in the worlds of statistics, biology, economics and rational choice, und so weiter.

A turn or realignment is not the end of history. All the other movements of the huge contemporary intellectual world do not go away; they are there is the absences I have not mentioned, in psychology and political science, in all the branches of sociology that go their own way, not very surprisingly, and maintain their own research programs. My title turns out to be merely rhetorical, if it is taken to imply one big triumphal turn in the later 20th century.  But even with all the caveats, it has been a big movement, a major part of the action. Unpacking Garfinkel’s trajectory and influences connects him to much of the most serious and profound intellectual life of the 20th century. Unlike so many others this side the Atlantic, Garfinkel was not merely transplanting Francophone influences. He got there first, in his own way. And he launched a research program, one that announced most dramatically the presence of militant micro-sociology under sail.

Downstream from Garfinkel and Goffman, we are beginning to appreciate the channels they ripped open, and the flood-plains on which we float today, towards the always approachable but never-attained sea.

For sources on movements of 20th century philosophy see: Randall Collins. 1998.  The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press.
To witness the continuing insights of ethnomethodological research: Kenneth Liberman, 2013. More Studies in Ethnomethodology.  SUNY Press.


In the last few years, many people have come to believe they have a formula for overthrowing authoritarian governments and putting democracy in their place. The method is mass peaceful demonstrations, persisting until they draw huge support, both internally and internationally, intensifying as government atrocities while putting them down are publicized by the media. This was the model for the “color revolutions” (orange, pink, velvet, etc.) in the ex-Soviet bloc; for the Arab Spring of 2011 and its imitators; further back it has roots in the US civil rights movement. 

Such revolutions succeed or fail in varying degrees, as has been obvious in the aftermath of the different Arab Spring revolts. Why this is the case requires a more complicated analysis. The type of revolution consisting in the righteous mobilization of the people until the authoritarians crack and take flight may be called a tipping point revolution.  It contrasts with the state breakdown theory of revolution, formulated by historical sociologists Theda Skocpol, Jack Goldstone, Charles Tilly and others, to show the long-term roots of major revolutions such as the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russia Revolution of 1917, and that I used to predict the 1989-91 anti-Soviet revolution. Major revolutions are those that bring about big structural changes (the rise or fall of communism, the end of feudalism, etc.). I will argue that tipping point revolutions, without long-term basis in the structural factors that bring state breakdown, are only moderately successful at best; and they often fall short even of modest changes, devolving into destructive civil wars, or outright failure to change the regime at all.

Tipping Point Revolutions with Easy Success

Tipping points revolutions are not new. Some of the early ones were quick and virtually bloodless. For instance the February 1848 revolution in France: There had been agitation for six months to widen the very restrictive franchise for the token legislature. The government finally cracked down on the main form of mobilization-- a banqueting campaign in which prominent gentlemen met in dining rooms to proclaim speeches and drink toasts to revolutionary slogans. The ban provided a rallying point. The day of the banquet, a crowd gathered, despite 30,000 troops called out to enforce the ban. There were minor scuffles, but most soldiers stood around uneasily, unsure what to do, many of them sympathetic to the crowd. Next morning rumours swept through Paris that revolution was coming. Shops did not open, workers stayed home, servants became surly with their masters and mistresses. In the eerie atmosphere of near-deserted streets, trees were chopped down and cobble-stones dug up to make barricades.  Liberal members of the national legislature visited the king, demanding that the prime minister be replaced.  This modest step was easy; he was dismissed; but who would take his place? No one wanted to be prime minister; a succession of candidates wavered and declined, no one feeling confident of taking control. 

Mid-afternoon of the second day, just after the prime minister’s resignation was announced, a pumped-up crowd outside a government building was fired upon. The accidental discharge of a gun by a nervous soldier set off a contagious volley, killing 50. This panicky use of force did not deter the crowd, but emboldened it. During the night, the king offered to abdicate. But in favor of whom? Other royal relatives also declined. The king panicked and fled the palace, along with assorted duchesses; crowds were encroaching on the palace grounds, and now they invaded the royal chambers and even sat on the royal throne. In a holiday atmosphere, a Republic was announced, the provisional assembly set plans to reform itself through elections. 

In three days the revolution was accomplished. If we stop the clock here, the revolution was an easy success.  The People collectively had decided the regime must go, and in a matter of hours, it bowed to the pressure of that overwhelming public.  It was one of those moments that exemplify what Durkheim called collective consciousness at its most palpable. 

This moment of near-unanimity did not last. In the first weeks of enthusiasm, even the rich and the nobility-- who had just lost their monopoly of power-- made subscriptions for the poor and wounded; the conservative provinces rejoiced in the deeds of Paris. The honeymoon began to dissipate within three weeks. Conservative and radical factions struggled among the volunteer national guard, and began to lay up their own supplies of arms. Conservatives in the countryside and financiers in the city mobilized against the welfare-state policies of Paris.  Elections to a constitutional assembly, two months in, returned an array of conservatives and moderates; the socialists and liberals who led the revolution were reduced to a small minority, upheld only by radical crowds who invaded the assembly hall and shouted down opponents. In May, the national guard dispersed the mob and arrested radical leaders. By June there was a second revolt, this time confined to the working-class part of the city. The Assembly was united against the revolution; in fact they had provoked it by abolishing the public workshops set up for unemployed workers. This time the army kept its discipline. The emotional mood had switched directions. The provinces of France now had their own collective consciousness, an outpouring of volunteers rushing to Paris by train to battle the revolutionaries. Within five days, the June revolution was over; this time with bloody fighting, ten thousand killed and wounded, and more executed afterwards or sent to prison colonies.

The tipping point mechanism did not tip this time; instead of everyone going over to the victorious side (thereby ensuring its victory),  the conflict fractured into two opposing camps. Instead of one revolutionary collective consciousness sweeping up everyone, it split into rival identities, each with its own solidarity, its own emotional energy and moral righteousness. Since the opposing forces, both strongly mobilized, were unevenly matched, the result was a bloody struggle, and then destruction of the weaker side. In the following months, the mood flowed increasingly conservative. Elections in December brought in a huge majority for a President-- Napoleon’s nephew, symbol of a idealized authoritarian regime of the past-- who eventually overturned the democratic reforms and made himself emperor. The revolutionary surge had lasted just four months.

Tipping Point Revolutions that Fail

The sequence of revolts in 1848 France shows both the tipping point mechanism at its strongest, and the failure not so far downstream to bring about structural change. Modern history is full of failed revolutions, and continues to be right up through the latest news. I will cite one example of a tipping point revolution that failed entirely, not even taking power briefly. The democracy movement in China centered on protestors occupying Tiananmen Square in Beijing, lasting seven weeks from mid-April to early June 1989. Until the last two weeks, the authorities did not crack down; local police acted unsure, just like French troops in February 1848; some even displayed sympathy with the demonstrators. 

The numbers of protestors surged and declined several times. Initially, students from the prestigious Beijing universities (where the Red Guards movement had been launched 20 years earlier) set up a vigil in Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of a reform-oriented Communist leader. This was China’s center of public attention, in front of the old Imperial Palace, the place for official rituals, and thus a target for impromptu counter-rituals.   Beginning with a few thousand students on April 17, the crowd fell to a few hundred by the fourth day, but revived after a skirmish with police as militants took their protest to the gate of the nearby government compound where the political elite lived. Injuries were slight and no arrests were made, but indignation over police brutality renewed the movement, which grew to 100,000-200,000 for the state funeral on day 5. Militants hijacked the ritual by kneeling on the steps of the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen Square, in the style of traditional supplicants to the emperor. The same day rioting broke out in other cities around China, including arson attacks, with casualties on both sides. Four days later (day 10) the government newspaper officially condemned the movement-- the first time it had been portrayed negatively; next day 50-100,000 Beijing students responded, breaking through police lines to reoccupy the Square. So far counter-escalation favored the protestors.

The government now switched to a policy of conciliation and negotiation. This brought a 2-weeks lull; by May 4 (day 18) most students had returned to class.  On May 13 (day 28), the remaining militants launched a new tactic: a hunger strike, initially recruiting 300; over the next 2 days it recaptured public attention, and grew to 3000 hunger strikers. Big crowds, growing to 300,000, now flocked to the Square to view and support them. The militants had another ritual weapon: the arrival on May 15 of Soviet leader Gorbachev for a state visit, then at the height of his fame as a Communist reformer. The official welcome had to be moved to the airport, but the state meeting in the ceremonial hall flanking Tiananmen was marred by the noisy demonstration outside. On May 17, as Gorbachev left, over one million Beijing residents from all social classes marched to support the hunger strikers. The militants had captured the attention center of the ceremonial gathering; the bandwagon was building to a peak. Visitors to Tiananmen were generally organized by work units, who provided transportation and sometimes even paid the marchers. A logistics structure was created to fund the food and shelter for those who occupied the Square. The organizational base of the Communist regime, at least in the capital, was tipping towards revolution. Around the country, too, there were supporting demonstrations in 400 cities. Local governments were indecisive; some Communist Party committees openly endorsed the movement; some authorities provided free transportation by train for hundred of thousands of students to travel to Beijing to join in.

The tipping point did not tip. The Communist elite met outside the city in a showdown among themselves. A collective decision was made; a few dissenters, including some army generals, were removed and arrested.  On May 19, martial law was declared. Military forces were called from distant regions, lacking ties to Beijing demonstrators. The next four days were a showdown in the streets; crowds of residents, especially workers, blocked the army convoys; soldiers rode in open trucks, unarmed-- the regime still trying to use as little force as possible, and also distrustful of giving out ammunition-- and often were overwhelmed by residents. Crowds used a mixture of persuasion and food offerings-- army logistics having broken down by the unreliability of passage through the streets-- and sometimes force, stoning and beating isolated soldiers. On May 24, the regime pulled back the troops to bases outside the city. But it did not give up. The most reliable army units were moved to the front, some tasked with watching for defections among less reliable units. In another week strong forces had been assembled in the center of Beijing.

Momentum was swinging back the other way. Student protestors in the Square increasingly divided between moderates and militants; by the time the order to clear the Square was given for June 3, the number occupying was down to 4000. There was one last surge of violence-- not in Tiananmen Square itself, although the name became so famous that most outsiders think there was a massacre there-- but in the streets as residents attempted to block the army's movement once again. Crowds fought with stones and gasoline bombs, burning army vehicles and, by some reports, the soldiers inside. In this emotional atmosphere, as both sides spread stories of the other’s atrocities,   something on the order of 50 soldiers and police were killed, and 400-800 civilians (estimates varying widely). Some soldiers took revenge for prior attacks by firing at fleeing opponents and beating those they caught. In Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, the dwindling militants were allowed to march out through the encircling troops.
International protest and domestic horror were to no avail; a sufficiently adamant and organizationally coherent regime easily imposed its superior force. Outside Beijing, protests continued for several days in other cities; hundreds more were killed. Organizational discipline was reestablished by a purge; over the following year, CCP members who had sympathized with the revolt were arrested, jailed, and sent to labor camps. Dissident workers were often executed; students got off easier, as members of the elite. Freedom of the media, which had been loosend during the reform period of 1980s, and briefly flourished during the height of the democracy protests in early May, was now replaced by strict control.  Economic reforms, although briefly questioned in the aftermath of 1989, resumed but political reforms were rescinded.  A failed tipping point revolution not only fails to meet its goals; it reinforces authoritarianism.

If the Chinese government had the power to crack down by sending out its security agents and arresting dissidents all over the country, why didn't they do so earlier, instead of waiting until Tiananmen Square was cleared?  Because this was the center of the tipping-point mechanism. As long as the rebellious assembly went on, tension existed as to which way the regime would go. If it couldn't meet this challenge, the regime would be deserted. This was in question as long as all eyes were on Tiananmen. Once attention was broken up, all those security agents could fan out around the country, picking off suspects one by one, ultimately arresting tens of thousands. That is why centralized and decentralized forms of rebellion are so different: centralized rebellions potentially very short and sudden; decentralized ones long, grinding and much more destructive. 

We like to believe that any government that uses force against its own citizens is so marred by the atrocity that it loses all legitimacy. Yet the 1990s and the early 2000s were a time of increasing Chinese prestige. The market version of communist political control became a great economic success; international economic ties expanded and exacted no penalty for the deaths in June 1989; domestically Chinese poured their energies into economic opportunities. Protest movements revived within a decade, but the regime has been quick to clamp down on them.  Even the new means of mobilization through the internet has proven to be vulnerable to a resolute authoritarian apparatus, which monitors activists to head off any possible Tiananmen-style assemblies before they start.

The failure of the Chinese democracy movement, both in 1989 and since, tells another sociological lesson. An authoritarian regime that is aware of the tipping point mechanism need not give in to it; it can keep momentum on its own side by making sure no bandwagon gets going among the opposition. Such a regime can be accused of moral violations and even atrocities, but moral condemnation without a successful mobilization is ineffective. It is when one’s movement is growing, seemingly expanding its collective consciousness to include virtually everyone and emotionally overwhelm their opponents, that righteous horror over atrocities is so arousing. Without this, protests remain sporadic, localized and ephemeral at best. The modest emotional energy of the protest movement is no rushing tide; and as this goes on for years, the emotional mood surrounding such a regime remains stable-- the most important quality of “legitimacy”. 

A Contested Tipping Point: The Egyptian Revolution

Egypt in January-February 2011, the most famous of the Arab Spring revolutions, fits most closely to the model of 1848 France. Egypt took longer to build up to the tipping point-- 18 days instead of 3; and there were more casualties in the initial phase---  400 killed and 6000 wounded (compared to 50 killed in February 1848) because there was more struggle before the tipping point was reached.  Already from day 7, troops sent to guard Tahrir Square in Cairo declared themselves neutral, and most of the protestors’ causalities came from attacks by unofficial government militias or thugs. By day 16, police who killed demonstrators were arrested, and the dictator Mubarak offered concessions, which were rejected as unacceptable. On the last day of the 18-day revolution, everyone had deserted  Mubarak and swung over to the bandwagon, including his own former base of support, the military. This continuity is one reason why the aftermath did not prove so revolutionary.

Again, honeymoon did not last long.  By day 43, women who assembled in Tahrir Square were heckled and threatened, and Muslim/Christian violence broke out in Cairo. Tahrir Square continued to be used as a symbolic rallying point, but largely as a scene of clashes between opposing camps. Structural reforms have not gone very deep. The Islamist movement elected in the popular vote relegated to a minority the secularists and liberals who had been most active in the revolution. President Morsi bears some resemblance to Louis Bonaparte, who rose to power on the reputation of an ancestral movement-- both had a record of opposition to the regime, but were ambiguous about their own democratic credentials. The analogy portends a reactionary outcome to a liberating revolution. 

Bottom line: tipping point revolutions are too superficial to make deep structural changes.  What does?

State Breakdown Revolutions

Three ingredients must come together to produce a state-breakdown revolution.

(1)  Fiscal crisis/ paralysis of state organization. The state runs out of money, is crushed by debts, or otherwise is so burdened that it cannot pay its own officials. This often happens through the expense of past wars or huge costs of current war, especially if one is losing. The crisis is deep and structural because it cannot be evaded; it is not a matter of ideology, and whoever takes over responsibility for running the government faces the same problem. When the crisis grows serious, the army, police and officials no longer can enforce order because they themselves are disaffected.

This was the route to the 1789 French Revolution; the 1640 English Revolution; the 1917 Russian Revolution; and the 1853-68 Japanese revolution (which goes under the name of the Meiji Restoration). The 1989-91 anti-Soviet revolution similarly began with struggles to reform the Soviet budget, overburdened by military costs of the Cold War arms race. 

(2) Elite deadlock between state faction and economic privilege faction. The fiscal crisis cannot be resolved because the most powerful and privileged groups are split. Those who benefit economically from the regime resist paying for it (whether these are landowners, financiers, or even a socialist military-industrial complex); reformers are those who are directly responsible for keeping the state running. The split is deep and structural, since it does not depend on ideological preferences; whoever takes command, whatever their ideas, must deal with the reality of organizational paralysis. We are not dealing here with conflict between parties in the public sphere or the legislature; such partisan squabbling is common, and it may also exist at the same time as a state crisis. Deadlock between the top elites is far more serious, because it stymies the two most powerful forces, the economic elite and the ruling officials.

(3) Mass mobilization of dissidents. This factor is last in causal order; it becomes important after state crisis and elite deadlock weaken the enforcement power of the regime. This power vacuum provides an opportunity for movements of the public to claim a solution. The ideology of the revolutionaries is often misleading; it may have nothing to do with the causes of the fiscal crisis itself (e.g. claiming the issue is one of political reform, democratic representation, or even returning to some earlier religious or traditional image of utopia). The importance of ideology is mostly tactical, as an emotion-focusing device for group action. And in fact, after taking state power, revolutionary movements often take actions  contrary to their ideology (the early Bolshevik policies on land reform, for instance; or the Japanese revolutionary shifts between anti-western antipathy and pro-western imitation). The important thing is that the revolutionary movement is radical enough to attack the fiscal (and typically military) problems, to reorganize resources so that the state itself becomes well-funded. This solves the structural crisis and ends state breakdown, enabling the state to go on with other reforms.  That is why state breakdown revolutions are able to make deep changes in institutions: in short, why they become “historic” revolutions.
Reconciling the Two Theories

Tipping point revolutions are far more common than state breakdown revolutions. The two mechanisms sometimes coincide; tipping points may occur in the sequence of a state breakdown, as the third factor, mass mobilization, comes into play. In 1789, once the fiscal crisis and elite deadlock resulted in calling the Estates General, crowd dynamics led to tipping points that are celebrated as the glory days of the French revolution. In 1917 Russia, the initial collapse of the government in February was a crowd-driven tipping point, with a series of abdications reminiscent of France in February 1848; what made this a deep structural revolution was the fiscal crisis of war debts, pressure to continue the war from the Allies who held Russian debt, and eventually a second tipping point in November in favor of the Soviets. But state breakdown revolutions can happen without these kinds of crowd-centered tipping points: the 1640 English Revolution (where fighting went on through 1648); the Chinese revolution stretching from 1911 to 1949; the Japanese revolution of 1853-68.  Conversely, tipping point revolutions often fail in the absence of state fiscal crisis and elite deadlock; an example is the 1905 Russian Revolution, which had months of widespread enthusiasm for reform during the opportunity provided by defeat in the Japanese war, but nevertheless ended with the government forcefully putting down the revolution.

A tipping point mechanism, by itself, is a version of mass mobilization which is the final ingredient of a state paralysis revolution. But mass mobilization also has a larger structural basis: resources such as transportation and communication networks that facilitate organizing social movements-- sometimes in the form of revolutionary armies-- to contend for control of the state. If such mobilization concentrates in a capital city, it may generate a tipping point situation.  But also such mobilization can take place throughout the countryside; in which case the revolution takes more the form of a civil war.
Tipping Point Revolutions and Imitative Revolutions
At times, waves of revolution spread from one state to another; the success of one igniting enthusiasm for another. It is the mass mobilization of the tipping point, the huge crowds and the widespread feeling of solidarity in the pro-revolutionary majority, that encourages imitations. We can see this because some of the famous ignition-revolutions were not very effective in making changes, but they were still imitated. One such wave was in 1848, spreading from  Switzerland and Sicily to the fragmented states of Italy, and most spectacularly to France. Soon after news propagated of events in Paris, Europe’s most famous city, crowds demanded constitutional reforms in Vienna, Berlin, and most of the German states and in the ethnic regions of the Austrian Empire. Some rulers temporarily fled or made concessions; troops mutinied; parliaments and revolutionary assemblies met. All of these were put down within a year and a half. Some were extirpated by the intervention of outside troops, as conservative rulers supported each other in regaining control. Of these revolutions, hardly any had a permanent effect.

The wave of Arab Spring revolts began with a successful tipping point revolution in Tunisia, imitated with temporary success in Egypt; but failed in Bahrain; had little effect on an ongoing civil war in Yemen; led to a full-scale military conflict in Libya that was won by the rebels only through massive outside military intervention with airpower; in Syria generated a prolonged and extremely destructive civil war sustained by outside military aid to all factions. The lesson is that if tipping point revolutions themselves are not very decisive for structural change, further attempts to imitate tipping points in other countries have even less to go on. Regimes may or may not be removed but the downstream situation does not look very different, although there may be a prolonged period of contention amounting to a failed state.

The major exception would appear to be the wave of imitative revolts from 1989-91, as the Soviet bloc fell apart. The states of eastern Europe overthrew their communist regimes one after another; some with relatively easy tipping point revolutions as in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, and bloodier battles in Romania and eventually Yugoslavia. A second round of revolts began in 1991 as the USSR disintegrated into its component ethnic states. Here was indeed a structural change, dismantling communist political forms and replacing them with versions of democracy (some continuing control by ex-communist elites), and shifting the property system to capitalism. But this series of revolutions were not mere tipping points alone; they were all effects of a deep structural crisis in the lynch-pin of the system, the Soviet empire, that underwent a state breakdown revolution. Revolts can spread by imitation; but what happens to them depends on what kinds of structural conflicts are beneath the surface.
The Continuum of Revolutionary Effects, from Superficial to Deep

If we use the term “revolution” loosely to mean any change in government which is illegal-- outside the procedures provided by the regime itself-- there are many kinds of revolutions. They range from those with no structural effects at all, through those which change the deepest economic, political, and cultural institutions.

Coup d’etat is the most superficial; there is no popular mobilization, only a small group of conspirators inside the circles of power, or in the military, who replace one ruler with another. Often there is not even the pretence of structural change or appeal to the popular will.

Tipping point revolutions are more ambitious; emotional crowds who are at the center of the mechanism for transferring power are enthusiastic for grand if often vague ideological slogans. But such revolts often fail, if the government is not itself paralysed by a structural crisis. When tipping points succeed, the new regime often has only ephemeral support, and may peter out in internal quarrels, civil war, or reactionary restoration.

State breakdown revolutions have a less ephemeral quality. The state cannot come back into equilibrium until its own organizational problem is solved; and since this means its fiscal, military, and administrative basis, reforms must go deep into the main power-holding institutions. Whether or not the same ideological brand of revolutionaries continues in office, these structural changes lay down a new order that tends to persist-- at least until another deep crisis comes along.
Today: the Era of Tipping Point Revolutions

After the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire, there have been many repetitions of tipping point revolutions (Ukraine 2004, Georgia 2003, Kyrgyzstan 2005, Serbia 2000) mixed with personal power-grabs that are little more than coups masked as popular revolutions. The Arab Spring revolts have relied heavily on the tipping point mechanism. Where the government has had a strong faction of popular support, tipping point attempts have brought no easy transition; the result has been full-scale civil war (Syria), or defeat of the revolutionary mobilization by a mass counter-mobilization (the Green uprising in Iran 2009). The popularity of tipping-point revolts, as in the anti-Islamist uprisings in Turkey and Egypt, appear to have all the weaknesses of their genre.


Cambridge Modern History, Vols. 4 and 11.  1907-1909.

Collins, Randall. 1999. “Maturation of the State-Centered Theory of Revolution and Ideology;” “The Geopolitical Basis of Revolution: the Prediction of the Soviet Collapse.” chapters 1 and 2 in  Macro-History: Essays in Sociology of the Long Run. Stanford Univ. Press.

Collins, Randall. 2012.  “Time-Bubbles of Nationalism.”  Nations and Nationalism  18: 383-397.

Goldstone, Jack. 1991. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Univ. of California Press.

Harris, Kevan. 2012. “The brokered exuberance of the middle class: an ethnographic analysis of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement.” Mobilization 17: 435-455.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1987 [1852]. Recollections of the French Revolution of 1848. Transaction Publishers.

Weyland, Kurt. 2009. “The diffusion of revolution: ‘1848’ in Europe and Latin America.” International Organization 63: 391-423.

Zhao, Dingxin. 2001.  The Power of Tiananmen. University of Chicago Press.


The Mona Lisa is considered the world’s most famous painting, chiefly because of its mysterious smile.  What is so mysterious about it? Art critics have projected all sorts of interpretations onto it, and these are endless. There is a more objective way to analyze the Mona Lisa smile, using the social psychology (or micro-sociology) of facial expressions.
As the psychologist Paul Ekman has found, analyzing emotions in photos all over the world, emotions are shown on three zones of the face: the mouth and lower face; the eyes; and the forehead. Our folk knowledge about emotions concerns only the mouth: the smiley face with lips curled up, the frowning face with lips turned down. These intuitions  also make possible fake expressions. The mouth is the easiest part of the face to control. You can easily turn up the corners of your mouth, and this is what we do on social occasions where the expected thing is happiness or geniality. Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart,  calls this emotion work. In the contemporary fashion of political campaigning, politicians are required to be professional producers of fake smiles.

The muscles around the eyes and eyelids are much more difficult to control, and along with the forehead these are usually outside one’s conscious awareness. So a fake smile—or any other fake emotional expression—is easy for viewers to catch, because we are unconsciously attuned to the entire emotional signal all over the face. One reason we like photos of small children is that they haven’t yet learned how to fake emotional expressions.

If we examine the Mona Lisa face, zone by zone, the reason for its mysteriousness becomes clear: there are different emotions expressed in different facial zones.

Her mouth, as everyone has noticed, has a slight smile.
Her eyes are a little sad.
Her forehead is blank and unexpressive.

We will see further peculiarities as we examine each in detail.

Mouth and lower face.  Smiles come in different degrees. As Ekman shows, stronger smiles—stronger happiness—pull the corners of the mouth further back (from the front of the face). Corners of the mouth may tilt up but they don’t have to; very strong smiles, which pull the mouth open and expose the teeth, often have the line of the upper lip more or less horizontal. What makes the smiley mouth is more the rounded-bow shape of the lower lip, and especially the wrinkle (naso-labial fold) that runs from the corners of the nose diagonally down to the beyond the corners of the lips. In very strong smiles, these triangle-looking folds become deeper, and are matched by a flipped-over triangle of skin folds from the chin to the outer corners of the lips, giving the lower face a diamond-shaped look.

Compare the Mona Lisa. This is a pretty pallid smile. Yes, she does turn up the lip corners a bit, but this is more of a conventional sign than what we see in a real smile. More importantly, there are no naso-labial folds running downward from her nose, nor any mirroring triangle up from the chin. Real smiles raise the cheeks (as we will see in a moment, this affects the eyes in a smile), but Mona Lisa hardly has any cheek features at all.

Eyes and eyelids.  Smiles, especially stronger smiles, make wrinkles below the eyes, more or less horizontal, slightly curved across the bottom of the eye socket (deeper wrinkles the more the cheeks are raised). This has the effect of narrowing the slit of the eyes, as the lower eyelid is raised.  This is a tell-tale detail, since narrowing eyes can also happen in other emotions; in happiness, the lower eyelid may be puffed-out looking but not tense. (By contrast, angry eyes have very hard-clenched muscles around them; fearful eyes are wide-open and staring; sad eyes we are coming to).  For the happy face, all these muscle movements cause crows-feet wrinkles to spread out from the corners of the eyes.


Mona Lisa’s eyes? The lower lids do look a little puffy, but there are no wrinkles below them; her cheeks if anything are flaccid. And no crows-feet.

Sad eyes.  Sad eyes are passive. The lower eyelid is weak, and there is no horizontal wrinkle below it, since the cheek is not pushing up. Whereas in a smile the upper eyelid is open, so the eyes brightly look out, the sad upper eyelid droops a bit. Even more noticeable is the brow, which tends to collapse and sag downwards; this makes the skin of the upper eye socket droop almost like a veil slanting over the outer corner of the eyes. This is particularly noticeable in the picture of the Middle-Eastern woman below right; next to it is a photo of a woman at her lover’s funeral. The photo on upper left is a composite, with sad eyes at the top, and neutral lower face.


Mona Lisa’s eyes. They are not brightly exposed and wide-open as in the happiness photos above, where the upper eye-lid is generally narrow as can be. Mona Lisa’s upper eyelids are partly closed, so are her lower lids; and the skin at the outer edges of her eye sockets droops a bit.  These are sad eyes, although only mildly so.

Mona Lisa is a combination of sad eyes and a slight smile, but the way she is painted makes her even more mysterious. As already noted, she lacks the naso-labial folds and chin folds characteristics of happy smiles.  Leonardo da Vinci did very little with the cheeks, but concentrated a great deal on the corners of the lips and eyes. This was his famous sfumato technique—a smoky look producing deliberate ambiguity. This also has the effect of obscuring just the places where important clues to genuine smiles are found; there are no crows-feet around her eyes, but then there are no expressive wrinkles in this painted skin anywhere.

Was this the actual expression Lisa Gherardini, La Gioconda, had on her face when Leonardo painted her? Probably not.  Leonardo worked over all his paintings a long time; the Mona Lisa took him four years, and was still unfinished in his estimation. He kept experimenting with the portrait, quite likely upon just these features. The idea that Leonardo was trying to portray a specially mysterious lady was a favorite with romanticist 19th century art critics, as was the very unlikely idea that he was having an affair with her (he was apparently a homosexual, once charged with sodomy, and was never known to have a relationship with a woman).  He was an artist in an era when artists were rivals over the super-star status of their time, and technical innovations made for fame. What we are viewing is less a real emotional expression at a moment in time, as a virtuouso experiment at the frontier of what could be pictured.

No eyebrows. Another reason the Mona Lisa seems strange to us is that she has no eyebrows. For many emotions, the brows are important points of expression; as we have seen, somewhat subtly in sadness; in happiness, mainly by contrast with other emotions—unmoved eyebrows are generally part of the happy face, unless it is really over the top:

For anger, the position of the eyebrows is the strongest clue—the vertical lines between them as the facial muscles clench make even a stripped-bare cartoon emblem of anger.

So eyebrow-less Mona Lisa gives us less clues than usual to emotions; all we see are the bare ridges of her upper eye sockets through the haze of Leonardo’s sfumato, making even the sad expression less clear to us. There was nothing intentional about this; in the late 15th century shaved eyebrows were a fashion for European ladies, as we see from the Fouquet madonna (painted 1452) and the Piero della Francesca portrait (1465; the Mona Lisa was painted 1503-6).


This may be one reason why the Mona Lisa was not particularly well known in its day, nor was it considered mysterious, nor was there much comment on her smile. Leonardo da Vinci was famous but less so than his contemporaries Michelangelo and Raphael, and his most celebrated painting was The Last Supper. The Mona Lisa was a minor work until the 1850s-60s in France, and the 1870s in England, when it became the object of gushy writings by ultra-aesthete art critics, led by Théophile Gautier and Walter Pater. (The history of how this happened is told by Donald Sassoon, 2001.) Mona Lisa and her smile became mysterious, in fact the mysterious Feminine, an Eternal Spirit with all the Capital Letters. And not just the benevolent Earth Mother but a Cleopatra-Jezebel-Salomé temptress. This sounds like fantasies of mid-Victorian males—perhaps understandable in an era when women wore bustles and men hardly ever saw much more than their faces. As Sassoon notes, women were always much less taken with Mona Lisa than were men.


Is there any truth in the interpretation, that Mona Lisa was a subtly flirtatious sexpot?  Again we can call on some objective evidence, how erotic emotion is expressed on the face.

Sexual turn-on, at least for female faces, has a standard look (as can be seen by thousands of examples on the web): eyes closed or nearly so, mouth fallen open. The woman’s face is otherwise slack, no fold lines like other emotions; it may be happiness but the expressions are quite distinct.

Marilyn Monroe made the eyes-half-closed expression virtually her trademark.  The sex idol of a less explicit era than today was also a great actress in her line.

Mona Lisa? If there is any sex in her face, only a repressed Victorian could see it.

So this is micro-sociology?  The purpose of micro-sociology is not to be an art critic. I only make the venture because so many popular interpretations of the Mona Lisa blunder into social psychology.  But reading the expressions on photos is good training for other pursuits. Paul Ekman holds that knowledge of the facial and bodily expressions of emotions is a practical skill in everyday life, giving some applications in his book Telling Lies. And it is not just a matter of looking for deceptions. We would be better at dealing with other people if we paid more attention to reading their emotional expressions—not to call them on it, but so that we can see better what they are feeling. Persons in abusive relationships—especially the abuser—could use training in recognizing how their own emotional expressions are affecting their victims; and greater such sensitivity could head off violent escalations.

Facial expressions, like all emotions, are not just individual psychology but micro-sociology, because these are signs people send to each other. The age we live in, when images from real-life situations are readily available in photos and videos, has opened a new research tool. I have used it (in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory) to show that at the moment of face-to-face violence, expressions of anger on the part of the attacker turn into tension and fear; and this discovery leads to a new theory of what makes violence happen, or not.  On the positive side, micro-interactions that build mutual attunement among persons’ emotions are the key to group solidarity, and their lack is what produces indifference or antipathy. And we can read the emotions—a lot more plainly than the smile on Mona Lisa’s face.


Ekman, Paul. 1992. Telling Lies. Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage. NY: Norton.

Ekman, Paul, and Wallace V. Friesen, 1984.  Unmasking the Face. Prentice-Hall.

Hochschild, Arlie. 1983.  The Managed Heart. University of California Press.

Sassoon, Donald. 2001.  Mona Lisa. The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting.  London: Harper-Collins.


In discussing politics and writing history, we typically explain what people do by their interests. But interests are often in dispute; people are accused of doing things that aren’t in their own interests and failing to recognize their best interests-- when they vote, go to war or not, follow a particular economic policy, etc. “Interests” are the rhetoric of modern politics, not an accurate predictor of how people rise into action.

Of course there are other motives besides material interests: power, honor, prestige, sympathy, religious or ideological values. But even if we put these aside, and confine ourselves to material interests--- people seeking money, property, and the luxuries and necessities of life-- interests still do not predict very well what people will actually do in a specific circumstance. There are two main reasons: (a) interests are generally ambiguous; and (b) interests do not determine the tactics people will use to reach them.

If interests aren’t a good predictor, does this mean the political and social struggles of history are inexplicable, a chaotic fumbling in the dark? Not necessarily; a better theory is the success or failure of interaction rituals (IRs) in motivating collective action. As I argued in Interaction Ritual Chains (Collins 2004), IRs that focus group attention and generate high levels of shared emotion create emotional energy (EE)-- confidence and enthusiasm towards symbolically-defined goals. These shape the cognitive component of action-- how people define their goals; who are their fellows and opponents in seeking them; and what tactics seem appropriate. I am not arguing for a dichotomy between material interests on one side, and “irrational” or “emotional” forces on the other; I am pointing out that material interests by themselves are too vague to determine specific courses of action in most situations. Even the most hard-nosed material interest becomes a motive for action only when a successful IR focuses attention on it, making it a conscious goal with enthusiastic energy mobilized towards attaining it. Strong commitment to material interests does exist, but it has to be socially created, through interaction rituals.


Take for example the interests of the working class. Presumably these are better wages, better job conditions and job security. But who does one share these interests with? Possibilities include (a) class-wide organization of all workers; (b) a particular occupational sector, such as all skilled crafts, or just one particular profession seeking monopolistic licensing; (c) a local organization of workers in a particular place or business. Within each of these choices there are further sub-choices. Taking (a) again, what does the class-wide organization do: aim for massive strikes? for political influence to bring government intervention? for socialist ownership of production? All of these, in the abstract, can be said to be in workers’ interest; but the interest doesn’t determine which one to seek. Any program that claims to be in someone’s interest is a theory, better yet an ideology, that tries to persuade people this is the best way to attain their interests.

Ideology and organization thus become a crucial part of interests. Ideologies try to argue that this ( _______ fill in the blank) is the only way to truly secure your interest; but that is not true. The (a-b-c) list above is ordered roughly from the most inclusive to the least inclusive coalition, and the argument tends to be that bigger is stronger and will deliver more goods. But it is also in someone’s interest to descend even further on the continuum and pursue advantage for a small group of friends or kin, or just for oneself. We get the best-paying jobs and others don’t; I get the promotion and too bad for you. Ideologists trying to organize as a larger group condemn this as unethical, and organizers often claim that everyone will do better if they all stick together, even the token favorites; but that depends on other conditions-- the argument that going your own way is not in your interest is an iffy one. Enthusiasm for joining a larger organization does not typically come by rational calculation; strong unions don’t just try to persuade individualists that it is in their interest to join the union-- they establish coercive rules (if possible enforced by state regulation) to make individualists join. One reason white collar workers are hard to unionize is that they tend to think their careers have a chance of moving upward into management; they lack class solidarity because they regard their situation as temporary. I am not making an argument here for or against unions or individualists, but pointing out that it is not simply a matter of material interests. If everyone pursues what they think is their own best interest, all sorts of organization (or lack of organization) are possible.

Even with a union organization, a segment can pursue their interest over other members. Seniority rules protect older workers’ jobs while younger workers are laid off. Another variant is an ethnic/racial group that monopolizes jobs for themselves. This can be condemned as immoral, but it is certainly not against the interests of the ethnic group that can get such privilege. The argument for inter-racial solidarity has to be made by moralistic rhetoric, not by simple appeal to interests. A similar logic applies to racial tokens; a black man taking a position as a conservative Supreme Court justice, for instance, might be accused of selling out his people, but there is nothing irrational about it from the point of view of his interest. Similarly with gender. Feminists demanding equal access and equal pay in all jobs would seem to be in every woman’s interest; but there is nothing irrational about an individual woman who decides that her best career path is to marry a wealthy man, especially if she has the opportunity and the personal qualities to do well on the marriage market. This is not to say that a rich lady could not join a feminist movement (and in fact this is how the movement originated in England); but that comes from other conditions than their own material interests. Arguments for the widely inclusive, high-solidarity path cannot sway individual motivations just by appeal to interests.

The same problem of compatriots arises in every interest, in every economic class and sector. When declaring something is in your interest, who is included in the “you”? It cannot simply be decided by an abstraction: choose the course of action that has highest probability of benefits vs. costs. In real life, not only do you rarely know those probabilities, but the deciding conditions are much more in the tactics than in the goal.


The wider the scope of the organization, the more it can appeal to long-term interests. The party claiming to represent all workers is most likely to push a long-term solution to their interests, such as socialism. The trouble is, the more long-term the solution, the less certain that it will actually come about; if the event is a long way in the future, the present generation of members is not pursuing their own interests at all, but an altruistic dedication to someone else’s interests. The key to long-term commitments, then, cannot be strictly in the realm of interests, but must depend upon social mechanisms of moral commitment.

It has been a trope of moralizing ever since the ancient Greek philosophers that very short-term gains can be foolish diversions from your own interests, even in the not-so-distant future. True enough, but how far into the future is it rational to calculate? If you never enjoy anything in the short run, you will never enjoy it in the long run, since every moment of time arrives as another short run. Weber’s concept of the Protestant Ethic and similar theories of economic motivation solve this problem not by rationally calculated interests, but by religious and other emotional dispositions to work, invest, or consume. It is sometimes assumed that very short-run attraction to material benefits is due to being irrationally overcome by emotion; but one can argue just the opposite, that long-term self-discipline is also due to emotional forces. What I want to emphasize are two points: that viewing one’s interests in short, medium, or long-term perspective is an extrinsic condition, not contained in the interests themselves; and which time-frame persons happen to focus upon comes from outside themselves, from the social groups in which they experience emotional rituals.


Once an economic or political interest group has gotten organized, that is still not the end of it. Take the example of a working-class movement; or an ethnic/racial movement; or a gender movement. This history of modern politics, ever since parties came on the scene in the 19th and 20th centuries, has been made up of parties that defined themselves as representing a particular interest; but over time all parties twisted or split along lines of what tactics to use. Liberal/left parties have had the choice of being reformist, seeking small incremental changes where they could get them; radical and militant, using strong rhetoric, demanding big changes, and (another variant) using demonstrations, strikes, and disruptions instead of (or along with) electoral politics and courts; or revolutionary, seeking overthrow of government and property by violent means. This is a continuum, and factions could take up positions nearer or farther from the different main points (left and right wings of socialist parties, or of anti-clerical/anti-monarchist republicans, etc).

The key point is that the major splits and controversies of party politics happen along tactical lines within groups espousing similar interests. This is especially true of organizations identifying themselves as workers’ movements. In early 20th century Germany and most other European states, the labor party split into a parliamentary, gradualist wing, and a militant wing; a series of such leftist splits generated the Spartacists (whose uprising failed at the end of WWI), and the Communists. On the centrist side, liberal or Catholic parties from outside the working class might join the gradualist wing, supporting workers’ interests out of charitable motives or a concern for social peace. On the revolutionary side, another tactical split was between socialists or communists who aimed to change the property system through control of the state; and anarchists who aimed for the same thing but by avoiding the state entirely-- regarding parliamentary politics as a fraud that always worked against themselves, and the state as an instrument that would introduce new forms of inequality. The anarchists were mostly right on both counts, but their own tactics-- such as in Spain their violent seizures of local property, assassinations, and destruction of churches as their hated symbolic enemy-- were too uncoordinated to produce victory, and chiefly stirred up resentment. Although in the abstract it might seem workers’ interests would be stronger if held together in one organization, which organization this should be could not be agreed upon. Political organizations became passionately committed to their particular tactics, and often their most bitterly fought enemy was their former compatriots who split over just such tactical issues.

The terms Left and Right, since the time of the French Revolution, have generally been used to refer to the degree of militancy in tactics. But the usage is confusing-- Left/Right could also designate lower vs. upper classes; or it could mean change-oriented versus stability-oriented. None of these usages yield a clear and uncontradictory picture; revolutionary militancy could appear on the Right, with the Fascists, especially if the liberals or the Left held political power. The contradiction comes from assuming there is a perfect line-up between a social class, its interest both in economic matters and in stability, and its tactics. This is empirically wrong, and tactics almost always swamp the neater identities as classes and interests. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist falling into Left/Right terminology, and this is all right in particular historical contexts, provided we think through just what we are talking about.

Besides splits along the continuum of reformist-vs.-revolutionary, there is what might be called a meta-split between opportunists and principled ideologists. This is not merely the same thing as reformists (who are willing to make deals with parliamentary opponents to attain some of their interests) in contrast to more militant or revolutionary groups. Principled ideologists can occur at any point in the political spectrum. The Tea Party movement in the US since 2010 is an instance of a conservative single-issue movement, that refuses to make deals and regards consistent defense of their principle as the cardinal virtue. But unyielding ideologists vs. opportunists are found on the revolutionary left as well. The success of the Russian Bolsheviks in autumn 1917 came from willingness to appeal to peasants in overthrowing the government by endorsing their seizure of farmland; since the peasants were taking land as individual private property, the Bolsheviks were going against their own principle of collective organization of agriculture, although eventually once they got secure power they went back on their promise. The Bolshevik slogan “Bread! Land! Peace!” also was opportunistic about ending the war; this was a temporary expedient to stop the futile fighting against the victorious German army, but almost immediately the Bolsheviks resumed fighting in a 3-year civil war that lasted until 1920. The analytical lesson here is not that the Bolsheviks were especially perfidious bad guys. They were part of a spectrum of liberal and left groups that had been struggling against the Czarist regime for almost a century; broadening our perspective, they were part of a European family of squabbling reform-minded parties. The Russians were very familiar with the different options. Instead of regarding the Bolsheviks as genetically imprinted from the outset, we should regard them as the movement that happened to fill the opportunistic niche as it emerged at a particular moment. The Bolsheviks were not opportunists of the parliamentary type (like the Social Democrats in Germany of the 1890s, or later the Mensheviks in Russia); they were opportunists among revolutionists.


Opportunism has a bad name, but it is generally the most successful tactic, especially if it is employed by a militant, violence-wielding organization. The Bolsheviks triumphed in Russia because they opportunistically sought state power; their tactical line was to do anything that strengthened the cohesion of their own party and the strength of the state. Hence the creation of the Red Army, the security commissars, and all the other means of organizational discipline. This could be justified theoretically in terms of interests-- the strong state will get us to the workers’ interest-- but so could all the other tactics chosen by rival left movements. Russian-style Communists thus became the organizational identity embodying the left-opportunistic style. Their opportunism was a great advantage in struggles with other left organizations. During the Spanish civil war of 1936-39, the Anarchists’ scatter-gun tactics and extreme consistency of revolutionary ideals made them unpopular with most other members of the anti-Fascist coalition; the Spanish Communists burgeoned because they advocated social order and group discipline, and could opportunistically declare the defense of private property during the emergency of the civil war, thereby gaining allies both in the Republican middle class and in the army. A similar opportunistic line was taken by Mao’s Chinese Communist Party as it fought a guerrilla war in the countryside in the 1930s and 40s; theoretically they favored the landless peasants, but they were willing to make deals and protect the rich peasants if they needed them in a particular circumstance.

Of course, the Communists were lying when they publicly took one of these opportunistic stances, ostensibly against their socialist aims. They knew that their line was only temporary and tactical, and that they would go back on it when the opportunity came to push through full communism. Here we need to explain why there are different types of opportunists. Why didn’t the Communists become like the German Social Democrats or the British Labour Party, wedded to the parliamentary route and gradually becoming indistinguishable from a non-revolutionary party working inside the framework of capitalism? The Communists maintained more long-term consistency, even throughout their tactical opportunism, because they had a dual inner/outer structure not found in other leftist parties: a core of dedicated, career-professional revolutionaries organized in a hierarchy of small groups, holding secret meetings where they encouraged and criticized each other, renewing their commitment not only to doctrine but to discipline as a group. Philip Selznick (1949) called this The Organizational Weapon. What made the Communists strong was a conscious recognition that their organization was the key to victory, and that their ideological line was secondary.

These Communist cells, meeting frequently (often weekly or more) were also a discovery of political Interaction Rituals, carried out at the small-group level. They were successful IRs from all ingredients: the secret meetings excluding outsiders and keeping up a strong focus of attention; the shared emotions of revolutionary danger, of secrecy itself, and the immediate emotions of mutual criticism issuing in solidarity on their public line at the end of the meeting. This inner cadre organization had been created to fend off police agents, but it unexpectedly enabled the Communists to be successfully opportunistic. Where a parliamentary workers’ party might stray from their original interests by befriending bourgeois politicians and enjoying the perquisites of office (what Robert Michels charged against the German socialist SPD in his 1911 Political Parties), Communists did not pal around with their erstwhile allies, at least not on the backstage. The Communists had a superior backstage that generated much more emotional energy, along with more solidarity and more commitment to their sacred objects and beliefs. But this was a sophisticated, two-level belief: what we are really doing, and what we are pretending to do temporarily for practical reasons, and this sophistication was built into their organization. The Communists dominated in so many places because they consistently took the opportunistic niche in revolutionary political space; because they developed an organizational structure that supported this; and because they harnessed IRs not just at the level of mass public meetings, but in backstage small groups to keep up revolutionary dedication.

Opportunism vs. principled consistency is a fundamental, but generally unrecognized, dimension of politics. The opportunists usually win, in any part of the political spectrum, whether the deal-making center or the militant wings. (When opportunists lose we will consider later.) This dimension operates on the militant Right as well. The Nazis differed from other right-wing movements in Germany of the 1920s, not because their interests and ideologies were different-- there were nearly 100 movements calling for social order, invoking the solidarity of the Nation and the People, and spewing anti-Semitism. The Nazis gradually outcompeted the other movements, recruiting better and eventually absorbing the others, because they were opportunists of the violent revolutionary wing. The Nazis were not the type of opportunists fostered by parliamentary participation; the core of their organization were their street-fighters. As Stefan Klusemann shows, Nazis were innovators in political IRs, not only in their pageantry of uniforms and swastika-symbols and Heil Hitler! greeting rituals, but the tactic of using violence as a ritual, marching into workers’ neighbourhoods and taverns and provoking fights that they were better organized to win. Thus both Bolsheviks and Nazis were IR-innovators, although of different kinds.

Nazi ideology reflected their preferred tactics, “Action!” rather than decadent parliamentary discussion that never led anywhere. But once they dominated their rival Right-wing street-demonstration movements, around 1930, the Nazis violated a cardinal principle of their own ideology by running candidates for parliament. This shift in tactics provoked a split between the SA (street-fighters) and Hitler’s more political followers, and eventually led to the bloody purge of the former. But Hitler’s opportunism enabled Nazis to become a dominant faction in the despised parliament, enabling him to become chancellor and then to dissolve parliamentary government from above. The most important Rightist revolutionary movement, whose primary tactic and explicit ideology extolled violence, nevertheless took office legally through electoral process. This was also true for Italian Fascists, whose showily dramatic march on Rome in 1922 paid off with the King appointing Mussolini prime minister (just as German President Hindenburg appointed Hitler). On Right as well as Left, opportunism pays off more than intransigent ideologies.


So far I have argued that interests are too ambiguous as to compatriots and time-frames to guide action; and the spectrum of tactics is not determined by interests but is the main source of organizational splits and loyalties in the political arena. Here I add a third reason interests are poor predictors: whatever happens in a conflict is the resultant of all the different forces in play. A socialist or revolutionist line will not reach its aim if anti-revolutionary and capitalist forces are too strong. But neither will a reformist, parliamentary deal-making tactic necessarily yield much; with sufficiently strong political opponents on the right, and disillusionment from its own militant wing provoking splits on the left, reformists may simply become ineffectual or personally corrupt. Not only cannot the payoffs be predicted from the interests; nor can they be predicted from their choice of tactics alone-- it is always the tactics of each group as they stack up against each other.

And there are many other contingencies that affect which interest group will take power: economic crises; wars won or lost; religious, ethnic and other cultural controversies. Timing of a crisis is especially important. If a party is strong enough to be in office (possibly as part of a coalition) when disaster happens, it will get the blame for it. All over the world, elected parties in office at the outbreak of the 1929 depression were punished by being voted out, whether they happened to be right or left. The Russian government in spring 1917 that decided to continue a losing war thereby set themselves up for takeover, even though Kerensky himself was ideologically socialist. The best crack at revolutionary or deeply transformative power is to be a strong second, outside of office at the moment when confidence in government breaks down through a major crisis; the worst position is to be in charge during war defeat or economic collapse. On a milder scale, this is the problem of the Obama administration, which inherited an economic crisis peaking just after the 2008 election.

Electoral politics is a blunt instrument when it comes to making major policy changes. Voters essentially have a yes/no choice; either you take the incumbent government as a whole and keep it in office; or you throw them out. The non-controlling party (or parties) always tries to argue that the crisis (economy, war, social unrest, etc.) can be solved by their own ideology; this may or may not be true (and given multiple causality, can hardly be a very reliable predictor); so it may often be irrational for voters to get rid of the incumbents, since the policy of who will replace them could be even worse. This appears to be the case with the American national election of 2012. But the extent to which people vote by the “misery index,” indicates they are making a binary choice; they know what they don’t like, but they cannot articulate what they really want and how to get it. The structure of an election as an Interaction Ritual focuses attention on the binary, the ins vs. the outs; the more emotional the mobilization for the election, the more people brainwash themselves into believing that flipping the binary will make all the difference.

Another reason why interests do not predict outcomes is that politics often goes through enormous swings on rebounds. The all-out effort of one side to put their program into action can result in a massive conflict; a revolutionary’s best efforts can lead to a victory for the authoritarian right; this was a result of the anarchist mobilization in Spain in the early and mid-1930s. But also Fascists’ program of conquest provoked enough counter-mobilization in the world to destroy and delegitimate fascism both in Europe and Japan. Whatever your interests, no political pathway will predictably get you there.

Having an interest and a tactic doesn’t mean you will get it; virtually no one gets what they aim for. Conversely, almost anything you do can be construed as against your interest, on some theory in hindsight about what would have been the correct thing to do. Hindsight has among its advantages over real life that it is never experienced through the same emotions that prevailed at the time when the future was still unknown. History-writing in this mode is a retrospective game of blame or praise played by fantasy advisors outside the action. It is the chief fault of writing by journalists.

Who benefited from some particular policy does not show why it happened. Wars often cost much more than the victor gets out of them. Capitalists might think that a war is needed to protect property, or gain markets and materials, or just as a matter or patriotism or zenophobia; these become causal forces, not because they are true, but because of the fervor with which they are believed. Bad reasons are just as good explanations of what happens as good reasons (if we restrict that to mean economic calculation). In either case, the reasons people consciously give for whatever they do become powerful motives only to the extent that reasons are formulated in IRs, and thereby are pumped up with confidence, commitment, and belief.


Does the argument apply only against the left? Workers’ interests, tactics and calculations may be ambiguous but capitalists might be better at it. After all, Weber describes modern capitalism as the omni-calculation of all factors of production. But it is dubious that this applies to capitalists as political actors. As Michael Mann shows, whether a national economic policy succeeds or not depends on timing and what other economic powers in the world are doing. Interest-oriented policies only fit particular situations, and capitalists on the whole are not much better than workers at choosing policies that will pay off. Capitalist monetary policy during the Great Depression shows that capitalists do not necessarily have a clear idea of their own interests downstream; capitalism was rescued by liberal policies that capitalists resisted at the moment. One might assume that capitalists (or at least their economic advisors) become shrewder over time, but events since 2000 hardly bear that out. Empirically, the case for capitalists being more rationally calculating in political matters is far from proven; theoretically, all the generic problems apply as to time-frames, political tactics, and multiple forces bearing on outcomes.

To be clear: my argument is not about whether political people talk about interests-- they often do, although sometimes they also talk in idealized rhetoric. They may even believe what they say about their interests, and for that matter what they say about their ideals. Sincerity is not an important question in politics, because sincere belief is a social product: successful IRs make people into sincere believers. People become insincere and manipulative mainly when they go through a range of different IRs, switching from one camp to another; or in the case of the Communist back-stage organization, when they use one strong IR to anchor their beliefs against another more public IR which is not as emotionally intense. This leaves room for the cosmopolitan opportunist, who believes in nothing because s/he superficially surveys all factions but belongs emotionally to none. But such persons are rare in politics, probably because strong EE, which is so impressive in leading other political actors, comes from being deep into emotional IRs; pure manipulators are uncharismatic and off-putting. Yes, Hitler was manipulative; but he lived at the center of very strong IRs, and Nazi ceremonial made him a true extremist for Nazi ideals. In the end, he was so pumped up with self-confidence (EE) that he destroyed his regime by taking on overwhelming geopolitical odds. At any point in time, we can predict the lineup of persons with varying degrees of commitment to ideas and ideals, by looking at the degree of success or failure of the IRs they experience.

IR theory is an explanation of what people will think, as well as what they will do. At any particular moment, people are speaking certain words or thinking certain thoughts; the thoughts that go through one’s head are internalized from previous talk with other people; more innovative thoughts are assembled out of the ingredients of verbal ideas already internalized. The world is a network of conversations, and what people think at any point in it is a product of what has circulated in previous conversations. There is a crucial emotional component: ideas are better remembered, and make more sense, if they were associated with emotion when they were previously talked about. Thus even in spontaneous private thinking, it is those emotionally-laden ideas that spring to one’s mind. When persons strategise, or vent, or otherwise try to express their aims in words, these are the words that arise in one’s head, and on one’s tongue.

Put more fully: the world is a network of conversations that have different degrees of success or failure as IRs. Successful IRs are those in which the assembled group attains a high degree of mutual focus of attention, sharing a common emotion, and experiencing Durkheimian collective effervescence. Successful IRs in political life can be speeches and rallies, if they generate enough emotional high for everyone; especially dramatic are riots and atrocities; for some professional politicians, the most important IRs are their private consultations with other political devotées. What kind of IR it is will have an effect on what kind of political commitment it creates; the mentality of the street-fighter, the parliamentarian, and the campaign planner differ because of the contents of the IRs that are most successful for them. The important contrast is with IRs that fail, or are merely mediocre; rallies can be unenthusiastic, parliamentary sessions can be droningly routine or boringly gridlocked; riots and wars can end in dispersion as well as in solidarity. In political life as in everything else, each person gravitates towards the emotionally successful IRs and pumped up with their way of thinking; and we move away from the IRs that don’t work, and have little attraction to thinking in their symbols.

I have argued that material interests are ambiguous as to compatriots, time-frames, tactics, and estimates of success. But in the flow of real life, people who take part in political action-- going to public meetings, talking with their acquaintances, engaging in backstage planning, joining rallies, riots, wars, etc.-- become part of a discourse that defines what interests we think we are furthering, and who are in it with us. It is not the interests that holds us together, but our shared talk about interests: it is these symbol-formulated-interests that carry the Durkheimian solidarity of membership. For that reason, people in a political interest group can become committed to material interests in a moralistic way. (At one time in my life, I contributed regularly to an organization dedicated to lowering utility bills; eventually I realized that I was putting more money into the organization than I could possibly get out of it. That is typical of supporters of many, perhaps most, material interest groups. No researcher has yet shown empirically that most contributors to political campaigns-- including the candidates themselves-- make a profit on what they contributed. Some do; most don’t; we need a more refined theory of conditions.)

The same mechanism of success or failure of IRs determines whether people think of their interests in a short, medium, or long time-frame; on the whole, they need stronger IRs to sustain belief in long-term interests. Thus the more “fanatical” movements have the strongest IRs, including the greatest barrier to outsiders, to prevent contaminating their members’ attention. And the IR mechanism chooses which tactics people become committed to, and which tactics they reject. Tactics become a focus of attention, and often the most heated topic of conversation. Most political factions do not differ among themselves so much in what they are aiming for, as in their tactics for how to get it; and it is around these tactical issues that the most vehement splits have taken place. A political group’s favorite tactic becomes the basis of their identity; their opponents’ favorite tactic becomes the symbolic dividing line which emotionally frames their worst enemy.

A good example is the “struggle meeting” developed by Chinese Communists in their guerrilla strongholds of the 1930s. In a struggle meeting, the poor peasants of a village criticized the rich peasants and put pressure on them to mend their ways. Presence of armed communists gave the oppressed peasants confidence; but the meeting was not just an angry outburst or a lynch mob-- as in traditional uprisings-- because it was institutionalized, i.e. repetitive and official. The communists restrained the poor from killing their class enemies, and instead encouraged them to apply continuous group pressure, to make their change their views. This became the prototype of “thought reform” tactics-- really an application of small group psychology, in a deliberately manipulative mode-- that were used through the 1960s Red Guards movement, no longer purging class enemies but communist administrators themselves. Like the Russian Bolsheviks (and in a different way the Nazis), the Chinese Communists were both distinctive and successful because of their innovations in micro-sociology of group discipline. And it was these innovations that made them appear so sinister to their enemies.

Interests do not become conscious motives until they are socially defined. There is no basic instinct of private property, or of collective property, or gift-giving, or plunder; all these have been practices, in many variants, in different societies since human origins. People have to be taught to be capitalists, or union members, or reformers or revolutionists (or for that matter gang members), and the way they are “taught” is not so much by admonition as by their own experiences in IRs that give them emotional energy in talking about and performing these practices.

True, some material interests are easier to focus upon than others. If you already have a routine material practice, having it disrupted makes you pay attention, and that will generate a protest or a counter-attack if other persons gather with you to focus on the same grievance. Negative interests are easier to see clearly and easier to mobilize around than positive interests. Workers who are fired, or peasants who have their rents raised, can more easily see their interests than workers pondering what might they do in the future to give them higher incomes. Hence reactive movements-- responses to economic downturns, threats to property from the state or other political movements-- are easier to mobilize, and generally more emotionally aroused than positive movements seeking a better future. All this flows through the micro-mechanism of IRs. Negative interests-- losing or feeling a threat to one’s material resources-- tend to easily fulfill the conditions for successful IRs: assembling a group, focusing attention, enhancing a shared emotion about the object of attention. Positive interests, because they are more ambiguous and lead into a multiply branching future, are harder to focus on clearly; and emotions are harder to attach to them-- joy and hope has to be generated in the group assembly itself, whereas in a loss or threat to what one already possesses, the emotion is generated individually and then is amplified by the group process. Movements for transformation have to do more IR work than movements defending the status quo.

Defensive interests are not always unambiguous. If landlords are taking more of the peasants’ crops, that is clear; but if an anarchist or socialist movement threatens your property, the movement may not be as threatening as it appears-- their threat is pumped up by their rhetoric (which may be sheer ritualism), and they may be incapable of carrying it out. On the other side, an anti-leftist movement may be successful at generating emotional hysteria about the alleged threat-- one of the main tactics in conservative crackdowns. Property threat from the left is not always a myth; but at the moment of conflict it is hard to judge how serious it is, and hence there is a large element of social construction, via IRs, even in negative interests.

To summarize: material interests do not simply exist and thereby drive struggles among classes and interest groups. They must always be socially formulated, in words and symbols; and this is done when Interaction Rituals are successful in generating more focus of attention and more shared emotion around certain ways of construing interests than other ways. Not to say the material world doesn’t exist; of course it does, and our bodies (and the numbers of people who take part in one ritual camp or another), weapons, vehicles, money, and all the other economic and technological resources make a difference in how the action is mobilized, and who wins. But it all has to go through the eye of a needle, which is the social definition of what we perceive our interests to be, and that is done by the degree of emotionally shared focus in IRs. Material resources are inert and blind until they are put in action by focused networks of humans in full emotional/ cognitive communication. Different ways of organizing and focusing interaction rituals are the key to political action. It is not surprising that the most colourful movements throughout history, for good or for evil, have been those that generated the most political energy.

Mann, Michael. 1986-2013. The Sources of Social Power. 4 vols.
Michels, Robert. 1911. Political Parties.
Klusemann, Stefan. 2010. After State Breakdown: Dynamics of Multi-party Conflict, Violence, and Paramilitary Mobilization in Russia 1904-1920, Germany 1918-1934, and Japan 1853-1877. PhD. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
Selznick, Philip. 1949. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics.
Thomas, Hugh. 1986. The Spanish Civil War.
Walder, Andrew. 2009. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guards Movement.


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It has become conventional to refer to all types of gangs and organized crime as if they were synonymous with the illegal drug business. Popular terms like "drug gangs" and "narco-cartels" obscure a fundamental point: crime organizations are political organizations. They are rivals to the legitimate state, and their fundamental asset is their capacity for wielding violence. Their rise and fall, and the amount and kind of violence they perform is explainable by political sociology.

It is easy to demonstrate that drug business is not central, since most crime organizations historically have had little to do with it.

The Mafia in the U.S., in its most flourishing period between 1930 and 1980, was primarily involved in extortion/protection rackets. It drew most of its income and spent most of its time on rake-offs from illegal gambling, prostitution, loan-sharking, debt-collecting, as well as extortion of legal business such as construction, waste collection, wholesale food markets, restaurants, and corruption of labor unions and local government. One of the five families of the New York Mafia, the Lucchese Family, was a major conduit of heroin smuggling and wholesaling in the 1940s-60s. But this was a small part of the overall operation; the prosperity of the Mafia did not rise or fall with the heroin business, and the occasional power struggles in the five families were not over the drug business. One might argue, analogously, that alcohol prohibition during the 1920s was the stimulus to the formation of the Mafia; but Mafia organization dates from 1931 when Lucky Luciano set up the Commission, and its period of greatest dominance was in the 40 years after the end of Prohibition.

The Mafia families in Sicily, from their reestablishment after the fall of the Fascist regime in World War II through their demise in the 1990s, were involved in what Diego Gambetta [1993] calls the business of protection. In the absence of government regulation and in at atmosphere of pervasive distrust, all economic transactions needed a protector or guarantor, and this was provided by traditional secret societies of "men of honor" who received payoffs in return. The scope of businesses under Mafia protection was even wider than in the U.S., and consisted more of legal activities than illegal ones-- gambling was not prominent in Sicily, though an illegal source of income was smuggling cigarettes to avoid taxation, and turfs for pickpocket gangs were enforced in Palermo. Sicilian Mafia families did become important pipelines for heroin processing and smuggling from the Middle-East across the Atlantic. But this was not the key to the Sicilian Mafias; they existed long before the heroin trade, and their protection business remained centered on the local economy.

The Russian crime organizations of the 1990s arose during the period of privatizing the Soviet economy. Their main focus was selling protection/extortion to licit businesses, ranging from small street market vendors to commercial and industrial companies, and they had a large role in taking over former state enterprises. The biggest criminal protection businesses amalgamated with the crumbling government bureaucracy and became legitimate as the economic "oligarchs". By the early 2000s, Russian crime-orgs had ploughed back so much of their illegal gains into the above-ground economy that they abandoned illegal force and became a major part of normal business. Even during their outlaw period of the mid-1990s-- when they were most violent-- they were relatively little involved in running illicit businesses such as drugs. Why focus on drugs when you can take over oil and gas?

The Japanese Yakuza originated historically in gangs allocating stalls in outdoor markets. During the US occupation after WWII, Yakuza families expanded to provide ordinary consumer goods on a black market-- i.e. making scarce goods available outside of government rationing. Since that time, Yakuza activities have resembled those of the NY Mafia, including strong-arm debt collecting, labor disciplining for manufacturers, and protecting illicit businesses such as strip clubs and prostitution. Drugs were at most a minor part of their activities.

Similarly with smaller crime organizations: historically most gangs concentrated on other activities than drugs; even today, when many street gangs are involved in some aspect of drug distribution, for most gangs it is not their central activity. For instance, some motorcycle gangs (i.e. white gang members) are involved in distributing methamphetamine, but the primary purpose of these gangs is showing off and fighting against rival motorcycle gangs. Local gangs are sociable groups in it for action and fun, but they have a political aspect because they organize violence to back each other up-- and with organized violence, we enter the realm of politics and the state.

There are several kinds of crime organizations, and their differences are explainable by their politics. This means their internal politics-- how they control violence inside their own ranks-- and their external geopolitics-- how they deal with rival organizations. Drug business affects the structure and violence of crime-orgs only as it feeds into their politics.

What makes some gangs small, while others grow into large but loose alliances, and a few become underground governments? What makes some crime-orgs centralized and hierarchic, while others are localized and egalitarian? Why do some engage in lengthy wars of expansion and extermination, while others confine themselves to local crime and skirmishing at the borders of their turf, and still others-- the most successful ones-- make their violence terrifying but limited and stealthy? Let us compare.

Types of Crime Organizations:

Mafia-style syndicates -- protection/extortion, govt. corruption;
underground govt.
New York, Sicily, Russia, other ex-Soviet republics, Japanese Yakuza,
Chinese Triads

Local neighborhood turf gangs (10-20-50-100 members)

Symbol-based alliances
Crips (30,000) , Bloods (15,000),
Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13 & other factions: 50,000 in US )

Multi-gang alliances with political / religious ideologies
People Nation (comprised of Blackstones, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Bloods)
Folk Nation (comprised of Gangster Disciples, Dieciocho, Hoover Crips)

Large Corporate Gangs ( Chicago) – hierarchic, mainly drug business
Blackstones / Black P. Stone Nation (60,000), Vice Lords (60,000)
Latin Kings (30-45,000)

Mafia-style syndicates

After a crime war among rival Italian, Irish, and Jewish gangs in the New York area, the victorious alliance in 1931 set up a Commission consisting of the heads of five Mafia families, with all other crime families around the USA under the jurisdiction of the one of the New York families. It was called the Peace Commission because its aim was to prevent civil wars. It kept a low profile. All killings inside the Mafia had to be authorized by the Commission; if not, the perpetrator himself would be killed. Killing policemen and government officials was strictly prohibited, and anyone found out plotting such a killing was reported to the Commission and executed. The policy of the Commission was to corrupt local government by reaching accommodation, not to fight with it and draw down the force of the Federal government. Executions were ordered as a matter of organizational discipline, targeting specific individuals as a warning to the rest to stay in line. This was strictly Mafia business; women and personal relatives of those punished were to be left alone and even supported after their man was dead. The aim was to cut off chains of revenge killings by imposing a political solution. And it was all done through layers of secrecy: the technique of murder was not a risky gunfight but a stealthy shot at point-blank range or a bomb under foot, usually set up by betrayal of one's closest friends.

The system worked but not perfectly. Occasionally aging Mafia chiefs were killed or forced out by the younger generation, and some families had brief civil wars. The Commission usually legitimated the outcomes of these wars and carried on. It was able to rule with a high degree of secrecy for 30 years, with near immunity from the corrupt New York government. Publicity began to expose the Mafia in the 1960s, and in the 1980s and 90s Federal prosecutors using RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) law reduced the Mafia to a trivial presence in a few American cities.

The Yakuza also operated more with a show of toughness than widespread use of violence. There were some periods of war between rival organizations, but for the most part the Yakuza stabilized in separate territories. They achieved a modus vivendi with Japanese government officials, and even operated openly out of offices with their names on it. Unlike the US, where Federal law enforcement was a counterpoise to corrupt state government, the Japanese national government monopolized police functions and rarely made much effort to eliminate organized crime, probably because of its long-standing alliance with the ruling party against leftist labor organizations.

Russian crime orgs in the 1990s began with a large number of small gangs, with shoot-outs peaking during 1993-95. They never achieved a centralized governing body like the New York Mafia. But they evolved a relatively peaceful (if threatening) technique of negotiating rival claims over who was protecting which business; as the gangs winnowed down to an oligopoly, their above-ground organization increased their staff of business and negotiation specialists, and eventually reduced their reliance on force as they acquired legitimate property and made alliances with government officials. Here too the path to success was by limiting violence and substituting political arrangements. The Russian crime organizations were the world's most successful Mafia. They had unusual opportunities-- the chance to take over state properties during a time when socialism was privatizing-- and relatively weak opposition-- a crumbling government bureaucracy without a legal tradition setting boundaries between crime and the new capitalist system. Ordinarily, big crime-orgs expose themselves to government attack because their sheer size becomes hard to keep under cover; in the case of the ex-Soviet Union (here we should include most of the successor states besides Russia), they were able to move above ground and become the new Establishment.

In contrast to these successful Mafias, the Sicilian Mafia fought a series of bloody civil wars among themselves in the early 1960s, and again in the late 1970s-1980s, killing up to 1000 Mafia members including many bosses. There were over 100 separate Mafia families, and they were never able to achieve stable alliances. Under the advice of lordly American mafiosi visiting in the late 1950s, at attempt was made to set up a Peace Commission, but it broke down immediately when it was unable to resolve disputes. A split in the Commission over money owed in a heroin smuggling case set off the first Mafia War. This was a political war, not a drug war; the issue was the suspicion that the Commission was just a means for one faction to impose its domination over the others. (A similar issue would break up the Crips, when that attempt at a black-unity gang alliance fell apart in accusations of a power grab.)

Spiraling Mafia violence attracted government attention from the mainland; when investigating officials were assassinated (chiefly by bombs in roadways and cars), the Italian government escalated its crackdown, with mass arrests and maxi-trials. The Sicilian mafias fought not only with each other but engaged in war with the Italian government, probably because they were made arrogant by long-standing local political control and failure of national state penetration into Sicily. But the Italian government mobilized military and police forces far exceeding the strength of the divided Sicilian groups; mafiosi under death threat from rivals began to break their oaths of silence and provide evidence. By the end of the 1990s, the Sicilian mafia was largely destroyed; on the mainland, it was displaced by Calabrian and Neapolitan crime orgs. Fighting against the government proved to be a fatal mistake. As the New York Mafia and the Russian crime-orgs demonstrate, the most successful do best by corrupting the state rather than fighting with it.

Local neighborhood turf gangs

Turn now to the other end of the scale. Gangs are relatively small groups, controlling a few blocks of a city. Structures vary; some have elected leaders, others are informal. Their origins are in children's play groups, dedicated to having fun and getting into mischief. They may engage in crimes, but this is not necessarily an organized activity of the group. The clubhouse or hangout is a place where gang members can form ad hoc crews to carry out car thefts, burglaries, robberies, or extortions; i.e. the gang is more of an umbrella under which its members come together to commit their own crimes. Some gangs claim a percentage of their criminal profits, others collect dues, chiefly for the clubhouse and for parties. Neighborhood gangs are often like social clubs, fraternities for poor people, who support themselves to an extent with crime.

The identity of the gang is based on its violence, or more precisely, ostentatious bluster and threat. Elijah Anderson argues that the code of the street in the black inner-city is mainly projecting a tough demeanor; when this is done correctly, it establishes membership and deters violence. But the gang has to demonstrate some violence, both in initiation fights, and in threats against rivals who enter their territory, and occasional incursions into enemy territories. Gang "rumbles" existed since violent teen-age gangs appeared in the 1950s, first with Puerto Rican gangs in New York City. The early gangs were not fighting over drug business, nor even protection rackets; they existed largely for the prestige of fighting, and their main concern was "action".

Since the 1970s and 80s, it has become common for local street gangs to be connected with the drug business, usually at the low retail end, and violence can take place over prime vending locations. But this is not a necessary gang activity; gangs have existed without the drug business, either as an umbrella for crime crews, or just for sociability and the excitement of fighting. In the 1950s, gangs were often consumers of heroin, but not dealers. It is still the case now, when gangs sell drugs, either as a collective enterprise or as individuals protected by the gang, that gang members consume much of the drugs themselves; such gangs do not derive much profit from the drug business. Gangs with a lavish, hedonistic lifestyle accumulate very little wealth from crime-- including non-drug crimes. Here is another way gangs differ from successful Mafias, which are much more disciplined in their lifestyle. The most self-disciplined of all were the Russian crime-orgs, which reinvested their income in buying up legitimate businesses, and eventually raised themselves out of the crime world.

Symbol-based Alliances and Multi-gang Alliances: Diplomatic Peace Treaties

These are loose, horizontal alliances between gangs who adopt the same symbols. Symbol-based gangs, with their distinctive gang colors and signs (hand gestures, ways of strutting, etc.) are diplomatic peace treaties among those who belong. Instead of every local gang being the enemy of every other, half the gangs they encounter may be their allies. It is suggestive that the cities with the highest homicide rates--- Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia-- have no little structure beyond small gangs fighting each other every few blocks.

The Crips were created in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, during the Civil Rights movement, in an attempt to stop fighting among Black gangs and concentrate on their racial enemy-- hypothetically whites, but in practice Hispanic gangs. The Crips alliance did not hold together, and a split produced the Bloods, a rival gang who spend their time chiefly in hostility to the Crips, thus producing a grand division between two different segments of black gangs. In areas where there are only Crips and no Bloods, the alliance does not work, since its outside enemy does not exist; in these places Crips divide into local factions who fight each other. As is typical of gangs, most violence is inside their own ethnic group; black gangs usually fight each other, Hispanic gangs are against each other, with white gangs in yet a third arena (such as rivalries between motorcycle gangs). Racial segregation of violence in the gang world is evidence that their violence is largely honorific; despite occasional ideological claims of rebellion against dominant white society, gang violence is a local game in a racial arena, a way of claiming status simply by being in the action. * Compared to Mafias, who are after real power and use violence strategically to uphold their organization, gang alliances and their violence are largely adolescent-style bravado.

* Crips-vs-Bloods conflict was called off during the major race riot in Los Angeles in 1992, following the Rodney King verdict. For the moment, racial alliance was reestablished while there was open violence against whites and Korean store-owners.

Symbol-based alliances have no hierarchy. There is no national leader of the Crips or the Bloods. They are umbrellas joining together all those who display the same symbolism. They are simply dividing lines, telling you who to fight, and who not to fight. The component gangs inside these alliances may engage in various crimes, including the drug business. But the symbolic alliance per se does not engage in the drug business, or any other collective activities. An analogy in political history would be wars between Catholics and Protestants, with further subdivisions of radical Protestants (Calvinists, Evangelicals) against conservative Protestant churches (Anglicans or Lutherans).

A stronger form of alliance has been attempted in multi-gang alliances such as the People Nation (comprised of Blackstones, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, Bloods) and the Folk Nation (comprised of Gangster Disciples, Hoover Crips, Dieciocho). These mega-alliances brought together already large gang structures, and were created by gang leaders in prisons-- by imitation one right after the other in November 1978. These too were offshoots of the Civil Rights movement; they had explicit political or sometimes religious ideologies, keeping the peace among gangs to concentrate against white society. But criminal gangs are not well equipped to contest political power on the state level, and in practice the People Nation and Folk Nation operated as diplomatic alliances grouping many of the big gangs into two blocs, fighting each other. For the most part these mega-gangs just concentrated on displaying their identities by flashing symbols, and performed no coordinated action; leaders like Larry Hoover (who held the honorific title of Chairman) were figures of prestige rather than authorities giving orders.

Some mega-gangs pushed further. The Latin Kings began as an organization of Puerto Rican gangs in Chicago, with a breakaway eventually transferring its center to New York. The Latin Kings attempted an political hierarchy, with top leaders adopting titles like the Inca-- identifying with non-Western symbols, much as some of the big Chicago gangs identified with Islam. In the Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York, Latin Kings ventured above ground, taking part in Puerto Rican nationalist rallies and political movements. Their move into legitimate politics was not successful, since it did not deter government officials from arrest sweeps and RICO prosecutions. This points up an important difference between even very large gang alliances and the various Mafias: Mafias prospered where they were able to corrupt government, acting surreptitiously and keeping their identity secret; whereas all of the American-style gang alliances have been very ostentatious, flaunting their colors and gang signs in public. This left them in no position to corrupt the government secretly; and it made them easy to identify when the government cracked down.

Multi-gang alliances were not organizational bases of the drug business. Their members might be in the drug business, but the mega-gang gave them little help in this respect. In New York in the 1990s, the Latin Kings became antagonistic to Dominican drug wholesalers who supplied Puerto Rican street dealers. With their increased political consciousness, the leaders of the Latin Kings recognized that the Dominican wholesalers were franchising out drug sales to another ethnic group, who received the smallest share of profits, and took the greatest risk of street violence and arrest. In effect, the Dominican dealers were capitalists exploiting Puerto Rican labor. The ideology of the Latin Kings shows that a large, politically conscious crime-org may actually oppose the drug business.

As Naylor [2004] has pointed out, wholesale production and distribution of illegal drugs is most effective when it is decentralized. It is prudent to employ isolated individuals or small groups, who have little information about supply chains as a whole. An expectable percentage of smugglers are arrested and their drugs confiscated; a wholesaler needs to be decentralized, especially on both sides of an international border crossing. Similarly with the manufacture of raw materials into drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine: economies of scale are not desirable, due to the danger of detection and exploitation (either by the government or by rival crime organizations); many decentralized plants are better than a few large ones. Ethnic networks are often useful, since they provide a degree of cultural filtering to provide trustworthy connections, but to speak of a Dominican mafia or cartel would be misleading: its effectiveness is in staying decentralized. It is not surprising that a big, unusually centralized (and out-front) organization like the Latin Kings, would be in low-end drug retailing, and exploited by a decentralized (and much more secretive) network of wholesalers (who are unified only by being Dominican).

Large Corporate Hierarchical Gangs: an exception, but temporary

For a time during the 1960s through the 1990s, large hierarchic gangs built up, chiefly in Chicago. Among the most famous were the Blackstones (with various name changes) and the Vice Lords, each reaching 60,000 members. As we know from Venkatesh, who penetrated the middle levels of the organization, there was an unusual amount of top-down control: low-level members were paid salaries, assigned regular hours, and inspected by managers. Earnings went upwards through middle ranks to the top of the hierarchy, a board of directors who made considerable incomes and held property through their mothers or families. These corporate gangs were to a large extent based on the drug business, not only staking out particular territories (typically staircases in the public housing projects) but also controlling access to wholesalers. It wasn't all drugs; the corporate gang collected protection/extortion money, not only from illicit businesses such as prostitution but also from "gray-market" or "off the books" businesses inside gang turf, such as persons who operated hair salons, grocery stores, or other businesses without getting licenses from the city. It would be misleading to think of the corporate gang as a drug business that operated protection rackets on the side; the key is having sufficient political power to control a territory. If it has this power, it can turn it to any criminal use, including the drug business; but those are outcomes of the criminal organization, not determinants of it.

The Chicago corporate gangs are the major exception to my argument: crime organizations that are indeed centrally based on the drug business. But the big Chicago gangs were largely destroyed in the 1990s; not by eradicating the drug business, but by attacking the political vulnerabilities of the crime-org and its territorial base. Federal prosecutors used RICO indictments pioneered against the Mafia. Especially fatal was the city of Chicago tearing down the massive pubic housing projects in the black neighbourhood-- huge buildings that were effectively no-man's-land where the police would not venture. It was like a real-life experiment, changing the crucial variable. Once their protected turf was gone, the big corporate gangs broke up. Today the old gang names remain, but without economic clout nor violent backup from the hierarchy; Gangster Disciples and others mingle on the streets, warily negotiating mutual threats on the level of small groups. [see forthcoming analysis by Joe Krupnick and Chris Winship]

The Mexican Cartels: Theory and Predictions

The situation of Mexican crime organizations is distinctive because there are so many organizations-- at least 11 major ones. The original cartels were in geographically distinct areas-- the Gulf cartel along the south-east Texas border; the Sonora cartel on the Arizona border; the Arrelano Felix organization in Baja California; the Sinoloa cartel on the major port cities on the Pacific side such as Mazatlan. They were cartels in the true sense, dividing up non-competing territories. More recently they stopped being cartels, as they have invaded each other's territory. The name "cartel" serves as a term of convenience, but it is inaccurate. To call them "drug cartels" involved in a "drug war" is doubly inaccurate. Popular terms are impossible to eradicate, but they hide reality. Mexican crime-orgs are less like rival businesses than rival warrior states of the pre-modern era.

Over time, the situation of territorial cartels developed into multi-sided wars. This came about by a combination of political processes.

Because there are so many players, various alliances were possible. When any one crime organization attempted territorial expansion, counter-alliances were created. Some organizations sent expeditionary forces-- military aid-- to their allies, thereby also expanding their territorial reach, and provoking further defensive reactions. Alliances could change when the host organization felt threatened by the outsiders and made new alliances to throw them out.
A defeat in war, or arrests by the government, would result in a power vacuum. When one organization was weakened, outsiders could move into their territory; or a split would occur within the organization, creating a power struggle among new factions that might crystalize into separate organizations if there were no clear-cut winner. Thus a multi-sided struggle became even more multi-sided as time went on.

Examples: this happened as the Arellano Felix Organization in Baja California split when its older leaders were arrested; when the Sinaloa cartel was split by the Beltrán Leyva brothers; and when Los Zetas broke from the Gulf Cartel. The government acts as a complicating factor in the multi-sided situation, bringing the total number of players to 12 or more, depending on how many independent factions there are in the Mexican government. Above all, government strategy of decapitating the most prominent cartels kept stirring the mix; far from destroying organizations, it kept creating new opportunities for local factions and rival cartels to expand.

These multi-sided conflicts and repeated power vacuums push cartel members into switching sides. Such switches of allegiance are typical in multi-sided geopolitics; the history of European diplomacy is full of them, with the English, French, Germans, Russians and others switching between friends and enemies numerous times over the centuries. The Zetas have been the most aggressively opportunistic. They began as elite airmobile Special Forces set up by the Mexican government distrustful of their own regular military and police. Their very isolation made them amenable to being recruited as bodyguards by one of the quarreling leaders of the Gulf cartel in the early 2000s. Within a few years, as the Gulf cartel was weakened by the government offensive, the Zetas broke free of their underground employers and became another crime-org in its own right. This disloyalty is typical of what happens to paramilitary forces set up by governments outside of normal bureaucratic channels-- for instance in Africa and the Middle East [Schlichte 2009]. Not only are the Zetas not a cartel in the technical sense, but they lack a distinctive territorial base-- being tied neither to particular drug routes nor local roots. They have expanded into anywhere in Mexico where there has been the hint of a power vacuum.

Similarly, vigilante groups set up to keep out intruders or punish criminals the weak state cannot touch, themselves can turn into crime organizations. This has been the pathway of La Familia in Michoacan (far from the major drug routes, but including the Pacific port nearest to Mexico City). It started as a religiously-based rehabilitation movement for drug addicts (not unlike the Synanon movement in California during the 1960s and 70s, which evolved from a group psychotherapy drug cure into a religious cult and eventually into a violent organization). La Famiglia Michoacana (which means "the Michoacan family") gradually shifted from a local self-protection group, defending the region against incursions by the Zetas and others, into the business of protection/extortion and eventually into drug dealing itself. Local loyalties have remained especially strong, since La Famiglia not only maintained its public image as a protector but siphoned its criminal income back into supporting local churches and institutions. The pattern resembles the Latin American tradition of a populist revolutionary movement gone corrupt.

We now have a structural mechanism to explain a distinctive feature of the Mexican cartel wars: spectacular public violence. These are not just killings but tortures and beheadings; displaying corpses-- or parts of them-- in public places; leaving notes on the bodies giving warnings, insults, or explanations.

This raises a technical question in the sociology of violence. In order to torture and mutilate someone, it is necessary to capture them first. This is difficult to do. Many kinds of criminal organizations are unable to do this. American street gangs do not engage in torture and mutilation of their enemies, because their style of violence is brief confrontations or drive-by shootings. Street gangs have narrow territorial boundaries, and lack information about what happens outside their turf.

To capture an enemy requires stealth and planning; this requires information, and therefore informants. A high level of information is displayed also in extortion threats; for instance phone calls to victims telling them details of their families' daily routines.

The structural situation of multi-sided conflicts produces much switching of sides; and this generates useful informants with information about enemies' routines. Internal splits in an organization also creates informants, since whoever leaves one faction can tell the other details about the routines of those they have left.

The situation worsens. As the cycle of defeats and victories, power vacuums, and side-switching goes on, informants themselves are targeted. Informants are the most important weakness for an organization, therefore it tries to deter informants by using spectacular punishments-- more tortures and beheadings.

Public violence has a second purpose: it can be used to send propaganda. Messages attached to bodies can proclaim that it is done to protect the local communities against terrorists, drug cartels, and criminals-- as in the propaganda of La Familia Michoacana. This is propaganda to create local legitimacy. Or propaganda of violence can be used to intimidate possible enemies. But the intimidation is usually not definitive, since in a situation of multi-sided instability, side-switching inevitably happens and the cycle of spectacular violence continues.

What can we predict, using our comparisons among the political structures of crime organizations?

First: drug business is not the key determinant of what they will do. Drugs provide one source of income, and the variety of drug routes provides bases on which some-- but not all-- of the cartels originated. But the main resource of a crime-org is how much violence it can muster, and that depends on its political reach and strength of organizational control. Once the military/political structure exists, it can be turned to different kinds of criminal businesses, whether these involve running a drug business (or any other illegal business); or merely raking off protection money from those who run an illegal business; or extorting protection money from ordinary citizens, including kidnapping. A crime-org might start out in the drug business and shift its activities elsewhere, or vice versa. Randolfo Contreras has shown that in the 1990s when the crack cocaine business dried up in the Bronx, former street dealers went into other areas of crime. In Mexico, when increased border surveillance cut into drug deliveries to the US, crime-orgs expanded into extortion and kidnapping for ransom. The Zetas, because of their organization as Special Forces, were less directly connected with the drug business itself; when they became independent of the declining Gulf cartel, they have moved aggressively into more purely predatory use of violence against other cartels' territories. This is not so much an effort to monopolize the drug trafficking business, as a different political strategy, leveraging their special skill, highly trained military violence.

It follows that ending the illegal drug business-- whether by eradication or by legalization-- would not automatically end violence. Mexican crime-orgs could intensify other types of violent extortion (and so they have, with increased pressure on the US border), as along as they still held territories out of government control; and wars between the cartels would not cease. It is a non sequitur to argue that if the US would stop drug consumption, Mexican cartels and their violence would disappear.

A second prediction comes from historical similarities. The Mexican situation from 2000 onwards resembles the Sicilian Mafia wars that took place from the 1960s through the 1980s. The Sicilian mafias also engaged in corruption of local governments, and a system of protection/extortion covering all economic activities. Surveillance was provided by a large network of informants; and spectacular violence was used when mafiosi were challenged. As in Mexico, there were a large number of Sicilian Mafia families. The wars were multi-sided, both among the different mafia coalitions, and against the Italian national government.

The situation in Sicily was precisely what the US Mafia had organized the Commission to avoid: lengthy civil wars; public violence; and attacks on government officials. After the fall of the crime regime in 1920s Chicago headed by Al Capone-- who was too blatantly public about his political control, and his drive-by machine guns in the street-- the New York mafia ruled by secrecy. There was no effective Peace Commission in Sicily, no centralized organization by which the top Mafia bosses exercized selective violence to keep discipline inside the organization.

The Prognosis: The Italian government won the Sicilian Mafia war; as their local war escalated into attacks on officials of the national government, the government counter-escalated until the Mafia was largely destroyed. Mexico could go the same path. It would be a long war, but winnable-- it took 20-30 years for the national government to reassert control in Sicily.

An alternative pathway could be a change in government policy. Since the PAN administration of President Calderón took office in 2006, the policy has been to pursue all-out war against all the crime organizations, resulting in at least 50,000 persons killed through 2011, with the yearly number rising to 15,000. It is possible that an electoral victory by PRI, the long-time former ruling party known for its history of corruption, would result in a new policy of accommodation. Some of the more stable and least expansive cartels would be given tacit recognition in their region, while the more aggressive and territorially expansive groups-- above all the Zetas--- would be targeted for extermination. The result might be something like the fate of the Russian mafia of the 1990s: ending their mutual turf wars, reducing conflict among themselves, and finding acceptance by corrupt government officials sharing in their wealth. In the case of Russia, the whole process was finished in about 10 years. Given that the intense cartel wars in Mexico so far have gone on about 5 years, the Russian example suggests a decline in violence in a few years might be feasible.

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Moby Dick is usually regarded as a novel of deep symbolism. No doubt this accounts for much of its literary appeal. But it is built on a practical observation. Herman Melville, through his experiences on whaling ships, recognized that a harpooned whale essentially kills itself. By running away, the whale dragged a boat-load of sailors for several miles until the whale was exhausted, and this eventually allowed the harpooner to close in and finish it off. A whale is much bigger and stronger than its pursuers; if it fought them head-to-head in the water it would win. But whales are not belligerent animals, and they are frightened, and this is what drags them to their death.

Moby Dick is a thought-experiment. Melville imagines what it would be like if a whale were as intelligent as a human. Instead of running away it would turn and fight. Moby Dick, the white whale, is scarred with harpoons still tangled on his back; these are wounds or trophies from previous encounters with humans, but he always turned and wrecked the harpooners’ boats. As literary critics have generally recognized, he is white to indicate he is nearly human. But no one in the novel explicitly recognizes wherein his humanness lies-- that he recognizes the tactic humans rely on to kill whales. The limits of humans’ perceptiveness of animals come out in their seeing Moby Dick only as supernatural or diabolical (and in the case of the critics, as symbolic). Moby Dick is not necessarily malevolent, but he is intelligent enough to see that running away will kill him, and that his only chance is to turn and counter-attack.

In this respect, Moby Dick also illustrates a main principle of human-on-human conflict. Winning a fight generally begins with establishing emotional dominance; and most of the physical damage occurs after one side emotionally dominates the other (Collins, 2008, Violence: A Macro-Sociological Theory).

Ernest Hemingway gives a parallel but much more explicit analysis of bullfighting (1932, Death in the Afternoon). A mature fighting bull is much bigger, stronger, and faster than the humans who try to kill him in the bull ring. The bull weighs 800 to 1000 pounds, runs faster than humans for short distances, and has horns that are sharp and penetrating as the swords and lances bullfighters use against him. The only way humans can kill a bull (without resorting to guns or poisons, that is) is wear him out. The team of bullfighters lure the bull one way and another by waving bright colored capes and cloths on sticks at him, getting the bull to chase the human but getting out of the way of his horns (if the bullfighters are skilled and lucky) while the bull follows the lure of the cloth. Near the beginning of the fight the humans also stab the bull in the shoulders with lances and mini-harpoons so that the bull will spend the rest of the fight goaded into anger, and indeed looking a little like Moby Dick; also this is done to tire the bull from carrying his head high where he can use his horns to stab a human in the chest. The bullfighter’s main technique for wearing down the bull, however, is the fancy spins and side-steps with the cape, which not only cause the bull to miss the man-- and make the audience cheer-- but make the bull turn abruptly in his tracks. This is a way of using the bull’s weight and speed against himself; the bull cannot turn in a radius less than the length of his own body, and if he tries, he twists his spine and eventually reaches a point where he can barely charge, and cannot keep his head up where he can kill the man with his horns. At this point, the matador lures the bull’s head downwards with the bright red cloth in one hand, while he reaches in over the horns with a sword and kills him through a spot in the back of his neck.

Hemingway explicitly mentions that the bullfighters’ technique is like that of a big-game fisherman, tiring a big fish by letting it run on a rod until it is so exhausted that it can be hauled out of the water to die. He doesn’t mention Moby Dick, and presumably no fish have been intelligent enough to use Moby Dick’s tactic against the fisherman. But bulls appear to be good learners. In fact, Hemingway states, the cardinal rule of the modern bullfight is that the bull should never have fought a human before it enters the bullring. It has never seen the inside of a bullring before, nor a crowd, nor the bright-colored capes nor the bullfighters and their weapons. It follows the lure of the bright-colored cloths and misses the humans it aims at with its horns. It tires itself out chasing and dies when it is worn out.

For bullfighting, this is more than a thought-experiment, as Hemingway describes occasions where experienced bulls fight humans again and again. The first-rate bullrings in the big cities use only new, inexperienced bulls, but bullfights in smaller towns, and especially those where amateurs fight, use cheaper bulls-- used bulls. Like used cars, the principle is buyer beware, since used bulls are experienced bulls, and they have learned the tricks humans are up to [pp. 19-21, 94, 104, 111-114]. Hemingway mentions a bull that killed sixteen men and wounded another sixty; no humans were ever skilled enough to kill it in the ring, and it was eventually disposed of in a meat slaughter-house. Experienced bulls soon recognize that they are only being lured by the bright cape; they will stand still and refuse to charge, then pick out one particular human in the throng and chase him down, refusing to be distracted by the others, until the bull has caught his victim and tossed and gored him as many times as he can. The bull who has fought before no longer charges straight at the bright cloth, but chops sideways and cuts with his horns looking for the man behind it. Hemingway comments that even inexperienced bulls can learn during the course of a 15-minute bullfight, so that if they are not sufficiently worn down by the bullfighters’ tactics the bull will become increasingly dangerous and able to kill the man before he kills him. The most intelligent bulls are the most dangerous, and a bull that has successfully gored a man gains confidence and aims to gore him again.

There is another way in which bulls learn their fighting skills, although this part has nothing to do with humans. Bulls out on the range fight with each other, head to head; using their horns like fencers, blocking and parrying; if one bull gets through and gores the other, he may not let it get up but keeps it off balance and gores it again until it is dead. Once getting the momentum, the dominance of energy and psychology, the victorious animal may push his advantage to the death. If two sparring bulls develop their skills at the same rate, their fights end in stalemates, like skilled boxers who block all the dangerous blows and wind down in respectful equality. But a bullfight with humans is designed to end in death on one side or the other; and if a bull is able to get through the human’s tricks of distracting his attention with bright colored cloths, he has the skilled moves with his horns that he learned against other bulls. Bulls who are only two or three years old are not very dangerous yet, and novice bullfighters can use them to practice their own skills on; but five-year-old bulls have learned too much and only the best bullfighters are supposed to fight them (and vice versa).

Hemingway comments that a bullfight is not designed to be a fair fight or a sport, but a spectacle to show off certain human skills and generate emotions from the apparent risk of human death. Hemingway was a meticulous observer and did not take other people’s word for anything, but checked out the details himself. (In this case, he saw 1500 bullfights.) He was one of the great sociologists of micro-interaction, 30 years before Goffman and 50 years before we started examining human-on-human interactions in detail with audio recordings and now photos and videos. Not many sociologists have studied human-animal interaction (although recently an increasing number; see especially the works of Colin Jerolmack on pigeons). My chief caveat is about claiming that human-animal confrontations-- i.e. violence-threatening confrontations-- are the same as human-on-human confrontations. Humans confronting each other come up against a wall of confrontational tension/fear (ct/f), a tension arising from the hard-wiring in humans that makes us especially susceptible to rituals of mutual solidarity, Interaction Rituals in the specifically sociological sense. (This is very different from the way ‘ritual’ has been used by animal ethologists where it means genetically determined gestures of dominance and submission; see Collins, Violence, pp. 25-29). Successful instances of human violence come from getting around the barrier of ct/f, sometimes by chance, but also by techniques that persons skilled in violence learn to use.

The kinds of violence that Hemingway describes in the case of bullfights come close to the claim that both humans and animals can lose fights by fear, and by the dominant side taking advantage of the other side’s fear; (elsewhere Hemingway makes somewhat similar arguments in the case of big-game hunting: see especially The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber). Apropos of bulls, Hemingway also claims that some animals and humans are just inherently braver than others (how would we prove this?); and that they get killed not out of being emotionally dominated but out of stupid moves that they make out of bravery and that get taken advantage of by the other side’s conscious anticipation and trickery (which is probably true). Thus the skilled human bullfighter finds it easier to fight a brave bull than a less aggressive but more intelligent, strategic bull. With big-game fish like marlins, the equivalent of bravery seems to be the energetic drive that makes them run and pull to their deaths. With whales, the animals seem easily put into a state of fear and avoidance; and for a whale to act like Moby Dick would take an unrealistically human quality of intelligence that tells him the best strategy is not to run but to use his superior strength in a counter-attack.

The comparison makes it puzzling why whales, which are regarded as closer to humans in their intelligence, are not as good at learning fighting skills (and seeing through the techniques that humans use on them) as bulls, of a species never regarded as very intelligent. The entire question suggests that we are dealing with multiple dimensions, and that neither a biological generalization across all species, nor a gradation of nonhuman-to-human intelligence, will get at the key sources of variation. In my own work on the micro-sociology of human violence, I have avoided generalizing beyond humans, because I have not systematically looked at the primary data on infra-human animal interactions; and judging from my own experience with what other researchers have said about human violence, I don’t trust many researchers to make a well-justified theory out of what first-hand observations actually show.

With Hemingway on bulls, and Melville on whales, we have a couple of careful observers who came to their own conclusions. I’m not prepared to go much further than this, but one point seems justified: skills at violence are learned, certainly by humans, and apparently by animals where we can carefully observe them in various situations. The main aspect of violent skill is a social skill: being able to pick out a favorable opponent, recognize the opponent’s weakness-- above all the moment of emotional weakness-- and in more highly skilled forms, to recognize the tactics the opponent is using and make allowance for them. Fighting bulls, who otherwise don’t seem very intelligent, are good at this, just as humans who fight bulls have collectively evolved a set of techniques for fighting animals who also have such capacities. Perhaps this is an unusual case in humans-vs-animals conflict. But it illustrates well the character of human-vs-human conflict in our own history.


Bullying was once a fairly well-defined phenomenon. Recently the term has been expanded by journalists, politicians, and in popular expression. What difference does it make what we call these events? The word is being used to cover differing types of conflict, which have different causal paths, and thus very different implications for what to do about them, and for the damage done.

Traditional bullying is picking on network isolates-- victims who are lowest in the group status hierarchy, who lack friends and allies, and lack the emotional energy to defend oneself. Bullying is a repetitive relationship, the same bullies persistently domineering and tormenting the same victims. The classic version was in British boarding schools, where older boys were allowed to make a younger boy into a servant, carrying their books, cleaning their rooms, and generally deferring and taking orders. Nineteenth century school administrators regarded this system as a salutatory way for boys to learn discipline; but it often intensified into maliciousness, physical abuse, and commandeering the younger boy’s possessions. Some boys became school bullies. [sources in Collins, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, chapter 4.] The system was called fagging and the younger boys were called fags; this was the origin of the slang term for homosexuals, although that was not its original connotation.

Bullying is not a single event but an ongoing relationship, i.e. a network tie with asymmetrical content: one side bullies the other, never vice versa. It has a specific network location: bullies are not the top of the status hierarchy, but middle-ranking, not very popular themselves, but aggressors rather than victims. Bullying should not be confused with a dominance contest over who is the top-ranking male, which centers on the top contenders, and matches good fighters and leading personalities against each other. Bullying is exploitation by a particularly predatory type of individual from the middle against the bottom. In effect bullies make up for not very good social skills by picking on those who are even worse. Being a bully is not just anybody who fights; it is a specialized role in the status hierarchy, and not a very honorific one.

Classic bullying arises in total institutions like prisons, boarding schools or camps. Key conditions are: there is no escape from close contact with the same set of people; reputations are widely circulated; and the split between control staff and inmates creates a code of no snitching which cuts off victims from protection by authorities. The totalness of institutions is a continuum; as the strength of these variables increases, we may expect bullying relationships to be more frequent.

Classic bullying should be distinguished from scapegoating, where everyone in the group gangs up on a single victim. Usually this is someone who is blamed for a community catastrophe, or otherwise becomes the center of hostile attention. Scapegoating tends to be a single-shot event, rather than an ongoing relationship. The scapegoat might be low-ranking, an isolate, new arrival or cultural deviant; but scapegoats can also be selected from the elite. This happens in scandals, where the secondary scandal-- threatening supporters of the scandalous individual with contagious blame if they don’t join the condemnatory majority-- can rapidly strip even eminent persons of support.

Scapegoating is not carried out by bullies seeking individual dominance, but is genuinely mass-participation ritual of community solidarity, self-righteous Durkheimian unity at its least attractive. Scapegoating tends to arise in tightly integrated communities-- not the hierarchic ones characteristics of bullying; in complex societies, scapegoating requires a huge media frenzy to generate a comparable amount of focus and social pressure. On a smaller level, there is some evidence that girls focus their attacks (mainly verbal) on the lowest-ranking girl-- i.e. a collective action of the entire group against the bottom. This fits with females as being more solidarity-oriented than males, using verbal and emotional attack to keep up group unity at the expense of common target. In contrast, boys tend to fight it out over individual status at the top [studies reviewed in John Levi Martin, Social Structures, 2009, chapter 4]

What Isn’t Bullying?

It is misleading to refer to all kinds of personal conflict as bullying, even if it does happen in school or among young people. Bullying, as a repetitive, unequal relationship among individuals, where distinctive bullies target low-status isolates, has a very different structure and causality than two-sided fights. Among the latter are:

Individual honor contests: two rivals square off against each other, whether with fists, blades or guns, informally or under conventional rules like a duel. Honor contests are almost never top against the bottom, because there is no honor to be gained unless you show you can beat someone of considerable prowess, or at least stand in with them. This is a reason why bullies have mediocre status at best.

Intergroup fights: horizontal struggles between rival gangs, ethnic groups, schools, or neighbourhoods. These can be pretty nasty; in part, because the antagonists tend to be mutually closed Durkheimian communities, so they have no moral compunctions against vicious tactics; on the verbal level, they are prone to derogatory stereotyping, including racial slurs. And because confrontational tension makes fighting difficult to carry out in real life, groups are most successful when they engage in ambushes, drive-bys, or ganging up on outnumbered members of an opposing group who happen to stray into vulnerable territory. Thus actual incidents between gangs or ethnic groups may have something of the look of bullying, where a stronger group beats up on a weaker. News stories about a single incident cannot tell us whether it is bullying or not. Horizontal conflict is not a repetitive relationship of institutionalized inequality, but generally a sequence of alternating tactical advantages.

Another important difference is that inter-group violence chooses its targets as members of a group, not as low-status isolates. For this reason, intergroup violence is probably not as psychologically debilitating as being a bully victim, and may even give emotional energy and solidarity. In contrast to bullying, which leaves victims with very negative self-images, intergroup violence often gives members meaningful self-narratives-- one of the main attractions of belonging to a fighting group. [This is brought out vividly in Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, Tough Crowd: An Ethnographic Study of the Social Organization of Fighting; unpublished ms, UCLA.]

Some intergroup fights combine with aspects of bullying, where a weaker group is repeatedly attacked by a stronger. Instances include school majority black students attacking academically better-performing Asian minorities (e.g. in Philadelphia high schools in 2009-10). But although one side is dominant in the violence, there is an element of horizontal conflict as well, as the two groups compete with different resources-- violence vs. academic capital.

Insult contests: individuals bragging, boasting and making gestures about their alleged superiority to others. This can be done in a tone of entertainment and humor, or it can be hostile and malicious, attempting to establish emotional dominance; it can remain contained, or escalate in emotional tone and physical violence. Ethnographies of gangs and youth culture show a great deal of this. Although insults can be part of a bullying relationship, where they serve to maintain emotional dominance, or to provoke the victim into futile and humiliating outbursts; nevertheless much insults are not part of a unequal relationship. Moves in an insult contest are often reciprocal, and may be compatible with equality and even a ritualistic form of play producing solidarity. An observer cannot simply classify all insults as bullying, without seeing what kind of relationship it is.

Malicious gossip: This is a form of insult, but instead of being in your face, allowing the possibility of direct response, negative gossip is indirect. Gossip is felt to be more unfair, because it is harder to counteract. Nevertheless, malicious gossip is not necessarily bullying. It does not always, or even generally, take the form of attacks on those at the bottom; often it is an attack on those at the top, and on leaders of rival groups. Nor need gossip originate from bullying specialists (although it could-- persons who initiate malicious gossip might be structurally analogous to bullies, although we lack good data on this aspect of gossip networks). Most importantly, mali