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The Social Construction of Democracy: 1870-1990.

The title of this collection led this reviewer to hope for an historical and analytical survey of the principal recent movements toward democracy. Such an expectation may be too high. In any case it was not satisfied. The book has nothing to say about major pressure points of democratic expansion: Russia and India. We learn nothing about the reported criminalization of democratic politics in these two states. Nor does the collection tell us anything about important European democratic models, Spain and Sweden. It is much more surprising that a book mentioning events as recent as 1992 has absolutely nothing to say about a major present day threat to democracy: the rising tide of antirationalism and hatred of things foreign that goes under the name of religious fundamentalism.

What then are the aims and scope of the collection? The scope reflects the varied interests of a group of scholars who came together under the auspices of the Pittsburgh Center for Social History's Working Group on State and Society for a conference on the problems of twentieth-century democracy on May 3-4, 1992. There are two articles on France, one on Argentina, two on Japan, two on Germany, three on the USA, one on Mexico, two on Brazil, and one on Eastern Europe excluding Russia. The volume ends with a chapter of general reflections by Charles Tilly.

What is all this work supposed to accomplish? What are the aims? The introduction contains some grant-getting lingo presumably designed to specify these aims. It speaks of combining political and social history by "fusing history from above with history from below." (p. 4; quotation mark in text) For any practicing social historian this remark is almost certain to appear pretentious nonsense. It is impossible to write about the lower strata without describing what the dominant elements in society were doing and why.

If one rejects out of hand the alleged methodological innovation just discussed, what remains in the way of an intellectual achievement? A very great deal in the judgement of this reviewer. In analyzing a specific problem in a specific society each author emerges with an answer whose implications reach well beyond the particular case. That happens because the essay is organized around a good question or issue. With one exception all the contributions display a very high order of workmanship. They are also blessedly readable, partly because they avoid the use of ephemeral buzz words.

The one exception is Chapter 8, a survey of the Afro-American civil rights movement. To one who lived through this period, with several Afro-American friends, this account reads like hagiography. There is scarcely a hint of the sudden changes in policy or the antagonisms behind the scenes. Every leader comes out noble. Human beings are just not like that.

The great merit of all the other papers is that every article illuminates some general social process connected with democratic movements even if the paper is about a part of the world in which the general reader may have a very limited interest. For instance, the two essays on Brazil in Chapters 9 and 13 reveal the self-perpetuating nature of political apathy among the subordinate black population, some 40 percent of the whole. In earlier times the only way for blacks to get favors was to attach themselves as clients to a member of the white elite. This situation accustomed blacks to accept the white elite. When an opportunity to vote for and choose new leaders did appear, blacks still chose whites. The poorer the blacks the bigger the proportion who voted for whites. After all, that had been the way to get results for a long time. Opposition, even peaceful opposition, looked futile and dangerous. Even when some white intellectuals became afflicted with a bad conscience due to the spread of liberal ideas, they were unable to lead the blacks in any numbers or ignite a political movement.

The book is full of thought provoking theses like this one, too many even for a brief mention. Perhaps the most intriguing one occurs in Chapter 11 on the Welfare State by Samuel P. Hays. The author argues convincingly that for the U.S.A. welfare state is a misnomer. What we really have is a social service state for the mass middle class, a demographically new social formation. Writing presumably in 1992 and earlier Hays argues that this constituency is so large that there is no support for a reduction in state services. (p. 280) Then how can one explain the Republican onslaught on these services, a matter of daily headlines in 1995? Perhaps the Republicans have concentrated their ire on services that do help the urban poor, and on some environmental issues, presumed, perhaps incorrectly, to have little more than a parlor-pink constituency. The rest they may want to keep.

In the last chapter Charles Tilly raises the ever-vexing problem of how stable democracies can ever get started and become stable. In presenting his own views Tilly at first resorts to diagrammatic tables. For this reviewer the device is unhelpful because it is hard to follow and leaves out too much. In contrast his concluding statement about the social bases of democracy (pp. 376-7) strikes me as first rate. I also agree heartily that more than one set of circumstances can produce democracy, though I strongly suspect that the number of circumstances is quite limited.

As an intellectual meal The Social Construction of Democracy 1870-1990, like all edited collections, is a bit of a hash. But it is meaty and very nourishing hash. Why ask for more?

Barrington Moore, Jr. Harvard University
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Author:Moore, Barrington, Jr.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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