Entwined Fates

Entwined Fates

Margaret Levi [11.24.14]

We keep coming back to the issue of a community of fate: can it be for good or for bad, right? We can imagine the beer hall in Munich and what happened there that created a community of fate, and we can imagine the left-wing union organizers developing a different kind of community of fate. The real distinction between them is not just the ethical principles that inform them—that's clearly an important distinction—but what kind of community of fate it is. The terminology that I use there, and I keep repeating and want to get that through, is between an inclusive and an expansive community of fate versus an exclusive and narrowing community of fate. That's the difference.

MARGARET LEVI is the Director of the Center For Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies at the University of Washington. Margaret Levi's Edge Bio Page


The thing that interests me has to do with how we evoke, from people, the ethical commitments that they have, or can be encouraged to have, that make it possible to have better government, that make it possible to produce collective goods, that make it possible to have a better society. 

I'm a political scientist, political economist, so I think about this not so much from the perspective of moral reasoning, or philosophy, or psychology for that matter—though all those disciplines come into play in my thinking—but I think about it in terms of the institutional arrangements and contextual arrangements in which people find themselves. It is about those that evoke certain behaviors as opposed to other kinds of behaviors, and certain attitudes as opposed to other kinds of attitudes, that ultimately lead to actions. I'm ultimately interested not just in how the individual's mind works, but how individual minds work together to create an aggregate outcome.

To give you a much more concrete example of that: a recent book that I coauthored with John Ahlquist called, In the Interest of Others, looked at a variety of labor unions, because they are basically mini-governments, in order to understand why it was that some were getting people to act on various social justice commitments and others didn't even ask the question.

The first thing we had to think about was how much of this was self-selection. Had we just picked unions that picked people that then asked them to do what they were already willing to do? The unions that we looked at were three dockworker unions, two in the United States: the On the Waterfront Union on the East Coast, the ILA—the International Longshoremen's Association—and the more left-wing union, the ILWU—International Longshore and Warehouse Union—and a comparable union in Australia to the ILWU. We also looked at the Teamsters.

This gave us a set of organizations that, as it turns out, attracted virtually the same kind of people with the same heterogeneous mix of political attitudes and commitments to larger social justice issues. We started our investigation looking from the 1930s until the 1990s. In the early part of that story the only people who joined unions were those who needed the jobs that the unions represented. In the midst of the depression they weren't about to choose a union simply for political reasons.

This wasn't a self-selection question. This was a question of what did the organization do that brought out in people the commitments that you saw in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union under Harry Bridges and the comparable union in Australia? The answer, as it turned out, was a combination of a number of factors. One of the most important was the commitments that the leadership had. We put it in terms of the leadership rants—because we're economists—that the leaders were extracting from the population that they were serving. In the case of the Teamsters and the East Coast dockworkers, what they wanted was money and power—pretty understandable from simple economic terms.

What they wanted in the other two unions was they were willing to trade some power, and certainly a lot of money, in order to be able to have the credibility with their members to try to persuade them to think in terms larger than their selves. They did this by creating a set of institutional arrangements that basically constrained them as leaders, thus giving up power and creating much more of a democratic organization that was capable of challenging them. They had to justify anything that they wanted to do. They also gave up money.

In the constitutions of both of these organizations dating back to the commune in France, they had language in there that said the head leadership pay was linked to the highest paid member of the union. They never got incomes that were way out of line with their own membership—very different from the other two unions. They created participatory democracies. They put a lot of investment into socializing and educating members, creating schools, creating capacity for conversation, discussion, debate, and as a result were able to ask and often get them to be engaged in actions which had nothing to do with their economic wages, working conditions.

To give an example of that: Both unions closed down the docks in the late 1930s—closed the ports—refusing to send scrap metal to Japan, refusing to load it on the boats. They did that in response to the Chinese communities who were being discriminated against, who were worried about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. When President Roosevelt called Harry Bridges—the head of the West Coast Union—and said, "What are you doing? This is national security—a national issue—not a local issue. A union issue." He said, "We're American citizens. That's what we do. We have a right to do what we want to do."

The other piece of this, which was a very important part of the story and the leadership, is that this is not a story that denies that people have economic self-interest, that they suddenly become committed to all these causes that are beyond them. These leaders also had to demonstrate that they could win better wages, hours, working conditions, whatever. They satisfied their jobs, their positions as leaders of the union, did what they were supposed to do as leaders of unions, and then created a situation in which they could ask for and evoke from members all these behaviors.

One of the best stories we had—I can't refrain from telling it—was when we were interviewing some old-timers, some pensioners, from the Australian docks. This one guy followed us out, and he said, "You know, I never bought some of the communism and socialism of some of the leadership of my union. I just didn't get that. But when we're sitting on the docks having lunch during a stop-work meeting, and we're told that we're about to be asked to load ships to go to Indonesia that are Dutch ships carrying armaments to put down the Indonesian rebels," he said, "I hadn't known about that before, but that is not fair. That's not fair dinkum," he said, which is an Australian way of saying "not fair," and "I refuse to load those ships."

These workers were given information they didn't have before. It evoked norms that they probably had but hadn't been asked to act on, and to do so in a collective way that could make some difference, because they wouldn't load the ships, which wouldn't go to Indonesia. That's an example of thinking about the ways in which ethical commitments are evoked, and even to some extent crafted by the organization itself. There's a lot of group pressure in that story. There's a lot of information and socialization that clearly has a certain dynamic to it. It's an important story in thinking about a whole variety of other situations in which we find ourselves as societies.

These were mini-governments. These were organizations that were basically asking for taxes, i.e. dues, in return for delivering certain benefits, which they had to credibly deliver. In return they were asking their taxpayers, members, citizens to begin to behave in ways that were responsible to people outside their particular circle. The way I think about this issue, the terminology that we used, is expanding the community of fate. Community of fate, not faith. Fate. Who is it that your fate is intertwined with?

We all know that most of us think about our community of fate as at least our family. If something happens to my sister, or my mother, or my niece, it matters to me. I feel that I would act in their interest because it's my interest, in some sense of the word. What these organizations have done is expanded that community of fate, made people think that if something happens to that peasant in China, that rebel in Indonesia, that person somewhere else, if it could happen to them it could happen to me, and that they're part of my world, I have to care about them, I have to stand up here in order to prevent it from happening there. I'm interested in other situations, other contexts, and the mechanisms that are involved in evoking that understanding.

A community of fate of the ones that we're talking about was for things that I and my coauthor, John, value for these commitments. We can also think of communities of fate that could be created that are exclusive, that are harmful to other people. Nazis come to mind, and ethnic groups who think only internally about themselves. It's not that a community of fate is a good thing always. That's something else that has to be understood better. What are the circumstances under which communities of fate that are truly expansive, that are truly inclusive of people who are being in some ways harmed or exploited, are created?

That whole theme goes way back in my work. From my earliest work I've been thinking about the conditions under which citizens will find government or subjects, in some cases—because some of it's quite historical work—legitimate, will find it trustworthy, will be willing to give their service, their military service, or pay taxes in order to support that government. What's that relationship look like? Thinking about these unions was a way of getting even deeper into that relationship, and trying to disentangle some of the pieces that would make that relationship work.

One of the questions that comes up a lot about our work is where do these leaders come from? That's one question. The other question that comes up is are those leaders always able to sustain those principles with which they initially brought to bear? This is in the case of leaders who are trying to promote social justice issues and trying to promote equity or collective goods for people, or be inclusive. There's also a question about leaders who have very different principles, which are genocidal, or very exclusive, or very discriminatory.

A lot of the work is, as it turns out, about the leadership itself and where it might come from, why it does what it does, and how itself is constrained to act in certain ways and not in other ways. These are complicated questions. When I started thinking about these problems, I didn't think so much in terms of leadership. I thought that leadership is an idea that had gone out of fashion. In fact, I did a literature review with my coauthor, John Ahlquist, and we found that the interesting literature on leadership had stopped in the 50s or the 60s, and there wasn't a lot of great work being done right now.

There are a couple questions here that we need to parse. The first one is where do these leaders come from? We didn't answer that question. That's one of the questions that still needs to be answered. The four sets of leaders that we were looking at in the union book were very different. In the case of the Teamsters, even if they were corrupt, like Dave Beck or Jimmy Hoffa, they were incredibly committed to the workers. They were committed to making their lives better, but they thought all this stuff about worried about other people outside your particular union was irrelevant. They couldn't imagine why you would even care about that. They were what we would think of as very economistic leaders. They were running a business, and they served their members on the narrow things that they were being employed to do.

Some leaders are just simply corrupt, like some of the leaders of the East Coast Labor Union. They were clearly in it to make money. Then you've got leaders like Harry Bridges or Big Jim Healy from Australia, who, in their case, came out of the Communist Party and—even though Harry Bridges denied being in the Communist Party—had clearly very strong social principles.

Those leaders we can't explain. We can look at their biographies, but we want to know more about what creates that circumstance in which those kinds of people might come to prominence and dominance. That's only part of the question. The next question is when we find them, they get into an organization, why won't they become a Mugabe? He started fine; Mugabe had all kinds of principles. How do you institutionalize and hold accountable, and keep holding accountable, the leadership that comes in with these high principles and these commitments to the revolution, to social justice, to equity, and make sure that they don't end up stealing everything in sight, or betraying the cause in some way or another? That requires constitutional arrangements and institutional arrangements, and a whole variety of mechanisms to enforce that. They can't be external mechanisms to the organization. They have to be internal to the organization itself. It has to be creating a set of rules that have to be followed, else you get thrown out. It turns out in both of these unions a recall petition required almost no signatures at all, 15, something like that. There were periodic elections. But equally importantly, the members had strong voice and they could vote down things, and did.

We did a big study of the annual meetings, or biannual, triennial, as they developed, congresses of these organizations. Did the leadership always win? No, it didn't. It often lost. It didn't initiate everything; it had to have big fights before it could win; it needed to garner votes. That kept these leaders accountable—that process, that set of issues.

The third question that gets raised with leadership is these guys had very strong—in my value world—positive principles that I respected, and I was cheering them on as I'm writing this book. But there are others who come into power whose principles I despise. One thing we need to be able to be attentive to is the cult leaders, or the leaders of some of the groups that are creating terrorist threats around the world, who are also committed and principled, and possibly even give their members some voice. But the values with which they start are, from the perspective of many of us, very problematic. All of that has to be thought about, and those are more questions than answers at this point.

An important question about this line of work is how we translate it to other situations that are going on in the world today and have gone on historically. We're at the point in the work where what we have are some insights, but not total answers to some of the questions we'd like to address.

One of the insights we have is that there are such things, if you will, as communities of fate that extend beyond the family. Partially they're constructed, partially they're sustained by a group process that involves internal social pressure, certain educational processes—you can call them brainwashing, you can call them socialization, you can call them teaching, it depends on the circumstance and your perspective. We can see certain things that will sustain or create a community of fate.

I have to keep emphasizing that some communities of fate are very inclusive and expansive, and are not about discrimination, but about helping people who you may not even know and serving a larger interest. Some communities of fate are very exclusive, very geared towards only those people within the community, and everybody else is the enemy who can be literally decimated if you so choose. We see that happening today.

We can see that in all of these communities of fate there are certain kinds of mechanisms and processes that are going on. If we want to create one that's expansive, or if we want to block one that is discriminatory and exclusive, having an understanding of the processes that they use is quite crucial, whether we want to replicate it or prevent it. In the very narrowly focused ones that can lead to terrorism, to discriminatory, often violent practices against those outside that community, we've learned that they are, in fact, something that's based on a group. There is an important role for leadership in there, so that you need to undermine the credibility of the leaders among those who would be attracted to the community, not among the external world but among those who would be attracted to the community. You have to be attentive to the socialization processes that are being used in that community of fate, and try to counter that in language and in terms that reach people.

It was interesting about the communities of fate that we recognized as expansive and positive in some way or another—trying to include more people and help more people—had social justice commitments in these particular cases, or just charitable instincts, (it doesn't have to be so big as a social justice commitment). In all of those cases people were in an organization that they believed was serving their self-interest and was doing a credible, decent job of that, whether it be a government or a union, and then could be asked to think about other people.

There's something in this that we learned about the positive community of fate. There's an economic issue in here, or well-being issue, as well as an ethical issue, something about feeling like you're being taken care of and your very immediate community of fate—your family—is being taken care of, helps you to think outside your narrow circumstances, and to think more broadly.

If I try to think about, as I have on occasion, how this applies to some of the organizations and governments that we see out there today, whether it be ISIS, or the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, or whatever is going on, there are a couple of important things to take away from this. One of the things that's critical is the quality of information that people are getting, and how you can ensure that that information is appropriately informative. That's not an easy question to address because there's so many sources of information, there's so much obfuscation of what is going on, and what leads from one thing to another thing.

One of the most important things we need to do, whether it be with people who we think have got it—the Tea Party, in the United States, who we think have got a total misconception of the way in which the world works, or ISIS, another group with very different implications, who has a total misconception of the way the world works, or who's to blame for what, or what's going on—is to try to figure out, and we've begun to figure out, some of the ways to provide alternative, credible sources of information.

It requires constant vigilance. It requires government actors and officials to act in a somewhat different way than they have. One of my great disappointments over the Obama Administration, for example, is here's this incredible speaker who's not using the bully pulpit in the way that he could to make it clear what's going on in the economy, what's going on in the Ukraine, what's going on with Ebola, to dispel some of the incredible mythmaking that is going on within these problematic communities of fate, or even just misguided communities of fate. They use information so bizarrely.

That requires developing capacities, which we have. John Stewart comes up. I watch my nephew watch John Stewart, and he learns things he wouldn't have learned another way. It's one of the reasons I have a young collaborator—someone who understands social media, or understands the way in which people are learning things and hearing things now.

We've had communities of fate that are expansive, that are committed to helping other people. We've also had in them the capacity to take information that's out there, to help people get understanding of what's going on, learn about situations that they didn’t know about before, and to realize some of their capacity to act on those situations. I don't see a lot of that happening in terms of countering the problematic information that goes into some of these organizations, and yet we have the capacity, as a society, to do that. We have a lot of smart people who know a lot about communications, who know a lot about social media. We need more John Stewarts out there and others even younger who know how to reach a broader audience, and dispel some of the myths.

 One of the ways of thinking about how to translate the work that I've been doing into contemporary circumstances is…there are several factors that we've identified as crucial for producing these kinds of community of fate. One is leadership, one is information and communication, and they're linked to each other. The third is the capacity to act; all of that with the backdrop of providing some minimum level of economic security and wellbeing. But that's a backdrop condition. Where we are failing as a society is on the first two. If we think about some of the organizations that we might think of as problematic, like the Tea Party or like ISIS, they've provided a capacity to act, but based on questionable information and questionable leadership. They've solved one of the problems for communities of fate to exist and survive and to continue, but on the basis of things that lead them to very perverse—in my view—actions.

We've talked already a little bit about the issue of information and communication, and that's a critical issue. We think about something like Twitter. Yes, it provides loads of information that we never had before, but who's curating that information? Do we find the curator of that information at all credible? How do we find that curator of information? That's the leadership issue.

We have not paid sufficient attention to how to develop, or support those kinds of leaders who are doing positive things, and they don't know how to lead once they get into position. The big issue to solve is back to this question of leadership. I wrote a paper once called "Principled Principals." We need leaders—the principal—who has principles, but knows how to communicate them, knows how to be accountable to the publics that he/she should be accountable to, to give those publics voice.

The other part of this communication and information piece is not just the leader providing some information and communication, and doing it in a way that people are more or less likely to believe, it's also giving enough people voice to challenge that information. To say, "I read over here, so tell me why that's not right," and to create a deliberative process that raises questions among people who have to be in the same room together: what's really going on here? Is this something we should act on or not? Is this credible or not?

The concept of community of fate, I did a little background check on it to see if I created it, which I had thought I had. It turns out that it has appeared in other literatures from time to time in some form or another, mostly in philosophy about thinking about an ethical situation in which people would act together. It hasn't so much appeared in psychology or neuroscience, as far as I know. I suspect—as I start to read some people like Jonathan Haidt and others, who are thinking about moral reasoning—that the community in which you're in clearly has consequences for the moral reasoning that you do. There are a lot of links there that I need to still explore, and I'm just beginning to.

It's a very interdisciplinary subject, there's no question about that. As I've said, a community of fate is about evoking norms and beliefs about the way in which the world works. That was part of what the great capacity of the leadership was—to change people's beliefs about whether they could do something and change something. The notion of beliefs of that sort comes from economics, comes from Bayesianism, comes from philosophy, comes from psychology. When you think about the organizational foundations for a community of fate, you're already in the world of sociology, economics, certainly political science, certainly history, in thinking about those issues. It's a multidisciplinary concept by its very nature. To answer the questions that we've been talking about in relationship to it requires a multidisciplinary approach.

We keep coming back to the issue of a community of fate: can it be for good or for bad, right? We can imagine the beer hall in Munich and what happened there that created a community of fate, and we can imagine the left-wing union organizers and communist intellectuals developing a different kind of community of fate. The real distinction between them is not just the ethical principles that inform them—that's clearly an important distinction—but what kind of community of fate it is. The terminology that I use there, and I keep repeating and want to get that through, is between an inclusive and an expansive community of fate versus an exclusive and narrowing community of fate. That's the difference.

Whatever the actual principles or ethics of the leaders and the members, a community of fate that is based on discriminating against certain people, engaging in genocide against certain people, terrorizing certain people because they're the other—whatever other that is—as opposed to thinking about everybody as being part of the same community. There may be enemies, but they're of a very different kind. They are, not because they're Jewish, or because they're a particular sect of Muslim, or because they're black, it's because they are doing bad things to someone, killing them, or raping them, or depriving them of food and medicine.

Scale is a real issue here. I don't think it can be scaled up to include the whole world, but it can certainly be scaled up to include all kinds of organizations that have global commitments and cross various boundaries.

Doctors Without Borders is a very good example of a community of fate that has been created among medical practitioners that now literally crosses borders, engages people outside it, is attracting others to be part of it either as a support network or as activists within it that meets all the criteria of an expansive community of fate. They don't decide who to treat on the basis of their color, race, sex, but whether they're sick or not, whether they're in an environment where they're not being treated, literally, medically treated, very well. Those are the criteria of an expansive community of fate, as opposed to making decisions on some grounds like race, sex, religion.

I met John Brockman originally at a conference that Lawrence Krauss organized at Arizona State called Origins. I got invited to this conference to talk about the origins of the state, which is something I have studied and know something about—the origins of government. When I started looking at the program I realized I was on the very last panel because we had to do the origins of the universe, the origins of various physical and astronomical parts of origins—biological origins, origins of speech, origins of species—and finally we get to the origin of the state, which is very late in the story. As a political scientist, often origins of the state is the first thing you study. That's why I was at that conference. I'm a political scientist who uses historical material, thinks about how governments come into being, and how they are sustained.  

I did a PhD at Harvard, got my PhD in '74, took what I mean to be a first job—a short job—at the University of Washington in order to explore the West Coast of the United States, and to get out of the elite university system that I've been a part of for so long. (Bryn Mawr before Harvard.) While I was there I met Doug North, who sort of adopted me. He's an economist, economic historian, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1993. I'd written a dissertation and a first book, which had to do with problems of conflict and collusion, various issues of cooperation. He and I ended up teaching a political economy seminar to undergraduates for almost ten years, and out of that came his Nobel Price winning book, Structure and Change in Economic History, and a book that transformed my career called, Of Rule and Revenue, which was about the origins of the tax capacity and the extractive capacity of the state. It took me back to Ancient Greece, and went through various modes of production again, "Marxist was I," through to contemporary democracies, looking at Australia.

That started me on the path of thinking much more concretely about this relationship between governments and their subjects and citizens. When I started writing that book, one of the things that Doug North and lots of other economists were working on then—in the late 70s and early 80s—was the development of transaction cost economics, out of the work of Ronald Coase. I assumed that the explanation of why taxes looked so different over different parts of history and different places had to do with economic transaction costs. What I learned is it had to do with political transaction costs, much more than economic transaction costs. By political transaction costs I mean the cost of becoming legitimate, gauging the quasi-voluntary compliance. These were rules people had to follow. The best tax systems were based on the voluntary as well as the quasi-voluntary part of compliance—if you had to monitor everybody, if you had to coerce everybody.

It was, in a sense, the beginning of my interest in community of fate. You wanted to create an environment in which people felt morally obligated to pay taxes, if certain conditions existed. They believed government was going to keep its promises. The money they extracted was going to be used more or less for what they promised, the way they made that decision and implemented those decisions were relatively fair, and most importantly, that there was enforcement, not so much against me but against someone who didn't pay their taxes. You wanted to make sure that they were made to pay their taxes, or else why would you.

The problem with looking at that question was I could see that there was this important role of quasi-voluntary compliance and legitimacy. But you can't study the conditions under which people pay their taxes because those are hidden behaviors. I wanted to look at that question and delve deeper into it. I looked at military service and conscription—again, over history—looking at five or six countries because I could get material under the conditions, and who was most likely to go along with the demand for volunteering for the military during a big war, not just about conscription, but about volunteering.

I looked at five Anglo-Saxon democracies: U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and France—very different kind of a model of a democracy over approximately 200 years. One of the most interesting cases was probably Canada, because the difference between the Anglophones and the Francophones was strong, and demonstrated that the conditions under which citizens would give their, in this case, contingent consent—it was a voluntary behavior, whether to sign up for the military or not—was distinctive between the two.

The Canadian, I looked at Ontario versus Quebec because I could get good data, and in Ontario they thought, "World War I. We have to fight. The Motherland, Britain, is under attack." In Quebec they said, "What do you mean, the Motherland? France was not our motherland, even though they're under attack. They left us here on the ice floes, and then modified their religion, had a revolution, did all kinds of things. We have no obligation to the French, and the Canadian constitution says that we only have to fight if we're attacked, if Canada is attacked, and we're not buying this, that Canada is attacked if France or Britain is attacked."

The same thing happened again in World War II. Largely what was responsible for this was that the Francophones did not feel that the Canadian government—the federal government—had come through on its promises to them on language, on a whole variety of other issues, which they felt were part of their original contract to become part of Canada.

That gave me an in into that question of legitimacy. I continued to worry about this problem about where do these obligations come from, how are they constructed. You could see in Francophone Canada that the priests, the communities, everything was supporting this particular way of thinking about the issue. In Anglophone Canada, the ministers, the organizations, were all committed to another way, the newspapers. They were socially constructing knowledge, information, ways to think about this question. I wanted to explore that further. Though there were some stops in between thinking about trust, and trustworthiness, and other issues, that ultimately led to the book that brings up the question of community of fate and how that gets constructed.

I spent forty years at the University of Washington. I went half-time about five years ago and took a job in Australia to help set up the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Last year I was recruited very strongly to become director of the Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. 

The Center is in the process of reimagining itself. It's celebrating its sixtieth anniversary, and we are trying to be one of the key locations for advancing the most interesting work in the social sciences that can be done. This involves not only continuing to accept individual applicant-based fellowships, it's a residential fellowship facility, as we have been doing for sixty years, but also encouraging, to the extent we can, research-based projects and programs that also produce fellows. In the six months that I've been there, we seem to be filling a very important niche, and have been attracting some extraordinarily interesting programs in psychology, and political science, and political economy, and history, and all of them involving multiple disciplines to think about important social science questions, and social science questions with real implications for society and how people lead their lives.