7 June 2021
“Le Radeau de la Méduse” (The Raft of Medusa) by Théodore Géricault. Wikimedia Commons.
The time has come to take a radically non-Hegelian view of history. Hegelianism seems to me the most sophisticated version of a comforting metaphysics according to which history has a transcendent meaning, and converges towards absolute knowledge. The fact is that history has no meaning, and therefore no secret rationality. History is not cunning: we may say that real history – what actually happens – is rather the multiplicative product of human naiveté.
In 1905, a young man aged 25 sent an article on Brownian motion to a prestigious German physics journal. Brownian motion is the name of a rather banal phenomenon: it describes the fact that very small particles, for example tiny grains of dust, when suspended in air or in a liquid, flicker and slowly “drift”. This motion, or rather these fluctuations, led the young man –who lived in Zurich – to infer that molecules suspended in air or in a liquid cannot be infinitely small, that they have a discrete and minimum size, and that they are atoms – from the Greek word, which means indivisible and individual. In fact, if it were possible to have infinitely small molecules, their impact on the grains of dust would balance the grains which would remain stationary. Instead, they drift.
It is interesting that the Japanese call the sensible world, the everyday world in which we live, “the drifting world”. Einstein (the name of the boy who lived in Zurich) had a view similar to that of the Japanese.
Then came quantum mechanics, which tells us that everything is granular, even space and time, and that for this reason if Achilles allows the tortoise a head start, he will sooner or later overtake it, because he will have to cover a finite number of segments. Since the world is not continuous, its motion is a kind of eternal Brownian motion. “Space is a fluctuating swarm of gravity quanta – gravitons – acting on each other.”(1) According to modern physics our world drifts, like a piece of wood floating on the surface of a river.
I read about the political situation in India today. Which is now ruled, I would say dominated, by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “the largest political party in the world,”(2) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Challenging the principle according to which it is not correct to interpret Asian parties as counterparts of Western parties, I would like to say that the Bharatiya Janata Party Janata Party is essentially a fascist political force: it expresses Hindu nationalism, combining a strong national identitarianism with a religious one, it relies partly on paramilitary forces, and is fiercely anti-Muslim. The fact is that 14.2% of the1.3 billion Indians are Muslims. Indian Muslims occupy the lowest position in society, also from an economic perspective.
Commenting on the 2014 Indian election results, renowned political scientists were not surprised that only 10% of Muslims voted for the BJP, whose support increases the more one moves up the Indian caste system (the most prestigious caste, that of the Brahmins, accounts for most of BJP’s votes, 60%). Also, they were not surprised that the Muslims of India prefer to vote for the Indian National Congress (INC, Gandhi’s party), which had a project for the secular and extra-religious unification of India (46% of Muslims vote for the INC).
Now, my reaction is opposite to that of these political scientists: how is it possible that 10% of Indian Muslims vote for a party that preaches a kind of religious war against them? And also: how is it possible that only 46% of Muslims vote for the INC? It is said that sociology and political science should not focus on details, on small minorities, that overwhelming and undemocratic majorities rarely exist... That 10% of Muslims probably voted for the BJP by mistake, or because they were ill-informed, mentally ill, or snobs... The fact is, however, that social and political reality always includes people who make mistakes, who are ill-informed, who are mentally ill, or snobs... And it is wrong to believe that these marginal phenomena have no social impact. The exceptions do not necessarily confirm the rule, we may say that the exceptions are the rule, and that the rule always results from the intersection of exceptions. Is it wise to approximate, to exclude the fringes, the unpredictable foam generated by the splitting of things, so that the edges of things are never sharp, but always dissolved and uncertain?
history has no destination, which basically means it makes no sense. In the double sense of “sense”. It does not zigzag towards a specific destination, rather, it drifts aimlessly like dust particles in liquid. The movement of history is a Brownian movement.
When the emperor Theodosius promulgated the edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD.– which made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire – the Nicene Christians of the Empire (as opposed to Arian Christians) amounted to less that 10% of the total inhabitants (so the same ratio as Muslims voting for their enemies in India). The masses, especially in rural areas and small towns, remained pagan. Yet historians tell us that the reign of Theodosius can be considered as the starting point of a completely Christianised Europe. It is a rather incomplete completeness. The truth is that a minority – in this case a Christian one – can be historically decisive. So why shouldn’t the fact that as many as 10% of Muslims voted for Modi be historically important?
Some might say that the Christian minority coincided more or less with the ruling class at the time of the Empire: an example of a minority dominating the majority. However, also in oppositional or revolutionary contexts, it is often the smallest minorities that bring about change in the world. We may think of the Italian Risorgimento: how many people in the various States that were later to constitute Italy were really interested in Italian unification? No polls were produced in the 19th century, but it is easy to imagine that very few thought about a united Italy. Indeed, most Italians were illiterate at the time, and therefore could follow political events very little. History books claim that Giuseppe Mazzini’s followers played an important role in the Risorgimento, but how many followers could there be? It was the intellectual and political elites that made Italy, not “the masses”. Along with ruling elites, also opposition elites exist.
This is what makes me doubt so much quantitative sociological research. In this domain the conventional divisions that sociologists speak of when considering or interviewing people are treated as real divisions. For example, many sociological studies label interviewees as “Farmer”, “Labourer”, “Clerk, middle-level manager”, “Senior manager, industrialist, freelancer”, and conclusions are drawn about social classes: as if the rough division that sociologists trace between very different individuals, even though they might have a similar job, corresponded to specific and definable social objects. The truth is that these are hypothetical distinctions, largely arbitrary, which always include a wide range of exceptions. Hence the idea, now increasingly widespread, that social classes are not ontological entities but nominalist classifications. (3)
For example, in his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu asked women from all walks of life what they thought about a series of things. He also asked “Do you have a bath or shower at least once a day?” (4) In relation to the profession of the head of the household, this is what emerged:
“Have a bath or shower at least once a day” –
Farmer Labourer Clerk Upper social class
9.8% 16.9% 36.6% 43.2%
In addition, 23.2% of women who did not work and 32% of those who did work responded positively.
The conclusion that should be drawn, as sociologists, is that the higher the social status the more people wash. Which is itself an interesting piece of information to explain. However, I would be inclined to go further and investigate the almost 10% of farmers who shower every day; or the more than 50% of women in the upper classes who do not wash every day. It is precisely what deviates from an expectation, from a norm that in this case is statistical, that can be the most interesting. Perhaps the only farmer in ten who washes every day is the one who indicates in what direction the peasant way of life is going to evolve. It is for this reason that – unlike what certain superficial and dogmatic neo-Marxists do – we cannot reduce all political, religious, and cultural forces, all economic activity to a rigid class, as if society were a series of distinct boxes in which individuals cluster, with a few individuals who wander from one box to another, presenting exceptions considered irrelevant.
This mistake was made by the German Social Democratic Party at the end of the 19th century, when it saw that it was being increasingly voted by workers in elections. Since the majority of the German population at that time comprised more or less manual workers, the conclusion was that sooner or later the German SPD would come to power, once all workers had voted for that party. To the point that people were surprised when not all the workers in a small town voted Social Democratic! Obviously things didn’t work out that way, because the minority of workers who (at that time) did not adhere to Marxism at some point directed other workers away from socialism... and, in the 1930s, to a large extent, towards the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
No human being is completely defined by his or her social qualification: worker, wage earner, entrepreneur, young, old, man, woman, highly qualified, badly qualified, heterosexual, LGTB, married, single... etc. Drawing a circle between individuals who share common traits and saying “this is a social identity” is a big mistake. If things were so simple, human history would not be so chaotic and unpredictable. History would be like a train ride along a track, a train that might have to stop every now and then because of an unforeseen event, a cow standing on the track, for example, a traveller who commits suicide... but sooner or later it would arrive at destination.
In my opinion history has no destination, which basically means it makes no sense. In the double sense of “sense”. It does not zigzag towards a specific destination, rather, it drifts aimlessly like dust particles in liquid. The movement of history is a Brownian movement.
As we have said, Einstein understood Brownian motion existed because each fluctuating element is affected not by continuous pressures, which would keep the element in a state of balance, but by discontinuous, discrete and individual pressure. I believe that in society something similar occurs: being formed by individuals, i.e. discontinuous elements, societies push the various social entities – institutions, parties, churches, cultural movements – in all directions. This seems to confirm the sociological line of research called methodological individualism.
For more than a century, sociologists and philosophers of society seem to have been beset by this dilemma: are societies holistic entities, i.e. are they a whole that more or less conditions individuals? Or are societies to be understood as the result of the actions of individuals, each with their own desires and beliefs? When Margaret Thatcher claimed that society does not exist, she was evidently referring to the latter philosophy, according to which social entities are nominal, not real: only the individuals who make up societies exist. The moral is: “mind your own business and society will be just fine”.
It is usually said that methodological individualism is typical of a right-wing approach, while holism is typical of a left-wing approach, but this is not true. Many thinkers on the left were or are individualists (one name stands out: Norberto Bobbio), while thinkers on the right can be holists. In fact, individualism is very often understood in relation to how important individual rationality is believed to be, whereby individuals are seen as representatives of the homo oeconomicus, that is, – according to the fictitious narrative of most modern economics – they are individuals who tend to make wise choices, who use the information they have, following their beliefs, in order to try to maximise their profit. (5)
Here is not the right place to address this topic. I will limit myself to saying that the opposition between holism and individualism is a false dilemma, because human society is both the effect of the choices and behaviour of individuals and of institutions (what Hegel termed the Objective Spirit) that shape human choices and behaviour. In Aristotelian terms, (6) I would say that individuals as such are the material cause of society, while the óla, the “all”, are its formal cause. As for the efficient cause, it consists of the desires, needs, hopes, drives of individuals. While the final cause – although this is rarely consciously acknowledged – is the survival of the species. After all, the “aim” of any society is to perpetuate itself biologically, even though this aim might be an implicit one, so to speak (but not always: fascism taxed unmarried men and women).
When I say that many “holistic” sociologists ignore individual fragmentation, I am not referring to this – more or less idealised – image of homo as a rational decision maker. Human individuals are often no less adrift than a speck of dust: precisely because they shift, the whole of society ends up fluctuating, taking unexpected directions. Individuals are not coherent units, they are – as psychoanalysis teaches us – an often contradictory combination of mostly irrational impulses. When a poor Muslim, for example, decides to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party, his choice is a specific one, it can be isolated, but the impulses that lead to that choice may be the most idiosyncratic and often conflicting. Political scientists know that many people in our democracies decide who to vote for on the day they go to the polling station, sometimes they even decide while standing inside the voting booth… And what determines a choice may be something that has no direct relation with the vote itself. This man may decide he wants to vote for BJP that day because he has quarrelled with his wife earlier, or because his football team lost the day before, or because it is raining... Sociologistic sociologists – sociologists who study society as if it existed to be studied by sociologists – will say that there may very well be random individual variations, but that in the end it will be possible to draw a coherent picture that makes sense. However, precisely this overall and coherent sense is the great illusion of sociologistic sociology, according to which social processes have simple, linear, identifiable, describable causes... I would not disregard the 10% of Indian Muslims who vote for Modi, or the 10% of French peasants who take a bath every day, as insignificant deviations from the average, as the indistinct contour of the clear-cut figures of sociological ontology (social classes, income levels, ethnic groups, confessional groups). Because the whole of society is, in fact, indistinct contour continuously turning into another indistinct contour.
For example, we have read in several places that European suicide bombers and terrorism are the effect of the condition of marginality of many young people of Muslim origin in certain European societies. In fact, Europe’s kamikazes were mostly second or third generation immigrants, who came from families that were mostly not particularly religious. Hence the simplified and linear reasoning: the marginalisation of so many young people in European banlieues is the cause of fundamentalist terrorism. This simplification points us in the wrong direction. A young person of Muslim origin who feels dissatisfied, economically or culturally marginalised in a European country, can “react” in multiple ways: he or she might turn to petty or organised crime, to drugs or alcohol, re-emigrate to the family’s country of origin, fall into depression, become a social worker specialised in Muslim issues, be interested only in nightlife, become an animal rights activist, etc. If, at a certain point, this person turns to jihad in the form of terrorism, it is because this person embraces a ready-made ideology which seems to provide an answer. All ideologies interpret our problems, the same way poetry does, rock or funk music, videos, political demagogues, etc. Society offers us languages, signifiers, (7) through which we try to express our idiosyncratic discomfort, our problems – and jihadism is an effective means to express the envious anger of some people. However, there is no linear causal relationship between a type of social marginality (which does not necessarily mean extreme poverty) and some “heroic” ideological options.
Increasing technological development is to be expected, of course, but it is difficult to say where this technological development will take us. It could lead to the atomic or ecological destruction of the planet, or to a more balanced and peaceful society, or to something different that science fiction authors strive to predict. Who can say?
The fact that individuals are the raw material of society – in the sense that if there were no individuals there would be no society – is self-evident. The point is how these individuals interact and create history. Certainly institutions, ideas and ideals, faiths, philosophies, works of art... exist to provide a direction. But the reasons and ways in which each individual embraces institutions, ideas and ideals, faiths, etc., can be the most diverse, and for this reason the outcomes are unpredictable.
Who has ever really predicted history? How many predicted the Stalinist evolution of Bolshevism? Who predicted Hitler’s advent to power in the most cultured and scientific country in Europe? In 1932 a naïve Bertolt Brecht bought a house in Germany... In the spring of 1989, who predicted that that same year Soviet communism would commit suicide? Five years ago, who would have predicted the rise of anti-globalist sovereignty, Brexit, Trump, and Matteo Salvini in Italy? Thirty years ago, who could have predicted that China was to become an economic super-power? If some did predict the future it was by accident, and when they did they predicted certain things about the future, not the entire future. It has been repeated to the point of boredom that Marx predicted socialism. However, the kind of socialism experienced by the Soviet Union, and then elsewhere, was not a prophesied event, it was precisely the application of Marx’s programme, it was the attempt to carry out a conscious historical project. Surely Marx did not foresee that the revolution would break out in a capitalistically immature country such as Russia, that it would take a Stalinist turn, that two opposing military blocs would be born... He did not foresee anything about actual history.
Nowadays, we often quote something the meteorologist Lorenz said: “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Japan may cause a hurricane in Argentina”,(8) to say that small causes can have significant effects, or vice versa; that in short, the future is largely unpredictable. And this expresses the notion that history is as fluctuating as Brownian motion.
Every epoch has constructed a certain sense of history. In Antiquity, a decadentist view of history prevailed: a golden age of heroes, of glorious ancestors was followed by present times characterised by what was continuous decadence (this was essentially the Greek and Roman conception). There was also an idea of circularity: at a certain point a flood would exterminate human societies, or most of them, and humanity would have to start its journey all over again, starting from barbarism. The idea of the present as a decadent epoch compared to a marvellous past was common also among Humanists from the 15th century onwards: the Ancients, especially the Greeks and the Latins, were better and more intelligent than contemporaries.
With Christianity, a messianic and therefore non-decadentist vision of history took hold: the world was moving towards the end of time, when God would finally judge the living and the dead. A progressive idea of history has therefore prevailed in the West for about the last three centuries: exposed in part by Vico, then by Hegel, Marx, Comte, Spencer and positivism... Progress means marching in the direction of Reason or knowledge: humanity gradually emerges from the darkness of ignorance and superstition (i.e. from religions) and moves towards the light of rationality, of which science is the paradigm.
When I say that many “holistic” sociologists ignore individual fragmentation, I am not referring to this – more or less idealised – image of homo as a rational decision maker. Human individuals are often no less adrift than a speck of dust: precisely because they shift, the whole of society ends up fluctuating, taking unexpected directions.
Perhaps, after a couple of centuries, we are at another turning point: the development of chaos and complexity theories, together with the impact that the second principle of thermodynamics has had on our worldview, is causing us to open up to an indeterministic view of history. That is, humanity is seen as a boat floating in the ocean. Increasing technological development is to be expected, of course, but it is difficult to say where this technological development will take us. It could lead to the atomic or ecological destruction of the planet, or to a more balanced and peaceful society, or to something different that science fiction authors strive to predict. Who can say? On the other hand, the theories about the circular nature of history, such as those professed by the Ancients, do not seem to play the slightest role today – and in this sense, our view of history is not at all Nietzschean.
In short, the time has come to take a radically non-Hegelian view of history. Hegelianism seems to me the most sophisticated version of a comforting metaphysics according to which history has a transcendent meaning, and converges towards absolute knowledge. The fact is that history has no meaning, and therefore no secret rationality. History is not cunning: we may say that real history – what actually happens – is rather the multiplicative product of human naiveté.
1. C. Rovelli, La realtà non è come ci appare, Raffaello Cortina, Milan 2014. loc. 2193.
2. Because it counts 110 milion members, more than the Chinese Communist Party.
3. Already Raymond Aron claimed that social classes had a nominalist value. See R. Aron, La lutte de classes, Gallimard, Paris 1964.
4. P. Bourdieu, La distinction: critique sociale du jugement, Les Editions de Minuit, Paris 1979.
5. Economic psychology was later used to counter this rationalist axiom, its focus on the irrationality of economic behaviour. See the works of Daniel Kahneman, Eric Kirchler, Dan Ariely, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, etc.
6. Aristotle (Physics, 194b 15-195a 2; 198a 24-25) distinguished four causes: material, formal, efficient, final. The material cause of a statue, for example, is the marble from which it is made. The formal cause is the form that the sculptor’s mind wants to give the marble. The efficient cause is the action of the hammer or planer on the marble. The final cause is the intention of the sculptor to provide the City with a beautiful statue.
7. As in structuralist linguistics, but mostly in the sense given to this word by Jacques Lacan.