The oldest, simplest, and most easily comprehensible explanation of dramatic military, political, or economic events is the conspiracy theory: Brutus conspiring with the assassins of Caesar, Hotspur conspiring with Glendower, politicos in a smoke-filled room, fat cats forming secret cartels in posh boardrooms. The facts may be devilishly hard to come by, but the explanation is alluringly simple. All really good spy novels [one of which, by Daniel Silva, I am now reading] take it as their fundamental premise that things happen because people [good or bad, as the case may be] get together in secret and plot them. The benign version of this principle of explanation has been given a name by historians: The Great Man Theory of History. From this principle flow the exposes and the biographies of important men and women that regularly show up as History Book Club selections and on best seller lists.
For somewhat more than two centuries now, the very best social scientists have labored to free us from the meretricious attractions of conspiracy theories, and to replace them with deeper, more complex [and, inevitably, less exciting] structural explanations of major historical movements. The forefather of these efforts is Adam Smith's Invisible Hand, but it is in the writings of Karl Marx that the debunking of conspiracy theories really hits its stride. Marx sought the "laws of motion of capitalist economy," and he brushed aside as superficial and "utopian" the notion that the personalities or individual plans and intentions of economic actors played any important role in the unfolding of those laws. He considered ludicrous the notion that economic crashes were caused by greed, or that the rigors of the factory floor were traceable to the malign intentions of entrepreneurs. Since Marx wrote, all of the great social theorists have followed the same path. "Social relationships of production," "manifest and latent functions of social institutions," "socio-economic status," even "the paranoid style in American politics," which last, despite its apparent appeal to the character of individual personalities, is really a social explanation of political phenomena.
It is always a bit of a comedown, for those of us who cut our eyeteeth on structural/functional explanations of social phenomena, to discover that bad people really do get together behind closed doors and plot. Why slog through all those pages of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim and Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons if all we need is a few more Daniel Ellsbergs?
I have labored long and hard in this blog to find a structural explanation for the current fate of the health care reform bill. And yet now, as we approach the final hours, it really does seem as though the pettiness, mean-spiritedness, and bitterness of one passive aggressive wretch explains more than all of my structural/functional theorizing.
It was Marx's view that individuals do not make history. Classes make history, structures of production and exploitation make history, economic contradictions make history. The Napoleons and Wellingtons, the Lincolns and Booths, even the Hitlers and Stalins, simply ride the wave of history.
Who knows? Maybe I should spend my time reading Matt Drudge rather than The Statistical Abstract of the United States.