Revolutions, Black Swans, and Historians
Do revolutions follow predictable patterns, like migratory birds, or are they “black swans” that appear unexpected and surprise us every time? Can historians help us understand the present or do they merely obscure the specificity of current events? These are some of the questions raised by the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. To answer them satisfactorily, however, we may need to distinguish between different kinds of historical fowl. For sometimes a black swan is really a turkey, a dodo, or a blackbird.
Scenes of revolution in Tunis and Cairo certainly bear a resemblance to uprisings in Paris and other European capitals some 220 or 160 years ago. As a number of distinguished historians have pointed out, there are reasons why history repeats itself: later generations of revolutionaries often model their behavior on that of their predecessors. The Bolsheviks saw themselves as Jacobins, battling their Girondin/Menshevik foes. 2011, similarly, recalls 1789, which in turn begs the question of whether another 1793 lies ahead. Other historical parallels also come to mind: 2011 may well foreshadow another 1979, should the Muslim Brotherhood go the way of Khomeni.
But the present wave of revolutionary movements also overlaps with a historiographical current that questions the value of historical parallels and, more ambitiously, the very possibility of determining historical causation. This current is, for the time being, little more than a trickle, but it flows from an influential source: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 best-seller, The Black Swan. His argument underpins two recent articles in the pages of Foreign Affairs, published at a fourteen-month interval, which both presented a case against “linear” interpretations of “complex” historical events, using revolutions as a case-study. In complex systems, “there is an absence of visible causal links between the elements, masking a high degree of interdependence and extremely low predictability,” comment the authors of the second article (“The Black Swan of Cairo”), Taleb himself and Mark Blyth. Writing before the Arab revolutions broke out, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson (in “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos”) had advanced a similar line of thought, but with respect to revolutions past, including the French. Also drawing on The Black Swan, Ferguson criticized the tendency by historians to seek “linear” explanations of complex events,“the proximate triggers of a crisis are often sufficient to explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess.”
The turn to complex systems by these authors is presented as a frontal challenge to the way historians do business: Ferguson chides his colleagues for privileging the longue durée over the crisis, structural imbalances over gross miscalculations. Taleb also has harsh words for historians, who in his view “reverse engineer too much”(Black Swan, 199). Historians should stop pretending they can discover the causes for events, and be content with delivering “the thrill of knowing the past” (198).
There is no doubt a degree of willful provocation in this indictment of the historical profession. And many historians will simply shrug this criticism off as uninformed, although similar arguments have also been made by well-respected historians, such as John L. Gaddis in The Landscape of History (who drew on a similar intellectual genealogy as Taleb: Henri Poincaré, Edward Lorenz, Benoit Mandelbrot). The specific attacks against the historical explanation of revolutions, however, merits reflection. This in turn entails a broader assessment of Taleb’s overall skepticism of the historical craft, and his assumption that history is driven by the unexpected and unpredictable appearances of Black swans. But in fact, one must distinguish between three types of bird:
1. The turkey. This is one of Taleb’s favorites, as it appears in both his 2007 book and the Foreign Affairs article. If you’re a turkey, life is good for the first 1,000 days of your life. You might induce from this regular pattern of feedings that life will continue to be good for as long as you live. But then Thanksgiving comes around, and… well, end of story. Taleb’s point here is to criticize our tendency to assume that improbable events will never happen. Historically, an analogy with the turkey story might be any devastating event that arrives from without: the Black Death of 1348-50; from an Amerindian perspective, the conquest of America; or a natural disaster, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
While surprising when it occurs, this kind of Black Swan does not really pose a challenge to the way we think about the past. No sane person explains the Lisbon earthquake in terms of a political imbalance at the Portuguese court, or the Black Death in terms of a longue durée breakdown of personal hygiene in Western Europe. These catastrophic events happen, as it were, on their own – and when they do, we’re no more prepared than the misfortunate turkey.
2.The dodo. One of the reasons the dodo became extinct was that it was fearless of humans. It also couldn’t fly. Unlike the turkey, in other words, its demise was in part due to a problem within: while it took the arrival of humans to wipe the dodo off the face of the earth, the dodo might have avoided this fate had it had a sense of fear and a pair of wings. I offer the dodo as an avian analogy for another kind of Black Swan – the kind epitomized by the housing crash of 2008. The crash was a perfect example of the kind of hubris Taleb had warned about only a year earlier in his book: economists had been unwilling to consider the outlying chance that the mortgage bubble might burst. In retrospect, however, the cause of the housing crash is not hard to identify: economists and investment bankers had simply been dodos, giving out mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them.
In this case as well, the lesson of the dodo does not apply particularly well to the historian. The reason the dodo went extinct is not a mystery: similarly, there is a large set of historical catastrophes that occurred for fairly straightforward reasons, such as the American Civil War (slavery). Of course, our ability as historians to identify causes retrospectively does not mean that participants had a clear idea of what was happening: no one in 1861 would have predicted four years of slaughter. But again, the short sightedness of contemporaries does not mean that historical reconstruction is impossible or unfounded.
3.The redwing blackbird. Early in 2011, 5,000 blackbirds fell out of the sky, dead, in Arkansas. Why they died remains something of a mystery: some have suspected fireworks, while it also appears that the USDA had a hand in other mass bird deaths. The death of the blackbirds thus presents a real challenge to retrospective causality: in addition to being unpredicted, their fate is also unexplained.
Just because an event is a mystery, of course, doesn’t mean it didn’t have a single cause. Detective stories would be rather disappointing if, at the end of an investigation, Hercule Poirot concluded that due to the complex nature of the social relations on Nile cruises, everyone on the boat contributed to the death of Linnet Ridgeway. So the blackbird analogy may be imperfect for describing complex historical systems: presumably the Arizona blackbirds died for some particular reason, even if we don’t know for certain what it was.
Historical catastrophes, by contrast, may not always happen for a particular reason. This at least is the argument that Taleb and Blyth put forward in their Foreign Affairs article. Our instinct, they point out, is to assign blame to catalysts – e.g., the rising cost of living, or lack of employment options – but it is a mistake to “confus[e] catalysts for causes and assum[e] that one can know which catalyst will produce which effect.” The real cause of the revolution, they suggest, was systemic. We tricked ourselves into thinking that Egypt under Mubarak was stable, whereas in reality the Egyptian government had just swept its social and political problems under the rug. If we were caught off guard by the demonstrations in Tahrir square, it’s only because we let ourselves be fooled by the appearance of calm. In hindsight – in the historian’s rearview mirror – we can recognize that Egypt was a fragile, complex system. Any account of its sudden collapse must consider “the properties of the terrain […] rather than those of a single element of the terrain.”
Interestingly, in his account of political collapse, Ferguson reaches the exact opposite conclusion. Against historical explanations that turn to longue durée and structural conflicts, he suggests as we saw that “proximate triggers” can offer a sufficient explanation. Their different views may stem from their different notions of complexity. Taleb and Blyth distinguish between two kinds of political systems, those that are actually in equilibrium, and those that merely appear to be. Stable countries, they argue, can experience political turmoil without being thrown into social disarray. But countries that produce the illusion of stability by suppressing signs of turmoil are much more prone to total debacles.
Ferguson does not make such a distinction: in his view, all countries are complex systems, and thus can fall prey to black swans. The metaphor governing this view of history, in fact, is less of the avian than the insect variety: to illustrate his perspective, Ferguson revives the old chaos theory tale of the “butterfly [who] flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.” (Taleb also uses this story to illustrate black swans in his book.)
What are we to make, then, of black swans, butterflies, and other fateful birds in the realm of history? Causality is always tricky business: a common joke about history dissertations on early-modern France was that, in their last chapter, they all showed how their topic caused the French Revolution. Tellingly, this particular example of political collapse features in both Foreign Affairs articles as well: for Ferguson, staggering state debt was both the proximate and real cause of Revolution, whereas for Taleb and Blyth, the inherent volatility of Old Regime France is what enabled the Black Swan of Paris to have such a devastating impact.
Given that historians have been debating the origins of the French Revolution ever since it occurred, this event offers a good case study for examining the value of causality in a complex system. The first point to make is that pre-1789 European states seem to justify Taleb and Blyth’s distinction between robust and volatile (if superficially stable) regimes. As Gail Bossenga notes in a recent essay on the “Financial Origins of the French Revolution,” the cost of servicing the French debt was nearly double what the British crown paid in interest, due to the complicated and contradictory structure of French finances. Unsustainable debt may have been the proximate cause of the Revolution, but this debt was only unsustainable because of the systemic problems with French revenue collection. Taleb and Blyth 1, Ferguson 0.
But were these structural problems a sufficient cause of the Revolution? This was the theory, held by both Marxist historians and Marxian political scientists, that lasted up until the 1980s. Then revisionist historians started poking holes in this belief. History itself came to their aid: as nineteenth-century revolutionaries had discovered, the essential contradictions of capitalism were insufficient to trigger the revolution Marx had prophesized. Just because Black Swans can occur doesn’t mean they will. This is where Taleb and Blyth’s distinction between stable and volatile political systems begins to appear a little too neat. Does one ever encounter such ideal-types in reality? Governments that are really good at repression – say, the Soviet Union – are ultimately quite stable. Conversely, all governments undoubtedly have their weak spots and thus exhibit traits of complex systems. Taleb and Blyth 1, Ferguson 1.
The real challenge, it seems, for historians is figuring out how and when systemic weakness are exploited (or exploded) by surface crises. The French debt problem is again exemplary: the French state did not fall apart because it couldn’t collect enough revenue, it fell apart because the debt crisis was intrinsically connected to the broader, systemic problem of political representation and consent to taxation. The financial challenge facing the state only spiraled out of control when it became politicized (as Dale Van Kley and Thomas Kaiser argue in their introduction to From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution, in which Bossenga’s essay also features).
The French story can thus teach us a number of things:
1. It underscores how unhappy states may be like Tolstoy’s unhappy families: every one is unhappy in its own way. Revolutions are unlikely to happen for the same exact reasons, since in each case the crisis must occur on a political fault-line; otherwise, it will just remain a crisis. This means we must completely revise and rewrite the social scientific literature that believed (in Jack Goldstone’s words) “the periodic state breakdowns in Europe, China, and the Middle East from 1500 to 1850 were the result of a single basic process” (see Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World, 459).
2. For a revolution to occur, both a proximate and a systemic cause are necessary. Perhaps over the extended course of centuries every political system will experience an event that “randomly” triggers its collapse; but this sort of disruption occurs on a very different scale. The probability that every human being will die is extremely elevated, but what interests doctors and scholars are those cases of premature death.
3. Where Taleb and Blyth warn against overly simplistic models of causation (“catalysts as causes”), the more common tendency among historians is to pile on the causes (“and this, too, contributed to bringing about the French Revolution” [to be fair, Taleb and Blyth also criticize this tendency as the “tipping point” fallacy]). To some extent, the social, cultural, economic, and political dimensions of any given society are interconnected, so it is not entirely wrong to say that x played a role in causing z, since x influenced y, which in turn triggered z. If causality is often described in terms of billiard balls, one must imagine a table that is nearly covered in them, with a handful of players hitting different balls at once: the ball that finally sinks the eight-ball will have been set in motion by a chain reaction of other moving balls. It would probably be impossible to predict exactly how (or even if) the eight-ball would be sunk; but that does not entail that we cannot, after the fact, reconstruct the various movements and shocks that led to its sinking. In so doing, we might learn which balls actually contributed and which balls did not: just because another ball is moving in the direction of the eight-ball doesn’t mean it necessarily contributed to sinking it. If one is going to make arguments about causality, one has to walk through all the different steps leading from the cue to the pocket.
Do historians need to rethink their methodology in light of complex system theory? There is surely value in rethinking the nature of events – a perennial subject of methodological inquiry, after all – with an eye to different modes of causality. Historians still make plenty of claims that are ridiculously unfounded (such as, Spinoza caused the French Revolution), and do like to multiply causes excessively. It is also worth thinking more carefully about how surface crises relate to structural weakness. For starters, how do we identify a structural weakness? Certain political or economic arrangements may seem doomed to collapse, and yet stubbornly survive crisis after crisis. Historians like to speak about “internal contradictions,” but how do we know when these contradictions were genuinely untenable, and when they were just, well, contradictions? Doesn’t every society exhibit contradictions? It is here that complex systems may ultimately be of the greatest benefit: less for helping us understand how things fall apart, and more for helping us understand how and when they don’t. After all, there are an awful lot of white swans out there, too.