- Interest, Collusion, and AlignmentA Critical Evaluation of Ruling Oneself Out
Ivan Ermakoff ’s Ruling Oneself Out focuses on two major instances of voluntary surrender of power in Western history: the March 1933 bill that empowered Adolf Hitler with the right to amend the Weimar Constitution and the transfer of full executive, legislative, and constitutional authority to Marshal Philippe Pétain in July 1940. The first event inaugurated the Third Reich, the other Vichy France. Much ink has been spilled over these events. But Ermakoff finds various problems with the existing accounts and advances his own theory of collective abdication in their stead. Moreover, his theory is geared to analyze all kinds of political crises and breakdowns where collective abdication plays a role—as it often does in such contexts. Ermakoff ’s theory is a formal one. It can hold for any situation in which a group confronts the possibility of collective persecution and has to decide whether to resist or abdicate. It is not confined to formally defined collectivities or to parliamentary settings: the dynamics that it reveals are independent of specific group configurations and institutional contexts. [End Page 83]
Ruling Oneself Out is a huge triumph. It makes a signal contribution to the study of political crises and transitions. It rightly calls our attention to the significance of conflictive conjunctures and offers tools to understand them. This is particularly salutary because crises are episodes whose autonomous interactional logic and macro effects are usually ignored both by structuralist and by culturalist sociology. Ermakoff deftly combines phenomenology with game theory, quantitative analysis with textual interpretation, formal modeling with archival research. These approaches are rarely mixed in social science. Regrettably, they are even sometimes seen as antithetical to each other. This book, in contrast, shows the extent to which eclecticism can be innovative and productive in social science. I was reminded of the late Roger Gould’s work while reading Ermakoff—in terms of scope, reasoning, and quality. Ruling Oneself Out is perhaps somewhat overlong (there are some repetitions), but the writing is pellucid throughout.
I want to provide some reflections on the empirical and theoretical claims of the book. I will focus on the French case, since I know a little more about it. My aim is not to argue against the general point of the book but to raise some issues that, I believe, the theory might successfully deal with. I do not doubt the significance of the alignment process that Ermakoff so skillfully traces and analyzes. Yet I want to push him farther on its specific dynamics. I wonder if Ermakoff might not give short shrift to the coercion and collusion arguments in accounting for collective abdication. Perhaps we do not need to choose between these factors. It is possible that the alignment process did occur in a coercive context and that the prospect or the reality of interest-based collusion affected the interactional process. Finally, I want to underline a central theoretical issue: the relationship between abdication and alignment. I think that Ermakoff ’s case choices allow him to make a convincing claim about the independence of the collective abdication process from group characteristics. But there is a price to pay. We do not quite know when collective alignment will lead to collective abdication and when it will not. We are afforded a model about how collective abdication can come about in different organizational contexts—but at the cost of a general theory of collective alignment.
On July 10, 1940, a great majority of the members of the French National Assembly endorsed a bill that vested the premier of the time, Pétain, with constitutional, executive, and legislative powers. This act legalized the demise of the National Assembly and thus of the Third Republic. Ermakoff [End Page 84] argues against the standard accounts of the vote. These accounts stress coercion or, more specifically, the fear of possible reprisals; deception about the possible consequences of the bill; and ideological collusion with the authoritarianism of the challenger. Ermakoff adduces empirical evidence refuting these accounts. Further, he says that these explanations overlook the actors’ uncertainty—their qualms and oscillations during the decision-making process. For him, the...