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  • Abdication, Collective Alignment, and the Problem of Directionality
  • John R. Hall (bio)

In Ruling Oneself Out Ivan Ermakoff (2008) addresses the puzzle of what amounts to collective political suicide: why would any constitutional body pass legislation that in effect cedes all its power to another entity—an autocrat? Constitutional rule rules itself out, closing off any pathway back to constitutional rule. Ermakoff explores this unusual but not unique development in two cases of the utmost significance for World War II: the March 1933 decision by the German Reichstag to give power to Adolf Hitler to modify the Weimer constitution without further recourse to parliament, and the French National Assembly’s decision in Vichy in July 1940 to transfer all state powers to Marshall Philippe Pétain.

Ermakoff has woven a fabric of many threads—some historical, some methodological, some theoretical—drawn together in complex patterns. His analysis begins by artfully turning what in many books would be a historiographical review of previous work into a deep and thorough consideration of three alternative explanations of abdication. First, it may be that social [End Page 91] actors engage in a self-defeating constitutional abdication because they fear the consequences, either for themselves, for the group with which they identify, or for the general population. In essence, abdication is coerced, not voluntary. Second, actors fundamentally miscalculate: they do not fully know what they are doing, or they misinterpret what they are doing by holding onto some side bet that they will be able to reverse or ignore the act that turns out to be constructed as abdication. Third, they are rational actors who hold certain interests aligned with the autocrat-in-waiting, and they engage in ideological (or perhaps other) collusion because they seek the benefits that they believe will come with abdication, either for themselves, for their party, or for their country. In assessing these explanations, Ermakoff does not totally discount the possibility of some coercion, some miscalculation, some ideological or other political collusion, but he convincingly argues that in each case—Germany in 1933, France in 1940—none of these explanations offers a robust and adequate explanation of abdication.

This extended critique of alternative explanations takes up the first half of the book. Tellingly, each of the theories that Ermakoff evaluates amounts to a factor explanation that operates in the frame of the “general linear model” (82n; see also xxvii): a temporally prior general factor, x, causes a temporally subsequent result, y. What, then, is the alternative? In place of the three inadequate factor explanations, Ermakoff proposes an explanation centered on trajectories of social interaction during the unfolding time of the political process. In essence, he argues that the outcomes of abdication were the consequences of processes of “collective alignment” (179). Acting under threats of violence, politicians in each case faced a crucially important decision, because acquiescence would mean “institutionalizing arbitrary power” (181).

The worst outcome for any given politician, Ermakoff asserts, is isolation, which exposes the individual to psychological trauma of self-doubt, shunning by colleagues, questioning or even rejection by constituents, and perhaps physical reprisals. Therefore, in these extreme conditions individual members of a parliamentary body seek the protection of a collective decision, but they do so under conditions of mutual uncertainty: other colleagues also are unsure how to respond to the extraordinary demands for abdication. Collective alignment unfolds over the course of a few days, by way of three interactive processes, when politicking occurs. First, in sequential alignment, the decision of any individual—with a varying “threshold” of willingness to [End Page 92] join a wider group of people—is based on gaining knowledge of how a sufficient number of other people in a reference group intend to act, such that ego decides to join this emergent collective decision. Paradoxically, as Ermakoff argues, quoting Mark Granovetter, collective outcomes can be at odds with the “average level of preferences” (194). But this counterintuitive possibility does not imply some sort of emotional contagion; rather, it can be strictly a matter of calculation. Second, there is the matter of local knowledge. Sequential alignment depends on information, and local knowledge is thus one basis of it: people network with one another, gossip...


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pp. 91-96
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