Where Raskolnikov went wrong

Credit and Blame, by Charles Tilly (Princeton University Press)

The title of Charles Tilly’s latest book is likely to be read by casual browsers as having something to do with who was to blame for the credit crunch – a sober analysis of who did what to bring on the recession, or a screed against the malfeasance of bankers. In fact it is more interesting than either of those things, while in a sense being ‘about’ both:Credit and Blame is about the calculus of justice, the procedures by which we decide that particular groups or individuals are worthy of credit or blame – and reward or punishment.

Like the Columbia University social science professor’s last book Why? What happens when people give reasons… and why, this one might at first appear oddly abstract and specialist, but in fact sheds light on questions at the heart of social and political life. Tilly’s examples range from children’s behaviour to national truth and reconciliation commissions following major conflicts, and he explains the need for agreed means of assigning credit and blame, while arguing for caution when it comes to involving the authorities.

Tilly opens the book by invoking Raskolnikov, the antihero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who sought to rise above the morals and judgements of the society around him, granting himself a special licence to commit murder and robbery. Ultimately, Raskolnikov found this impossible, and was overcome by guilt and the need for redemption. Tilly notes that ‘almost all human beings prefer to behave in ways that get approval from their fellows. Most of us reject Raskolnikov as our model’ (p7). Instead, we live by a fundamentally social morality, viewing our own actions through the eyes of others, while making constant judgements about the actions of others: good or bad, on the right side or the wrong side. As Tilly puts it, assigning credit and blame ‘dramatises a moral division of the social world’ (p90).

In Why?, Tilly looked at our tendency to simplify events when trying to explain them, stripping away complicating factors to identify a single cause, which may or may not be truly decisive. In Credit and Blame, Tilly cites accusations of witchcraft in South Africa as an extreme example of how we tend to package our experience in stories that simplify cause and effect. ‘Witchcraft stories require little more than a witch, and act of witchcraft, an object of witchery, and an evil outcome. Their very simplicity increases their power’ (p20). Even in apparently more sophisticated societies, blame often takes the form of ‘witch-hunting’, where we lose sight of the complexities in favour of a simple, morally satisfying narrative.

And even in courts of law, where forensic standards of evidence apply, narrative is a powerful factor in deliberations. Tilly argues that juries do not function as legal computers, but bring their own common sense of justice into the court room when apportioning blame. Moreover, when it comes to sentencing, what they want is ‘total justice’ that feels right intuitively as well as meeting legal criteria, which on their own often produce morally unsatisfactory results (p45). Rather than a cold legal calculus, juries want ‘poetic justice’; they want the punishment to fit the crime (p107).

Institutionalising justice in law does not abolish our need to understand things in terms of stories, but it does at least provide a means of conducting the process more rationally and fairly. Tilly makes an important distinction between the demand for justice, which in one form or another is fairly universal, and the expectation of justice, which depends on certain institutions through which we can exercise a degree of collective control over social life. In less developed societies and tyrannical regimes, people learn to accept that there is little they can do about credit and blame; life is simply unfair. (No wonder witchcraft and other irrational accounts thrive.) Tilly explains:

‘The growth of relatively democratic regimes with fairly extensive and stable legal systems did not build up the demand for justice so much as the expectation that ordinary people could get their share of it. Democracy makes it easier to expect justice.’ (pp46-47)

This in turn means people are less likely to resort to rough justice, such as tit-for-tat retaliation or feuding. But institutionalising credit and blame can also bring dangers, since the quality of justice one can expect depends on political circumstances, and often reflects social divisions. The more mediated alternatives to retaliation discussed by Tilly are reconciliation and reparations, both of which typically involve political wrangling.

Tilly looks at how memorials, apologies and commemorations are used to assign credit and blame on an historic scale, seeking to reconcile people to the past by settling these judgements for posterity. He considers everything from the political significance of the Sacré Coeur in Paris as a symbol of French loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and even atonement for the Paris Commune, to assessments of the records of past US presidents, and various invocations of the memory of Simón Bolívar in Latin American politics. What these all have in common is that credit and blame are used to make moral distinctions between insiders and outsiders, the praiseworthy and the guilty, in the present as well as the past. The process of historic reconcilation typically involves a politicisation of these judgements, reflecting the balance of political forces in the present. Reparations, in turn, represent a juridification of politics, reinforcing and institutionalising divisions between different social groups – such as between Native Americans and mainstream society, for example (p150). This is the danger:

‘The public assignment of credit and blame has profound implications for democracy. Democracy can live with us-them differences. It provides a means of temporarily bridging social differences by class, gender, religion, or race without abolishing them. But writing us-them differences into law and politics undermines democracy.’ (p150)

This can be true even at the level of criminal justice. Tilly describes a move in US penal policy since the 1980s away from rehabilitation, which had been premised on the idea that criminals are at least potentially responsible citizens, towards an attempt to prevent crime simply by incapacitating those offenders seen as potentially most dangerous*. This actually undermines the calculus of justice, by assigning spurious blame to social groups or types rather than individuals. Tilly cites in particular the injustice of such huge numbers of black Americans being locked up for drug offences, while white drug users are largely left alone (pp109-110). Something other than the assignment of blame is going on here:

‘some combination of incapacitation and restoration has come into play, with a tinge of retaliation: lock up the most dangerous offenders, re-unite a frightened white population, and strike back at black people for the harm they have done to whites. All three reinforce the us-them boundary. But their co-existence proves that penal policy involves more than simply making the punishment fit the crime. It involves a balance among conflicting agendas, only one of which is the assignment of blame.’ (p111)

While a democratic state makes it easier to expect justice than in less ordered societies, in practice other political factors can compromise the process. Institutions thus offer no guarantee of justice, and Tilly is surely right to warn, ‘Be very careful when you call for the authorities to back up your assignments of credit and blame’ (p151). Fortunately, there are several rather less formal means by which we assign credit and blame. Tilly identifies four different social mechanisms through which we identify virtue and give credit in various contexts, whether professional, academic or otherwise. These are: tournaments (where several candidates compete to show they are the most worthy of reward), honours (where a select group selects others they feel are worthy of joining them), promotions (in which a whole class of people who have reached a certain level of achievement advance to the next rank), and networks (through which particular groups informally give credit according to ‘local scripts’) (pp65-66).

Networks are perhaps the most democratic of these mechanisms, in the sense that they rely least on external authority: it is the simple power of shared narratives, those ‘local scripts’, that guarantees some level of agreement about credit and blame. Of course, these can be more or less sophisticated: ranging from subtle and humanistic understandings of individual agency to belief in witchcraft. But ultimately it is such local scripts that underlie institutionalised forms of justice, and the latter lose their moral force when divorced altogether from the former.

Tilly makes the point that the standards within particular networks are often at variance with those prevailing in society at large – ‘honour among thieves’ being a clear example. He cites the life of George Appo, a notorious New York ‘good fellow’ (or ‘goodfella’ for Scorsese fans) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who was respected and admired by his criminal peers, and later by the police when he turned undercover agent. In each instance he received credit from his chosen network, regardless of what anyone else might have thought (p78). Where Raskolnikov went wrong was perhaps not in rejecting the morality of the ‘ant-heap’, but in failing to convince anyone else at all of a greater narrative by which to judge his actions.

* A similar trend is identifiable in Europe. See ‘Security, Risk and Human Rights: A vanishing relationship?, a Centre for European Policy Studies Special Report, by Anastassia Tsoukala, September 2008

First published on Culture Wars.