The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Great moments in psychohistory

'With Hari Seldon in mind, Krugman went to Yale ...'

Conspiracy theorists - you're under starter's orders!

(From an article on Charles Stross's most distinguished co-panellist.) (Via.)

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"It seemed that these were, in some worrying sense, his people."


More seriously, in "he felt that history was too much about what and not enough about why, so he ended up in economics," I think I hear an echo of Marx.

Oh, gods. Karl Marx, steampunk psychohistorian?! Using a difference engine?

(Mffff. This is what I get for having nightmares & being online at 0-dark-30.)

I'm sure I've read somewhere that Asimov had some notion of historical materialism in mind when he thought of psychohistory.

More seriously, it's quite possible that at least popularizations of and arguments about the materialist conception of history influenced late XIX and early XX century SF. I don't know if any research has been done on that question. (Handwave: the German SPD was the biggest party in the world, there were lots of German migrants to the US, and socialism was much bigger in the US at that time than it is now. And in Britain there's Wells, who was an anti-Marxist socialist who had read some works of Marx.)

Mind you, I've sometimes thought the real difference between British and US SF is in how they learned about Darwinism. The Brits got it from Wells, who'd studied biology under Thomas Huxley. The American got it from William Graham Sumner, who'd read Spencer.

(This isn't a dig at Sumner, from whom I've learned lots, though probably not enough. Same goes for Spencer.)

Hum. I wonder if that theory of the difference between British and US SF is more generally applicable. For a broad swathe of the US population, social Darwinism is the only Darwinism they find compatible with their religious beliefs.

(This isn't a dig a Spencer, who wasn't actually a "social Darwinist." We're talking about people who think social Darwinism is consistent with the New Testament, after all.)

It turns out that Babbage wrote about economics, and Marx quoted him. I am now officially weirded out.

As an internationalist born and raised in NYC not all that long after Asimov"s youth and near to where he spent it, I can say that there was a lit of left wing interest in intellectual and worker's circles. A good friend of mine who still lives there is an historian and archivist who investigated the Old Lefty density of our home territory. The result was surprising. Some of the most respected members of our nice community (Far Rockaway) belonged to the CPUSA. Later on, probably during the PR campaign that peaked during McCarthyism, some switched to what I think was called the American Labor Party, a safe haven. Many remaind uncle. The children of these leftists are now called "the red diaper babies." about Professor Asimov I remember nothing about this from my readings of his works. Perhaps one should look at Pohl's memoir, "The Way The Future Was."

The children of these leftists are now called "the red diaper babies."

Ah, yes. I had thought this term a dusty obscure one, until I saw it used by the oxymoronically-named blogger "American Thinker" to describe Barack Obama. Since his parents were members of the CPUSA, you know. At least over on Earth 2341.

On the other hand, Obama does seem to have a passing acquaintance with science fiction, so perhaps there really is a conspiracy.

Krugman's philosophical evolution has been interesting to observe, though. And his enthusiasm for speculative fiction is charming. Long ago, he wrote a tongue-in-cheek paper on the economics of interstellar trade.

On the other hand, I would continue to take issue with his youthful conclusion that economics was the closest present-day analogue to psychohistory. Psychohistory was described as having useful predictive powers and hence falsifiability. As John Quiggin notes in his forthcoming Zombie Economics, economists can be spectacularly, unrepentantly wrong about everything and still remain respectable.

That is interesting, mds. Although i have known some of these people since 1957, I knew nothing of the left Wing connection until two or three years ago. I re-met the archivist online, and he told me about my town's interesting history. He also explained "red diaper baby" to me. I had never heard the phrase befote then.

Hi Ken--I thought a bit about the influences of historical and other kinds of materialism on XIX and XX cent. SF. I know nothing about this, but Darko Suvin certainly does. As far as I know, two of his books are in English. There's "Metamorphoses of Science Fiction," and at least one collection of his essays. The Uppsala University has the former, and I've looked at it and intend to read it. I think it's out of print. I haven't seen the latter. A look at Wikipedia under his name should have everything. Professor Suvin is a recognised Brecht scholar and analyst of drama.

I have a question from left field, but very much on topic. It's about psychohistory, but in relation to Jane Jacobs, not Darwin or Marx.
I haven’t read any Asimov since high school, but what I remember about his novels were the intensely dense city life on earth (the description of crowded shared bathrooms where women gossip and men don’t look each other in the eye I remember thinking was pitch perfect and hilarious), vs the excessively private and hygienic suburban life on the colonized planets.
I remember he spun the mega cities forward to a city planet (one world-one mayor?) as the capital of his galactic empire. Was there a discernable urbanist philosophy of any sort behind Psychohistory?
I am curious because the New Yorker profile mentions that Krugman asked himself “why, in the United States, for instance, were cars produced in Detroit, carpets in Dalton, Georgia, jewelry in Providence, and chips in Silicon Valley?”
As it happens that is exactly the question that Jane Jacobs asked herself in 1968 in her book The Economy of Cities, and she cames to the exact same conclusion as Krugman would come to a couple decades later: “history and accident.”
Jacobs outlined a pretty amazing and coherent theory about economic development built around the explosive economic growth that she believed could originate only in cities. (It’s a really great little book.) Jacobs was extremely critical of the anti-urban models that were ascendant in both the capitalist west and the communist east at the time.
Asimov seemed to have predicted that cities were the future (not a position popular with any one on either side of the Cold War divide).
Asimov in retrospect seems like a Jane Jacobs guy, but maybe this is wishful thinking. As I remember, the suburban utopia of the early colonies portrayed in the Robot novels turned out to be, in Asimov's imagination, stagnant; a historical dead end. Again very reminiscent of Jacobs. Did Asimove have a coherent philosophy behind psychohistory? I seem to remember it hinged on having data about huge numbers of people, did it preference city life of rural life as the driver of history the way Jacobs did? Did Asimov have an urban agenda or is this an artifact of my very imperfect memory?
Can anyone help me with this?

Very good and on-topic question, John. Asimov was definitely and avowedly a city boy, but I don't know if he had any philosophy behind but personal preference.

The big Jane Jacobs fans in SF fandom are Jo Walton and Graydon Saunders, who might know some more.

Ken, not Marx but Arnold Toynbee. Asimov had written the first couple of short Foundation stories when L Sprague de Camp lent him the first volume of Toynbee's A Study of History [Ref]

Clarke also referred to Toynbee, and other twentieth century SF writers took ideas from Spengler [Ref]

Thanks Del. I didn't mean Asimov (or any other Golden Age writer, excep Mack Reynolds) was directly influenced by Marx. Toynbee and Spengler were definitely the big influences - I think I first heard of them through SF.

I have flipped through Spengler. There's lots of stuff in there that is food for thought for SF and philosophy. A mix of the insightful, the cranky, and the expectation of things Spengler considered bad but perhaps inevitable. But it is not World History. Toynbee is. He had a broader notion of what characterises a civilation. They are transnational; Spengler's units were polises and nation-states. Toynbee's work lives on with necessary modifications, in the books of McNeil. A wonderful corrective to McNeil's results, I am told, is Jared Diamond's materialistic "Guns, Germs and Steel." I shall read it soon.

In my NYC youth Spengler was quite popular, so I can see that SF writers would have found it interesting. It's now under a cloud made of jackboots.

Well, this 1976 article by Charles Elkins in Science Fiction Studies discusses Marx and Engels' indirect influence on Asimov's psychohistory, and attributes the original opinion to Donald Wollheim in his 1971 book The Universe Makers. Could that have been where you read it?

(the nonsense word I had to type in for the captcha this time was "ansibem" - ansible plus BEM? :-)

Thanks for that interesting article, Mr Cotter. The depth and density of analytical detail in that piece made it both instructive and a pleasure to read. As for the historical aspects, they are accurate. I was born in 1942, but knew people whose parents were involved in those debates about Marxism..

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SF idea: regarding the criticism of economics above, has anyone done a Bad Psychohistory future, where the psychohistorical profession has ossified into unscientific dogma, and its leaders spend most of their time ideologically policing the profession and publishing books on unworthy micro-topics?

Very interesting piece you linked to, Del. It was indeed in The Universe Makers that I first read about Asimov's psychohistory as an attempt to do historical materialism right. (Mike Harrison's New Worlds review of that book, 'To the stars and beyond on the fabulous anti-syntax drive', was great fun.)

Yorks: I don't know of any, but something close might be Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis, which I really should read.

I imagine this thread is pretty much done, but I just found this while looking for something else:

"This is consistant with what is known about the life of Isaac Asimov, who is said to have participated in the 1930s in groups which made a systematic study of Marx and Marxism, and whose concept of "psychohistory", in play here in the Foundation series, was suggested by that of the 'mode of production'." Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future; 91.

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