bowling for fascism

Some of you may be familiar with Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital“, published in Journal of Democracy 6:1, pp. 65-78, or with his expanded essay, published with the title Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000). Putnam believes that “civic community” builds social capital and  fosters democracy by giving citizens an opportunity  to abandon narrow (private) self-interests and work for the common (public) good.

NYU political scientist Shanker Satyanath teamed up with two economists – one from UCLA and another from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona – to debunk Putnam’s thesis with quantitative evidence from the period of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany. They show that strong civil society correlates with support for a strong fascist state and destruction of the Weimar Republic.

Social capital – a dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, as demonstrated by a large literature following Putnam. A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.

Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth, “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33“, NBER Working Paper No. 19201 (July 2013). An ungated, undated version is posted here.

This is not earth-shaking news. Putnam’s thesis has been debunked before, notably by Sheri Berman, in her 1997 essay “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic“, World Politics 49:3, pp. 401-429.

I myself commented on the fragility of Putnam’s hypothesis in an essay published in 2005.

Putnam,  drawing  on  Tocqueville  (1835),  includes  in  civil society (labelled by him as ‘civic community’) family activities such as dinners and picnics in addition to all the non-state and non-profit associations of Gramsci. The views of Putnam and other ‘neo-Toquevillians’ overlap those of Gramsci, although they never cite  the Italian writer as an authority. Neo-Toquevillians and  followers of Gramsci alike have come to regard civic engagement as necessary to build ‘social capital’  to  sustain democracy and good governance. e key difference  is that Gramsci, following Hegel, specifically excludes family activities, whereas the neo-Toquevillians include them. A core belief, in words of Putnam (2000, p. 338) is that “associations and less formal networks of civic engagement instil in their members habits  of  cooperation  and  public-spiritedness,  as well  as  the  practical skills necessary to partake in public life”. Not everyone agrees. Sceptics point to examples of vibrant civil societies that were not democratic, such as fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and to examples of functioning democracies whose  citizens  are  not  particularly  active  in  civil  society  organisations,  such  as Costa Rica.

Larry Willmore, “Civil Society Organizations, Participation and Budgeting“, in Citizen Participation and Pro-Poor Budgeting (United Nations, New York, Sales No. E.05.II.H.3, 2005), pp. 21-22.

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