I’ve been having an email exchange with Yoram about how to ensure that people in various roles act as that role requires. Basically my answer is to ensure that what they do is completely open to public scrutiny and assessment.
Yoram replies that the standards in terms of which those assessments are made are set by the establishment. So the scrutiny only serves to keep the bearers of those roles serving the interests of the establishment.
I reply that there are contexts in which that is largely true, but plenty of others where it is not, especially where there is constant open debate about the ruling conventions in particular matters. Discussion of them in completely general terms is mostly futile. Anybody who has had a long life in recent time has very many examples of complete reversals of the accepted conventions in many areas of life arising from small groups of activists succeeding in changing people’s opinions. The establishment had hardly anything to do with it. For the most part it resisted the changes quite unsuccessfully, in spite of raising fears that society was falling apart.
Where the establishment has usually been much more successful is in the case of strictly institutionalised activities like economic and political structures. Mere changes of opinion have much less effect on them. The difference is obvious. Where what people do is dependent only on their personal compromise between what they would like to do and what they think they ought to do, as in matters of sex, parenting, lifestyle, education, leisure and so on, although they are influenced by existing conventions, if enough people choose to defy or evade them, the conventions soon crumble. In many cases the result is to entrench an entirely new convention.
In strictly institutionalised roles, however, the people in those roles enjoy no such freedom. If they do not conform closely to what is expected of them, they are strongly penalised or ejected from that role. If changes are to be made in those roles, they come, not from changes of opinion among the occupants of the roles, but from those who control the sanctions and choose the employees who get to work under them. In a changing world, however, the establishment does need to change, to adapt to new conditions if they are to survive. Rigidly static organisations inevitably destroy themselves.in the long run. Even in the short run they are grossly inefficient and costly.
You can only effectively order people to do what they know how to do. If they don’t really know they will fake doing it by superficial conformity, which in the long run is worse than defiance, because it often succeeds in deceiving you. In a changing world you need smart people who understand those changes and can show you how to exploit them for your own purposes. So you offer them enormous pay to ensure they are motivated to do just that. It’s well worth it. But there are limits to what any institutionalised establishment can do. Nobody can possibly control the ecosystem in which their activities are embedded. All anybody, no matter how powerful or well organised, can do is adapt to and perhaps exploit the changes that affect the operating environment on which its existence depends.
Modern humans have the enormous advantage over our ancestors that we have not only scraps of empirical knowledge but some limited capacity to understand the processes that underlie our familiar experience. So we can sometimes achieve objective, though limited, knowledge of what is going on. We sometimes discover ways of adapting to the changes we cannot control and even exploiting them for our purposes. In order to achieve that sort of knowledge, even the establishment often needs to call into question some of the assumptions that have served it well in the past. Nobody can be quite sure in advance just which assumptions need to be changed. In general the regimes that have allowed open discussion have been more successful in discovering the information they need than those which have tried to control that discussion. They have had access to better understanding of what is happening. There is no substitute for genuine knowledge, no matter who you are, if you want to act effectively.
Let me try to illustrate my generalities by examining a particular aspect of the changing role of public goods in contemporary societies and its implications for adaptation and exploitation by different groups. Over the past century, technological inventions, exploiting extraordinary advances in science, have been developed by capitalism so as to change radically our relations as individuals to many community activities and our dependence on public goods. Nearly all of us now own a car, a computer, a tv, a record player and a mobile telephone. These devices free us from dependence on public transport, information stored on paper, communication of information by personal exchanges, attending public performances for entertainment and education, and making contact with distant others only by letter. Our capabilities have increased enormously and so have the returns to capital. But most of us are happy because all these things have become better and cheaper, thanks to competition between capitalists.
It does not mean that desires for public goods have been extinguished. Many find it much more pleasant to take a train and read or do the weekend shopping by phone than to battle their way through the peak hour traffic. People flock to big performance events in order to participate in the collective enjoyment of it all. They continue to be concerned about community affairs. Naturally the capitalists have found ingenious ways of supplying community events and needs for profit and claimed that such provision is both cheaper and more responsive than anything a public authority might produce. In certain cases that claim is very plausible. Especially from the viewpoint of the individual consumer, being liberated from absolute dependence on certain public good is clear advantage. It is not surprising that the libertarian ambition to abolish almost all deliberately constructed public goods looks attractive to many.
Like so many ideologies, libertarianism uses a limited truth to distract attention from less attractive aspect of the reality. Capital has several alternatives to productive investment: pushing up the price of scarce assets; rent seeking in its various forms; deflation, which reduces the prices of everything except money itself; exploiting the buyers’ market in less skilled labour to compensate for the sellers’ market in skills, and above all to exploit the money to be made out of completely unproductive trading money and securities. In all these ways wealth manages to take value out of the market without supplying anything of use. The result has been that, although productivity has increased enormously, the fruits have gone almost entirely to the holders of wealth. All of this is widely known. It is lamented even by supporters of the status quo.
None of this came about as a result of a conspiracy, but mainly out of individuals adapting rapidly to changing circumstances and the opportunities they offered. It is true that it often involved governments dismantling various controls that might have been used to curb some of those activities, but usually the retreat was forced upon governments by pressures they could not control because the collapse of the Bretton woods settlement deprived them of the power to set the exchange rate of their own currency. We cannot go back. The only way forward is to set up global authorities to handle specific global problems such as the global economic system and climate change. At least those adaptations are obviously needed, but I don’t know how to bring them about.
When it comes to discovering the adaptations we need to make, I argue that we need new institutions directed at getting well-grounded practical decisions about specific problems. We need to single them out one by one on whatever is the appropriate scale of the problem and mobilise whatever resources we have towards understanding them as fully as we can.
The traditional radical approaches to our problems have been very defective. The revolutionary approach has depended on simplistic recipes for change. When Marx was asked how the political processes of post -revolution society were to function, he replied that he was not making up recipes for the kitchens of the future. The workers would evolve their own forms of organisation in the process of struggling to overthrow the old order. Unfortunately, having chosen to do so by force of arms, their organisation took on a militarist form, with disastrous results. Others have taken the path of pursuing power through parliamentary parties and found themselves trapped in the role of an alternative manager of the existing system, and all that implies.
What I have proposed, if it works at all, is only a very small first step in a very long road. There are some very big questions on the horizon. Sooner or later, we are not only going to need to stop using fossil fuels for energy, but stop wasting non-renewable resources generally, abandoning the throw-away mentality for sustainable recycling. We will have to find ways of countering the pressure towards population increase in just those contexts where the needs it creates are most difficult to meet. I would argue that approaching most of our problem in terms of a search for ways of compelling people to change their ways is as futile as preaching to them. The only way is to offer them incentives to do so, but I do not think that is easy.
Filed under: Theory |