We can speculate that organizations predate hominization, as some of our forebears in the animal kingdom already exhibit collaborative behaviors in pursuit of common ends from chimpanzee troops going into raids of aggression in adjoining territories to wolf packs joining forces to hunt herbivores much bigger than them (caribou, elk). Even more distantly related mammals have been observed organizing themselves (like orcas chasing a hunchback whale or the well known complex hierarchies of elephants). Indeed, the need for developing ever more complexly organized groups to survive in a rapidly changing but generally hostile environment is widely credited with being one of the major forces behind the process of fast encephalization that gave birth to our species.
From the scattered remnants we have been able to recover, and by analogy with modern hunter-gatherer societies who still inhabit similar environments (and make use to technologies probably not that different from those available to our first ancestors) we can deduce that the clan (formed by the extended family of its members, plus the occasional hanger-on) was the main form of social organization, with very little specialization. According to our model it was a very adaptable (we are still around, after all), very dominant (most of the actions most of the times were performed according to the rules of the group), not voluntary at all (in small groups within an unforgiving nature expulsion almost always meant an untimely death, en even to our days exile or ostracism is one of the harshest punishments contemplated in such groups), modestly isocratic (probably there was a wide variation within groups, but physical might and fighting prowess likely translated into disproportionate influence in the group), very simple (we may presume a minimal separation of roles between genders and between infants and the rest, for a group size between 10 and 30, which translates in something between 0,3 and 0,1 persons per role) and probably quite egalitarian (due to the lack of riches that any portion of the tribe could appropriate and the tough conditions all had to equally endure).
However, we should not forget that such basic organizations already allowed for some astonishing feats of commerce (evidence scattered all over Europe in the form of characteristic stones, shells and feathers of endemic species, reveal the existence of networks of exchange across many thousands of miles, from the iron doors of the Danube to Great Britain, from the tip of the Italian peninsula to the westernmost point of Normandy) and of engineering (Stonehenge), so we can suspect of some more complex forms above the tribe and clan that allowed for the coordination of greater amounts of people.
The gradual taming of animals and plants allowed for greater concentrations of population and greater specialization, crystallizing in the first cities and the invention of writing, which enable us to peer in more detail in the lives of the ancient (post)historic cultures. In them we can recognize an increasing complexity both in the number of organizations a person could belong to and in the internal stratification of those. Along peasants and herdsmen we now can find merchants, scribes, musicians, priests, accountants, warriors, courtesans, artisans… in an ever more dense network of relations between the first city states and, soon afterwards, the multi-city empires that would struggle for supremacy. Doubtlessly the organizations around those city states and empires were becoming less durable, less dominant (specially for the ruling classes, which were discovering the concept of leisure having part of their time freed from the fight for subsistence by their commandeering their less fortunate brethren), more voluntary (as suddenly the possibility of fleeing to a neighboring city or empire became very real), less isocratic (or more autocratic, with a clear concentration of decision power in the hands of a few), less simple (as abundantly described) and less egalitarian.
It is in these times when we can find the first speculations about the best way to organize human groups, in a cluster of city states around the Aegean sea, between 500 and 300 BC (what we know as Classical Greece). However, the only Organization they showed some interest in was the part of the society composed of free men within a city state (so no space for foreigners, slaves or women in their discussion). The first problem they had to tackle was that of change, both in social structures (due to technological advances and demographic growth) and in the balance of power between the all-too-close neighboring polis. The first great discourse about this issue that has reached us in its entirety is mostly devoted to setting up a group that could escape change, considered in the eyes of his author to be always for the worse. That is indeed the theme of Plato’s Republic, which depicts as a likely stable society a homosexual fantasy in which a bunch of tyrants (the philosopher kings) rule with the support of a secret police (the guardians) unaccountable to any higher power, where females are just reproduction machines that provide kids to be educated by the state and where poets (or artists in any modern sense) are banished (they awaken the obscure forces of individuality and imagination, great allies of that evil change that Plato wanted to banish). Unsurprisingly, when such delirant construct was attempted to be put in practice (at the request of the tyrant of Syracuse, autocrats tend to sympathize with any initiative trying to stall change, being typically more than content with the status quo) it failed spectacularly. Sadly not many details of the whole brouhaha have survived, but the next treaty by Plato on how the ideal society should look like (The Laws) is more subdued (and less funny). A disciple of Plato born in Stagira (yup, that’s my very pedantic way of introducing Aristotle to you, my patient readers, hence his nickname “the stagirite”) developed his master’s thesis basing his opinions in observation rather than in his desires, and famously left us his classification (the Great A is probably the paradigmatic “systematizer” :there were never two individuals he could see without trying to create an extensive system of categories to subsume them under), of three ways of government (by one, by a select few or by the many –but remember the “many” were already quite a select minority back then), which had healthy and unhealthy forms (monarchy, aristocracy and republic were the “goodies”; and tyranny, oligocracy and democracy –for him a synonym for anarchy- were the “baddies”). His politics are still a fundamental text to understand the foibles of trying to coordinate the destinies of communities, and we owe him the distinction between inequality of decision power and inequality of enjoyment of the social products (so if you disagree with me distinguishing between Isocratic and Egalitarian societies, blame him), and pointed that although the first was defensible, the second was an unadulterated vice, to be avoided.
The Greeks were succeeded by the Romans as standard bearers of Western Civilization (the one I’m most familiar with, and the one I’m limiting my investigation to, with a couple of minimal detours to discuss oriental caste systems; if any of my readers is conversant enough with how organizations developed in other historical lineages and other parts of the world, she is most welcome to enlighten me in the comments section). We see them today as very practical people, great at codifying and writing down the ideas received from previous cultures, but not specially innovative or insightful. Their main contribution to our topic is the juridical body known as ius romanorum (Roman Law), which still forms the backbone of most civil and commercial regulations on which organizations of all type and condition are built and maintained. They did collectively create, however, an extraordinarily important concept, that of juridical person, an entity (originally the collegium) recognized by law to have also rights and duties, and to be able to enter into contracts, which is the direct forebear of our corporations and which allows (or rather forces) a General Theory of the Organization to be recursive (a member of the organization may not be a person, after all, but another organization, in an potentially infinite loop).
Nifty as that creation was, after about seven centuries of dominance the Roman Empire divided and fell under the weight of its internal contradictions (in Toynbee’s terms, it disenfranchised its internal “proletarians”, which stopped having a stake in the continuance of the social structure, and was then easy pickings from the external “barbarians” that proverbially wait at the gates of any internally weakened society), to be followed by the chaos and mayhem of successive invasions and finally to settle in a new social form (feudalism) which occasionally united to face an external threat (the nascent Muslim faith) and apparently stayed forever mired in a perpetual, never successful for long, struggle for dominance which I have argued elsewhere is the real explanation behind most of our societies current woes (each of us belongs to a social milieu that has been selected through a long history of bloodshed, deceit and mutual aggression to be able to produce more material goods than those surrounding it to better crush them on the battlefield). That social form was characterized by being separated in three classes with very different perspectives: the peasants who toiled, the nobles who fought and the clerics who prayed (funnily enough all those priests that by a vagary of History started praying to the same God, as Mark Lilla superbly recounts, would at the close of the Middle Ages not be prevented by those common origins from splitting and driving the whole continent into an even more frenzied bloodbath along the new cleavages of dogma and rite that had nothing to envy from the old Eastern Church/ Western Church divide).
Only one of the classes was truly literate, so it is not surprising that the documentation we have received from those ages about organizations has mainly to do with organizing the life within the monastic orders (like St. Benedict’s rule), plus the slow accretion of a more and more complex Canon Law. It merits some attention the fact that Europe settled, albeit briefly (compared with India, that is), in such a classification, that happens to coincide with the more ancient Hindu one (the Brahmins occupying the position of European priests, the Kshatriyas or warriors the position of nobles and the Sudras or peasant at the bottom of the scale –it has to be said that the Hindus distinguished a fourth caste, that of the Vaishyas or merchants, that wouldn’t have a distinct presence in Europe until much later, in the form of Burghers, precursors of the much vaunted bourgeoisie that according to Marx would dominate History until being displaced by the proletariat, a new class in itself… but I’m running far ahead of my argument), or for that matter with the one existing until much later in feudal Japan (with Samurai standing for European nobles, peasants, craftsmen and artisans as a separate class and in this case merchants occupying the lower rung, although they ended up financing the daimyos who ruled the less affluent han… in this case priests and monks sat outside of the hierarchy, keeping that of their family of provenance). As I mentioned in a previous post (Are we entering a new feudal age?) one of the defining features of those societies is the charismatic (in a Weberian sense, more about that later on) nature of leadership. Castes are the opposite of rationality, and in a caste system people obey not because they judge it in their best interest to do so, but because they think some mysterious, magical power is associated to the position of the superior that gives the orders, which embodies the universal order, and that such order would crumble with disastrous consequences were he to rebel. As we witness a weakening of rationality enabled by the loss of momentum of technological progress, we see the unavoidable return of forms of social (and organizational) control we believed (wrongly) had been consigned to the proverbial dustbin of History…
But that “enchanted” (Weber again) view of the social order started to be questioned in the Italian city states by the XIVth Century AD, in a situation so reminiscent of the one prevailing in 400 BC Athens we still know it as the Renaissance. Social change is in the air (funnily enough through the rediscovery by a secular intelligentsia of educated nobles of the sudden applicability to their time of the thoughts and ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans), even though the order based in classes where a person’s prospects in life are mainly determined by the station he is born into is still very much alive (and it will still be so for another four hundred years). The main Organization is again the city state (with an enhanced role for the merchants this time), and after the increased mortality of the XIIIth Century (Last major episode of the Black Death) the North of Italy witnesses a demographic expansion not that different from the one experienced by Athens in the VIth and Vth Centuries BC. So it is not surprising those nobles with a “classical education” that found themselves with some time in their hands devoted their time to writing how society should be organized again, letting aside the overwhelming concern in the previous ages for the transcendent, and focusing how a prince (not unlike themselves) should rule his subjects and build lasting institutions (both Machiavelli and Castiglione are the immediate examples, although stretching a bit we also have some interesting concepts to learn from Erasmus, Suarez and Vitoria). Be it as it may, the impetus towards a Reason freed from the shackles of religious dogma was already provided, and it would last almost until our days. But its first results were tearing apart the unity of Western Christendom and plunging the European continent in a century of religion wars that would only come to an end with the signature of the Westphalia treaty, which marks the birth of the modern Nation-State as both guarantor and jail keeper of their subjects’ liberties. Those momentous circumstances oriented those States since their inception towards the accumulation of material resources to better fight against hostile neighbors, so it is no surprise all the organizations born within their overall framework have proved to be (until now) so successful at ever increasing the pace of technological advancement and of material throughput, be it measured as units produced, merchandise sold, metric tons extracted or everything put together (except the happiness of their subjects, their ability to enjoy life, the strength of their social bonds and the mutual respect and recognition between their families), measured as GNP.
But let us not deviate from our original story. The newly born central European State of the XVIIth Century was about to embark in one of the greatest social upheavals History has ever seen, precipitated by a plethora of changes that have caused endless discussions between Historians of different persuasion about what is cause and what effect, what is essential and what accessory. From the perspective of the ability of humans to form groups and abide by their rules, what is commonly known as the Industrial Revolution enabled new forms of organization to crystallize, using volumes of capital as yet unseen to change both the material conditions of workers and consumers and their natural habitat beyond recognition. Those organizations, originally born outside of the State’s purview, would soon metastasize until becoming undistinguishable from it, requiring a joint bureaucracy of highly specialized personnel to run it (again, Max Weber is the best narrator and theoretical systematizer of that era). The yield of ever increasing division of labor is reaped in the new contraption of the assembly line introduced by Henry Ford, and the rationalization and optimization of the labor (dull, deadening, repetitive and boring as already observed by Adam Smith) reaches its zenith in the theories of Scientific Management developed by Frederick W. Taylor. We can state that the interval of three centuries between the peace of Westphalia (1648) and 1945 (end of WWI and maximum development of Fordism and Taylorism) puts in place all the elements of the organizational forms we still see around us:
· The modern Nation State (as the compulsory “umbrella organization” everybody has to belong to, and which sets the tone and defines the framework for all the other subordinate groups under it –in theory, we will see the practice is very different)
· The loosely knit, entirely voluntary, low intensity religious affiliation
· The mass accreditation system we know as Universal Schooling plus University (nothing to do with its middle age origins, regardless of common name), which will end up being an appendix of the corporate system, almost entirely geared towards the preparation of the different professional categories
· The economic corporation that mobilizes enormous resources (land, capital and labor) and directs them exclusively to the pursuit of economic benefit
We do not have as many “histories of quotidian life” as I may like (much as Jaques LeGoff is trying), but I have the impression that we have very much changed the priority (i.e. the intensity we allow) between those kinds of organizations we belong to. In classical times, the state (the polis, the republic, even the feudal fief) commanded most of our attention and independently dictated most of the rules we followed, while the “economic” (a very loaded term, whose well known etymology comes from “rules of the household”) activity we performed in order to be able to eat and have a shelter above our heads was a very secondary preoccupation. Even peasants, who were famously occupied most of their waking hours laboring, did so not to accumulate the produce themselves, or because they wanted to meet a certain quota (they would then exchange in the market for other goods they wanted), but because they were forced by the owner of the land, who then appropriated the fruit of their effort (under the form of corveé or seigniorial duties). So that laboring was not dictated by them belonging to a corporation, but by them belonging to a certain social compact (the vassal system) that robbed them of the possibility of doing otherwise.
But in modern times it is the corporation (or the SME, the size is not really that important) which not only decides and determines how we spend most of our time, but it has bent the nature of the state to further its ends (to the extent we can safely consider modern state machineries as appendages of the private sector to ensure the enjoyment of as many monopoly rents as possible by the major owners of capital, democratic process of election of representatives being little more than a fig leaf, but more about that later), and even the educational apparatus is basically designed to enhance the performance of the citizens as future workers (and most of the measures of the comparative excellence of such educational systems try to assess how good will the alumni be when they have to perform economic activities under the guiding principles of commodity production, not so much to assess how much of a well-informed, in-the-common-interest-decision-makers they will turn out to be). Probably only the religious sphere is still somewhat free from its influence, although even there we can notice the ever encroaching logic of capitalist accumulation trying to gain a foothold, as exemplified by North American “Megachurches” which already function entirely as capitalistic enterprises, and very profitable ones at that, and conceive of their doctrines as so many “products” to be placed –or rather, “positioned” amongst the passive masses. Sad times indeed when being religious can be seen as a signal of non-conformity and resistance against the majority…
We will devote a second post to review the study of the specifically economic forms of organization (mostly private enterprises, although most of the theories we will comment on are equally applicable to the public sector), as this has already run its course.