Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Of corruption, decadence and degeneration (within organizations, that’s it)

On my last post on the topic I applied the organizational types I had previously defined to the Greek negotiation with the so-called Troika, reaching the conclusion that the failure of the representatives to reach an agreement could be read as the unsuccessful attempt to resolve the conflict caused by the parties pursuing incommensurable goals. I particularly pointed at the difficulties and rigidities caused within the Greek team by their double allegiance, as representatives of the whole Greek state (thus invested with the authority to pursue what was best for the permanence of current Greeks, fallaciously considered to be dependent on their material well being) but also of the ideologically charged far left parties that form the Syriza coalition which sets a number of red lines they theoretically can not cross, from further reductions in pension payments to maintenance of a primary surplus close to current levels… although in practice we’ve seen those red lines nominally crossed once and again, at least according to Tsipras and his boys, even if crossing them would be beneficial for the improvement of such well being (as the opposing team has relentlessly but unconvincingly argued).

I didn’t delve much back then, and want to do it now, on the equivalent contradictions within the troika team, formed by a representative from the EU (a political organization), the ECB (a political organization that although nominally independent has the same goal, the preservation of the European peoples through the equally fallacious expedient of increasing their material wealth and using means, like low inflation and certain arbitrary level of employment, that is not clear at all that contribute to such end) and the IMF (an apparently economic organization, which operates under the umbrella of a political one under the auspice of a wider body, making it even more unclear how and who they represent/ pretend to serve). That is a dysfunctional team if there ever was one, and it is surprising they could ever reach a decision on what terms to accept, which ones to reject and what ones to propose… of course in the end the public suspects things were made workable simply by calling Berlin and have either Angela Merkel or Wolfgang Schäuble tell them what they had to say. Well, at least they seem to have a single hierarchy and they all adhere to a common worldview (it happens to be a wrong one, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment), and that’s why I would say they still seem to have the upper hand in the negotiation regardless of what 11 million Greeks decide to vote, and why if there is a final agreement it will end up looking much closer to their initial conditions than to Greece’s (of course, Greeks will not comply with it soon afterwards, but that’s another story). That, and the fact that they have the power of the purse and as popular wisdom says, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, so the Greeks could have sent a team made by Socrates, Demosthenes, Themistocles and Pericles and still would have came back empty handed…

However, colorful historical analogies aside, I wanted to reflect (inspired by this little and most likely inconsequential episode in the rich history of European nations reverting to what they do best, which is harming one another) on the interplay between different types of organizations, or rather, on how a single organization ends up adopting goals of different types, how that adoption follows certain rules, and how that is the norm rather than the exception.  Let’s start with Religious organizations: in their most encompassing form (that of established churches, although non denominational sects follow a similar arc) they all start with some sort of revelation experienced by a revered master (the “founder”), which communicates it to a reduced number of followers (reduced because most churches started in an age without mass communications and mostly illiterate masses, so the good message had to spread by word of mouth, a notably slow way). Those followers have to make substantial adjustments to their way of living (religions in their founding stages are probably the most dominant form of organization there has ever been) and tend to subordinate everything to the embodiment of the truth they have been taught, leaving them little time from more earthly concerns like procuring a stable income, allocating resources or setting rules for the participation of new members in decisions that may affect the whole community. However, the goodwill and sharing of a common purpose (the spreading of the faith) normally more than compensate for the lack of organizational sophistication, and given that the message of the founder was well attuned to the needs of the age, and that the first disciples presented an alluring example of worthy living, religions spread and grow in the number of their adherents.

That growth makes it necessary to devote growing resources to teaching the newcomers, not just the simple, bare bones message of the founder, but some of the complications that surely have arisen since the founding, including the solutions that have been arrived at for all those early concerns that could initially be set aside, but which have probably grown a more pressing concern. The bigger the church grows, the more sophisticated the rules on how to live (in greater numbers, with greater specialization) become. The development of Canon Law in the Catholic Church, which has become a whole subset of Law Studies (and requires years of training to master) would be a good example of how an organization that started being entirely religious needs beyond certain size to develop some distinctly educational capabilities. Of course, there was a time in Europe when all education (from the most basic, in the form of parish schools, to the most advanced, in the great learning centers that became the first and original universities) was under the mantle of the Church, so in some sense every educational type of organization is shaped by being a spin off from the archetypal religious one.

Now, human nature being what it is, there comes a moment in the life of every major religion (probably even before the need arises to devote specific efforts to the training of the ruling cadres) when not all the members who join share the original purpose with the same purity, or have the same understanding of what that final purpose of the organization consists in (some people are less inclined to metaphysical truth, some have greater difficulties understanding the appeal of what they see as very abstract, unpractical ideas). Some of those people are indeed good leaders, practical organizers that know how to identify every member’s strengths and particular genius, how to assign them the tasks they are best suited for and how to motivate them to strive in the pursuit of the goals that have been set for them. But, not having the inclination or the ability to embody the truth of the faith that constitutes the core of the church’s message themselves, they just direct their energies towards the mere preservation of the faithful within the physical world (which normally requires their protection and safety, something to which nobody would object is a legitimate goal, but then goes on to encompass their prosperity and wealth, because what better way is there to ensure the fealty of the believers and to attract new converts than to dazzle them with every conceivable sign of material success). Of course, at this stage the church has become a political organization, and ends up fighting other churches (or secular states) not to ensure they can freely perform their rites, but for the dominance of the social space and the ability to extract more material riches from the masses (which was the ultimate reason for the wars of religion that devastated Europe between Luther’s 95 theses in 1517 and the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648).

Finally, at different moments in the life of a church (but only when it has achieved a certain degree of material success, which means that it has already mutated at least partly into a political organization) it will attract people that, in the depth of their hearts, do not care about the transcendent truth they nominally uphold, and just want to live in this world as comfortably and successfully as possible. Some of those people will be wildly ambitious, and also capable to rise in the hierarchy and even shape it to their taste and preference, staffing it with other like minded people. The church then turns at last into an economic organization, devoted to the improvement of the social position of its members, and participating then in a zero sum game with other (secular or religious) organizations within the social space. The advantage of an “economized” church is that it has to struggle for that social recognition of its members within the rules of the society which hosts it, which in our time and age exclude the resort to violence or intimidation (although some churches, like Scientology, still seem to be willing to apply as much coercion as the courts would allow).

The interesting thing is that we have seen that while a religious organization can adapt its original goals so they end up being indistinguishable from those of other types of organization (and there are historical examples of all three of the possible transitions, I would dare to say in all major religions), the inverse adaptation never takes place. Neither an economic, nor a political, nor an educational organization can suddenly claim to have discovered some transcendental truth and expect their members to a) start believing it and b) change the rules associated with membership so it becomes more dominant and control additional aspects of their lives. We will explore this lack of symmetry in other possible transitions, but can say at this point that this is why I mentioned in the title “corruption” or “degeneration”, as examples of non-reversible dynamics that, once started, do not easily admit of a change of direction.

We can see a similar dynamic within educational organizations, to the point that I have had to discuss with some colleagues to what extent such a type actually exist as a different entity from political or economic ones. Indeed, if we look at both schools and universities in the West (which are becoming more and more the dominant model all the world over of places where teaching takes place), specially privately owned ones, it is difficult not to notice as very prominent goals either the permanency of a well distinguished class separate from the rest of the population (be them civil engineers, architects, lawyers, sociologists or feminisms scholars), which would mark them as distinctly political, or even more markedly the social improvement of their members (a continuous and understandable battle cry of teachers’ unions, and also the explanation behind their defense of tenure), which would unmask them as economic. What I would argue is that those goals are historically secondary (although I readily grant that they have become predominant in our days), and that organizations to develop and transmit certain areas of knowledge, subject to an internally developed set of rules for how to legitimately develop such knowledge, where originally entirely distinct from what we know today, and entirely free from any desire for social distinction or collective continuation. Think of the first universities (and of course the original Lyceum, Epicurean garden or the Stoa), or even of the medieval guilds of anonymous artisans that built Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals without signing their works or being paid more than what their subsistence required. But of course, any body devoted to learning, if successful, will want to somehow mark its practitioners from the rest of the public, developing signs of distinction and differentiation (becoming then a political body) and then try to benefit from that distinction seeking a differential treatment for them, and trying to maximize the privileges they can wring from the social body, and will thus transform itself  in an economic organization.

Again, we do not see the opposite transition taking place, as although both political formations and economic enterprises may develop some “training centers”, “think tanks”, “corporate universities” (I would know, having taught in one some hundreds of hours) they can not make a legitimate goal of theirs the pursuing of an area of knowledge by its own sake. As much as some organizations would like to convince us of the contrary, I’ve never seen a corporation or a factional party discover the intrinsic value of truth, and allow a significant amount of their precious resources to be diverted to the refinement of such truth. I’ve seen private funds (or, more frequently, a mixture of private and public funds assuring the recovery of the investment, be it by direct transfer or by the issuance of lucrative monopolies) invested in the creation of sophisticated research and development facilities, many of which have been instrumental in the advance of applied science and of technology… what I have not seen is that science and technology being pursued by the love of knowledge and with the open, sharing spirit that is intrinsically part of an educational organization, which unmasks them as just another arm of the economic conglomerates to which they rightfully belong.

Finally, we have the case of the political organizations, where there is not much room for degeneration left, as they are already degenerate enough (just kidding). They can not develop an interest in knowledge, they can not discover a sudden zeal for an otherworldly truth, but sure as hell they can discover that the collective for which they vouch is not really worth it, and that there is a lot of benefit to be made for their cadres in exploiting the state apparatus, as long as they can convince enough schlubs they still represent them, and all their accepting bribes, taking a cut in public adjudications, partaking of insider trading and the rest of little and big corruptions and horse trading we associate with contemporary politics are just for the common good, or at least for the benefit of the ingroup (which is defined necessarily in exclusion of some real or imagined outgroup that has to be demonized for all those depredations to be morally justifiable). I think randomly opening the newspaper (any day, in any country) provides us with ample enough evidence of how political organizations degenerate without much resistance into economic ones, devoted mainly to the enrichment of its members (enrichment being the fastest way of gaining social prestige for those that have not the talent, wits and cultural capital to gain it by other means).

Could a commercial/ productive organization in turn evolve to include in its goals the perpetuation of its members (which would need first to acquire some defining feature to differentiate themselves from the mass of humanity), thus becoming political? Very unlikely. Corporations (let’s not forget that, in the USA at least, they have juridical personhood, which allows for a certain effortless continuity) may buy political influence by lobbing or any other available (legally or not) way of influencing the political process of determining how the commonwealths in which they operate rule themselves, but the objective of that transaction is to increase their benefits through a more favorable legislation, not to ensure their survival. They assume that as long as they make enough money, and have enough to distribute to their members, that survival is guaranteed enough, and that the moment the benefit stops flowing to their coffers there will be nothing worthy of being continued (which is what really differentiates them from political organizations, where the survival of the collective is an end in itself, and their enrichment is only a means to that end, whilst in economical organizations the enrichment is the end in itself, regardless of who benefits from it).

We can then represent the evolution of organizations with the following one directional flow:

Religious  ->  Educational  ->  Political  ->  Economic

Which doesn’t mean that the moment a religious organization allows some of its members to pursue within its formal structure some sort of secular benefit it automatically becomes an economic one and can never change back. As long as they keep  their nominal intent, they can reform and, through innovation, get rid of the “corrupted” goals and restore their original capacity to pursue the first, “higher order” ones. I recognize that stating “otherworldly” goals as somehow of a higher order than the pursuit of things like group recognition (a first task, previous to permanence, required of political groups) or material well being may jar some of my readers, but it will require a separate post to sort it out.

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