Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Institutional Imperative, Part 2

One important consequence of the institutional imperative is that institutions tend to staff themselves with exactly the sorts of people who would tend to work to preserve those institutions. That is, someone who would not make it their first priority to preserve a given institution would not be knowingly selected for a position in that institution. This is why a country would not elect a leader whose stated goal it was to destroy that country's government — a so-called revolution is needed for that. Likewise, it is why a corporation would not hire a CEO whose goals did not match up with the company's.

This is why the heads of corporations, despite any contrition to the contrary, will never work toward the interests of people in general, but only toward the interests of the corporations they work for. When the legally required goal of a corporation is profitability, anyone who becomes a head of a corporation must consent to their actions being directed primarily towards that goal, rather than any humanitarian or just one (profitability, after all, rarely aligns with humanity or justice). No matter how much a CEO or board of directors might in their heart of hearts wish to improve the lot of their workers or the people they generally exploit, they only come into their positions if they are already willing to put these better natures aside for the sake of the corporations survival in the market. And should their consciences prevail, they would promptly be fired and mocked as weak and incapable.

This is why the claim that merely selecting better people to fill the positions in an institution can change the fundamental values of that institution is mistaken. An institution has its own values and priorities, which must be accepted by any person who fills a role in that institution before they would be allowed to do so. The institutional imperative results in a continuous vicious cycle whereby institutions are established with nominal goals, adopt the primary goal of survival, and then staff themselves with people already willing to carry out those nominal goals and necessarily the primary goal, and maintain this state for as long as possible, until collapsing.

Compare this to what I earlier called a group of individuals. Such a group would come together with the primary goal of solving a certain problem. However, unlike an institution, there would be no formal organization to the group that did not arise from the very character of the problem to be solved. The group would be recognized from the outset as a temporary, fluid system for dealing with the specific problem at hand. If the problem were a permanent one (for instance, waste management in a city) then the group would be constantly working, but would have no offices or formal rules. Rather, it would shrink and grow as needed, with procedures determined by the needs of any given moment. This would certainly be more difficult to maintain and run, but would ultimately be worthwhile, I believe, in that it would avoid any chance of corruption, as well as the risk of deviating from its stated purpose.

There are, of course, many other aspects which would have to be explained to account for how a dynamic, informal group could run any of the complex systems which make up modern society. The previous paragraph was meant simply to provide contrast to the way institutions work. At the least, I hope I made clear what I mean by the institutional imperative, and why it can lead to serious problems in society.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Institutional Imperative, Part 1

[Got my first really good night of sleep in a week today, so I'm finally back to blogging. Did y'all miss me?]

An institution is, loosely defined, a formal system for organizing human effort which has a permanent nature independent of the people who make it up. The reason for forming an institution is so that there is a centralized, legalistic authority which can make decisions necessary for completing the work the institution was established to do. Institutions are the traditional way of solving societal problems, from governing people and resources at the largest scales to running the local girl's hockey team.

However, as Clay Shirky so eloquently points out in this TED talk, institutions have a big problem. No matter what problem an institution is formed to solve, that problem is never the number one priority of the institution. Whatever the nominal prerogative of the institution is, its main priority from the moment it is actually formed becomes self-preservation. No matter what problem the institution sets out to solve, the institution can't work to address that problem if it no longer exists. It's that election-year mentality that says that it doesn't matter how poorly the incumbent governs because if they don't win, they won't get to govern at all.

This is what I call the institutional imperative. It is an inherent feature of any institutional organization. And it is the reason for a great deal of the problems in the world. It is responsible for the inhumanity of modern corporate capitalism, in which individuals are powerless to stop the cold financial logic of human exploitation and environmental destruction. It is likewise the feature which I believe is chiefly responsible for the counter-revolutionary fervor of the Soviet system and its descendants, whose inhuman slaughter of their own populations was truly inhuman.

Marxist Leninism, which seeks to destroy class distinctions and the State through a specific series of political events (which are, it should be noted, completely opposed to both the spirit and letter of Marxian Communism as an ideological system) is incredibly vulnerable to the prerogative because it is so blind to it on principle. Its very goal was to transfer all power into a single institution, the Communist State, so that it could be eliminated with a single blow once the proletariat was organized for self-sufficiency. What it tragically ignored was the intermediate step of getting power from the many varied institutions of contemporary society into the single Communist State. Because its nominal goal was the ultimate elimination of the State, it was ideologically impossible for Communism to admit that any state established by a Communist Party was going to suffer from the institutional imperative, and have as its first priority its own survival. More and more repressive measures were necessary to maintain the "revolutionary" government, because if it ever fell, they could never achieve the revolution.

This mad state of affairs was largely possible only because many people immediately assume that institutions are the only way to organize human labor, be it in a State, a corporation, a trade union, or a bureaucracy. In fact, this is assumed completely implicitly by most. People are almost never taught to consider the possibility that there are non-institutional solutions to societal problems. Although I will not go now into the alternatives, it should at least be recognized that there is such an assumption, that institutions have this feature which dictates a large chunk of their behavior, and that such behavior can be hugely destructive to humanity and the world.