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.

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