Any time we think about how to change something as fundamental as the core organizational principles by which we humans conduct our business around the world, we have to focus on how large governmental and corporate organizations hold together and survive. They are the effective actors in our world. What do we do about bureaucracies?
Institutions: Coherence and Inertia
Governments, corporations, political parties, banks, non-profit non-government organizations – all the organizations of human activities in our century – share certain fundamental characteristics that on the one hand give them coherence and enable them to act as economic, political entities but on the other hand endanger them and us when great change is required.
In order to produce our food, safeguard our daily lives, provide for what the U.S. Declaration of Independence calls “the domestic tranquility’ and thereby safeguard laws and contracts and currencies – but most of all, in order to keep the world from falling into grave economic depression – the organizations of the world must continue to operate in predictable ways, continue to maintain stable economic conditions, and even continue to grow.
Environmental Limits Following Centuries of Unlimited Horizons
After nearly 500 years of development and growth, however, the environmental challenges these multinational mammoths have created through their very success, summed up in resource depletion, pollution, and global warming, demand a fundamental change in the logic of our economics.
Over these last few centuries that logic has been simple and compelling: grow or collapse. Economists from all schools from Lenin to Keynes have agreed on that principle. Now, however, we simply cannot continue to grow. Human life depends on finding another way. 1
Organizational Principles are Universal – Communism and Capitalism? Same Results
And there lies one arresting question. The failure of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China have shown that the solutions offered by traditional Communism were ineffectual. But the organizational principles – the economic structures – of state socialism and of multinational capitalism were similar; only the ownership was different. When workers entered their factories in both systems, they had to show up on time, take orders from foremen, and work for a limited wage. The question is: if capitalism is also leading us to destruction, is there another way? And if there might be one, how could we effect the changeover? I wish I could answer that question now, but I can’t.
Searching for the Fundamental Characteristics of All Organizations
What I can and will do, I hope, is more limited. I can only seek to outline the structures of action in human systems and suggest the fundamental characteristics of all such systems – and then systems of systems. And that may give us insights into how to approach changing them – at least what not to do – the actions that would likely prove futile in the light of what we learn.
Illustration – One Man’s Attempt to Change a System
I’ll begin by reminding you of some of the past attempts to change both political and economic versions of the bureaucratic organizations that dominate our lives around the world.
In June 1979 the world outside China was glued to the news as a film and photo captured the attention of people around the world. The main square in Beijing was filled with thousands of angry students and supporting civilians. They were demonstrating against government policies, crying for a reform in economic opportunities.
The People’s Liberation Army brought in reinforcements from outside the city. They moved ominously toward Tien An Men Square, the huge open plaza at the center of Beijing in front of the Forbidden City and the seat of both the Communist Party and the Government of China. And in fact they did move into the square and shoot down an unknown number of students and other protesters in a bloody show of power that they have been trying to live down ever since.
At the height of the drama, a single man stood in Tian An Men Square in front of a line of armored tanks advancing on the crowd to inflict further casualties on the sea of people gathered there. When the lead tank swerved to avoid him, he danced in front of it and kept dancing back and forth to keep it from going around him, apparently without regard for his own life.
His courage inspired people everywhere, and although he remains anonymous to this day, his image has been burned into the collective consciousness of all of us. For a moment the tanks did stop.
For that one instant his courage was rewarded: the military might of one enormous, powerful government organization ground to a halt before one determined human being. He clambered up on the lead tank as if to speak to the commander, and then either friends or police (No record exists about which it was.) dragged him down from the turret and off the road, and the tanks resumed their murderous progress into the square.
It would be easy to single out the Chinese regime as cruel and oppressive and to condemn them out of hand. Easy condemnation, however, would be a cop-out.
Tank Man, as he has come to be known in English, symbolized the single individual standing up to the military, the bureaucracy, and the corporation – call it the big organization.
He was a hero for all of us surrounded by and living in an industrial web of national and local governments, multi-national corporations, and global non-governmental organizations, all of which, although made up of individual humans, are organized. Their structure as organizations exists in part to resist threats by mere individual citizens and to maintain their normal structures of routines and attain their goals no matter what any individual does.
Are We Americans or Europeans Somehow Different ?
We have seen similar events in the United States. In June 1970 student demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War at two universities were shot by American National Guardsmen. Like the TianAn Men massacre, the tragedy at Kent State also occurred as angry and disillusioned students took to the streets and disrupted the normal life of the institutions in which they were enrolled in order to persuade them to change policies. After the shots rang out, American troops stood by and watched the wounded youth bleed to death. I won’t compare their attitudes with the Chinese soldiers, who at least negotiated with Tank Man before rumbling on.
Organizations Have Their Own Interests – Different From Any One Person
I won’t compare the actions of the Chinese tankers with the American reservists because I am using both of these cases to illustrate a larger principle, which is universal and ultimately more important: that corporate and state interests are not the same as our individual human interests, and they seldom yield to the humans whose lives they affect. Why is this? What are the interests of governments, despite their contents of individual humans, that overshadow human life? Why do they not hold human interests at their cores?
But wait! It’s not only governments that are obdurate. Corporations also resist human attempts to change their policies. Giant corporations have also created similar tragedies when people were protesting their policies. Sometimes they are as fatal as the Kent State demonstrations.
We can look back only 100 years to 1907, for example, coal miners in southern Colorado attempted a strike for shorter hours, higher pay, adequate safety measures, and above all, the right to organize a union. It ended badly as the National Guard troops, who were originally sent in to bring about peace, sided with the copper company guards and began firing on the miners and their families, killing several.
Although Standard Oil CEO and founder, John D. Rockefeller, attempted for decades afterward to erase the bad publicity for his steel-coal combine, he never granted the miners the right to organize a union.
The reasons for the tragedy lay mostly in the evil heart of John D. Rockefeller – but not entirely; they also stemmed from the threat the miners posed to the deepest springs of corporate organization, central control, and the need to preserve the organization’s power and integrity at all costs.
The list of people resisting corporations goes on. Most recently it has included farmers and consumer demonstrating against genetically modified crops in several countries, including the United States.
Some have actually been successful, as was the one pictured here from Madhya Pradesh in India in 2008, where farmers, who are pictured in a mock funeral procession for GMOs, succeeded in convincing their legislature to ban the introduction of what they saw as dangerous – and expensive – GMO seeds that would force them to stop saving seeds from each crop and eventually lead to widespread bankruptcy.
Farmers in North Dakota in the US have not been so successful, by the way. They were, for example, unable to stop the state legislature from banning seed saving in order to protect Monsanto’s monopoly on seeds and the accompanying insecticide and weed-killer sales.)
Most other such attempts to resist destructive corporate practices, in fact, like the farmers in North Dakota, have not been as inspiring. Many citizens in many countries have turned out in significant numbers to urge the energy mining corporations to stop the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to increase the yield of petroleum or natural gas from rock formations under their communities.
Nearly all such movements have failed. [The only exception I have been able to find in the US occurred in upstate New York, where the state supreme court held that a village could bar fracking under the ground the town is located on.] The usual course is failure, as in this photo, also from the United States, of demonstrations in 2012.
Provoking Organizational Opposition in Response
This separation of corporate interests from those of ordinary people is now worldwide; it has been reflected incidentally in the increase in number and size of multinational environmental organizations. The multiplicity of ordinary people beginning to organize against the corporate destruction of their land has also been noted recently and described in hopeful detail.2
The superiority of state and corporate interests over any individual , nevertheless, is so pervasive that we only notice it in moments of crisis, those turning points when changes in the world demand rapid, significant change in the institutions, but they obdurately resist change. As they normally do.
We are saved from complete disillusion, however, by the rarity of these occasions. For the most part we continue our lives in a sea of multinational institutions – from Walmart to Toyota to the US Army – so complete that, like fish perceiving their surrounding water – we omit them from our consciousness. We live this way, for the most part in and out of the big box stores, shopping centers and malls that surround us.
We Must Limit Growth – We Require Endless Growth
The most obvious issue of all, of course, is the need to adjust to the limitations on growth posed by environmental limits.3
Our whole global network of commercial exchange, however, rests on the structural principle built into our capitalist system, which is that every economy must grow forever in order to avoid recessions and widespread hardships.
That principle, which has deep roots in our experience over the last 300 years, legitimizes the continuous repetition of the assumption that more goods and services, more comfort, and higher incomes will lead to widespread happiness, just as it justifies asserting again and again that when companies make money, everyone benefits – the old trickle-down theory.
And so far that assumption has not changed – we have been unable to change it – in the face of the present dire crisis, which threatens our civilization, a crisis of a kind that commercial and government bureaucracies cannot comprehend.
Individual people can, but the organizations that have created the crisis are slow or even helpless to address it or to change their roles in continuously creating it.
And for those of us worried about our environment and sustainability in the 21st century, that’s a deep flaw. Mostly our consciousnesses cannot comprehend it.
I write this without condemnation; I am not intent on painting corporations and governments as villains. I have known personally some of the captains of industry from my college days, and I know that most of them are not evil, regardless of the evil outcomes they create.
Then the Fruitful Question is How do Organizations Really Work?
Despite my vivid introduction to the topic, I am, rather, interested in asking the question as evenly, as fairly, as I can: what is it about large human organizations that determines that over and over their interests diverge from those of the people they affect – or even employ – and that the organizations find it so difficult to adjust their actions to fulfill the needs of these people.
What are the conditions that even drive them to go on creating their own long-run destruction as well as ours.?
This is a serious question, beyond the simple issues of right and wrong, and I intend to explore the answer seriously, investigating the nature of the organizations the way a biologist would investigate the nature of a species or of a colony of individuals.
Some 75 years ago, the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s 1943 lectures on “What is Life?” posed a series of questions about how physical entities could create the opposite of entropy and pass on their basic attributes in the process we call living and reproducing. That is the spirit in which I plan to explore the characteristics of large human organizations, which nowadays usually take the form of bureaucracies.
So come with me while I first tease apart some of the basics. We’ll get to the more interesting stuff once we have delineated the elements that are important to know if we are to ask the right questions.
- See Naomi Klien’s book, This Changes Everything (2014) New York. Simon and Schuster
- See, for example, Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest (2007, NY, Penguin
- See, for example, Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (2014) and beyond that, Dana and Dennis Meadows, et al., famous Club of Rome Study, Limits to Growth (1972).