Make your own rules

 

I am the rules

Here’s a photo taken a while ago that never made it into a post. It’s an advert I saw on a bus shelter. It isn’t the clearest photo in the world, but it tells a story. The story it tells is very clearly expressed by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. It shows that in our society, being an individual is a task we’re assigned. We have to work hard at it. For example, there are things to buy. Buying things also bought by others is the surest way to achieve individuality. The irony, according to Bauman, is that individuality – the mandate of the society of individuals – is thus impossible to achieve. The quotations below are from Chapter 1 of Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge : Polity 15-38.

Individuality is a task set for its members by the society of individuals – set as an individual task, to be individually performed, by individuals using their individual resources. Yet such a task is self-contradictory and self -defeating : indeed, impossible to fulfil.
(2005:18)

When it is serviced by the consumer markets, the marathon of the pursuit of individuality draws its urgency and impetus from the terror of being caught up, absorbed and devoured by the crowd of runners breathing heavily behind one’s back. But in order to join the race and to stay in it, you first need to purchase the ‘special marathon shoes ‘ which – surprise, surprise – all the rest of the runners wear or deem it their duty to obtain.
(Bauman 2005 :25)

As a task, individuality is an end product of societal transformation disguised as a personal discovery.
(2005:19; cf. 29)

There’s a good summary of Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity – Chapter One  at Realsociology.

But individuality isn’t the only kind of societal transformation that might be found disguised as a personal discovery. Communality, being part of a group, is also a kind of social demand dressed up as a personal task. There is a Japanese phrase: minna no kimochi. This means something like ‘being of one heart’. One could say: “Our feelings about the game came together and we played well”.  Marie Mutsuki Mockett has written about how minna no kimochi is used to explain how political change might come to Japan after the great tsunami of 2011: by everyone feeling united about it.

This approach to the person is a little disquieting, since it encourages us to question the solid assumptions we have about our selves, how we come to even have something called a self, and how this process of ‘selfing’ relates to wider social processes.

 

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Guest post coming up

email iconDan,

Thanks for your interesting message. I’d certainly like to make a ‘guest post’ of it. It fits very well with the next piece coming up here on the London riots – but of course you say things that hadn’t even occurred to me. For example the whole idea of a market place of ideas as an Individualist fantasy is intriguing. (Likewise the idea of nuclear power as an Individualist institution. I have seen it as implicated in a Hierarchical or at least strong Grid world view and have perhaps been wilfully blind to the promethian, cutting edge of progress aspects.)

Your three suggestions for de-biassing public debate show that we could be doing much better than we currently are – and that the problem of market failure in the market place of ideas has some encouraging solutions. I’m sure the readers of Fourcultures will be fascinated…

 Dan Kahan is a part of the Cultural Cognition Project. Watch this space for his guest post.

Excommunicating Women priests

Just about to write something about the recent restatement of the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ordination of women – I realised, effectively, I already had.

Add only this: it’s not actually very easy to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. Few people have ever met anyone who has been (militant atheists have been trying it recently, with limited success). This is because exclusion is a very uncharacteristic measure for a hierarchical organisation. It sits rather better with Egalitarian organisations which have no other sanctions against persistent dissenters. Indeed, for hierarchies, exclusion makes almost no sense, since one thereby excludes the wrongdoer from punishment. Note that in describing excommunication theological commentators sometimes refer to it as being of medicinal benefit. It supposedly encourages the wrongdoer to realise the seriousness of their offence and thence to repent and return to the fold.

So, far from being another indication of the terrible hierarchy at its terrible worst, as some commentators have suggested, the restatement of the Church’s willingness to excommunicate those attempting the ordination of a woman is really more evidence of just how far Egalitarianism has made inroads into that most hierarchical of hierarchies. Lacking other more coercive sanctions, the Church is reduced to fighting Egalitarianism with its own weapon, exclusion.

But the excluded who won’t repent don’t merely vanish. These days they turn up in America where they take a largely competitive, Individualist approach to religion: if you can’t join them, beat them.  Does it seem unlikely that a small group of women could change the church’s longstanding practice? Perhaps these women and their supporters might take a little encouragement from the story of Mary Mackillop, the Nineteenth century Australian nun who was excommunicated for inciting disobedience. In October 2010 she’ll  be made Australia’s first saint.

Read also: grid-group cultural theory and hierarchical churches

Fortify your group with religious belief! Homing in on the God Gene

NY Times God Gene Graphic“Groups fortified by religious belief would have prevailed over those that lacked it, and genes that prompted the mind toward ritual would eventually have become universal.”

An article in the New York Times, In Search of the God Gene, flies a kite for religion as an evolutionary benefit. But it takes a very particular view of what religion amounts to. According to the article the traits regarded as religion are those that promote a [high-group, low-grid]  egalitarian society, but then also those which favour a [high group, high grid] hierarchical society. However, the view that these cultures are the most effective and therefore the most likely to be selected for in evolutionary terms does not stand up to scrutiny. It begs the question of the relationship of nature to culture. Neither does it take account of the possibility raised by Cultural Theory of [low grid,  low group] Individualist, or [high grid, low group] Fatalist religions and religious practices.

No organised religion in the world today is claimed to have lasted more than 40,000-60,000 years. Most are far, far younger than this. Indeed we could characterise religion itself as a very recent phenomenon, far too recent to have affected evolution to any significant extent. Supposedly timeless ‘Religious’ practices such as ritual dancing or induced trance states are so general as to transcend any useful definition of religion, or else not actually necessary for a definition of religion.

The evidence cited in the article itself contradicts the claim that religion helps societies to survive over generations. Note that far from being static, the religious activities identified in the NY Times article change and involve discontinuity. Communal religious dancing floor, ancestor cult shrine, astronomical temple – it is our modern category of religion that links these structures, not the experience of those societies which changed, perhaps drastically, from one to the next. What seems to be selected for, if that is the right term, is the ability of humans to abandon their religious beliefs and practices and adopt different ones, often radically different ones. Apostacy seems to be the intergenerational norm, and even loyalty as the intra-generational norm can take a big hit from time to time. Letters of reply to the article were interesting, with some supporting the alternative view that religion is a byproduct of evolution, not a factor, and others pointing out that many ethically questionable human behaviours can be seen as adaptive.

The decline and fall of declining and falling

Edward Gibbon made a famous claim in chapter 3 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”

Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.

Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.

The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase. Continue reading “The decline and fall of declining and falling”

Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?

Individualist social organisation operates on the assumption that accountability structures and measures are the problem, not the solution. They act as a brake on the forward momentum of heroic risk. Who dares wins. The only accountability required is clearly success or failure in the market. Accountability is an obstacle to success that needs to be overcome. On this view, it’s hard to see how accountability structures could be ‘reformed’. The only thing worth doing with accountability is to dismantle it.

Now that the dust of the global financial crisis is beginning to settle, one of the key lessons learned seems to be Continue reading “Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?”

East meets West: are there just two cultures?

New Scientist has an article by Ed Yong on the dichotomy between eastern and western thought.

But there are more than two alternatives (western/individualist/analytic vs eastern/collective/holistic)… Continue reading “East meets West: are there just two cultures?”

Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?

by Rarbol2004Could it be in China’s interests to ignore climate chance?

According to the Danish ‘skeptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg:

Climate models show that for at least the rest of this century, China will actually benefit from global warming. Warmer temperatures will boost agricultural production and improve health. The number of lives lost in heatwaves will increase, but the number of deaths saved in winter will grow much more rapidly: warming will have a more dramatic effect on minimum temperatures in winter than on maximum temperatures in summer.
There are few arguments for China and India to commit to carbon caps – and compelling reasons for them to resist pressure to do so.”

Now to say that Lomborg has been accused of playing fast and loose with statistics would be an understatement, so there is no special reason to trust his unreferenced ‘climate models’. However, commentators at the Ecologist Magazine, hardly Lomborg’s best friends, have said more or less the same thing, and added Canada as a potential beneficiary of climate change. So let’s just suppose Chinese, Indian and possibly Russian officials and politicians are indeed thinking along these lines. After all, disruption and change always create opportunities for someone, somewhere. Would it be possible to develop policy on the basis that climate change will substantially alter the balance of environmental blessings between the world’s nations? In other words, could rising temperatures shift competitive advantage to certain nations? Of course it would be possible to develop policy on this basis. But would it be wise? Continue reading “Climate Disruption as policy: wisdom or folly?”

How to avoid nasty surprises

by Kevin N MurphyThe company had a “uniquely entrepreneurial culture” that made it a paragon of business success. According to management guru Gary Hamel, it was ‘leading the revolution’. Unfortunately the company in question was rotten to the core and ultimately became one of the most notorious business failures of the decade. The company, of course, was Enron. Hamel later said,

“Virtually everyone inside and outside the company was surprised.”

The message of grid-group cultural theory is that a focus on one means of organising to the exclusion of all others will tend to look like success – at least to those who share that worldview. But in the long run, the pressure of reality will impinge, and what looked like an asset will be revealed as a liability. The theory holds that there isn’t just one worldview – there are four, and we ignore this plurality at our peril.
Alan Greenspan had a similar surprise at an even larger scale as the US economy began to unravel. In April 2008 he wrote that events had left him ‘surprised and appalled’, and yet

“My view of the range of dispersion of outcomes has been shaken, but not my judgment that free competitive markets are by far the unrivalled way to organize economies.”

By October 2008, though, this shaken intellectual edifice had fallen completely:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity — myself especially — are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

From the perspective of the Four Cultures, Greenspan’s one-eyed, single-minded pursuit of deregulation, far from being a positive attribute, was surely going to end in tears. As Joseph Stiglitz put it,

“key regulators like Alan Greenspan didn’t really believe in regulation; when the excesses of the financial system were noted, they called for self-regulation — an oxymoron.”

Stiglitz says,

“This is not the first crisis in our financial system, not the first time that those who believe in free and unregulated markets have come running to the government for bail-outs. There is a pattern here, one that suggests deep systemic problems…”

Sadly, though, Stiglitz’s solutions to the financial crisis are cosmetic, not systemic. Worthwhile though they may be in their own right, they will do little to improve the systemic problems with a political and financial culture that refuses to see that there is more than one way – or two at a push – of doing things. Stiglitz’s approach – a financial product safety commission, a financial systems stability commission and so on – is typical of the now commonplace shift from an Individualist culture (deregulation, free-market, unbridled competition) to a Hierarchical culture (re-regulation, constrained market, suspicion of competition).

Mary Douglas, the originator of the grid-group paradigm, showed that there is far more to life than just hierarchies or markets, but neither Greenspan or Stiglitz seem able to see that. Set in proper context, markets and hierarchies are just two of a wider suite of responses to the challenge of organising.

And until we move beyond the limited range of responses currently on offer, towards solutions that make the best of all four of the cultures Douglas identified, we’ll just keep on being surprised.

See also:

Mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

science pendulum by midiman

The trouble with a bi-polar view of the world is that there only ever seem to be two rival ways of doing anything. The choices are strictly limited. In the midst of the financial crisis, the pendulum has swung from the private sector ownership of banks to public sector ownership, as though these were the only two conceivable possibilities.

Grid-group cultural theory offers an analytical prism through which to see that there are not two but four ways of organising (and of disorganising) anything. The Individualist approach (Privatise!) and the Hierarchical approach (Nationalise!) are complimented by the Fatalist approach (it’s all a lottery!) and the Egalitarian approach. For reeling financial institutions it’s this latter that now has great potential.

While private banks are go under and governments struggle to work out how to salvage the wreckage into nationalised institutions, the mutual sector has survived relatively unscathed and remains robust. Now it the time to consider expanding it, not least by re-mutualising the institutions that were aggressively de-mutualised during the zenith of free-market triumphalism.

The mutual option has been overlooked or denigrated for a long time because it reflects neither the Individualist nor the Hierarchical worldview. It is an Egalitarian way of organising, with owners, tellingly, being termed members.

But mutuality doesn’t really need cheerleaders. As mortgages and other forms of loans increasingly dry up, people are likely to get together to solve the problem themselves. After all, this is how the mutual sector arose in the first place. The chief question is whether or not those who are opposed on ideological grounds to Egalitarianism, will now get out of the way.

Having said this, it would surely be damaging to the overall ecology of finance if mutuality, or for that matter any other model, were to come to dominate. This is unlikely in the long term, given the fluid and dynamic nature of the environment in which it finance operates. The short term danger is that, refusing to see that we always have four options, we may seek to promote one alone, to the exclusion of all else. This is the recent history of the financial sector and it hasn’t been pretty. As the Cultural Theorists might say, the only thing worse than a clumsy but workable solution is the elegant but disastrous failure we see all around us.

See more on clumsy solutions.