Cher, incentive structures and our inevitable doom

Cher is on the CD in the lovely Arcadian café I am sitting in.

“Do you believe?”, she is asking me

And then she sings the magic words

“I really don’t think you’re strong enough.”

Too right, Ms Cher. Strength is the issue.

Last night I had a zoom call with an academic who has been heavily involved in XR stuff in the UK.

We’d had some positive interactions on Twitter, and he hadn’t been put off by articles with titles like

As happens a lot, I suspect, our conversation began with the standard disbelieving head-shaking at the shambles that is this government, and how it got this way. [I pointed to a novel, written by the late Julian Rathbone, called Nasty, Very about the 1983 intake of Tory MPs]

And I said that, to avoid the sterility of morality plays,  I try to think of this all in terms of incentive structures and what behaviours are rewarded and punished when you are trying to climb the – tired expression – greasy pole.

It’s not as if any political party was ever full of selfless saints. It’s always been the sharp-elbowed, sharp-tongued, Machiavellians who got to the top. As the expression goes “if you’re in politics and you want loyalty, get a dog.”

But the Conservative Party used to, I think, have the capacity to spot a wrong ‘un and keep him (or her) away from the levers of power.  (By ‘wrong ‘un’ I don’t mean ideologues committed to, say, destroying mining communities, snatching milk or the like – I mean self-enriching spivs, liars and cheats. I could name names, but, you get the picture, and there are libel laws).  The Conservative Party used (or am I wrong?), to sideline the outright charlatans. Maybe I am wrong.

But back to selection pressures. The clearest selection pressure of late, has been the Brexit loyalty test.  It didn’t matter if you were competent (at being a minister, at ‘doing’ politics – constituency work, handling the media, playing a straight bat to scandals etc etc), if you were not a believer, good bye.

It takes me back to something I read on Sunday, by Nick Cohen of all people.  He quoted Hannah Arendt.

“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”

And Cohen, giving the Observer’s lawyers some work to do when they legalled this, says of the current attorney-general

“To understand how Braverman rose to an office that specifically demands the holder displays independent thought, her fanaticism and mediocrity must be balanced…. Johnson chose well when he appointed Braverman. If he thought she would take a stand on principle, he would never have given her the job.”

The point?  Independence of mind and integrity is ACTIVELY SELECTED against (but not just in hierarchical organisations).

So let’s not pretend that what we are seeing now is somehow a surprise, or the particular fault of individual (though fish really does rot from the head, for sure). This is the end result of not weeks or months, not years, but decades.

[And of course, that’s before we even talk about neoliberalism as an engine of hollowing out the state of its democratic trappings, leaving the taxation stuff in place to provide a trough for the rich. Adam Smith would not be at all surprised.]

But I digress and need to pivot.  So I will.

The Social Movements thing

“Lefties” are willing to apply this analysis (Gramscian, Jessopian, Machiavellian whatever) to states/bureaucracies/corporates.  We might even go so far as to apply it to “Big Green” organisations which have – in order to survive – cut their clothe according to the current game (see Ingolfur Bluhdorn on post-ecological thinking).

They do not – for multiple reasons – apply it to so-called “grassroots” groups.  Because it would be bad manners. Because it would get us uninvited and make research harder. Because it would harsh our vibe or whatever the lingo was. 

We (think we) need “hope”, a magical agent of change, an Angel of History.

But this.

There are individuals in ANY social  scene are looking for power, validation, control.  Jo Freeman nailed it fifty years ago in her more-cited-than-read essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

The current set up, the smugosphere, with its emotacycles and its opportunities to turn potential participants into “ego-fodder,” is meeting the individual and institutional needs of enough people. It provides stable good activist token mechanisms. It has its homeodynamic mechanisms, can handily deal with anything schismogenetic (look it up if you like – it’s Gregory Bateson).

Fwiw, I like to believe that I know what would need to be done to get us to 3,000, or 30,000, or even 300,000 (that is a reference to the zoom, in case anyone from GCHQ wants to play it back). I could make a plausible enough plan to get old people “back,” to stop the staggering wastage of new people (pouring water into a paper bag).

But I refuse to be the economist on the desert island.

Because I also think that those things would not be – could not – be done, because they would require a load of skills, knowledge and relationships, a set of perspectives and willingness to serve and de-centre that are beyond “us.” Creating social movement organisations that can survive co-optation, exhaustion, repression is – as far as I can tell – really really difficult. If it were easy, we would have a lot more SMOs than we have, yes?

And if The Things That Need Doing were successfully implemented, over time, at a niche level, or even at the level of multiple niches, the rough beast waiting to be born would be shot in the head by bigger beasts, who recognised, dimly or brightly that they were threatened by what was happening.

The best way to describe this is to roll out that quote from the Carl Rogers Reader (Carl Rogers is a guy I need to read more of, clearly – along with Illich, May, Fromm, that crowd [yes, all pale male stale – help!]).

Rogers was talking to a guy who had been hired to raise productivity in a company that had various factories all producing the same stuff.

He told me that while the experimental plants continue to do extremely well, and he feels pride in the work he has done with them, he regards his work with the corporation as a failure. The top management, though appreciative of the increased profits and good morale of the experimental plants, has not moved to follow this model in their other plants, even though it appears evident that overall profits would be increased.

“Why not?” I inquired.

His answer was most thought provoking: “When managers from other plants look closely at what we are doing, they gradually realize how much of their power they would have to give away, to share with their employees.  And they are not willing to give up that power.” When I stated that it appeared that power over people was even more important than profits- which are supposed to be the all-important goal in industry- he agreed.

We’re doomed

So, whether or not the laws of physics now say “we” “are” “doomed“ (I suspect they do), not being doomed would require us to break some insanely well-embedded laws of social interaction, again and again and again, for no personal or obvious reward, and change “the system” from within, defeating its efforts at defending itself, while simultaneously taking on the underlying causes of the pending ecological debacle.

Hands up if you think that is going to happen.

4 thoughts on “Cher, incentive structures and our inevitable doom

Add yours

  1. Good to hear the soft part being said aloud. My limited experience in corporate situations and a lifetime of watching them at work brings me to the same conclusions. Power over people, “power” that only gives the illusion of anything but the perpetuation of violence, is what drives them. They will sacrifice anything and anyone to maintain their illusions.

    The caterpillar resists dissolution to the bitter end. Making a butterfly is no sure thing….

    1. It is terrifying, isn’t it – there is that old line about “the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

      I wish all activists would watch “The Life of Brian” and realise that the pathologies within the People’s Front of Judea are present – to a lesser or greater extent – in THEIR group, and that these pathologies can never be absent, but that things can be done – difficult and painful things – to contain them, manage them, at least for a while. Requires strength, and I really don’t believe we’re strong enough…

      1. Yes, on Brian!

        We’re not strong enough, but that comes from believing in power. Power corrupts, that is, it rots those who look to it for “answers.” Strength is a capacity and capacities can be changed. But change does not come when we are deluded. That’s why your focus on the current dysfunction is as necessary as it is exhausting. There’s no getting stronger so long as we’re expecting power to work. The only thing it’s good at is taking its believers down into that bunker where the choices narrow down to cyanide pill or Luger….

        It took me a long time to recognize that power and strength are not synonymous. It boils down to their relationships with realities, what is: power requires delusion and strength is aware of its limits. It grounds….

        The one advantage of difficult times is that delusions are easier to recognize, if we’re not swept up in chasing after that power…. After-maths, and we’re not there yet, give even those who’ve ridden the wave of power and survived, an opportunity to change. The Twentieth Century’s lessons were/are there to read. Their failure/tragedy was that they weren’t shaken deeply enough by the horrors unleashed and had easy outs still available.

        Nemesis will see to it that this time they won’t be ignore-able. Which brings us back to “the stakes….” On one level, they are so low, grasping at maintaining fiefdoms. On the other, the results are beginning to show….

      2. Yes to all this.

        On power/control/domination – Hannah Arendt is useful (again!) on the distinction. But she has her own blindspots – this thesis looks good on this –

        Best wishes,


        PS “When the tide goes out, you can see who has been swimming naked” is a Warren Buffett line. Well, the tide is going waaaay out…

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