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As I prepare for my annual lecture I am tending to see many things through its conceptual lens, so I apologise for another rather opaque post which will probably bemuse the general reader while striking the expert as hideously confused. At least there is a bit of current affairs at the end...

In essence I intend the lecture to explore why right now it feels increasingly hard to solve complex social problems. I suggest this might, in part, be a consequence of systemic difficulties at the source of three primary forms of social power: first, hierarchical authority; second, solidarity and shared values; and third, individual self-interest and fulfilment.

Here are some thoughts which came to me as I mused along these lines over the weekend.

The way to maximise social power is to identify and combine the best form of the three power sources in pursuit of a shared objective; e.g the dynamic, resilient, creative aspects of individualism not the short term, self-deluding, self-serving facets, to which we are all prone.

Often cultures and solutions only mobilise two of the three sources of power. So, for example, private corporations tend to be strongly hierarchical and also appeal to individual self-interest, but despite all the mission statements and CSR policies, much weaker when it comes to tapping into feeling of solidarity and communal values. The public sector, in contrast, is also hierarchical but here it is individualism not solidarity which tends to be lacking.

If we accept there are three different sources of power but also three different forms of culture/solution which draw on only two out of three, then these six states/perspectives can be primarily described in relation to having a surplus or deficit of one of the power sources: hierarchy heavy (or hierarchy light), solidarity heavy (or solidarity light), individualism heavy (or individualism light).

This thought was provoked by reading a short summary of Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thevenot’s classic sociological study, ‘On Justification, Economies of Worth’. On the basis of detailed research, Thevenot and Boltanski laid out what they argued were six competing evaluative modes. They describe these as ‘market’ (legitimised philosophically by Adam Smith), ‘inspired’ (St Augustine), ‘domestic’ (Bossuet), ‘fame’ (‘Hobbes’), ‘civic’ (Rousseau) and ‘industrial’ (Saint-Simon).

As I understand these categories it is possible to map them on to the schema above.

Individualism heavy = ‘market’: Individualism light = ‘domestic’

Solidarity heavy = ‘civic’: Solidarity light = 'fame’

Hierarchy heavy = ‘industrial’: Hierarchy light = ‘inspired’

In the face of complex tasks, needing solutions which draw on all power sources, sub-optimal arrangements are subject to a ‘Goldilocks diagnosis’, either too dominated by one mode of interpretation/source of power or failing sufficiently to draw on that mode/source.

How on earth to make all this intelligible and of practical value is keeping me awake at night. But there is a direct relevance to the Barclay’s case.

In the context of complex challenges, an optimal culture/solution has all three modes/sources in place and all in their benign settings. A sub-optimal, but nevertheless potentially stable, state is where two out of three are in play (the ‘light’ states above). But where just one mode/force is in play, and especially if this mode is in a malign setting (something made more likely by the inherent absence of check from the other modes), then we have a culture which is likely to be heading for internal collapse or external vandalism.

This is the culture of the investment arms of the banks. Not only is hierarchy terribly weak (trades are so fast moving and complex no one in authority really understands what is going on or how to intervene), but in the core business model there is a complete absence of solidarity or social responsibility. Furthermore the idea of success is at the ‘possessive individualist’ extreme unresrained by more humanistic notions of personal fulfilment. Such a culture is, as we now know, unstable and dangerous.

In terms of blame for the LIBOR shenanigans, Mr Bob Diamond is a prisoner of the manic culture he has sought loudly to legitimise. The problem for him now is that having gained so much from the fragile but huge success of such a culture it is hard then to deny responsibility for its inevitable pathologies.

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