Now that the end of the Mayan calendar turned out to be just that -the end of a calendar rather than the world- we should perhaps turn our attention to issues that actually do threaten our global community’s existence. Spoiler alert: they do not include nuclear war, Malthusian concerns or melting icecaps. Our human mind is very good at recognizing such imminent dangers, and we are innovative and rational enough to deal with them, even if not always timely or efficiently.
The issues that truly endanger humanity are those that form part of ourselves, individually, and as such are hard to spot and even more difficult to deal with effectively. Within that category, there are few forces so strong as our attraction to size and numbers; 2012 was one of those years in which large groups and bloated international organizations showed their true nature, and it has not been a pretty sight.
Unfortunately, increased scale does not mean better governance. It reduces individual responsibility and accountability, and the initial purpose of organizations loses out to internal interests and dynamics. Different answers to our problems will be needed if we want to reach the end of the century in reasonable shape.
The mix of globalization with growing populations and growing economies is putting new demands on the way we govern our world. The answers that global society is coming up with so far are focused on the expansion of existing structures: ever-growing governments, expanded transnational organizations, dubious attempts at universal law enforcement, mass popular movements, ever-merging private companies. Globalization has become a further excuse for our psyches to find shelter in size, to hide in numbers.
Systems such as large human organizations have an inherent tendency to expand. This process is closely linked with the desire for survival of any system, and size typically means strength. Moreover, individuals within large organizations have their own particular agendas that are defended through mini-expansions within the system as well: the creation of a new management layers to accommodate promotions, management’s pet-projects leading to new departments and increased budgets to justify increased salaries are only a few of the internal expansionist forces at work. The result is perpetual growth.
And with growth come strong internal survival mechanisms. When in November Nate Silver used relatively simple statistical models to predict- astoundingly accurately as it turned out- the outcome of the US presidential elections, the mainstream media jumped on him in ways usually only reserved for North Korean dictators or cheating congressmen. The criticisms didn’t question his method or philosophy, because there was not much to criticise. But the world of punditry realised that if a nerdy looking statistician could use reason rather than instinct to analyse politics, they could all be out of a job soon. And thus the reaction was fierce, like a threatened organism defending itself from an existential threat.
Are such ever-increasing expansion and self-defence mechanisms necessarily a bad thing? Let’s look at a few examples, starting with the go-to place for any analyst of declining civilizations: ancient Rome. During its final stages of decline, the Roman Empire continued to expand its bureaucracy. This created civilization-wide inertia and blocked attempts at reversing the civilization’s fortunes. Whereas during, say, the 4th century AD, Romans still had the know-how, prestige and resources to avoid eventual collapse, they no longer had the effective means to put those competitive advantages to use. No one was able to take responsibility for the bloated bureaucratic monsters and its internal organizations kept on growing ad infinitum. This is exactly what our global civilization is facing in the early 21st Century.
The BBC crisis surrounding Jimmy Savile, for example, showed how large organizations can become inert, lack lines of responsibility and are incapable of dealing with anything beyond standard procedure. As one former BBC head said, “an organisation that allowed that sort of structure to grow up so that people can’t make decisions, has got something to do – it has got to be cleared out”.
National governments have clutched at any straw they could find to stay relevant, including using the fear-factor of terrorism, health-scares- anyone remember BSE and avian flu?- and now economic meltdown. At a time that national politics and governments are losing their validity and importance to their citizen’s lives, it is their organizations’ internal intuition, their systemic desire for survival, that drives them forward. Now that growth through welfare-state dynamics are on the decline, they look towards security and transnational concerns. The main driving force behind state intrusion into private lives and infringement of individual rights are bureaucracies. Every surveillance program justifies internal budgets and employment, and every weapons-system development benefits a whole chain of people, including lawyers and politicians. This world is not driven by dark conspiracies; it is driven by increasingly faceless actors within large organizations defending their own small islands of interests. The result is wasted resources, inefficiency and, most importantly, lack of responsiveness to true threats to our societies.
This year, and in a stunning display of institutional chutzpah, the European Union demanded- and is likely to get- a budget increase amidst the worse economic downturn in generations. If this had been done on Keynesian grounds- i.e. the need to invest our way out of the crisis- then it would have not been so brazen. Unfortunately, there was no such philosophy behind the demand. The EU has grown so large, and with so many national politicians and bureaucrats linked to specific islands of interest, that institutional growth benefits too many to halt it. The grey masses of anonymity that move national politics forward pale in comparison with the unaccountability of Brussels’ bureaucracy. And so, without anyone specifically being responsible, the EU continues to bloat. Not only does this lead to more inefficient bureaucracy, ineffective expenditure and frustrated citizens, it also undermines the EU’s abilities to to add value to our societies. Its primary purpose is now its own survival.
The UN is another prime example of a bloated system without any lines of responsibility (unless someone truly believes that Ban Ki-moon heads the world order?). It suffers under the weight of its own complexity. It was difficult enough to deal with roughly 200 nation-states, but now the UN is also increasingly dependent on other actors and on the good-will of its internal departments. They all have with their own agendas, budgets and specific interests. Unless such organizations are reformed into leaner and independent agencies without being able to hide behind institutional complexities or national agendas, they will fail their primary purpose.
One can observe this desire for size and numbers in all layers of society, not just in the public or international domain. Multinationals and other large companies do not escape internal expansionist dangers either. Mergers, development of new markets and other growth strategies often do not add any share or stake-holder value, except for those internally benefitting through increased bonuses or wages. In a globalised world- and just like national leaders- CEO’s may have formal responsibility over the actions of their organization, but true responsibility and choices come from deep down below.
To add insult to injury, not only are such companies too large for internal lines of responsibility, many of them have achieved “too big to fail” status. Because of society’s dependency on their operations, they will always be saved from doom. Needless to say that this negates the very essence of capitalism, and takes away significant flexibility and adaptability of how our global structures operate.
Even on the popular movement front things are not much better. 2012 is the year that effectively ended two popular movements that suffered because of their size and lack of clear lines of responsibility: the Tea Party and the Occupy-consortium. Both grew out of anger with the status quo, and very quickly became mass forces to be reckoned with. Both movements were based on size, with their power coming from numbers of followers. Both failed because of exactly that.
Believing that in today’s complex world you can have an effective agenda without clear leadership and hierarchy is preposterous. Without specific ambitions, and ways of holding people to account for their actions, any organization loses validity. Neither the Tea Party or Occupy attempted to create clear structure, and as a result their overly ambitious efforts turned into an aimless cacophony which then quickly faded away as both followers and observers moved on.
Humans are amazingly gifted creatures when it comes to applying their ingenuity, innovation and creativity to problem-solving. Huge challenges such as environmental degradation and poverty can be dealt with through innate abilities. Unfortunately, we are going down a dangerous path in which we are blocking our own problem-solving mechanisms. We are becoming incapable of creating the organization necessary for concerted global action. Instead, we have islands of specific interests and interest-groups ever-expanding, and increasingly blotting out the light. It is a fight of individual short-term interests versus societal long-term goals.
To avoid that challenges such those mentioned in the first paragraph of this article turn into unmanageable and survival-threatening problems, we need to rethink our love-affair with size. Organizations need to be lean and mean. Networks can connect organizations in order to coordinate efforts and cooperate, but let’s keep those as light, unfinanced and informal as possible. Civilization’s death does not come suddenly or through specific calamity, it comes through structural inertia. Strengthening individual responsibility, accountability and responsiveness are much worthier causes than doomsday-thinking. It is not the Mayan’s we need to fear; just ask the Romans.