And more business-anarchist

More ramblings on the ‘business anarchist’ theme.

The conventional ‘scientific’ assumptions about business reality – as in Taylor’s classic ‘Scientific Management‘ – assume that everything is based on predictable Newtonian-style rules and laws. It’s sort-of true, up to a point, but in practice it only works in the mid-range: many of those supposed ‘absolute rules’ cease to make sense at the scale of the very small (e.g. quantum uncertainty) and the very large (e.g. emergent systems, ecosystems and ‘chaos’-mathematics). And some of the supposed ‘rules’ are just plain daft, such as the ‘rational actor’ assumption in economics (aptly nicknamed ‘the dismal science’ because so much of it is dismal as science) – by contrast, most marketing assumes a non-rational actor, which is a great deal more realistic!

One of the core tenets that we need in a functional business – and elsewhere, for that matter – is perhaps best expressed by the character Odo in Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Day Before the Revolution, with her definition of an anarchist:

“One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice”

This leads us to the key themes of what might be a business-anarchist manifesto:

  • There are no rulesonly values, and the principles and guidelines that devolve from them
  • There are no rightsonly responsibilities, including the responsibility for self, and the responsibility for mutual aid

The latter provides an interesting cross-link to the current hype about Charles Darwin and his ‘dangerous idea’ of evolution. (The real ‘dangerous idea’ was not Darwin’s notion of evolution, but the wilful misuse of those ideas by others such as Huxley and Dawkins to justify their own inanities and insanities. I sometimes wonder whether, like the apocryphal tale about Marx, Darwin might at some point have said “Personally, I’m not a Darwinist”… 🙂 ). Huxley and his successors have endlessly pushed the notion that nature is necessarily and solely “red in tooth and claw”, that “survival of the fittest” means that the only natural prerogative is the “selfish gene”. The reality, as Peter Kropotkin demonstrated in his analysis of animal survival in the extreme conditions of the Siberian tundra, is that the essential driver in nature is not self-centrredness, but is actually one of mutual aid. Kropotkin is often described as one of the fathers of modern anarchist theory: but in fact, like Darwin, he was first and foremost a naturalist.

In any emergent business context, the existing rules have fallen apart; in that sense, there are no rules. What will guide us through an emergent context is a recognition that there are no rights, no ‘entitlements’; all that is real is responsibilities – the ability to choose appropriate responses. That’s what power really is: not ‘rights’, but responsibilities. “One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice – and the consequences of choice.

In response to the current chaotic collapse of so-called ‘capitalism’, we see plenty of finger-pointing, plenty of blame: yet blame is actually the least-useful response to a crisis. To quote Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, “no fight, no blame”; yet the inverse is equally true, “no blame, no fight”. We don’t have the energy or the resources now to waste on fighting: what we need is mutual awareness, mutual aid.

Right now the business world appears to collapsing into anarchy. But I’d suggest that’s not a bad outcome: anarchy is what we need right now. But we also need to be clear about what kind of anarchy is needed: not the kiddies’ self-centred ‘me-first’ pseudo-anarchy that’s got us into this mess in the first place, but the real anarchy of self-responsibility, mutual-responsibility, mutual aid.

Something to think about, anyway.

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