Wednesday 26 September 2007

Bureaucracy, Care & Attention

(There will be some examples of Plan B coming up soon - meanwhile, this started as an over-sized comment elsewhere, so I decided to post here instead...)

I've been thinking a lot about "attention" lately. Then I read Andy's post about Factory Records, Products that don't care if you buy them:

I love the Factory story. Not only did they produce some of my all-time favourite music, but I also find their anarchic approach really inspiring. It's a great example of a particular kind of story: the "we didn't care, and that's why it worked" story.

Anthony commented on this:

I was glad that the documentary on Factory didn't completely ignore the way that the members of Joy Division/New Order got completely shafted by Factory's ad hoc way of working. They didn't seem too bitter about it, but they did lose hundreds of thousands if not millions of pounds. Ad hoc is fine, but not so much if people get harmed by it in the process?

This all got me thinking...

The Factory approach feels like an antidote to the standard "managerial" approach to running an organisation/etc. It seems to me that managerialism is (among other things) a way of keeping an organisation/project/whatever running in a relatively stable way with the minimum amount of attention to the personal.

By structuring processes to be as rational, predictable and defined as possible, you limit the consequences of not paying attention to the personal (i.e. the fact that your organisation is actually made up of people).

Of course, you also limit things like autonomy and creativity and meaningfulness. If you want a more creative organisation, you can try to dispense with managerial processes, etc. But unless this is accompanied by a much greater level of attention to the personal, this will tend to increase the extent to which people get harmed.

I can see three kinds of response to this:

(1) A tendency to treat the people getting hurt as "collateral damage" - unfortunate, but a price worth paying. (This kind of attitude is in keeping with a lot of the messages we get - from politicians, the media, the education industry - about what life is like.)

(2) A nostalgia for older, more hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of running organisations. There's a cluster of thinkers and writers on the left who exhibit this - people like Richard Sennett, Zygmunt Bauman, Madeleine Bunting and Barbara Ehrenreich. (Sennett in particular recants his earlier enthusiasm for the New Left and its desire for more autonomous ways of living.) While this is motivated by a proper recognition of how people get hurt by newer, anti-bureaucratic organisational styles, I think it leads to an unnecessarily bleak position.

(3) A deeper, practical critique of our organisations and workplaces. If doing things together in a creative, autonomous and meaningful way requires greater attention to the personal, then maybe we need to lower our prized "productivity" and spend more time attending to each other as people? Maybe in addition to "doing things badly", The New Sociablism should encourage us to "do things slowly" and "do less".

This could sound like the kind of impractical proposal that requires a different world to the one we currently live and work in. But my experience is that other worlds already exist in the gaps and cracks and folds of the World towards which our attention is generally directed...

Finally, to go back to "We didn't care, and that's why it worked" - I remember my singing teacher telling me at 17, "A lot of people in this school think that you don't care, but I think you do." (By which I understood her to mean that I really wanted to be good and obedient and was putting on a show of rebellion in order to be cool.) I was silently incandescent and would still like to go back and tell her that I did and do care - just not about the things she thought were worth caring about.

So rather than celebrating not caring, let's celebrate choosing what to care about. (And don't "care" and "attention" refer to more or less the same thing?)

Saturday 15 September 2007

Plan B

After Thursday's lengthy post, I remembered another stand-out passage from that Ran Prieur essay, one that relates to a lot of conversations I've had over the last couple of years. He's talking about the motives for what policy-makers call "behaviour change":

We think we're turning off the air conditioner and bicycling to work to save the Earth. In fact, other people and other economies will just take our place at the Earth-gobbling table and eat it just as fast. What we're really saving is our future sanity, by practicing for the day when we're forced to reduce consumption...

This is the honest answer when someone asks, "What's the point?" But it's an answer that even the greenest mainstream companies and politicians are unlikely to give you - because it involves imagining a world in which they lose their current dominance.

Here in the UK, the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer has been running a campaign to change its behaviour, under the banner: 'Plan A - Because There Is No Plan B'. I find that a really disturbing message, because personally I can imagine a world in which people live well without much of the current retail apparatus. So while there may be no Plan B for a company like Marks & Spencer, that's not an argument for putting all our eggs in one (supermarket) basket...*

In fact, over the last two years I've met all kinds of people who are developing something that looks a lot like a Plan B. It doesn't look much like a plan, more like a great distributed research project with no overseeing structure. For months now, I've been intending to write a longer article about this - something I may still do. But in the mean time, I've decided to dedicate most of my blogging for the next little while to writing about examples of this kind of 'action research' - people who are practicing for the day when we're forced to change our ways of living.

* Just to be clear, I'm not saying Marks & Spencer shouldn't be doing what they're doing - reducing their carbon footprint, stocking fair trade products, encouraging people to use less plastic bags. But the slogan they've chosen provides an unusually clear statement of a far more widespread approach to 'sustainability', the subtext of which is that we must preserve our current lifestyles at all costs.

Thursday 13 September 2007

All Fall Down: Jared Diamond and Ran Prieur

Not long ago, I finally got around to reading Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I can see why it has attracted such acclaim - and yet I couldn't help feeling slightly short-changed. Then, last week (via Laura and Tim), I discovered another writer who thinks deeply and practically about the fall of civilisations, past and present. His essays helped bring into focus my disappointment with Diamond's book.

Let's get the praise out of the way first! I learned a great deal from the descriptive material in Collapse. The chapters on Easter Island and Norse Greenland are fascinating - as are the modern case studies on countries such as Rwanda and the Dominican Republic/Haiti. It was also a relief to read a popular non-fiction book which isn't flogging a single Theory of Everything (a trend Will Davies was decrying recently). In fact, I could pick out several theoretical strands in Collapse, and the two which get most emphasis from Diamond are both valid and important. To paraphrase*:

  • Critical to the survival or extinction of groups of humans living in a particular place are the choices they make about their way of life - and how those choices interact with ecological factors.
  • Where an elite has become isolated from the sources of its material wealth, people are less likely to make timely changes to their way of life which might avert ecological disaster.

So far, so much to agree with. So why do I feel short-changed?

Let's start with the ending. Having illustrated how quickly societies can tumble from their peak of material wealth to catastrophic collapse, and suggested that this scenario may be playing out today on a global scale, Diamond leaves us with a picture of the forces of good and evil in a race to the finish - and, buried in the 'Further Reading' section, a rather feeble list of positive actions and ways that consumers can put pressure on big business to save the world.

What is missing here is any sense of just how different our ways of life would have to be to escape the kind of collapse that may already be underway. Having conjured such powerful scenes of ancient worlds and how they fell apart, Diamond's imagination seems to desert him.

I would trace this back to some of the book's background assumptions - assumptions which prevent Diamond achieving any real perspective on our current way of living. The kind of perspective I'm referring to is not the lidless vision of a satellite looking down on the earth - but that sense of our own strangeness which comes from sitting quietly with others who do not see the world as we do, until we begin to glimpse ourselves through their eyes. This may be through direct contact with people who live very differently to us, or through a deep and sensitive familiarity with the writings of other eras.

Despite his best intentions and the thoroughness of his research, Diamond lacks this kind of perspective - and so he tends to read others through our ways of approaching reality. Consider, for example, the book's subtitle: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. What if approaching life in terms of "failure" and "success" is actually part of the ways of thinking which are accelerating us towards collapse?

That is certainly what Ran Prieur reckons. A section of his essay How to Survive the Crash and Save the Earth is headed 'You are here to help':

We are trained to think of ourselves as here to "succeed," to build wealth and status and walls around ourselves, to get what we desire, to win in games where winning is given meaning by others losing. It is a simple and profound shift to think of ourselves instead as here to help -- to serve the greatest good that we can perceive in whatever way is right in front of us...

In the real world, being here to help is easier and less stressful, because you will frequently be in a situation where you can't win, but you will almost never be in a situation where there's nothing you can do to help. Being here to win only makes sense in an artificial world rigged so you can win all the time. Thousands of years ago only kings were in that position, and they reacted by massacring all enemies and bathing in blood. Now, through a perfect conjunction of Empire and oil energy, we just put the entire American middle class in that position for 50 years. No one should be surprised that we're so stupid, selfish, cowardly, and irresponsible...

Where Diamond sees us caught up in a horse race between the environmental movement and the forces of destruction, Prieur suggests we walk away from the winner-takes-all mentality. Instead, start learning skills and adapting in preparation for what happens when our current ways of living become impossible. Easily said! But I'm more convinced by his approach than by one which can't imagine any alternative to the perpetuation - through some magic of "sustainability" - of the status quo.

I could go on at greater length about the other assumptions and vaguenesses constraining Diamond's imagination - or about Prieur's clearer-sighted visions of how our civilisation might collapse, and of the possibilities on the far side of such a collapse. But you'd be better off reading his latest essay, How to Save Civilisation.

To give you a taste, here's the closing paragraph - which made me think of my low-tech, computer-recycling friends at Access Space:

I don't think we'll have any technology in 2100 that can't be done in 2050 in a garage -- or in a network of garages and scrap collections. If there's anything we want to save, we need to begin adapting it now so it can be done on that level, bottom to top. Garage industry doesn't have to profit or die. It doesn't require wage laborers who will quit when money no longer buys food. Technology will be carried through industrial collapse by dedicated amateurs, and then, whether the next world is stable or unstable, they will plant the seeds of a new tech system... which is very likely to make another epic mistake.

* I should probably add that I wrote this several months after reading Collapse, without a copy to hand. Apologies, therefore, for the lack of close reference to the text. On the other hand, with such a large and wide-ranging book, perhaps there's something to be said for focusing on those elements which stick in the mind at such a distance?

Wednesday 12 September 2007

Space Hijackers: They Did It!

The Space Hijackers pulled a classic bait-and-switch on the police yesterday, to achieve their goal of auctioning a tank outside the front doors of the DSEi arms fair! The Met had spent all weekend following the Saracen Mk 1 which the Hijackers bought last week, finally pouncing as it left its storage location - when they pulled it over on the grounds that the suspension was dodgy.

At this point, a member of the crew climbed on top of the vehicle to announce that it was in fact a decoy! Round the corner, a rather larger tank (complete with tracks and gun turret) was rolling off the back of a low loader and up to the venue!

The auction took place, with bids of bodily organs and first-born children being turned down in favour of $50 in cash - money being worth more than human lives, when it comes to the arms trade...

Will it make any difference to anything? Who knows! On the whole, if you want to "change the world", I believe your time is better spent growing good things than protesting against bad things. But if you're going to make a protest that might well turn out to have been futile, you can at least make sure you have fun - and that's one thing you can count on with the Space Hijackers.

Monday 10 September 2007

Illich - where to start?

Since I started this blog, I've name-checked Ivan Illich fairly regularly. His writing style takes a little getting used to, but his books and the various uncollected essays scattered across the web are pretty much all worth tracking down.

One question I get asked a lot is where someone who's new to his work should start. The long answer is, it depends on where you're coming from and what it is that most troubles you about the world in which we find ourselves - whether it is education or energy, health or work. Those looking for policy recipes were dismayed by his increasing withdrawal from that game, and mistake this for despair - but I find later texts, such as 'The Cultivation of Conspiracy', to be among the most genuinely (unillusionedly) hopeful responses to our times.

That's the long answer! The short answer is to try this little film, a reflection on 'Deschooling Society', which I discovered via Bricoleuse.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Space Hijackers: Tank Update

You might remember the Space Hijackers and their quest for a tank, which I flagged up earlier in the summer. Well, they did it!

The Saracen Mk 1 was delivered last week and received its number plates from the DVLA on Friday. Apparently the owners of the venue where it was initially parked were put under a certain amount of pressure by the authorities - and the hijacker team has spent the rest of the weekend playing cat and mouse with the Met.

According to their press release, the plan is to drive the tank to the DSEi Arms Fair - taking place, rather tastefully, on September 11th - and auction it to the highest bidder:

If this so happens to be an angry teenager in a balaclava, then so be it. We don't see how destruction caused with our tank can possibly be our responsibility.

Several people have got in touch with us claiming that this kind of behavior is slightly reckless "what if someone drives over a police car in your tank?" Our response is simple: we are simply looking to make a profit, it's just business transaction. As with the arms dealers and their weapons, once the goods are out of our hands, how can we be held accountable for how they are used?

It's the kind of stunt that's bound to draw a certain amount of criticism - and given the trigger-happy track record of London's finest, I'd personally think twice about playing with military equipment in their vicinity...

But with organisers Reed Elsevier already quitting the arms fair business as a result of some impressive campaigning, it feels like, if enough attention is drawn to this year's event, there's just the scent of a chance that local politicians will decide it's more trouble than it's worth - and we could see this festival of death kicked out of London for good.

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