Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.

 

Middle East – repression and rigor mortis

Four Franciscan monks shouted in al-Aqsa that “Mohammad was a libertine, murderer, glutton,” who believed in “whoring”! The qadi offered them the chance to recant. When they refused, they were tortured and beaten almost to death. A bonfire was built in the courtyard of the Church where “almost drunk with rage” the mob hacked them into pieces “so that not even a human shape remained”.

Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Jerusalem”

The assault on the American consulate in Libya consisted of two separate attacks that forced the Americans from the consulate and then besieged them in a second building in a gun battle that lasted four and half hours, according to a detailed timeline from a senior administration official.

The bloody offensive by extremists killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In addition, three more U.S. personnel were wounded.

ABC NEWS

We know that the second quote above happened just days ago. The first was in 1391 – 621 years ago.

The first was direct – but, even then, the four monks were given a chance to repent and were the instigators of the attacks themselves.

The second was the result of a second-rate short film that was made by people totally unconnected to those that died in the US Embassy in Libya.

621 years separates the two examples – 621 years of great technological and wealth advancements across the world. But, 621 years where, in some places, there has been regression, not progress, and where repression (of freedom, freedom of thought, of economic progress and education) has left in its wake a mind-system that is mired in the 14th Century or before.

Lessons unlearned

The break-up of Yugoslavia (a state held together under the iron-grip of Tito) provided lessons that we ignore to today.  Thousand-year-old conflicts and hatreds which had been suppressed since communism’s rule came to the surface and yielded to bloodshed and ethnic cleansing.

So, the Arab Spring has erupted in tensions coming to the surface in the one location that has, for many years, been seen as the powder keg of the world. No surprise, surely?

Repression in the Middle East has been there for thousands of years. We don’t expect democracy and freedom of thought to suddenly erupt in China (or most don’t) but a few despots are overthrown in Tunisia and Libya and rejoicing takes place. We ignore the simmering tensions that such societies have endured for centuries as we assume that democracy will fix everything.  The West kept many regimes in place, drew many of the borders ourselves (often, borders which made no sense and instilled more tensions – such as in Sudan), sought oil supplies and the propping up of regimes to see to it that our energy supplies continued, tolerated the bribery and corruption and power that elites gave to themselves and enabled companies to make those bribes for the last 100 years.

Tony Blair was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier today. He said that he had travelled 87 times in the last few years to the Middle East and that it would “take a generation” for countries to settle into new institutions and systems that would prevent such tensions. While he has enormous knowledge of this area, a “generation” is no time at all – but, while a lot can be done in that time, the tensions are not just on the surface but deep.

Education and opportunity

The Middle East and North Africa have not just opened up to our version of the 21st Century. In our new global economy, we have focused our attention on to the newly developing nations of China, India, Brazil and others and have tended to ignore these deeply repressed regions. War and repression have characterized them for two thousand years. Elites have conquered their way to glory and wealth where religion has been used as an excuse. Religious extremism has been embedded for so long that we see it as the core issue. But, extremism in Christianity was common in the thirteenth Century and before – the Crusades were rooted in violence and death.

The changes that took place in Christianity (which was, in its earlier days, not wedded to the “turn the other cheek” dictum) have been profound but took centuries as first rulers broke away from theocracies, began to rule on behalf of their subjects (rather than being above the law) and allowed the dissemination of justice and then economic progress to be shared amongst the population. As this happened, the repression of one’s own subjects ceased to be the norm (although fascism, Nazi-ism and Stalinist and Maoist Communism attempted to break the deal).

Elsewhere, theocracies or dictatorships continue. Overthrowing despotism does not overthrow the belief systems underneath.

This is the core of the issue – the longer that institutions are allowed to fester, the worse the situation erupts when change takes place. Ossified institutions repress change and thought. The Middle East is worse – the institutions are in a state of rigor mortis. Beneath, the potential for unrest is striking – even with the numbers of liberal-minded, the mass of the populations are poor – in terms of education and wealth.

Chances

In the West, we talk about wanting to give our kids the best chance in life through education. In the Middle East, where we tolerate and even support regimes in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain because of their oil, we are relatively powerless to the onslaughts of hatred.

But, in a global society, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions. Can we help the Middle East and Africa, so long under the repression of dictators and theocracies, to not just overthrow those elites that bind them but to also embrace a culture that we believe works? Can Western ideals of freedom of thought, religious tolerance (or tolerance of no religion), economic freedom and wealth creation shared amongst the population be brought into the thinking of these countries? Can institutions and sclerotic minds be changed?

As we battle economically with the Chinese (and hope that the repressed emotions between the Chinese and Japanese does not get out of control over Diaoyu / Senkaku), we have to battle with the repressed institutions of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as much as Syria, Libya and Somalia or DRC. This is a never-ending battle of ideas and betterment – the belief that whatever one’s views on the afterlife, ensuring that this life should be a good one is as important and that no individual (or elite) deserves to capture all the chances. Chances have to be spread to as wide a sector of the population as possible.

This is not the culture of 1000 AD – it is the culture of the 21st Century – and a battle that is worth waging. We live in a global economy but also a close-knit world beyond economics – fuelled by communication systems that work to inform and dis-inform – fast and furious.

Opportunities

Old and outdated institutions will, eventually, explode under the weight of their inadequacy. But, explosions can hurt. Just as our own institutions need to be overhauled when they don’t work (and there are many instances of this in the West – where we continuously run the risk of institutional failure) so we should help where it is clear that repression exists through institutional rigor mortis.

Recent moves to support the new opportunities being created in countries like Tunisia and Libya should not be stopped because some of the repressed have not been given chances to improve their understanding of reality and have over-reacted to a film made to incite.  We should now support those like Mohamed Morsi in Egypt who has said: “We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet, but it is our duty to protect our guests and visitors from abroad.”

This is an act of bridging – between the repressed and the future – which we should now be supporting. Opportunities have to be developed and out of the super-charged environment, so reminiscent of that which operated over 600 years ago, the West should react positively. Changes may take a long time and we may find that other disasters (such as to our environment) may well get in the way. But, Blair is right on this one. We have to keep engaging.