Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Deadly Illusions: Objectivity & the Behaviorist Trap

A century ago the West entered an age of artificial substitutes, technical ingenuity, mechanical products, technological values, and accelerating motion. The watchword of the age was objectivity – an illusive standard for leaders and the led. Objectivity deeply affected the emerging mass communications industry, which before long was serving as one of the most powerful tools of global management.

In the 19th century news was an open ideological weapon; opinions splattered across printed pages. But the new age brought with it a new form – objective reporting. Based on the notion that rational people could discover the truth if presented with enough unfettered facts, objectivity quickly became the unchallenged goal of the professional press. In 1947, however, the Commission on Freedom of the Press noted that it was no longer just the goal. It had become a fetish.

By the end of the 20th century factual fetishism was a social illness fed by print and electronic media. As journalist Mark Harris put it, "Only hard data are useful to the press. Unable to negotiate meditation, the media turn it off. Reporters cannot believe things they cannot instantly absorb, jot down, add up and phone in." In the words of TV's most famous FBI man, Jack Friday, like a good cop, a good reporter -- or a rational leader -- wants "nothing but the facts." That many of these so-called "facts" turned out to be false, incomplete or inaccurate, and objectivity itself was an impossible standard, seemed not to matter.

Humanity turned further outward toward the "objective," and upward toward “order” through scientific methods and bureaucratic organizations. The dream of the new world, at first sounding much like Rousseau's vision of a naturalized community, became the reality of centralization, regimentation, and predictability. Human relations and behavioral engineering were primary tools used by leaders to turn citizens into more easily conditioned extroverts.

Materialist assumptions replaced the concept of a "rational soul" with a "tabula rasa" upon which managers attempted to write. The term "tabula rasa" was introduced by John Locke in 1672, just as a new English middle-class was disposing of the divine rights of kings. Rejecting Descartes' theory of innate knowledge, Locke traced it instead back to sense perception. We begin, he said, as blank slates, without general principles. After birth external stimuli imprint themselves upon the mind. Locke applied Newton's mechanistic view to the theory of knowledge:

"Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all character, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of knowledge and reason? To this I answer in one word, from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself."

Combined with dialectical materialism, Locke's hypothesis found considerable support in the 20th century. The conditioned reflex – training to respond to a given stimulus in a predetermined fashion – was a shaping mechanism that, according to psychologist J.B. Watson, confirmed that the human being is "an assembled organic machine ready to run." The techniques of operant conditioning developed by Skinner rested upon an assumption that the "living organism" called human being functions faithfully in response to externally administered stimuli. This gradually conferred on managers, as natural programmers for these living machines, the status of cultural designer. The rest of humanity was meanwhile consigned by behaviorism to a rational extroversion that removed the summum bonum – the highest good, always a bit beyond reach - 
from view.

The other-directed person, noted David Reisman in his seminal study The Lonely Crowd, is the model of the salaried employee and bureaucrat in any metropolitan area, "torn between the illusion that life should be easy, if he could only find the ways of proper adjustment to the group, and the half buried feeling that it is not easy for him." Reisman documented how the shift away from agriculture and the growth of habits of scientific thought caused religious feelings to give way to rational, often individualistic attitudes.

The centralization and bureaucratization of society, in turn, increased awareness of and sensitivity to other people. The result was the other-directed person – Fromm's "marketer," Mills' "fixer," Arnold Green's "middle class male child." Other-direction insured conformity and, therefore, comfort in one's peer group. Rational extroverts care very much what others think of them. Being liked is the chief area of concern:

"What is common to all other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual – either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course 'internalized' in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life."

The other-directed person is often a rational manager who believes that all associates are essentially customers, and all objects of either conciliation or manipulation. Jung describes this person as an extrovert psychological type of either the thinking or feeling rational variety. Such a leader is object-oriented and dedicated to given facts, never expecting to find absolute factors in his own inner life; the only ones he knows are outside himself. His guide is external necessity. His consciousness, said Jung, looks outward because that is where the essential and decisive determinant is found. No serious attempt to overreach the boundary of facts is made, since facts are a source of almost inexhaustible fascination.

The moral standard of the modern, rational leader coincides with the demands of society. Above all, such a person is adaptive. Yet adjustment to the objective situation, the demands of the environment, isn't merely adaptation. The factual fetishism of rational managers traps them in short-range planning and bans considerations beyond the observable, all those things that lie outside the immediate conditions of time and space. Instead, the manager does only what is needed and expected.

In most modern societies, leaders and managers have formed a new class, a brotherhood of ascensionists. For these committed strivers, the highest person represents the utmost in power, authority, and sometimes even intelligence. But as Lewis Mumford noted, those who look upward and outward, moving across vast distances at rapid speeds, often forget to look downward and inward. Both self and Earth are thus sacrificed in a quest for order and control, and the rejection of the inner being becomes the curse of our age.

The dominance of rational habits of thought in virtually all areas of life has given theory the veneer of absolute truth. Despite the limits of perception, we struggle for certainty about the small bits of knowledge we hold. Our spirit of logical inquiry is too often a journey to eradicate doubt and establish doctrine. Once a hypothesis has been verified, the next step is to corroborate, refine and disseminate it. In this way a variety of flawed and false theories attain the status of law.

A significant example is the behaviorist hypothesis that the only elementary function of the central nervous system is reflex. To verify this, only experiments that registered responses to "change" were conducted. According to ethologist Konrad Lorenz, these experiments were executed in a way "that precluded their revealing that the central nervous system can do more than react passively to stimuli." He concluded that, "The Skinnerian has no right to comment on innate behavior or on aggression, because he cuts it from consideration."

Nevertheless, they do comment – on this and many other matters, continuing to spread this belief system. Despite its blind spots, the Skinnerian world view has made a deep impact and almost become an item of faith. The simplicity of the reflex doctrine, along with the apparent exactitude of related research, has led to considerable acclaim. In Civilized Man's Eight Deadly Sins, Lorenz noted:

"Even religious believers could be converted to it, for if the child is born as a 'tabula rasa,' it is the duty of every believer to see to it that this child and, possibly, all other children, are brought up in what he believes to be the only true religion. Thus behavioristic dogma supports every doctrinaire in his conviction."

Behaviorism is essentially the doctrine of human as mechanism restated as a democratic principle: all of us are created potentially equal-blank slates without instinct, and would be equal under the same external conditions. The threat to democratic order therefore is the "myth" of the inner being, which suggests differences in social need and response.

Most leaders generally accept such mechanistic doctrines, moving their organizations toward increased predictability, continuing the search for the Absolute. Yet, in order for rationality to function as the central operational principle, people must be unresisting objects. The rulers of the modern world may disagree about ideology or economics, but they have apparently reached a virtual consensus on at least one matter – that the conditioning of humanity is highly desirable. The social contract, in the  US and elsewhere, may have been initiated with the ideal of individualism, but its implementation has progressed dramatically toward order and uniformity.

Judging from the higher degree of extroversion in developed societies, and the popularity of analysis and certainty, mass indoctrination has been remarkably effective. But classification without reflection upon whole systems can be dangerous; this rational approach is easily prey to reductionism. It smirks as subjective attempts to gain insights without quantification or operational research, considering the filter of measurement the only dependable standard. To look at and work with human beings is this manner, one must accept a dehumanized view of consciousness. Along with that comes aggressive action to suppress subjective experience, impulse, instinct and other challenges to pure reason.

Skinner proclaimed that the autonomous human was dead: long live conditioned and conditioning humanity! What we need is just more objective, exact research to push back the decimal places that measure the "real world." But our half-buried feelings have not disappeared. The adjusted life, they remind us, does not bring us closer to the "summum bonum," and may instead have moved us farther away.

This is a excerpt from Prisoners of the Real. 
To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rational Collectives: The Rise of Impersonal Rule

Modern bureaucracies have far more influence than anything officially conferred on them by elected officials. They may respond to the demands of certain special interests, or occasionally even to the personal pressure of one powerful person. But most often they follow strict "operational" laws and obedience to their rules turns systems of transmission into systems of decision.
     Philosopher Jacques Ellul argues that bureaucratic law rests on three basic principles:

     1. Continuity and Stability: The idea is that personnel comes and goes, but "administration" remains basically the same. Beyond any changes there is a constant structure, a continuity of tradition that sustains administrative power.
     2. Specialization and Rationalization: Bureaucracy exists in order to function, to make the existing political-economic system advance as a whole. It doesn't promote any particular truths and can't often consider the needs of specific individuals. It obeys a single basic rule – efficiency. There is no central leadership. Each person is actively restricted to making his or her own unit function, preferably without crisis or work stoppage.  There's little interest in or incentive for knowing the whole.
     3. Anonymity and Secrecy: Leaders give only general instructions, usually not concrete and therefore not requiring specific actions. Ultimately, decisions become independent of individual responsibility.     
Congressional Maze/GG
     These three "laws" are expressions of a single overriding idea: bureaucracy obeys no rule except necessity. Freedom of choice isn't a high priority for "organization men." In a bureaucratic society the charismatic leader becomes largely ephemeral. His main tool for coercing action, if he has the basic power and will, is to re-staff the organization with his or her own people, a strategy used with limited success by Nixon and implemented effectively since Reagan in the US.

     In Nixon's case, the tactic also became a factor in his ultimate ouster. Like most politicians, he lacked much technical competence. Despite his preoccupation with strong-arm tactics, bugging “enemies,” and recording himself, he couldn't gain and maintain control of information. In the end, it undid him. What Nixon might have tried instead was to refine the methods in order to make government bureaucracy more effective and contribute to its "progressive autonomy."
     One move in that direction was revenue sharing, which shifted control over federal funds filtered to the local level. Categorical grants to diverse groups, many of them essentially unfamiliar to the central bureaucracy, were less manageable than "block grants" to state and local governments. But revenue sharing didn't really decentralize decision-making. Instead, decisions were turned over to politicians and their appointees, who were forced by their own lack of information to depend on the bureaucrats who managed the information.
     Elections create the impression that political channels are open to every citizen. This is the essence of the "political illusion," a belief that meaningful participation is possible in a bureaucratic state – that bureaucracy can be controlled democracy. Electronic and print media perpetuate this illusion, reinforcing conformity while emphasizing the political spectacle.
     Even investigations of scandals like Watergate and Iran-Contra have promoted an illusion that decisions rest in public hands. At the time most people assume that their opinions about official malfeasance, expressed in opinion polls and letters, represent input in a democratic process. But the officials under scrutiny are just part of a public spectacle, behind which the true structure of the State bureaucracy remains obscure and out of control. Distracted by the flow of daily "facts," dissociated bits of data that reveal little of the "hidden agenda," people are discouraged from looking deeper.
     Legislatures and parliaments no longer do much more than endorse decisions that have been vetted and negotiated by experts and pressure groups. The experts themselves are mostly "organization men," citizens of the expanding State.
     Pressure groups have also expanded their reach. Huge non-government organizations and labor unions have swallowed smaller independent associations. The remaining rivals struggle to claim status as representatives of prime constituencies. At the same time, transnational corporations gobble up each other, building empires that make the trusts of the 19th century look quaint. Newer conglomerates cross industrial lines and often include hundreds of product lines, across every phase of the production process.
     Like good bureaucrats, the managers of multinationals claim that the need to grow is based on efficiency, which will profit the corporation and "benefit society as a whole." Bigness is essential and necessary, they say, to research, develop and market new products and technologies. Despite the persuasive evidence challenging this view, the idea that bigger is better – more efficient, not to mention more healthy and sustainable remains a widely held and generally unexamined belief.

Conglomerates are efficient in at least two areas: generating profits and satisfying the short-term security and self-esteem needs of some employees. The corporate approach stresses minimal satisfaction and attractive fringe benefits for "loyal" workers, high payoffs for key executives, and profitable investments for stockholders. Everyone wins, goes the corporate wisdom – except the consumer and society.
     These huge systems are the vanguard of a new form of organization – rational collectives. In this case, the term collective doesn't mean equal division of assets but rather refers to an organizational mentality marked by bureaucratic order, the impersonal rule of efficiency and the "market," and, despite the interchangeability of people and smaller businesses, extreme rigidity.
     This preference for the collective, at the expense of the individual, has affected not only corporations and the legislative branch of governments but also the legal system. In the US, the Supreme Court has gradually expanded the realm of collective rights, building on the "equality" standard that began to emerge in the 1950s, while narrowing the scope of individual rights. Although equal protection under the law is often stressed, individual rights to privacy, speech, and personal security have been undermined in a series of decisions. The Court has nudged the country toward a flat compartment-less society, perhaps less arbitrary in how people are classified but more arbitrary in the way all people are treated.
     Taken together, government, business, interest groups and the courts are promoting a process of progressive collectivization. At one time "organized" society may have provided solutions to specific crises. By the early 20th century, however, social rigidification was already well advanced. In the latter half of the last century control moved to the national, then the global level.
     In 1902, Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, said that the "shame of the cities" was crooked politicians and businessmen who attempted to manage the American people. The solution of his era was federal action to rescue the states. But the answer became the problem.
     Planners nevertheless look toward escalation. If the remedy for local failure is federal control, they assume, the answer to the disputes of nation-states must be some form of World Order.

This is Part 23 of Prisoners of the Real 

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Weekend in Sochi: An Alpha House Hangover

                                   THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2014
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Monday, February 3, 2014

Chaos in the Competition Zone

Olympic Excess from Lake Placid to Sochi

What’s it like these days in Sochi, the Black Sea resort about to host the Winter Olympics? That depends on who you ask, or if you live there. Sochi is widely known as “Putin’s town,” and, in the run-up to the Games, it has become a boomtown where gleaming residential and office complexes dot a city filled with Stalin-Gothic architecture. 

Construction in Sochi
But for the average Sochi resident the Games are largely an inconvenience – in danger of becoming a disaster. Long power and water outages and colossal traffic jams have been caused by Olympic construction. Some residents have been evicted, especially if their homes were in the path of a planned venue. There have also been multiple violations of labor law, along with widespread corruption in the course of Olympic construction, including illegal permission for the building of large private homes and shopping malls unrelated to the Games.  And that doesn’t cover the security threats or overkill response.

Yet this is not the first Olympic community to be shortchanged, disrupted, and abused. Take the 1980 Winter Games, which happened shortly after the US and USSR began their face off in Afghanistan. In fact, the Lake Placid Games could easily have become a $150 million disaster movie. But like most of the media gathering in Sochi, ABC, the network with the exclusive US rights to cover the 1980 Winter Olympics, ignored much of the news unfolding outside the official sites. For example, the fact that thousands of spectators missed events they paid premium prices to attend, or were left out in the cold after the athletes were done.

On opening night, to keep from freezing spectators and New York state troopers broke into the VIP lounge near the luge run. The next morning then-Gov. Hugh Carey said that no one would be prosecuted.

By the first weekend, amidst US hopes that the US hockey team would prevail in a finals battle with the Soviets, and that speed skater Eric Heiden might win as many as five gold medals, Olympic officials were on the verge of banning more visitors – for their own protection. “I don’t want to endanger people,” admitted Rev. Bernard Fell, president of the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee (LPOOC).

A tiny upstate New York community, one that had fought hard for the right to host these Games, was instead hosting a regional emergency. And it took even more unpleasant turns over the first few days. Fights broke out over bus rides; to get on an “official” bus you needed the right color ID. People fumed as half-empty vans left them at roadside. Attending as a journalist I watched entire families hitchhike through the snow.

One crowd, catching sight of a van downtown, was refused entry when they tried to board. Surrounding the vehicle, they ended up rocking it angrily. After that a new order went out from the top: drivers should not travel on Main Street in Lake Placid during midday.

In some accounts the sense was conveyed that thousands were stranded on the streets, many on the verge of severe frostbite. But only about ten frostbite cases were reported during Week One, and a mere 4,000 people were kept waiting in the freezing cold at Mt. van Hoevenberg after bobsled and luge events. Some accounts claimed it was 15,000. One driver explained that the real problem was the LPOOC. “They had six years and still couldn’t get it straight,” he said. “After one ski jump there were thousands of people waiting. They sent three buses.”

Gov. Carey authorized a Department of Transportation contract with Greyhound for added services just in time. But then over 30 Canadian drivers expectedly walked off their jobs. They just locked their buses and left. And if any remaining drivers needed some wiper fluid, forget it. Not even local gas stations had any left after the first day of bad weather.

Relations between bus drivers and State Police deteriorated along with the transportation system. When 15 troopers asked to hitch a ride on an “official” van, approval was denied by the LPOOC’s director of operations. With two hours drivers were being ticketed for minor infractions. About 40 drivers got tickets over the next few days.

If the Winter Games were proving nothing else they were confirming widespread suspicions that although the US could certainly put a man on the moon, it had no idea how to run a mass transit system.

1980 US Hockey Team
By the second week war stories about LPOOC incompetence had become a new fad – almost as popular as mixing politics with sports. There was little hope that the US would attend the upcoming Summer Games in Moscow. President Carter, who didn’t attend the opening ceremonies in upstate New York, was taking a hard line on withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. But what about the 1984 Winter Games, scheduled for Sarajevo? After Tito’s death there was no telling what political earthquakes might rock Yugoslavia by then.

“Sarajevo is next.” So said a button circulating in what Olympic officials took to calling the “competition zone.” Maybe so, but “next” could mean anything from another boycott to World War III.

A political subtext emerged in the competition for medals: the US was the underdog, perhaps no longer number one. In fact, the USSR and East Germany were establishing a dominance close to devastating. In the first week each country won 16 medals. The only US wins at that point were men’s and women’s speed skating, including three medals for Heiden.

The Competition Zone was a new concept, a temporary nation, and a virtual police state with its own hierarchy, built to accommodate 1,400 athletes and up to 30,000 spectators a day, plus a media crew of thousands more.

At the low end of the ladder were the ticketholders, enthusiasts who paid $60 per event only to wait hours for a bus. Next were the holders of temporary passes, people like bus drivers and lower-level staff. Some of them had been told they could attend indoor events. But once the Games began the offer was withdrawn.

Athletes had obvious status and value. Yet many were nevertheless lodged in claustrophobic cubicles at the Olympic Village. Their rooms were actually cells for a future youth prison; the bars would be added once the Games were over. Saunas and other recreation facilities would be ripped out. Sometimes even athletes were victims of the transportation system. Take the Soviet team that missed an awards ceremony when they weren’t picked up on time.

Even in the press contingent there were levels of privilege. But most journalists and photographers did find a comfortable home in the Press Center, a converted high school where free drinks flowed and huge TV screens captured the action. Texas Instruments produced summary printouts within minutes of every event. A reporter would have to be blind and illiterate not to fill a newscast or column.

By midday the gym would fill up with writers, who eventually went to work on typewriters provided by Olympia. Upper levels classrooms housed various wire service offices, temporary corporate lounges and Olympic administrative suites. Where were the students? At the Coca-Cola Olympic School learning about metrics, sports medicine and athletic competition.  The 200 students displaced for the Games also studied Olympic history and heard lectures from veterans of past competitions.

“It’s an ideal solution,” crowed Project Coordinator Don Morrison, who normally ran the local elementary school. “We don’t make it as rigidly formal as our regular classes.” That turned out to be an understatement. Students mainly attended events and exhibits, while their less-fortunate peers worked as part of the “Olympic family” in jobs ranging for ticket-handling to food service.

No sacrifice seemed too great. Residents of Lake Placid and surrounding towns had their lives seriously disrupted, and saw staggering price hikes and traffic snarls in which a trip to the grocery could take hours. Store owners initially expected to clean up during the mass confusion by hiking their prices. But customers balked at the systematic scalping and sales ended up being more modest than projected.

A new awareness gradually crept into local consciousness. Residents began to feel they were really hostages in their home towns, captives of the LPOOC, a new, un-elected and almost criminally incompetent government.

When the planning for the 1980 Winter Games began, organizers called it “the Olympics in perspective.” This was supposed to be the time when the needs of athletes finally came first. But that promise evaporated once the Games were politicized by the start of Cold War II. When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance urged the International Olympic Committee to move or cancel the Summer Games – only four days before the opening ceremonies – sports lovers rightly began to fear that the competition itself would ultimately be eclipsed. Subsequent events confirmed those fears.

In the end, the LPOOC could not even deliver on its most basic pledge. The 1980 Games were not just out of perspective, they were buried in an avalanche of corporate huckstering, opportunistic politics, and logistical confusion. Should anything different be expected in Sochi?

Greg Guma has been a writer, editor, historian, activist and progressive manager for over four decades. His latest book, Dons of Time, is a sci-fi look at the control of history as power.