Authority Creates Stupidity

James Scott’s book Domination and the Arts of Resistance is about how authority relations shape human communications.  The book, like The Art of Not Being Governed, is based primarily on Scott’s research in pre-modern social settings.  But the basic principles he illustrates from slaves and peasants, in agrarian and household settings, is equally applicable to the world of cubicle drones and pointy-haired bosses.

The intrusion of power into human relationships creates irrationality and systematic stupidity.  As Robert Anton Wilson argued in “Thirteen Choruses for the Divine Marquis,”

A civilization based on authority-and-submission is a civilization without the means of self-correction. Effective communication flows only one way: from master-group to servile-group. Any cyberneticist knows that such a one-way communication channel lacks feedback and cannot behave “intelligently.”

The epitome of authority-and-submission is the Army, and the control-and-communication network of the Army has every defect a cyberneticist’s nightmare could conjure. Its typical patterns of behavior are immortalized in folklore as SNAFU (situation normal—all fucked-up), FUBAR (fucked-up beyond all redemption) and TARFU (Things are really fucked-up). In less extreme, but equally nosologic, form these are the typical conditions of any authoritarian group, be it a corporation, a nation, a family, or a whole civilization.

That same theme featured prominently in The Illuminatus! Trilogy, which Wilson coauthored with Robert Shea.  “….[I]n a rigid hierarchy, nobody questions orders that seem to come from above, and those at the very top are so isolated from the actual work situation that they never see what is going on below.”

A man with a gun is told only that which people assume will not provoke him to pull the trigger.  Since all authority and government are based on force, the master class, with its burden of omniscience, faces the servile class, with its burden of nescience, precisely as a highwayman faces his victim.  Communication is possible only between equals.  The master class never abstracts enough information from the servile class to know what is actually going on in the world where the actual productivity of society occurs….  The result can only be progressive deterioration among the rulers.

This inability of those in authority to abstract sufficient information from below, and perception of management by workers as “a highwayman,” result in the hoarding of information by those below and their use of it as a source of rents.

Radical organization theorist Kenneth Boulding, in similar vein, wrote of the value of “analysis of the way in which organizational structure affects the flow of information,”

hence affects the information input into the decision-maker, hence affects his image of the future and his decisions….  There is a great deal of evidence that almost all organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.

Or in the pithy phrasing of Robert Theobald:  “A person with great power gets no valid information at all.”

In his discussion of m?tis (i.e. distributed, situational and job-related knowledge), Scott draws a connection between it and mutuality—“as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination”—and acknowledges his debt to anarchist thinkers like Kropotkin and Proudhon for the insight.  M?tis flourishes only in an environment of two-way communication between equals, where the person in contact with the situation—the person actually doing the work—is in a position of equality.

Interestingly, Wilson had previously noted the same connection between mutuality—bilateral communication between equals—and accurate information—in “Thirteen Choruses.”  And he included his own allusion to Proudhon, no less:

Proudhon was a great communication analyst, born 100 years too soon to be understood. His system of voluntary association (anarchy) is based on the simple communication principles that an authoritarian system means one-way communication, or stupidity, and a libertarian system means two-way communication, or rationality.

The essence of authority, as he saw, was Law — that is, fiat — that is, effective communication running one way only. The essence of a libertarian system, as he also saw, was Contract — that is, mutual agreement — that is, effective communication running both ways. (“Redundance of control” is the technical cybernetic phrase.)

To say that a hierarchical organization is systematically stupid is just to say that it is incapable of knowing what it knows, or making effective use of the knowledge of its members; it is less than the sum of its parts.

There’s a great scene in the 1985 movie Brazil.  Jackbooted thugs from the Ministry of Information’s Information Retrieval Department (i.e., the secret police) have just invaded an apartment by sawing a hole through the floor above and sliding down firemen’s poles—and then arrested the wrong man based on a computer error.  In the aftermath, the Ministry of Works shows up to plug the hole:

JILL:  There must be some mistake … Mr Buttle’s harmless…

BILL:  We don’t make mistakes.

[So saying, he drops the manhole cover, which is faced with same material as the floor, over the hole in the floor. To his surprise it drops neatly through the floor into the flat below.]

CHARLIE:  Bloody typical, they’ve gone back to metric without telling us.

That’s the way things work in real life in a hierarchical institution, because it is unable to aggregate the intelligence of its members and bring it to bear effectively on the policy-making process.  So policies have a myriad of unintended consequences, and various policies operate at cross-purposes with each other in unanticipated ways.  And to top it all off, the transaction costs of getting information to management about the real-world consequences of its policies are prohibitive for the same reason that the transaction costs of aggregating the information required for effective policy-making in the first place were prohibitive.  But no worries.  Because the CEO and his chums in the C-suite don’t live under the effects of their ass-brained policy, and subordinates are afraid to tell them what a clusterfuck they created, the CEO will happily inform the CEOs at other organizations of how wonderfully his new “best practice” worked out.  And because these “competing” organizations actually exist in an oligopoly market of cost-plus markup and administered pricing, and share the same pathological institutional cultures, they suffer no real competitive penalty for their bureaucratic irrationality.

A hierarchy is a device for telling naked emperors how great their clothes look.

3 Comments Authority Creates Stupidity

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    Yes, if knowbody else takes the challenge, as these series should be introduced to as many as possible. The problem is of course my medium English. I look at it when these essays are finished, as it’s published a new essay every second week.

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