Friday, July 18, 2008

Conformity, Rigidity and Decline

Max von Weber developed the thesis that America's Protestant roots led to a focus on capitalism because several Protestant sects view success in the world as evidence of divine grace. Reinhard Bendix developed Weber's spirit of capitalism thesis further in his Work and Authority in Industry in which he saw a historical pattern in the American interpretation of divine election's being carried forward in an ideological justification of managerial power despite the nation's democratic value system. Managers and big businessmen are entitled to social approval and legitimacy because of an evolving ideological justification. Bendix argued that the religious justification became a moral one, then shifted into social Darwinism and a biological justification. The ideological justification of managerial power then focused on psychological variables such as positive thinking. Frederick W. Taylor's scientific management was but one additional step on the road of ideological justification of business power. Taylor's scientific management, which holds that an industrial engineer is necessary to design work and control workers in turn evolved into the human relations school which argued that managers could understand workers' emotions and so constitute an elite, continuing the religious interpretation of divine election as applicable to management.

However, as Bendix emphasizes in his comparative study, managerial authority is justified in alternative ways around the world. The existence of managerial power is in part the result of economic and business necessity, for business cannot be managed democratically. Organizations can be managed democratically if there is little need for coordination. As coordination needs incrase, the possibility of democratic governance diminishes. Thus, capitalism, which depends on free market coordination and so does not require direction is most consistent with democracy, while socialism, in which government officers must direct the economy as well as the civil and military state functions tht exist under capitalism, tends toward dictatorship and suppression of diversity. Universities require little coordination because the work of scholarship is individual or collaborative on a small-group basis, hence universities can be run relatively democratically, but collaboration and coordination on a large scale is required of large manufacturing firms, so they must be run on an authoritarian basis. Thus, one of the most important writers on the subject of unity of command was not an American Protestant but a French Catholic, Henri Fayol. Fayol, a mining executive, emphasized authority, discipline, unity of command and unity of direction in his book General and Industrial Management, published in 1917. But Fayol's principles of management focus on large-scale industrial enterprise, and so may be less important to small firms, firms where coordination is not necessary (such as in universities, think tanks, firms with heavy emphasis on individual salesmanship or consulting firms). Thus, as Thompson has pointed out, technology is likely to influence the method of control. Thompson argued that there are three basic kinds of technologies, pooled, sequential and reciprocal. In sequential technologies tasks are performed in a required order and planning is critical. An example would be an assembly line. In pooled task interdependence the workers work separately but are guided by a central office. Coordination demands are minimal. Examples would be many service industries, sales offices where the salesmen work separately and universities. In reciprocal interdependence work may be broken into units that must interact flexibly. Thompson argued that sequential processes require the most control and should be grouped by process. In contrast, work requiring pooled processes need to be coordinated at a high level and coordination may not be possible. Reciprocal technologies such as involving teamwork need to be coordinated at a low level. If there are multiple reciprocal technologies then complexity necessitates decentralization.

Thus, the nature of authority relations may be imbued with a religious sense but may also shift with changing technology. The demands of government and the economy may shift in response to changing technology. As innovation changes the pace and rate of interaction, the nature of authority relations, public intervention in the market place, political control and the flexibility of government agencies might need to change along with it. Regulatory systems that mandate standard practices may be inappropriate in an economy where the flexibility of pooled or small group reciprocal relations requires rapid change. Yet because of the religious quality of authority structures, political factions may insist on ritualized patterns that seem important to them.

Americans in part believe in a natural aristocracy, one that is created by markets. But the religious aspect of Americans' value system may permit the emphasis on markets to be replaced by tradition. Because a businessman was successful in the past, there is a tendency to believe that he is entitled to success in the present and future as well, even if his decisions fail to correspond to reality. Thus, public conformity tends to support regulatory and financial systems even when the technology to which they respond have changed, have moved from sequential to pooled and reciprocal. The United States is no longer a manufacturing country, but its financial and regulatory regimes assume the importance of large firms, rigid production requirements and the need for government-supplied financing.

In Louis Hartz's Liberal Tradition in America Hartz argues that because America lacks a feudal tradition, it has never been drawn to socialism. Rather, he argues that Progressivism and New Deal social democracy are variants of Lockian liberalism. American society was based on Locke and was free prior to the American revolution, so Americans did not overthrow a feudal past. Rather, the American revolution reinforced values that were already present (p. 10):

"Here is a Lockean doctrine which in the West as a whole is the symbol of rationalism, yet in America the devotion to it has been so irrational that it has not even been recognized for what it is: liberalism. There has never been a liberal movement or a real liberal party in America: we have only had the American Way of Life, a nationalist articulation of Locke which usually does not know that Locke himself is involved...Ironically, 'liberalism' is a stranger in the land of its greatest realization and fulfillment. But this is not all. Here is a doctrine which everywhere in the West has been a glorious symbol of individual liberty, yet in America its compulsive power has been so great that it has posed a threat to liberty itself. Actually, Locke has a hidden conformitarian germ to begin with, since natural law tells equal people equal things, but when this germ is fed by the explosive power of modern nationalism, it mushrooms into something pretty remarkable. One can reasonably wonder about the liberty one finds in Burke.

"I believe that this is the basic ethical problem of a liberal society: not the danger of the majority which has been its conscious fear, but the danger of unanimity, which has slumbered unconsciously behind it: the 'tyranny of opinion' that Tocqueville saw unfolding as even the pathetic social distinctions of the Federalist era collapsed before his eyes...The decisive domestic issue of our time may well be the counter resources a liberal society can muster against this deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion it contains. Given the individualist nature of the Lockean doctrine, there is always a logical impulse within it to transcend the very conformitarian spirit it breeds in a Lockean society..."Amricanism" oddly disadvantages the Progressive despite the fact that he shares it to the full, there is a strategic impulse within him to transcend it...In some sense the tragedy of these movements has lain in the imperfect knowledge that they have had of the enemy they face, above all in their failure to see their own unwitting contribution to his strength."

American conformitarianism has accepted a regulatory reform and institution of elites that is impractical because technology and the pace of market change has rendered them obsolete. As Americans sense a deterioration, not only in the average hourly real wage but also in the volatility of the housing and stock markets, they sense that there is something amiss; that systems have not responded to their expectations. But the systems have become institutionalized to a degree that has never existed in America before. Previously, because Americans lived in a laissez faire world, only the courts, the local governments and a few federal systems such as the post office were institutionalized rigidly. Now, much of American life, not only in the public sector in areas like Social Security have become rigidly institutionalized and unable to change, but also in the private sector. Firms are no longer permitted to fail.

No comments: