Jun 272014

I read this on Facebook today, attributed (I assume, from what prefaced it) to Karl Marx:

It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only “petty” interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking.

Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion.

However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one’s own head, and hence these clever people’s knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.

After my post yesterday on the subject of systems versus people, I wonder if the above doesn’t top and tail me as the very reactionary I have cleverly tried to avoid being all these years.  In this post, I said the following:

[…] I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I also added that:

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

As you can see, I look at this whole issue from the perspective of a life-long language trainer and teacher.  I have always felt that given the opportunity and confidence, people tend to do good over bad.  And where they do bad, they have not been given the opportunity and confidence.  Does this then lead me to reactionary conclusions?  I dunno really.

Meanwhile, over at Rick’s blog today we get this:

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. Whether or not senior managers know about the detail, they are the ones who set the tone for the organisation. Employees rarely deviate far from this. If they do, they don’t last long. OK, some may be a little over-enthusiastic and cross a line but it’s usually within a framework of what is generally regarded as acceptable. The rogue trader fallacy is an attempt to individualise what is almost always a systemic problem. If managers set aggressive targets and tell people to do whatever it takes, they usually have some idea of what ‘whatever it takes’ means, even if they don’t (or choose not to) know exactly who is doing what.

To be honest, with this I agree entirely.  We get the figure of charismatic leadership (more here), for example – surely examples relevant to past, recent and future court processes.

But I wonder if my latterday instincts to interpret events in terms of individual responsibility is altogether as reactionary as the systemic people amongst us might accuse me of.  I don’t disagree with the idea that systems affect behaviours: I am a teacher, after all, and facilitating safe and productive learning environments and frames prior to the start of any learning process is always key to any final success.

I do also wonder, however, if we aren’t as a species simpler in the round than we think.  There’s a tipping-point in life, love and war which encourages us to hold out until the last moment – but no longer that.  If we see something is about to go belly-up, it is a reasonably common instinct to try and save one’s reputation, worth, income and wealth.  Perhaps, then, when I find myself now wanting to blame individuals for the corrupting tendencies of systems – whether political, medical or food-related – I am really saying: “Don’t blame these systems, blame something else!”

Politics isn’t to blame; the banking sector isn’t to blame; even Nestlé isn’t to blame.  But that’s not to say, either, that individuals are as to blame as I original posited – nor in exactly the way I blithely suggested.  No.  What’s really to blame is yet another system out there – much bigger and much more lowest-common denominating than all these more apparent and visibly human-made ones.

What may that be?  People sometimes adduce human nature, but to say this reduces our thoughts to immediate adherence or rejection of the concept.  So for me human nature doesn’t cut it.

Maybe more it has to do with the fear that drives that tipping-point I mentioned earlier.  And in a world where fear could be completely eliminated, wouldn’t it be so much easier for the planet – and ourselves – to be systemically “better”-behaved than is currently the case?

Whilst we would all behave better for acceptably systemic reasons, we would simultaneously be behaving better at micro-levels of personal responsibility too.  Striking that balance is surely where the future lies: not somewhere halfway between the systemic and the individual but rather – in a far more complex and as yet unexplored way – simultaneously systemic and individual.

Jun 262014

Today, I saw a person on the TV show “Good Morning Britain”, a person who if I understood correctly represented Wonga.com in some significant way, saying sorry for a series of (to put it politely) historical “infractions”, most of which which appeared to border on the significantly fraudulent:

Payday lender Wonga must pay £2.6m in compensation after sending letters from non-existent law firms to customers in arrears.

The letters threatened legal action, but the law firms were false. In some cases Wonga added fees for these letters to customers’ accounts.

If I continue to remember rightly, the person who spoke on the tele this morning, when asked about who exactly was responsible for the misdeeds clearly committed, said something along the lines of: “We’re not here today to talk about individuals.”

I’m puzzled by this response.  When I worked for a large 70,000-people financial services corporation, it was impressed upon us – both in our daily job and periodically through continuous training – that what we saw, thought and imagined had utmost significance for the continued probity of the wider company.  Within what you might term the broader systemic behaviours, our own individual perceptions and consequential actions were legally enshrined, inscribed and potentially punishable.

Mind you, perhaps – already out there – there is an unspoken universal law which governs and defines how this focus on individual responsibility decreases exponentially, the greater one’s level of executive power.*  It certainly would seem that way; it would explain a lot of what’s happening right now too.

With my own personal interest in political structures to the fore, and even as this is amateur, ineffectual and irrelevant to current practice (my network of influence being absolutely zero, of course), I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I don’t know about you but I find myself reaching a point of utter inaction on so many different fronts.  Even in my day-to-day life; even as I got to the supermarket for the weekly shop.  So it is I can neither buy from the Primarks nor the John Lewis of the world; I can neither happily fund charitable drug research nor happily buy multinational cereals.

And as the TechDirt piece linked to above quotes, from the mouth of a person of perhaps quite different times:

[…] Here’s what George Merck, who became president of his father’s eponymous chemical manufacturing company in 1929, said on the subject, as quoted on the Today in Science History site: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

We could substitute the word “medicine” with the word “politics” or the term “financial services” – and the impact, effect and consequences would be pretty much the same surely.  The truth and sense of integrity, too.

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

So let’s look in quite a different direction.  Focus, instead, on fashioning for the people the environments which serve to generate the confidence we all need – the confidence we all need to speak up in good faith about what resides in our hearts and souls.

To participate; to act constructively; to communicate, collaborate and talk with each other.

About what we all really need and deserve.  Freedom from fear.

Ultimately, freedom of expression.


* Maybe we should call it the Stepping-Stone Law, after those who wade in the bubbling brooks of tendentious activity – brooks which finally lead down to the rivers and estuaries of ultimate control and knowledge.  (But then again, maybe not …)

Mar 032013

This post is about two tweets which came my way yesterday.  Both speak of the importance of personal responsibility.  The first describes its reach in private industry (in this case, I believe in relation to a recent story on the freemium app industry):

Companies are made of people, and people have a responsibility for their actions, inc. developing (potentially) exploitative freemium games

The second, which came my way hot on the heels of the first, said much the same thing – only, this time, in the context of the NHS (the Mid-Staffordshire scandal comes immediately to mind):

The best managers help clinical staff treat according to need and make patients healthier, not enforce NHS policy whatever the consequences

Meanwhile, in an oxymoron-like diatribe of the weakest kind against everything and anything New Labour ever did, David Cameron has this to say in today’s Sunday Telegraph:

That is what everything this Government does comes back to: the future. We are looking at the horizon, not tomorrow’s headlines; doing what’s right for the long-term. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that we should be “in the business of planting trees, for our children and grandchildren, or we have no business to be in politics at all”.

I couldn’t agree more. In 30 years’ time, I want people to be able to look back at this government and see that we paid down our debts, helped create millions of jobs, sorted out welfare, made our schools world-beating and built homes for a generation.

Doing this kind of work might not earn you popularity points in by-elections, but it’s what I’m in politics for: making the country we love as great as it can be.

I haven’t heard that “planting trees” metaphor for really quite a while.  I suppose we’ll have Michael Gove telling us next that we should all write a novel before we die.

I’m also just a little puzzled – maybe out of technical ignorance – as to why he says “paid down our debts” instead of “paid off“.  Unless, of course, he means that it’s going to be the little people at the bottom of the pile who’ll always end up saving the Tories from their economic selves.

But perhaps this is all just a little too nitpicking on my part.

In truth, it’s always going to be the people who make a difference to any society.  Politicians of the kind who tend to rule us prefer to ignore this.  If they didn’t, they’d have to engage us in their processes – they’d have to get us involved and actively participating.  Far easier to blame an anonymous public-sector bureaucracy – and shift the responsibility stealthily onto equally anonymous private-sector equivalents – than to admit that the root of all our problems lies not in our systems but their application.

It’s not so much a new education system we need – it’s more a system teachers and students know how to work with.

It’s not so much a new legal system we need – it’s more a system whose costs victims and other participants don’t have to fear.

It’s not so much a new health system we need – it’s more a system which provides support as and when a person becomes a patient in need.

The Welfare State is the way to make our society less inhumane.  It’s in our grasp – but it is a choice.  We can spend considerable resource on allowing the fortunate to further concentrate their good fortune – or we can deliberately decide to give the less fortunate the consideration, charity and kindness most belief systems have tended to argue should be made forthcoming.

But what we have to accept is that, either way, it’s a choice.  If we choose to fashion a world where we must walk on the other side of the road from that homeless man who dies at the doorstep of a bungalow, we can.  We will do so, I am sure, in order that ambitious alpha men and women can – amongst the disasters they also commit – achieve what they undoubtedly do.  And this is clearly an act of socioeconomic decision-making at the highest level, committed by coherent men and women.  It is a freely-taken decision. It is an unforced decision to let some people live better at the expense of others.  It is a statistical calculation of risks that approves of achievement at the very top, even as it judges society will not rise up in arms and disintegrate as a result of the anonymous homeless dying distastefully in the streets.

If, on the other hand, we opt to help such homeless people – if our goal is to create a socioeconomic environment where this kind of action is prioritised over other, more aggressively innovative, behaviours – we may create, again entirely consciously and deliberately, a society where survival is ameliorated for a far greater number of our souls here on earth, even as achievement measured objectively loses its bleeding edges.

And either way, to come back to the original set of choices, and whether politicians like it or not, if anything turns out right, it’ll come down not to systems they proudly and powerfully announce but, rather, to their humane application – or otherwise – by people who look and act and feel like you and me.

That personal responsibility.

That core humanity.

That attachment to caring at an individual level for each and every relationship.

That love, even.

That kindness, generously imparted.

Far more important for a classroom than this textbook or that is the mind that plans the lesson around a book and the hands that clutch its spine.

For the funny thing about Cameron’s oxymoron of a weak diatribe is that there was very little in it I found myself fiercely disagreeing with.  Oh, yes.  Those silly sentences on immigration.  The daftness around welfare.  But in reality, the poor man knows exactly what we need to do.  Like when he says, almost pleadingly (the bold is mine):

These are not claims or promises: they are facts. We are turning the tide on years of decline — and building a Britain for those who work hard and want to get on. And we need to go further. We need to get more houses built. We need to build new roads and railways and energy connections. Some reading this may not like that; but as I have made clear, this is not a popularity contest but a battle for Britain’s future.

The problem isn’t the words, David.  The problem is the people.

In fact, the problem – more widely expressed – is your, and your professional class’s, attitude to people in general.  The fact is that systems, for high-flying politicians, are like electromagnets of recent generation: when you have the opportunity to choose between getting people voluntarily onside or creating a foolproof system designed to cage them into a certain set of behaviours, you can guarantee any minister worth their caviar will be pulled inexorably in the direction of implementing a brand-new system over convincing ordinary people to work better with an existing one.

I really do sometimes get the feeling that Cameron and some of his cohort are locked painfully into the wrong party of UKIP-incubating MPs and hangers-on.  If only he, and perhaps they, had chosen Labour, we could right now be facing another decade of government.

Maybe I should now spoil this post for you (or, alternatively, not) by saying how very much that idea makes me shudder.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.


They say familiarity may breed contempt.

I’m inclined, however, to believe that being a politician (of empire-building instincts, at least) makes one contemptuous of the familiar.

In this, both One Nation Labour and the more traditional Conservative impulses, which Cameron has appealed to in his text today, have aimed to reassure potential voters in a time of utter uncertainty that being British, in itself, is quite enough to be getting on with.

But in the end, they are all just words – both Cameron’s and Miliband’s, I’m afraid.

In a sense, I get the feeling that our politicians are likely to be as lost here as the rest of us.  And in this realisation (as Poirot might suggest!), I find the future most terrifying.

Where ordinary people would be the real solution, our leaders are now only able to work with systems.

The systems have taken over to such an extent that these ordinary people I mention truly have no impact whatsoever on the results – even as they end up shouldering all the blood-spattered blame.

The personal responsibility which I started this post with is impossible to properly engineer or encourage.  We spend our time terrified of the juggernaut-like mechanisms that threaten to bury our professional futures in a careering disgrace.  We hide, like frightened rabbits, from the oncoming lights which should illuminate – but which, in the end, serve only to make the shadows evermore powerful.

Yes.  It’s the people, stupid.

And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.

Apr 192012

Limited liability has clearly driven capitalism’s glittering history of innovation.  It has allowed imaginative entrepreneurs to take reasonable but not excessive risks with their own livelihoods to the benefit of technological progress.

But, in times of severe economic crisis when these things truly begin to tell, it has also created an awkward imbalance between the rights and responsibilities of corporate and limited liability organisations on the one hand and ordinary real-life human beings on the other.

Much of current anger at the system we have is directed at those organisations which – in an absolutely worst-case scenario – lose only their honour, not their shirts.  Meanwhile, for the rest of us out here, enforced upper-torso nakedness is but one reminder of other 20th century unhappinesses.

The undercurrents of feudalism in our society become terribly apparent in such times of community distress.

What to do then?  What to do?

I just saw a tweet about a North East of England police force’s terrorist unit picking up on some sort of racist hate crime and bringing in five men alleged to be responsible.  And it made me think in the following way: “Ah, you see; maybe the police aren’t just there to repress.”

A small act of counter-narrative in the massive overloaded narrative arc of our current oppressive state.

Problem is, there’s plenty of evidence of a casual instinct to the latter.  As I tweeted earlier:

No point in making reasonable suggestions to tinker with Coalition policy. Any reasons will never be bigger than aim of simply making money.

But back to the counter-narrative.  If we truly wish to rebalance the system, and it’s essentially unreasonable to take away from the business world all the obvious advantages of limited liability, why not instead propose establishing a system where housing, minimum living standards and access to basic utilities can never be removed from absolutely anyone?  That is to say, a system of limited liability for real-life human beings and their households.

Once established the principle for eternal corporate bodies, why not for the flesh and blood creatures that populate the planet?

In fact, couched in such terms, you really never know, it’s possible we’d even acquire a useful yardstick to help reconfigure our welfare system.

“So how would we pay for it?” I hear you ask.  And I’d knock that one back at you: “How have we managed to fund limited liability for medium-sized and large business operations for at least the past century – maybe longer?”

Surely the answer lies in the oft broken-backed flesh and blood creatures I’ve already mentioned above.

Time, then, to repay that debt so easily acquired?

Where there’s a way, all you really need is the desire to squirrel out that will.

Oct 012011

“The Godfather” has a powerful thesis: that organised crime functions like a corporation.  Two tweets which reached my Twitter stream this morning have made me wonder if the aforementioned thesis hasn’t led us to believe – perhaps even rightly understand – the contrary: that corporations function like organised crime.  The interference of ideas would be a fascinating osmosis: the hurried blurring of lines a damning, yet maybe also revealing, feature of the modern communications industry.

The two tweets in question as follows.  The first, on worker reward in corporate bodies:

The average CEO earns 300 times more than the average worker, despite the fact the average worker works 1040 hours more per year.

And the second, drawing a tendentious conclusion as to the real reason why giant multinationals want less regulation:

Corporations Want Less Regulations for the Same Reason That Criminals Want Less Police. #OccupyWallStreet #p2 #TaxtheRich

In reality, I am inclined to believe that within the circle of behaviours the above two tweets draw, the blurring of lines between organised crime and large corporate bodies is not altogether inappropriate.

And not because the people involved are, themselves, necessarily unhappy souls.  Simply, rather, because the systems they work under reward the behaviours we get.  As Chris convincingly points out:

1. It tends to be the ambitious and charming to rise to the top, but these are disproportionately psychopaths.
2. Bosses and politicians are selected for their irrational overconfidence. This means that, when they get power, they are likely to over-rate their own ability and so undertake dangerous policies such as takeovers.
3. “Yes men” tend to get promoted more than nay-sayers and “trouble-makers”. This can contribute to groupthink in boardrooms in which bad decisions are not sufficiently scrutinized.
4. Even if these selection effects were not to work, and bosses had “good values”, competitive pressures would compel them to act badly. As Marx wrote:
Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer…But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.

Not too far, after all, from those slavering Pavlovian reactions, eh?  So capitalism – that slippery and eternally reinventing non-system of a system – does, in actual fact, have that underlying structure to all its manifestations: it moulds the goodness out of usas it turns us all into conditional beings.

Aug 292010

John Naughton gets it right here when he says the following on the importance in a networked world of the system over the gadget:

Amazon didn’t just have a device, it had a system into which it fitted. It also had a strategy based on understanding that, ultimately, the device is not what matters. The first manifestation of this came when Amazon released a free iPhone/iPodTouch app which enabled users to access the Kindle store from their phones or iPods. To some observers at the time, this seemed like madness: why give away such an advantage to the company that was set on becoming your deadliest rival?

In fact, it may have been an inspired move, a contemporary implementation of the old Gillette ploy of giving away razors while making money from selling blades. And, so far, it seems to have worked: Amazon has somewhere between 60% and 80% of the US ebooks market, though there are disputes about the precise figures.

This share will probably decline somewhat as the market matures, but it’s hard to see Amazon losing its dominance.

If truth be told, this is exactly analogous to the traditional paper-printed book.  Though editors and experts in the trade would be able to tell the difference between the finer niceties of the physical entity that was the book itself, in truth what really has counted in the history of publishing is the content, the ability to distribute it in a timely fashion and pricing.

That is to say, the system over the device.

If only we were able to see beyond the detail that Apple is so good at making us obsess about, we would see that device hunger is a fetish we should sooner rather than later disabuse ourselves of.  At least from a business point of view.

iTunes showed it’s everything that counts – system and content availability, website visibility, device utility and all.

The iPad is another beautiful box.

Whilst Kindle 2 is something else.  Something I might even buy myself.  Now if only I could blog from it using that “experimental browser” …