Archive for Anthropology / Sociology

Hierarchy on the Defensive

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You might expect capitalism-centric media would react negatively to the recent buzz around Valve Software‘s innovative non-hierarchical structure. I was actually a little surprised about how un-reactionary the broad response was. The problem for industry media is, it’s really hard to defend hierarchy with actual research. Most behavioral economics research has uncovered big holes in the conventional workplace structure, which is of course maintained in order to foster and perpetuate class divisions, keeping a tiny owner class, a minority coordinator class, and the largest possible share remaining as fundamentally disempowered, disenfranchised worker bees.

I was actually wondering where the reaction to Valve’s novelty revelation of its innovative structure and policies was hiding. So much industry reportage had just treated it as a lark to note and move past. (Probably the wiser strategy.)

Then I saw Inc. magazine’s apologetics piece purportedly defending the virtues of hierarchy. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of contortions would be needed to try to undermine what is becoming more and more obvious: that workers thrive under conditions of empowerment, and that class divisions and disparities of wealth and income are causes of anxiety and dissatisfaction.

But I thought the establishment press would be able to come up with something a little better than this, at least.

Titled “Your employees like hierarchy (no, really)”, the short Inc. piece squirms for a minute then ends up praising Valve. The title addresses you as if the author knows who the fuck you and your employees are. It assumes they’re just like the subjects of a laughably conducted study that proves conclusively that people prefer the way a hierarchy looks on paper. Of course, the study purports to show that people appreciate being in a pecking order. But in fact, it does nothing of the sort.

Let’s not pick on the poor journalism in the Inc. article. The study’s own press release is shoddy enough.

The researchers apparently did not actually test whether their subects would like to work in a hierarchy. Not only did the study fail to examine actual workplaces of various structures and compare them, it didn’t even put the subjects in the hypothetical perspective of employees.

(c) 2006, Carol Simpson

In one of the five experiments used in the study, researchers had subjects react to pairs of photographs of people’s faces that had been independently analyzed for dominant vs. submissive features.

The results indicated that subjects consistently responded more quickly to the pair of photos consisting of a “dominant” face and a “submissive” face — what they termed the “hierarchy condition” — than to any other pair. They concluded that because people process pictures of hierarchies faster than pictures of equalities, hierarchies are easier for people to perceive.

Taking the results at face value (pun intended), what’s the point? I honestly don’t know. Ease of perception is supposed to correlate to preference, let alone actual validation? Nice try.

What’s next?

The second experiment sought to prove that people have an easier time remembering hierarchical relationships than equal ones, and therefore like them better.

To be fair, judging from the abstract, the researchers apparently surveyed the participants on their preference; they didn’t just infer it from ease of memorability of a seating chart (sometimes PR teams get a little carried away in relaying findings). But still, who cares if it takes someone slightly longer to learn the structure of a collective vs. a hierarchy? Has ease of memorability been independently correlated with long term appreciation? Is it even conceivable that you would list “how long it takes to learn the workplace structure” among your top 100 factors in choosing an employer, given you’ll likely spend years there after the few days or maybe weeks it takes to figure out who’s who?

The third experiment involved testing whether subjects more quickly memorized relationships of power hierarchy (boss/worker) over differentials in friendliness. Again, how could we possibly extrapolate a livelihood preference from such an exercise?

“The symmetric-orders condition, where people could give orders to the same people who gave them orders, was extremely hard for people to learn,” the study concluded. “This is interesting because sometimes organizations try to create equality by producing more symmetry; that is, by empowering people to give orders to one another and to take orders from one another. Yet, this kind of structure was confusing to our participants, and some even complained that these relationships did not make sense.”

They weren’t dealing with real people! Not even real fellow subjects, just fictitious people on paper. Of course it would be confusing. This experiment is not in the slightest way an analysis of how people behave in the real world, with real human beings.

I work every day in two flat workplaces. In both cases, team members regularly assign each other tasks. We use a project management system that’s configured to give everyone the power to do so. Sometimes we reassign tasks or even assign them back to the person that gave them to us, indicating we don’t have the capacity or we’re not the best specialist to do it. It’s not confusing. It’s empowering!

The fourth experiment was much more interesting and conceivably relevant.

Using their home computers, subjects were asked to read materials and provide recommendations for a fictitious company, whose goals included “downsize by 10 percent,” “phase out the Atlanta office,” and “increase the number of women in senior positions.” The materials contained spreadsheets of employees’ names, genders, ages, and performance ratings, as well as organizational charts showing their locations and positions.

That’s where the researchers manipulated the variable: some of the charts demonstrated little or no hierarchy, with a maximum of three levels per department, while others revealed a much more stratified structure, with highly differentiated job titles.

Next step: the participant got to do some firing! But all this experiment examined (by its own admission), is how outsiders would handle the challenge. And from what I’m able to see (I don’t have the actual model), it’s not clear that there was any attempt to actually familiarize the subjects with the way the organization worked. That said, the experiment does demonstrate the obvious: that someone from outside an organization will have a harder time analyzing a collective than a traditional hierarchy. So don’t bring in an outside firm to downsize your egalitarian workplace.

It’s also worth noting that in Experiment 4, the participants “expressed a much more positive view of the [hierarchical] firm and its employees”. This could have bearing on all sorts of matters, including prospective customer/client or partner or investor relationships for a company that eschews old-fashioned organizing in favor of a progress-aware approach.

Furthermore, it’s interesting that the charts used in Experiment 4 varied in two ways: stratification and job titles. There’s nothing about less-hierarchical workplaces that would suggest job titles can’t be significantly varied. It’s just bad methodology to change two variables when testing for one factor.

In the end, to a progressively minded person, these findings simply suggest there needs to be a shift in social attitudes towards organizations, away from judging how they’re structured, toward judging how and if they work. Indeed, if the study didn’t include outcome differentials, it’s that much more worthless. I suspect that testing four objects instead of two would have had revealing results. That is:

  • a successful collective
  • a successful hierarchy
  • a failed collective
  • a failed hierarchy

Who thinks success would not have five or more times the influence of the structure variable?

The fifth and final experiment is the real zinger. I find it frankly jaw-dropping that it is treated as anything but an impeachment of the first four experiments. Long story short, participants had an easier time recognizing — and indicated a preference for — hierarchies that were headed by a male as opposed to a female, all else being equal. That’s not very shocking, if you live on planet Earth, where sexism pervades.

What is disturbing is that the researchers don’t reject the first four subject preference equals objective superiority conclusions based on the findings in the fifth experiment. All they’re showing — at most — is that people raised in a messed-up society show messed-up, even self-defeating preferences. No duh.

The researchers were at best gleaning whether people objectively — that is, from the outside — preferred the look of a hierarchy vs. a flat structure. They found out how people who are also generally sexist (like most of us — male man, female woman, trans, whatever) perceive hierarchy. The subjects received no orientation, no special training, not even an explanation, as you would find in any halfway decent workplace, collective or otherwise. The study is a joke, and anyone using it to defend hierarchy looks very desperate.

All that being the case, I think it’s pretty obvious that not everyone would prefer a nonhierarchical workplace. Most people, understandably, are wary of change and newness. I’d love to see a survey of contrasting samples: those who work in collectives vs. those who work in hierarchies. Or, maybe tell us if participants who preferred male-dominated hierarchies are the same subjects that found hierarchy more comfortable in general. Then we’d know if people we should admire — those who did not show a recognition preference for male bosses — favor other forms of equality, too, at least from the outside.

(c) Carol Simpson

What’s funniest of all is that half the Inc. article is taken up introducing the reader to Valve Software’s alternative, horizontal structure, and is not particularly critical in its assessment. For more about Valve’s awesome bossless approach, check out this analysis and this narrative.

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Could ‘Squatters’ Really Hold the Economy Down?

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I love squatters. Thought to be fading into history as a self-conscious class, these intrepid refuseniks have not made much news for the past decade or thereabout. So when a friend sent me a link to a Time/Moneyland story about a new breed of squatters, I couldn’t wait to see what they were up to.

Despite being ridiculously titled “Is America Becoming a Nation of Squatters?” (hyperbole much?), the piece by Tara-Nicholle Nelson starts off good, introducing the phenomenon of squatting and the seemingly anomalous legal concept known as “adverse possession”, a doctrine under which in some states squatters can acquire legal title to real property simply by residing on it without permission for a certain period of years (usually ten). This is interesting stuff, and over the generations, lots of housing activists have made the case that squatting is a valuable social phenomenon. (Not a hard case to make, given that people need housing and so much of it is vacant.)

Nelson then introduces a “new class of squatters” — homeowners who default on their mortgages but stay in their houses. This is not exactly a social movement, and it’s kind of a no-brainer (if you’re broke but not yet being physically forced out of the structure you call “home”, where all your stuff is… why would you leave?), but it’s an interesting socioeconomic phenomenon, if you will.

What really threw me for a loop was the writer’s conclusion. I honestly did not see it coming. Nelson — notably a lawyer and a real-estate broker — suggests that this “squatting” phenomenon may be adversely affecting the housing market because it could taint Americans’ attitudes toward what she calls “the inherent rightness of paying for the right to live in a place”.

WOW! What a phrase, and what an overarching idea.

My objections are manifold. First, people cheerleading for housing values to rise again need to sit in the corner wearing a “real-estate agent” dunce cap. Second, people who suggest rights can be bought should sit in the corner with a “lawyer” dunce cap on. Third, get real — there is (unfortunately) no real “threat” of an attitude shift toward access to real property. Fourth, even if there were such a prospect, its impact would probably be immeasurably small, given that it would come up against the reality of how property is treated in our society. And it would only serve to anchor housing prices in ways that aren’t all bad.

Let’s take the philosophical point first and dispense with this notion that one can purchase rights. There is sadly no right to housing in this country. One can purchase the legal prerogative to occupy a dwelling either by obtaining deed or lease. Otherwise, with few exceptions, one has no expectation of any legal or even philosophical right to shelter. Overturning this would be a good thing; maybe not for the real estate market, depending on how it was implemented, but definitely a win for the human condition.

On to the threat of an attitudinal shift anchoring the housing market, which Nelson considers unhealthy. She writes:

I suspect this harm will manifest most evidently in consumers’ mindsets, as widespread squatting threatens to upend basic, important social beliefs about the inherent rightness of paying for the right to live in a place. If consumers perceive that a primary advantage of being a homeowner is that you can stick around for years without making a payment, strategic default and foreclosure rates might never decline back to their pre-recession rarity.

[…] The real danger is to our social norms and financial belief systems which, in turn, threaten a lasting recovery and future prosperity.

Economic recovery and (material) prosperity are indeed tied to the housing market. When the housing bubble predictably burst in 2008, the consumer credit system took a massive hit. Our economy is 70% consumer-driven. It depends on growth, and growth depends on credit. So while the stagnant housing market is probably (for now) holding back severe inflation as the Fed pushes a credit- and government-spending-based recovery dependent on an increased currency/reserves supply, that same moribund market is holding back the real flow of consumer credit. This everybody acknowledges.

Where onlookers differ is in the real social quality of this anchoring effect. First, the more affordable housing is, the better off society is, generally speaking. That’s not an economistic view — it’s just another of my pesky humanistic views. If our economic system gave a damn about sheltering Americans, we would be happy to see a gentler rate of increase in housing costs.

But besides this, holding back growth in a society that has too much housing (however misallocated) and too much consumption in terms of resource use and pollution/greenhouse-gas output, is not in and of itself a bad thing. An economic system that causes suffering when aggregate production contracts or even slows will tempt all of us to cheer for growth. But growth has severe consequences; it is not inherently good. The cost of ameliorating present economic misery for working and unemployed Americans may build in too many problems associated with overconsumption. These will hurt down the road. Severely.

The housing market needs never to return to unsustainable growth. It is amazing that this has to be said in a post-burst world, but apparently some people haven’t figured it out, including self-interested homeowners and real-estate brokers. As long as credit is made readily available and energy costs are artificially low (as they do not include the real environmental and social costs of hydrocarbon-based production and consumption), there will be a tendency for real estate prices to bubble, not just threatening sudden harm to the economy again, but also excluding poor people from decent housing.

This is why the notion that attitudes of entitlement to housing will hurt the market is absurd. First, this attitude isn’t going to come about by some spontaneous collective realization. It would take an organized social movement to reevaluate the concept of housing as a right (that can’t be purchased).

Besides, the market has too many systemic upward pressures; nuances that tamp it down have an upside, even if it really sucks for people who made poor real-estate investment choices in the last decade. We really don’t want to reinflate the bubble just to give those bad investments new life and prop up the credit-based overconsumption frenzy that put us in this sad state to begin with.

Now back to philosophy for a moment. This is just my own belief, to counter Nelson’s appreciation for the idea that people should pay market prices for the “right” to occupy a home. Shelter is a human right, and anyone who contributes to society should have comparable access to stable, secure, desirable housing. Shattering arcane notions that a suitable home is a privilege one must purchase would be good not just in terms of anchoring the housing market, but to transform this society into a halfway decent alternative.

Carol Simpson cartoon -- real estate agent shows family a homeless shelter.

Cartoon by Carol Simpson.

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The Promise of Capitalist Globalization, Predictably Unfulfilled

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I swear it’s just coincidence that right after coming down so hard on Nouriel Roubini, I’m going to praise a piece appearing in his EconoMonitor blog, this one by investment executive Walter Molano.

In “The Summer of Discontent“, Molano cuts straight to the nitty gritty, squarely placing blame for the past year’s various grassroots grumblings (China labor tension, Arab Spring, London riots) on the shoulders of market capitalism — namely, its failed promise. And he doesn’t try to sugar coat it or tack on a hackneyed stupefaction proclaiming capitalism will make it all right.

Molano basically illustrates how the global game of musical chairs that was played for the last twenty years as new markets opened up and capital flooded in has, in the end, left much of the world standing, disgruntled. It’s a short piece (with dreadful paragraphing), but let me share some highlights:

The growth spurt driven by globalization expanded the economic pie, as billions of new consumers were incorporated into the marketplace. Rising commodity prices and expanding trade flows delivered huge windfalls to the developed and developing world. However, as the rapid rise of global integration began to plateau, and the effects of the downturn in the U.S. and Europe took hold, the vast aspirations of disparate societies dimmed. Not only is the American dream looking like an empty promise and the European socialist model a distant memory, the hopes for a better way of life by billions of people across the developing world is also in doubt.

It’s hard to argue with this, adding to the account that everyday people in the “developed and developing world” did not accrue benefits equitably from the windfalls, which Molano fully understands. An investment analyst has captured the spirit of the street, and he’s going to tie it into useful, plain-English macroeconomic analysis. Observe…

The mad scramble for productive and physical assets throughout the former communist states, such as Russia, China and Vietnam, created a cadre of super-rich individuals. However, the re-allocation process is over and most of the boundless opportunities are gone. Now, these populations are stratifying into the traditional class segmentations associated with modern capitalist societies, fostering disappointment and frustration for some.

Molano then actually presents a Marxist framework within which to understand the impact these changes on class in countries his colleagues typically refer to as “emerging markets” (Molano spares us this dreadful term). I actually found this to be the weakest aspect of the piece, as Molano is trying to wedge modern concepts into an arcane (if historically useful) model. Nevertheless, it’s interesting.

But Molano’s commentary isn’t done getting better (i.e., franker). I’m going to make you read his piece for the details, though.

I can’t help sharing his conclusion with you just in case you don’t take the hint and read the original:

The blurry images of the violence in London, Hama and Hangzhou are the precursors of similar events that will take place in other parts of the world, such as Istanbul, Jakarta and Bogota, when they realize that the dream of greater prosperity was dashed by the basic principles of market economics.

I’m not familiar with Molano’s prior work, so I don’t know what the rest of his take on capitalism is. His job title suggests he’s okay with taking advantage of it, but unlike many of his contemporaries examining the current hyper-crisis of capitalism, he seems to have some genuine understanding of if not sympathy for the people economics impacts most: workers (and the unemployed). His lens is still familiar to those of us who read economists and analysts speaking to an elite audience of investors, but he focuses it in a way Roubini and Jeremy Grantham don’t seem willing or able to. Not revolutionary, but kind of refreshing. Why can’t this become a trend?

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Revolt is Inevitable; Riot is Not

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To any insightful observer of the sociology of riots, the only thing that’s hard to understand about these extraordinary social phenomena is why they occur so seldom. As irrational as rioting may seem in terms of who bears the costs of the immediate damage and violence, there’s a difference between irrationality and senselessness. Riots tend to erupt without much historical consciousness on the part of instigators, so contextual disincentives (e.g., wariness of aftermath) are not fully in effect. In any case, something can seem irrational from the perspective of a distant observer, even while that same event can make total sense to the people engaged in the action (or for that matter, strongly sympathetic bystanders).

Riots and revolutions alike tend to be sparked by an incident or other concrete injustice from which moral outrage spreads. The differences between riots and revolutions, as two distinct types of uprisings, have to do with the level of organization of the response and whether the intentions are expressive or transformative.

In the current UK turmoil, it was the murder by police of a young black Londoner that set things off. The visceral, localized response to the frustration of never seeing injustices sufficiently addressed is understandable. In this case, it has spread to envelope people from many areas of England carrying myriad torches they believe are not being validated by anyone in position to make a difference. I doubt anyone has ever put it better than Rev. Martin Luther King Jr did in 1963:

When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty, and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice, the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.

Nothing fundamental has changed since MLK spoke those words. For all the social progress that has been made, governments still act on behalf of their wealthy sponsors and underwriters, and the most privileged race still sees itself as superior and specially deserving while pretending to abhor that very idea. Almost nobody in a position to be heard states the obvious: that wealth is power, and a system that fosters the accrual and concentration of power will before long so silence and disenfranchise some that they will seek to be noticed however they possibly can. Furthermore, it is easiest to disenfranchise an underprivileged class if that class is divided against itself on superficial lines of race, gender, age, and so forth, and when that class is kept quiet and complacent.

When it comes to articulating their discontent, the poor are reliant on the corporate news media to convey their plight. But mainstream outlets have a static handful of perspectives on poverty, youth, and race: ignorance, patronization, scapegoating, demonization, and distortion. In societies where media outlets mediate nearly all interfaces between the poor and the privileged, and where police conspire with geography to protect the privileged from those they exploit, the self-destructive orgy of chaotic looting and burning is one of the only available options for sending messages.

Here’s another apt quote that’s gone viral. An NBC News reporter asked a participant of the riots were achieving anything. He replied:

Yes. You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you? Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm; and you know what? Not a word in the press.

Of course, such rare glimpses of explicit conveyance notwithstanding, the message typically received by the voiceful when they look at rioting is, “Insulate yourselves from us so we can’t burn your house down or hurt your kids.” It’s doubtful that many people in positions of power hear the proper message: “Give us some justice and share your shit with us or we’re coming for it.” The power elite take their cues from the fire department during riots: stand back, maybe spray some water here and there, try to contain the blazes to the poorest neighborhoods.

The political and economic dimensions of the riots rocking British cities are too big to ignore, no matter how earnestly politicians and members of the media insist the events are acts of crazed criminality. Jérôme E. Roos assesses the “structural causes” of the riots in an excellent backgrounder:

While it would be ridiculous to use [youth unemployment and child poverty] statistics as a justification for the dangerous, irresponsible and anti-social behavior of the rioters, it would be just as foolish to simply ignore this crucial social context and only focus on the “aberrant behavior” of “deviant individuals.” The violence and thievery may be entirely indiscriminate and a-political, but the root causes of it are profoundly political and carry a very clear discriminatory component.

See Dan Poulton’s “Riot in the Age of Austerity” for more context.

The question in our minds shouldn’t be whether civil society will respond to intolerable conditions like wealth disparity, alienation, and discrimination imposed upon the populace by elites. The question is simply how will we respond? We can do it in an organized, intentional fashion, with preparation, cohesion, and foresight. Or we can do it in a chaotic climax of rage.

We will revolt. But will our upheaval take the form of organized revolution or spontaneous spasm? That latter, default option isn’t “pointless” or “senseless” as many would depict it. But it only achieves the goal of scratching an itch. Revolution serves that goal, too, but it also can exchange itchy, dead skin for healthy new flesh.

Still, given all that I’ve said about corporate media forming a status-quo-protecting shield between the privileged and the exploited, what is the practical alternative to rioting? Please, you urge, because you’re anti-lameness… don’t prescribe more of that passive demonstrating and those sniveling petitions! That stuff only reminds us that we’re itchy; it scratches nothing!

The answer is organized direct action. Premeditated campaigns of operations that are considerate and self-conscious, not merely reactive. Campaigns carried out in concert with a system for implementing a new mode of truly just and equitable social relations. Such is where mob rule yields to grassroots democracy. Easier said than done? Hell yes. Still easier than dealing with the repercussions of riot? Just maybe.

So if you expect rioting to visit your neighborhood as “austerity measures” and heavy handed policing increase, maybe it’s time to think about organizing to channel all that outrage toward productive goals using forward-looking strategies and tactics. Build recognizable alternative institutions that are precious so services and supplies can be maintained while previously dominant institutions of dependence go up in figurative or literal flames. Target only otherwise-unaccountable property and materiel that is itself used as a weapon of exploitation.

There will be revolt. The choice between riot and revolution is ours.

Top image credit: Phil Noble; Second image credit: Lewis Whyld.

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How Outsiders Will View Our Demise

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I made this movie to express my frustration with where we’re headed. It’s not particularly informative, but I hope it’s a funny way to make people think about how untenable our economic system is.

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