Saturday, August 06, 2016

Strength and Vulnerability

In the business world I often encounter the git-shit-done mentality, which values competence, discipline, and the strong determination to achieve a goal, often to the point of ruthlessness. Those who can perform are strongly encouraged and rewarded, but anyone regarded as less than capable is likely to the shown the door. “Sorry, best of luck in future endeavours, but you don’t belong here.” This world is frank, sometimes to the point of being brutal, and will accept anyone who can do the job. Contrary to the opinions of those who think that feminism and multi-race and multi-cultural initiatives in the workplace are the consequence of political correctness, these are actually the natural outcome of capitalism. Competence trumps all other concerns, and outweighs sex, race, or culture. The decline of the white man in the work force is not the result of affirmative action—it was affirmative action that put him in a position of precedence in the first place.

On the other hand, there is a tradition that I greatly respect, the shared understanding that humans are deeply flawed, so often voiced in the Christian and other traditions, which urge us to band together, forgive each other’s weaknesses, and work together to overcome them (and yet, I am an atheist.) There is a parallel to this in the scientific method—which I would call the modern method, and has taken root in other places far antecedent to modernity (the Islamic Caliphate of the late first millennium AD was one)—which requires a process of peer review, recognizing that people make mistakes and only together have we any chance of getting things right. This understanding of human weakness has been supported by recent advances in behavioural economics (particularly by Daniel Kahneman), which has advanced the idea that we are largely irrational and prone to poor judgements. The opposition between this admission of human frailty and the world of business is nowhere more clear than in the failure of neoliberalism as an economic ideology. Neo-liberalism regards humans as rational self-maximizers—indeed, this is the foundational assumption of Neo-liberalism, its theory of human nature. But then, all ideologies are founded on a faulty simplified model of human nature.

But here’s the thing: the traditions that emphasize human frailty often abandon all hope of man-made solutions. To be blunt, thoughts and prayers won’t git-shit-done. We have to dare to use our judgement and our abilities, flawed as they may be, because no hand from the sky will save us. God is not returning his calls. We have to solve our own problems, and all the hand wringing in the world won’t accomplish that. And the weak remain at the mercy of the strong, so we must compel the competent to help those who need it, because there is another iron law of capitalism; when the markets collapse, capitalism will collapse, and the rich will lose everything. There’s no point in being worth 50 billion dollars when a dollar is worthless. And it will be if capitalism fails. The thing that most Marxists miss is Marx’s awe of capitalism’s productive capacity. Redistribution isn’t an option if there is nothing to redistribute. Capitalism produces; socialism redistributes, but they must work together.

Beyond that, the culture of victimhood, which exploits the traditions of mercy to an absurd extent, has no future. It relies upon pity, which is exclusive to respect, especially in the long run, and it has no grasp upon the elite beyond what they permit, and therefore has no influence beyond the narrow world of academia. Indeed, it quickly exhausts its welcome. It is instructive to note that the era of political correctness began precisely at the time of the Reagan revolution, and is now fading at precisely the moment that the polity is taking a dramatic shift to the left. The academic left was always politically inert, and in fact, politically regressive. It achieved the opposite of all its stated goals, and serves only the political right, who trot out tales of their excesses to scare their constituency. 

Still, all this is on the political and macro level. At the personal level, the cult of competency has much to learn from the tradition of frailty, both in the way that it deals with its own members and with the people who lay outside of it bounds. Steve Jobs was ruthless to those in his organization, but his success was in his capacity to be the customer from hell, probably his only competence. He demanded the best for the average non-technical user, and in that respect, became an unlikely advocate for mercy. While many techies regard people who cannot use their products as idiots, Jobs turned that accusation on his team for not making products that the average person could use, and made it clear to them that if they could not do that, they were the idiots. The prevailing neoliberal ideology regards the people who cannot succeed in it as idiots. It is time to tell them that if so many people cannot succeed under their leadership, it is they who are the idiots.