Thursday, March 26, 2009

Inequality and authoritarianism

If you are a strange sort of person, like myself, who spends a fair amount of time reading 19th Century Anarchist texts, you will recognise a recurring theme that sees human progress as a product of liberty and social regression as being the consequence of authority. It is an assertion that cannot be proved, rather it is an article of faith.

However, there now seems to be some hard, empirical evidence in its favour, gathering by John Crace's review of a study of the epidemiology of inequality by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Though the authors concentrate on economic inequality, I was interested in this extract of the review on hierarchy.
When monkeys are kept in a hierarchical environment, those at the bottom self-medicate with more cocaine; a caste gap opens in the performance of Hindu children when they have to announce their caste before exams; the stress hormone, cortisol, rises most when people face the evaluation of others; and so on. The result is always the same: fear of falling foul of the wealth gap gets under everyone's skin by making them anxious about their status.
It seems to me this is more than simply a critique of material inequalities, but also of interrelated power structures. I was thinking about this when Will sent me a reference to this paper by Hugo Radice. Sadly, his scholarly comparison of the management of British universities with Stalinism is hidden behind a subscription screen and my institution does not subscribe to the journal, so I haven't read the original. Times Higher Education has a sketch report here and there is a thoughtful post on the article by Mark Harrison here.

Historical analogies are rarely helpful and Harrison, though broadly sympathetic, points out the real differences, especially this one:
The big difference was this: I had no barbed wire. With a few coils around the campus, I could have blocked off the exits. I'd have had to give guns and spotlights to the security staff. If I could have stopped my professors from leaving, I would have been able to do things to them that would lower their welfare, and they would have had to accept it. They would have grumbled, and then conspired against me, and I would have needed a political police within the department to listen, detect, and report it to me. I'd soon put a stop to that. Forced labour would be next. But I had no barbed wire. If they didn't like the pay or conditions on offer, and could do better elsewhere, my colleagues would leave. Other universities that could use their talents more productively would make them a better offer, and I would have to match it or lose them. Without barbed wire, I could not accumulate personal power by treating others badly; I could get my way only through reliance on positive motivations.
Of course some institutions do treat people badly, though not quite on the scale of Stalin. However, as a study of managerialism and bureaucratisation, the paper reflects on the lack of democratic structures inherent in a managerialist approach to running, in this case, universities. A similar piece could be written on many other public and private sector organisations. All operate their own scaled down "Pyramid of Tyranny".

And what Wilkinson and Pickett's study points to is that the inequality inherent in hierarchy is unhealthy and unsuccessful. You can listen to the authors interviewed about it here. They emphasise that inequality results in a decline of trust, reciprocity and community life, or as Kropotkin would have it, mutual aid. I would take this analysis further and suggest that if we are to have a successful and healthy public sector, we not only need to question the distribution of wealth, but also deal with the distribution of power and how it is exercised, especially in our day-to-day working environments.

New Labour placed great store in a form of Fabian managerialism, enthusiastically setting themselves targets as much as they imposed them on others. The discontents registered by Radice point to the dysfunctions of such an approach. Rather than transparency and efficiency, they certainly led to well-documented failures attributed to target chasing, but perhaps there was something more intangible happening as well, the erosion of the sense of common purpose and ethics on which the public sector depends. Those 19th Century Anarchists may just have been on to something.

1 comment:

DorsetDipper said...

Completely agree, and some of my own personal evidence comes, bizarrely enough, from working for a major family owned (and run) multinational corporation.

They had a few targets, but were careful about how they were used. The family spent more time challenging workers to make the company better, and hence both the workers and the family better off. Employees had considerable freedom to exercise judgement. Independent views and ideas were backed and innovation rewarded.

Its been sobering as one raised on the left to see a bungling autocratic labour government fall into the traps avoided so carefully by a capitalist corporation.