The Left vs hierarchy

12:31 pm - November 22nd 2007

by Chris Dillow    

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In a sense, HMRC’s loss of child benefit records highlights the weakness of the Left – it’s failure to challenge the assumption that organizations must be hierarchic.
For years, the Left seems to have believed, to quote Orwell, that Britain is a family with the wrong people in charge. All would be well, it has assumed, if only there were better people with better policies at the top. To listen to some calls for Sir Ian Blair to resign, you’d think that the only problem with the Met is that the wrong arse is in the Commissioner’s chair.
It’s time the Left got more radical. We should ask: is organizational failure a problem of personnel, or is it instead a failure of structure? In particular, why should hierarchical organizations be the only way to deliver state services?
HMRC’s failure perhaps demonstrates the inherent failings of hierarchy.
The problem is that top bosses simply cannot know everything that goes on. As Unity says:

If…all this has come about because HMRC staff have disregarded policy and operated outside specified data security procedures then one can no more hold Alistair Darling personally responsible for the loss of this information than one could reasonably hold the CEO of a private sector corporation to account on discovering that an office junior has been nicking paper-clips.

And it’s not enough to merely have the right procedures in place. The problem is to ensure that employees follow them. And hierarchy can obstruct this, in two ways:
1. Hierarchy demotivates workers. As Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith say:

Through years of experience, employers learn that it is safer to suppress their innate capacity to solve problems and wait instead for commands from above . They lose their initiative and ability to see how things can be improved. They learn not to care.

Isn’t this likely to be true of employee who put the CDs in the post? Because s/he had no say in HMRC, s/he felt alienated from its goals and values, and just didn’t care.
2. Hierarchy reduces the scrutiny of workers. Say you were a colleague of this worker, and knew what s/he was doing. Would you have pointed out that this was a lousy way of handling data? Or wouldn’t you have kept quiet, thinking “I have no say here, this is management’s job, I don’t want to rock the boat, it’s none of my business, I’ve nothing to gain from speaking out, and lots to lose.” Greater worker control is a way of policing workers, should motivation fail.
Now, I’m not arguing here for the demolition of all hierarchy and the institution of worker control. I’m merely saying that it should be part of the Left’s agenda to question whether rigid top-down hierarchy is always as necessary as the Boss Parties think.
This is especially true because hierarchy is inherently reactionary. Why should the Left – especially the liberal Left tolerate an ideology which says that working people cannot function without leadership and control from some self-appointed elite?

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments

We should ask: is organizational failure a problem of personnel, or is it instead a failure of structure?

It’s not always an either/or, indeed it very rarely is. The two usually go hand in hand.

If you take away hierarchy it is replaced with oligarchy. Compare a career in the hierarchical service service where;

1) The hierarchy is visible

2) The criteria for scaling it are explicit and progress is, at least theoretically, acheivable by anyone with the right skills and enough application.

3) The structure can be monitored and if necessary modified to equalise opportunity

with a career in the media, where

1) There is no overt hierarchy, just small groups of influential movers and shakers deciding who works and who doesn’t

2) The power structure is invisible to those outside it and thus harder to scale

3) The criteria for progress are not explicit or objective, progress is dependent not on talent, ability, or hard work, but enitrely on social capital and nepotism.

Which is fairer, and which is more able to deliver an approximation of equality ?

I agree with Mike Power. Yes, the left should get radical with public services beyond the usual demands of no cuts and more funding. But Chris, the only proper alternatives to the current set up is either oligarchy (no thanks) or a democratically run service (workers’ control). Like any complex social organism, authority is required to run it, but there’s no rhyme nor reason why it cannot be democratic.

The idea welfarist public services (unemployment benefits, etc) were potentially disempowering was originally raised by the left in the early 70s, but has since been seized upon by the right to justify its market madness. But we know from experience that cuts, privatisation, and so on only helps capital. The uses to which it has been put requires ideological opposition, and perhaps a return to those 70s writings to put forward a serious and practical socialist alternative today.

the only proper alternatives to the current set up is either oligarchy (no thanks) or a democratically run service (workers’ control).

Not so – there are many examples of what today we call third sector or social enterprise from the 19th and early 20th centuries in the form of friendly societies, coops, etc that were neither.

I think people are thinking two one dimentionally here.

If you have an army fighting a conventional war, then one can argue hierarchy may make sense (simple objective, clear strategy, need for rapid decision making, delegating only the implementation). But if targets are multi dimentional and information is dispersed and not easily digested, then it makes no sense at all.

If you people are right then the internet doesn’t work.

A good article and a point of view we hear to little of, I think.
Getting the details right in building structures which reduce hierarchy and empower the workers and/or the consumers is bound to be tricky though.

Ken Cloke and Joan Goldsmith clearly don’t have much experience of the workplace.

“Through years of experience, employers learn that it is safer to suppress their innate capacity to solve problems and wait instead for commands from above. They lose their initiative and ability to see how things can be improved. They learn not to care.”

Are they saying that workers ‘give up’ thinking critically? Somehow, this feels quite patronizing.

I have worked in a company for two years where the management have consistently tried to undermine my initiative and to prevent me from having more responsibility. I wonder whether the average trade unionist ‘suppresses his or her capacity to solve problems’? The answer is ‘no’ otherwise there would never be any wildcat strikes.

The problem is that the working class is more intelligent than the bourgeois left gives it credit for.

I’m not sure that it’s a simple class issue. Even in management and the professions the easy life is acheived by pacifying your superiors and surpressing your subordinates. One of the disadvantages of hierarchy is that people tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time defending their place in the pecking order, rather than contributing to the organisations “objectives”. And if you are already expending a lot of energy maintaining your place in the hierarchy, then having a critical thinker under you is a drain you can do without. Add in a couple of occasions when your critical thinking is pinched by someone else, or you are ostracised for inadvertently revealing that the job could probably be done in half the time by a quarter of the people and you’ll learn not to care either.

9. AlisdairCameron

Tom Paine, I think to be fair, you slightly misrepresent Cloke and Goldsmith. In essence, they are simply describing the modern workplace:
Job insecurity,pay squeezes (if not cuts), worsening employment terms, the damned cancer of managerialism (systems, systems,systems, never people are what count), being regarded solely as an economic unit, and hence never being allowed out of one’s designated ‘box’ or role, nor being readily able to access training or development, and being directed remotely from on high by the witless, the rapaciously and cruelly mercenary and remote (both geographically and in mindset) all contribute to a collapse in spirit and morale.
Factor in the almost complete disconnect these days days between merit and remuneration, and the psychological effect is one of alienation, compounded even further by the ludicrous unaccountability and hauteur of Government and state institutions.
Workers don’t give up thinking critically. We simply despair at the lack of opportunities to express critical thought, to effect change and to challenge the blinkered dogmatic (and pathetically short-sighted and ineffective) outlook of the managerialists and parasite ‘consultants’. Workers’ rights have been eroded to the stage whereby being an activist is at best hugely frustrating, and at worst draws one into the clutches of either the criminal justice system or abject poverty.
It is this diminution of hope, of ever being able to improve one’s lot (or that of fellow workers), of being able to utilise one’s unappreciated talent and intelligence (your initiative being undermined?), the dehumanisation that holds sway, all in a deliberately and wilfully hostile economic and political system, that grinds workers down and reduces their ability to care about their jobs.

I don’t understand how works towards any ideal can be done without hierarchy. If the problem is that those higher in the hierarchy are not listening to those lower in the hierarchy, than it strikes me that the problem is with those individuals, not the concept of hierarchy itself. There are no real alternatives to hierarchy; There is only learning how to do hierarchy and ecology (ecology: “interactions with whatever the hierarchy is in”) right.

@Lion Kimbro, “the problem is with those individuals, not the concept of hierarchy itself”

I think this leads back to CD’s point. The logical implication of what you’re saying is that we just need to get rid of those individuals. But there will always be some individuals who will be a problem – you’ll never get rid of the risk of problematic individuals by just “improving” the hierarchy. It’s hierarchy that enables problematic individuals to unduly influence the process of management/customer relations/whatever it might be.

A “flat” mutualist structure of some kind would of course come with its own problems (a lot of which I think would boil down to effective strategic direction, especially towards long term, non-obvious goals), but the disproportionate impact of bad management would not be one of them.

12. douglas clark


I watched V for Vendetta last night. Guess who I was cheering?

I read elsewhere that humans can be split into the cotnrolling and the controlled. We need a few more anarchists, possibly. Folk that don’t play by these simple rules.

13. douglas clark

controlling, even.

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