Saturday, October 01, 2011

Beneficent, Benign Establishments

First, apologies for my long blogging hiatus. I made a number of significant decisions and changes in my writing business, then wrote two short stories, a political essay, and co-authored a (free) short book on what's going on in the publishing industry, then had to finish the new novel, The Detachment… all of which kept me from posting here as often as I'd like. I'll try to be more regular now, and to that end, I think I'll post more shorter pieces, in addition to the longer essays to which I seem naturally to gravitate. This post will be one of those shorter ones.

Last week, I gave a talk at my alma mater, Cornell Law. Before the talk got started, I was chatting with a few people, including a retired judge who likes my books and who asked me why I take such a dim view of establishments (he described himself as an establishmentarian). We didn't have time to talk about it much, so I thought I'd use the question, which is an interesting one, as the basis for this post.

For me, it comes down to this: who does the establishment serve?

If you're a member of the establishment (which I think is better understood as an oligarchy), naturally you'll believe it primarily serves society. But I believe establishments are like bureaucracies, and therefore subject to Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which suggests: any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

In fact, there is even a related concept, known at the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

There might have been some period in the golden past when the American establishment primarily served the interests of the wider society (I doubt this, but am willing to concede for the sake of argument). Regardless, over time, the establishment has inevitably come primarily to serve its own interests, probably through the psychological mechanism of equating society's interests with its own. L'etat, c'est moi.

It's all about human nature. Having achieved, or having been handed, a position of power, profit, and privilege in society, people will naturally seek to preserve that position, even at the expense of society's other members. To argue otherwise requires a view of human nature for which I see scant evidence. And in the behavior of politicians, bankers, corporate media organs, corporations -- and particularly up close and personal in the business practices and articulated worldview of members of the New York publishing establishment -- I see overwhelming evidence in support of my less sanguine view.

I therefore look at Amerca's oligarchy -- yes, more politely and generously known in some quarters as America's establishment -- as primarily parasitical, not as primarily beneficial. And naturally, I try to reflect this view in my books.

P.S. One other thing that's been keeping me from blogging here is that I've been guest blogging elsewhere. Here's a new piece I did with novelist J.A. Konrath on his blog, debunking some foolish and pernicious thinking about self-publishing from a reasonably well known literary agent.


LnBen said...

When I was much younger, I attended a Catholic High School. For my Junior Composition I was to write about the early church. I stated that, after Jesus left the apostles were out of a they invented the Catholic Church. They made up rules and kept the power of properly speaking to God to themselves. I was promptly asked to leave the school! I look upon that as one of the proudest moments of my life and my first confrontation with the 'establishment'. No one speaks for me but me! Good intentions degrade as the responsibility of follow-through goes to fewer and fewer individuals.
We all know the death penalty is wrong but it is not up to the majority. It's removal is now up to a select 12. Once you have relinquished your power to change the status quo, you have lost the battle completely. Never back down.

Jon Olson said...

I love this post. It serves the organization (or the content) itself, not the bureaucracy around it. That is, it's not about PUBLISHING. This same theme is hinted at in INSIDE OUT, which I liked, but thought it could've hit harder on this subject, although maybe it would've bogged it down. Anyway, a really really nice post.

Jon O.
The Petoskey Stone
The Ride Home


This reminded me of my stint as an ESL program administrator at a university. I loved and still love teaching and brought my pro-student orientation to the job. IMNSHO I did a good job but was less than beloved by the powers that were. I only stayed to get free tuition for 3 children. The quotation about establishments really resonated with me.

Hunter F. Goss said...

Thanks for a great post. Now I have a better label for what I’ve always called ‘ossification’. I have personal experience with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy/Oligarchy. What makes the phenomenon so tragic in many cases is what the Wikipedia article you cite referred to as “the passivity of the led individuals more often than not taking the form of actual gratitude towards the leaders.” People remain silent because they just can’t bring themselves to ‘rock the boat’.

Anyone who takes a leadership role in an organization (as I did once upon a time) and actually wants to do something to accomplish that organization’s stated goals should realize they’ll be in for a rough ride. The result is usually ostracization, and like the poster above, I consider it a badge of distinction.

Carmen said...

LnBen, it would have helped had you properly participated in the learning portion of your Catholic education before criticizing the foundations of the institution educating you. No properly-educated Catholic believes only the clergy has the ability or responsibility to "properly speak to God." If you were to ever actually read the anthology collected and in the latter portion composed by the Catholic Church -- the Bible -- you would see the Apostles telling us to pray for each other. If that's not speaking to God, I don't know what is. I find it interesting that a 2,000 year old institution teaches the same things now as it did in its inception despite the natural human habit of gravitating toward power-grabbing. When you go straight to the sources, the written words, you will find yourself empowered to follow directions with a spirit of love and charity, thereby maintaining, by the grace of God, your impossible end of the eternal bargain made by Jesus Christ.

Religious ponderings aside, I very much appreciate this post and wonder if you, Mr. Eisler, are a supporter of Ron Paul's candidacy.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks for the thoughts, everyone. Carmen, of the current possibilities, yes, I'd vote for Paul, though with plenty of reservations.

Mark said...

Barry, I'm very glad to see John Rain back in action, congrats on the new book! Any chance of movie adaptations stateside? Also, while I don't agree with everything at #OccupyWallStreet, I certainly support their constitutional right to assemble and protest, and I support what seems to be the core message. Some of your writing here and elsewhere suggests you might be interested in this: more here

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks again, everyone. Mark, thanks for the great information about Occupy Writers... why didn't I think of that one myself? Just signed up and I hope many others will do the same.

T. B. Back said...

It is a global phenomenon, so human nature is the likely culprit.

Rule #1 is Never back down. Some you win. Most you lose.

After which Rule #2 goes into effect: Regroup, amass another 4 lbs of forms and certificates, attach a complicated complaint and park your sunny self one level up the hierarchy. Make sure to waste everybody's time. Repeat until you get what you're entitled to, or reach the Director, or want to kill yourself.

4 countries and counting, it never changes.

I find the rare wins to be badges of dubious honor because it means I've adjusted to new customs and have acquired the local tools of evil.

The big Health Insurance Company just did a 180 to accomodate me. Here's how: In the US, it's all about the execution: Write impeccable legalese; line up the supporting stats; strongly hint at, but never actually use the magic words "discrimination" and "sue"; and finally, provide the enemy with a face-saver by blaming the Mumbai call-center for not getting things right in the first place.

The scary part is not that power corrupts, but that fighting power corrupts absolutely.

JR said...

In response to your remarks about the "Iron Law of Oligarchy" should anyone who actively seeks political office be automatically barred from holding such office?

Jonathan Greene said...

I'm a lowly graduate student now pursuing an MBA (nearly done now, thank God). As such, I have two or three pennies to rub together for warmth, but not much more. I've recently been taking inventory of my moral and political stance and have decided that I would gladly sacrifice two or three percent of my net worth or pay two or three percent extra sales tax if everyone in our nation could have comprehensive health care in exchange. I wonder, as I launch out into business and hopefully make staggering amounts of cash, if I will become increasingly less willing to make that sacrifice for the common good. I'd like to think not, but alas, there seem to be so few who have ascended that hill unchanged.