A Culture of Alternatives

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Some times transitions can be smooth, sometimes difficult. As a global economic community, we are in a difficult transition from the modern industrial age to what will follow. 

Modern organizations share a common assumption. This is true if you are General Motors or the old Soviet Union. Efficiency is the route to an economy of scale and scope.

The problem with efficiency is not what it gives us, the ability to do more with fewer resources. The problem is what it takes from us.

Robust, sustainable cultures are those that have many competing alternatives.

I'm not here writing to advocate for the free market as many conservatives and business people do.  The free market is an ideal, while inviting, it cannot exist while there are powerful institutional structures that can dictate the terms of the market. This is where we are now with the relationship that exists between Washington and Wall Street.

I'm also not here to simply denigrate governments as the overseer of efficiency on a global scale. Governments are important institutions for providing a basis for alternatives to grow and develop.

We are at a transition point because with the elevation of efficiency to its preeminent role, control over the economic and organizational systems of society must also grow.

Over the course of my lifetime, close to 60 years, I've seen the control of society grow to the point where virtually everyone of us is breaking some rule of efficiency every day.

I have been persuaded by Joseph Tainter's thesis that societies collapse when the diversity of alternatives diminish and a one-size fits all culture develops. This is the course our society has been moving along for the past 50 years.

I'm not making a political statement to say the course that the Soviet Union took should be instructive for us today. In many respects, their economy failed because they lacked alternatives. Central planning did not create a robust, sustainable society. It created one of fear, not just fear of impoverishment, but fear of those who control the institutions of society.

The United States is not the Soviet Union. Our histories and founding values are different.

What we do share is a belief in large, supra-national, global institutions guiding the course of society by persons selected by some criteria of elite status.

Whether that control is by law, or political coercion or moral condemnation, the effect is to create a culture of efficiency by removing alternatives that may fail, inconvenience some person or be financially costly.

Our society is no longer robust and sustainable because we are quickly squeezing alternative ways of doing things out of our economic system. As it has done so, it has also squeezed out the benefits of efficiency.

Is there an alternative course?

If Tainter is correct, then we are headed towards an economic collapse. If so, then alternative ways of sustaining society must be developed in parallel with our current system.

I see this, for example, in the rise of local buying initiatives. When farmers are connected personally to those who buy their produce, the relational conditions for an alternative economic culture grow. I hear more and more about bartering between people who have services to provide. And possibly, most importantly, I see it in local efforts to develop cultures of entrepreneurism that create both for-profit and non-profit organizations that provide alternative ways for local economies to function.

The Conditions for a Culture of Alternatives

For an alternative culture to develop three things are needed.

First, individual initiative.

This is what I saw a decade ago as the starting point for all leadership. Individual initiative focused upon creating impact. This initiative is about how people take personal responsibility for their lives and of their families and communities.

Second, community collaboration. 

Consulting with a wide spectrum of organizations over the years I see how institutions force collaboration upon people. It is often seen as a way the old institutional barriers are being brought down. Collaboration can certainly do that, but it must come from the collaborators themselves.

Third, open culture of ideas.

All alternative approaches begin as an idea that needs to be tried. Openness to new ideas, and a willingness to test and fail with those ideas is essential in creating a culture of alternatives.

The End of an Era and The Beginning of a New One

For the past 18 months, I've been writing about the end of an era of industrial capitalism and utopian progressivism. Each was born out of the Enlightenment hope for a better world. Each was a product of, or, reaction to the industrial culture that elevated efficiency as a core societal value.

That efficiency demanded institution control by those who were designated the leaders of the system. It worked as long as the means of production was limited to the industrial plant; as long as advanced education was limited to the few who could afford it; and, as long as the means of communication consisted of the distribution of the information that leaders wanted people to know.

Today, all that has changed. In many ways, the opportunities that we have today are like a return to a pre-industrial era, or as some would call it a pre-modern time. In the past, cultures of alternatives always existed. Today, they are found where people recognized that they must develop new ways of living and working to provide for their families and community. Then, it was understood as the culture of the frontier, today, as sustainable, local cultures. 

The frontier that confronts us now is a world of failing institutions. If we take the perspective of alternatives as a guide, then we'll see that all approaches have a life span. They begin, grow to maturity, and then devolve to extinction of irrelevance. We are in that third stage with the institutions of the modern age.

What will the next stage look like at maturity? It is anyone's guess. I am fairly certain, however, that we will see greater individual initiative, more collaboration and a renaissance of ideas. This is what a Culture of Alternatives will look like.


Devolution of the Industrial Age

If the industrial age is over, then how is this impacting government and politics?

An interesting Wall Street Journal article, Divided We Stand by Paul Starobin, addresses the phenomenon of devolution of national and state entities.

Picture an America that is run not, as now, by a top-heavy Washington autocracy but, in freewheeling style, by an assemblage of largely autonomous regional republics reflecting the eclectic economic and cultural character of the society.

There might be an austere Republic of New England, with a natural strength in higher education and technology; a Caribbean-flavored city-state Republic of Greater Miami, with an anchor in the Latin American economy; and maybe even a Republic of Las Vegas with unfettered license to pursue its ambitions as a global gambling, entertainment and conventioneer destination. California? America’s broke, ill-governed and way-too-big nation-like state might be saved, truly saved, not by an emergency federal bailout, but by a merciful carve-up into a trio of republics that would rely on their own ingenuity in making their connections to the wider world. And while we’re at it, let’s make this project bi-national—economic logic suggests a natural multilingual combination between Greater San Diego and Mexico’s Northern Baja, and, to the Pacific north, between Seattle and Vancouver in a megaregion already dubbed “Cascadia” by economic cartographers.

Gives one pause to consider a Disunited States of America. Before we cast the thought off as silly or impractical, consider the follow trends that are taking place in other arenas.

  • The rise of social media, Facebook and Twitter, as new virtual communities that unite people around common interests and commitments.
  • The globalization of business so that national boundaries are less a consideration for how business is conducted and the culture and work-ethic of the people is.
  • The growth of entrepreneurial businesses in the under-developed world through the many agencies like the Jacqueline Novogratz's Acumen Fund and Muhammad Yunus' Grameen Bank.

What we see is a shift away from large, impersonal institutions to small networks of people who work together for a common goal. In many respects this is a throw back to an early time. Starobin makes this point.

Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.

While I don't see state political boundaries changing, I do those boundaries having less significance in the future. It is what I mean when I see local communities gaining strength because state and federal governments are unable to provide what they claim.

From this perspective, I'd say that the Barack Obama phenomenon is a transitory one, much like the post-Brezhev era in the Soviet Union. There was a belief by smart, forward thinking people that they could make the system work. As we see in the 1980's Soviet system, we may be seeing the beginning of the same decline in our own federal system.The nation's real counterbalance is the local entrepreneur, small business.

My hope is the same as Starobin's.

The most hopeful prospect for the USA, should the decentralization impulse prove irresistible, is for Americans to draw on their natural inventiveness and democratic tradition by patenting a formula for getting the job done in a gradual and cooperative way. In so doing, geopolitical history, and perhaps even a path for others, might be made, for the problem of bigness vexes political leviathans everywhere.

However, if this to happen, we need to see a people who join together at the local level to address local needs, and not merely protest. Advocacy highlights the need, but it is entrepreneurial action which creates the change and builds the strength that we will need.