Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented transition globally. This change is historic, cutting across all segments of society, and is not happening in a predictable way. Two examples from the past year illustrate this historic moment in time.
Independence referendums in Scotland and Catalunya, as well as movements in Wales and Northern Italy, show that there is strong sentiment for separation from the countries where they currently belong. As the picture above from the demonstrations in Glasgow leading up to the Scottish referendum vote says, "You are better than you think you are."
In Greece, a national referendum showed that the people of the nation desired a non-austerity solution to their nation's financial crisis. Yet, the country's financial crisis demonstrated that the nation of Greece was no longer in control of its own welfare. It had lost it to the Troika of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank as they sought to impose austerity measures upon the nation.
While the reach of governing institutions, whether national governments or global supra-national ones, has grown over the past two hundred years, another global phenomenon is emerging represented by the capacity of individuals to create small, focused entrepreneurial organizations and movements to affect change on a global scale.
We now find that there are two forces for change functioning within this 21st. century global context.
One is the force of global integration of business and government.
The other force is of personal initiative operating within the context of networks of relationships.
It is at the point of interaction between these two forces that this historic moment of transition is taking place.
The Force of Integration
This first force seeks to integrate all functions of society into one seamless efficient system of governance by global institutions.
The people and institutions at the center of the preeminent expression of this global force believe that it is through the integration of economics and governance that a peaceful and prosperous world can be achieved. These international institutions emerged after the First World War to manage how the nation-states of the world interact to create peace and prosperity.
Emerging the past half century are similar movements like ISIS that want to want to integrate global governance through the eradication of people and nations who do not follow their strict line of belief.
These two very different versions of globalism share a belief in integration, but through different means.
This drive for integration is the logical unfolding of the modern hierarchical organization. Whether in business or government, integration enhances efficiency and the control of variables that affect the functioning of large complex institutions. Remove the inefficiencies and you achieve success. Unfortunately, human beings tend to represent the greatest form of variation in these large organizations.
The theme of integration has emerged in popular young adult novels and films like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The Giver. In each of these narratives, a governing authority seeks to or has accomplished the integration of society by controlling how each person functions within that world. In these stories, characters of a particular independence of character and diversity of talent foster a crisis of change for the governing systems of society through their own personal leadership initiative to bring people together to resist the forces of integration.
The Force of Personal Initiative
The second force is reflected in the native desire of people to live lives and do work that matters. These acts of human initiative operate within the context of relationships of trust and mutuality, and are facilitated by the growth of computing and communication technology.
Many of these acts of personal initiative are done without recognition. The gift of a meal to a hungry person. The mentoring that takes place in scouting, sports and in youth club programs. The volunteering that takes place in local communities through religious congregations and community non-profits. Entrepreneurial programs to train and develop the leadership of new businesses. Event planners who bring people together to support local programs. The meetings over coffee where community understanding and healing begin to take place where conflict has existed. In each situation, the beginning of the effort starts with a person taking initiative, and then, grows through the networks of relationships that emerge at both the local and global level.
We can see this force of personal initiative in the central characters of the stories mentioned above. Their motivation to act comes from a source of inner values that move them out of the crowd into a place of influence.
Katnis in The Hunger Games steps forward to compete in the games instead of her sister.
Tris in Divergent is motivated by an inner sense of justice about the importance of family.
Thomas in The Maze Runner discovers within himself a calling to serve the members of The Glade by leading them through the maze to a safer place.
In The Giver, Jonas discovers within himself an emotional depth that is expressed in his love for Fiona, his desire to save the infant Gabriel, and, ultimately to take action to cross the boundary that will release memories both painful and joyful back into society.
These two forces are not necessarily incompatible. However, the challenge is how the legacy institutions of global hierarchy can adapt to growing importance of networks as the structure for human work and community.
The particular context of this great transition are the structures of society, government, business, communities, and the non-government organizations that serve people.
The Context of Organizational Structures
It is important to understand how organizational structures function in society.
Organizational structure has no voice, but it has force.
It is invisible because its presence is so comprehensive.
The force within every organizational structure is to resist change. It seeks regularity, consistency and efficiency.
Real change cannot happen without change to the structures of society and organizations.
How many carriage makers went out of business a century ago because they could not change from making horse drawn buggies to automobiles?
How many small businesses and religious congregations closed their doors because they could not adapt to changes in their neighborhood or the technology of their business?
How many communities now languish because they could not adapt to changes taking place in the larger society?
In ancient times, kings would build a wall around their city to guard against the invading forces of change. Today, physical walls don't work. They have been replaced with political, legal and economic walls. The fortress walls of today are under threat, and are just as susceptible to collapse as those ancient ones.
Today, the structure of integration seeks to create an orderly and efficient system of governance throughout global society.
The institutional force of integration is hierarchical, operated by an elite circle of global leaders, who hold authority over the whole system.
In business, when one company totally dominates the marketplace, so that all their competitors are in effect dependent upon them, we call this a monopoly.
In politics, if a small group of people hold dominant control over the governance of a city or a nation, we may call that an oligarchy or a dictatorship. The history of nations and empires is filled with examples of these kinds of hierarchies. We can also see that they are unsustainable.
The mandate of hierarchical structures is to bring control to all facets of business or society. In a global context, this governing hierarchy trumps democratic choice. This is the one lesson of the Greek crisis.
The question that interests me here is whether this trend can last.
Has the power of personal computing and communication technology, as it has expanded globally over the past 25 years, now made it possible for many things to be done without the requirement of an hierarchical authority?
I do not believe that the future is either utopian nor dystopian. I do see that global networks of human relationships are structured very differently. Its power to adapt and to extend its reach quickly without prior expectation is remarkable.
At the heart of the network is the individual who initiates and acts to create opportunities within relationships of trust and mutuality.
Hierarchies are not built on trust, but rather on the integrity of the system.
Networks, on the other hand, only function well when there is trust at the center of the relationships.
Both systems are inherently fragile and susceptible to change from outside forces.
I have thought a long time about the difference between these two structures. Increasingly, I am convinced that hierarchy is a structure that functioned well in an earlier era, but no longer.
"The dominant characteristic of Fordism was repetition and stability. Post-Fordism, to the contrary, brings out instability and adaptability, all qualities instilled by advanced capitalism."
In effect, the direction that we are moving globally is from a world of regularity and predictability to one where there are no givens. Some of the skills required for this new world are ones of adaptability, collaboration and personal accountability.
With this disintegration of traditional hierarchical institutional structures comes opportunities that are present directly in front of us each day. As a result, networks of relationships provide a structure that more easily provides a globally dispersed people the capacity to work in concert towards shared goals.
Five Questions for Understanding
My search for understanding about these two global forces has been driven by the following questions.
How did we get to this point of significant transition in how we live and work?
What is the long term impact of the growth of networks? What is the future of global hierarchical systems of economics and governance? Can they adapt by adopting the relational structures and values of networks of relationships?
Who is most significantly benefited by this interplay between the forces of integration and the network?
Where is this leading? What changes are coming that we can barely imagine right now? What opportunities will come with these changes?
What obstacles make it more difficult for networks of relationships to reach their potential impact? What must each of us as individuals do to alleviate those problems?
We are on the verge of seeing a great calamity as the structure of supra-national institutions diminish in credibility and effectiveness. The dependence that national governments have placed on these supra-national institutions to managed progress towards global peace and prosperity will become more difficult.
In effect, these global institutions are painting themselves into a corner from which there is no easy exit. This is what I see in the Greek crisis.
The conflict between the forces of global integration and the power of personal initiative expressed through networks of relationships is the context of this growing crisis.
It does not have to be, however.
All we must do as leaders and global citizens is to begin to take personal responsibility for the world at our finger tips, by acting to make a difference that matters, by building networks of relationships that facilitate greater capacity for organizations and communities to adapt to a changing world.
I return to the quote of Ai Weiwei that began this post as a fitting place to end.
Your own acts tell the world who you are and what kind of society you think it should be.
May each of your actions build strength in your own circle of impact.