26 October 2010

The Agenda with Steve Paikin: Death of the Liberal Class (Video & Analysis)

Last Friday, I was one of the panel on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The featured guest was Chris Hedges, author of the recently published Death of the Liberal Class. In it, Hedges argues that traditional, liberal institutions - the liberal church, universities, labour unions, the press, and the Democratic Party in the U.S. - have sold out to corporatist/capitalist interests. They are thus no longer able to fulfil what he claims are their proper and useful role in society, namely, to act as a mitigating channel for dissent and dissatisfaction among the populace, providing a means to deflect massive, disruptive, structural changes. There was a featured interview with Hedges, and then the "debate" - the panel on which I participated with Hedges, and two others espousing the political right-wing, more corporatist views, Reihan Salam, and Tony Keller.

I think I did reasonably well, even though the conversation was themed on geo-political policy, economics, hegemonic brinkmanship during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and whose life experience - Salam's or Hedges's - was more apropos to a reading of the hollowing out and decay of contemporary America. None of these are especially my ken, but I managed to hold my own (when I could get a few words in edge-wise).

Some observations: Of most concern, and perhaps most telling, was Salam's neo-liberal approach, validated by his personal success in light of the fact that his parents were immigrants from Bangladesh, and he grew up in a depressed part of Brooklyn. His story is exemplary of the archetypal, if mythical, American Dream Fable, but represents a particular instance of privilege that he does not afford to those whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them by the very deregulations and so-called free-market economy that Salam and his right-wing think tank cronies espouse. Salam's claim that those so dispossessed, whose own "American Dreams" have become a series of waking nightmares, have simply migrated elsewhere to greener pastures is laughable, and certainly defies simple observation. Indeed, his attempt to refute economic statistics by counting the economic benefit of living on food stamps is ludicrous. His challenge to Hedges's case can perhaps best be summed up in his opening statement: "I just could not recognize the reality that I know from my daily life." And that, for most neo-liberal corporatists on the political right-wing, is the problem.

Tony Keller, on the other hand, is not as Ebenezer Scrooge-ish in his analysis as is Salam. In my opinion, Keller's perceptual limitation comes from his inability to understand the principles of complexity. He cannot see a "conspiracy" among all the various factors that, taken together, have "conspired" to disrupt the fabric of civil society (even though Hedges does not use a conspiracy metaphor). To Keller, who seems to espouse an old-style laissez-faire market approach, the interconnectedness among the various forces at work in a capitalist-driven society is invisible. He seemingly cannot understand that independently occurring economic and social factors do not necessarily have to deliberately collude to enable the type of emergent patterns that we are experiencing as a result of the apparent liberal sell-out that Hedges names. Keller's position is that human history has been a story of progress, and that progress is good (with a relatively minor concession made for the fact that not all progress has been unproblematic... oh really?!).

My own position (at the 4 minute point in the video) is simple to state: the constructs that gave us corporatism, capitalism, the liberal class, and modernity itself are now obsolesced, and we need a new framework in which to observe, theorize, understand, and undo the dysfunctions that we have clearly visited upon ourselves, and the wider world. That Salam is willingly blind to such disruption and dysfunction is not only sad, but naive in the extreme. That Keller cannot understand the connectedness that defines the contemporary world (UCaPP, for those who are playing along at home), represents the constraint of Industrial Age, managerial socialization. Arguments from neither of these simplistic contexts are useful; rather, they serve to bolster ignorance - literally, the learned ability to ignore much that is politically, ethically, and morally problematic in our world in favour of that which is instrumental, efficient, and merely economic.

Hedges's argument is useful and even truthy as far as it goes - that there has been a de facto collusion among predominantly economically driven forces, and those that have traditionally provided more progressive mitigation against the selfish, consumptive inclinations of that mythical, and anything-but-rational beast, homo economicus. The solution, in my view, is two-fold. First, we can recognize that, historically speaking, we are in the midst of a massive cultural transition from an epoch largely defined by the Enlightenment that solidified into modernity, to one that is being structured (although that term itself is problematic and must be taken in its broadest sense) by conditions of UCaPP, and has yet to emerge into a stable, homeostatic form. This suggests one particular inevitability: that the Salams and Kellers of the world will inevitably shuck off this mortal coil, and in their places will stand men and women who have been socialized into a more mutually responsible and collectively accountable sensibility. That final understanding, namely, that we are all responsible for and accountable to ourselves, each other, and the world at large - be it natural, built, material, or social - will inevitably dominate intelligent and reasoned discourse.

Second, we can hasten the day of societal institutions transforming to become more in-tune with this contemporary dynamic by adopting a worldview and analytic frame which are themselves more consistent with UCaPP conditions. Although I am an obviously an advocate of Valence Theory (that emerged from my doctoral research) and the ideas I express in No Educator Left Behind, as being quite useful in this regard, similar frameworks that recognize complexity and acknowledge a socially just economics would be equally acceptable and useful, at least to me, and likely to those of the more progressive persuasion as well.

What is not acceptable in a contemporary context is the penchant of the fogey generation - men like Reihan Salam and Tony Keller - to continue to apply 19th and 20th century principles to the analysis of our 21st century reality. And even Chris Hedges is at somewhat of a loss, as he continues to apply a distinctly Industrial Age model as the theme for a possible alternative.

21 October 2010

On "The Agenda with Steve Paikin" on Friday

I'm excited about doing The Agenda with Steve Paikin on Friday, October 22 (20:00 and 23:00 on TVO). The featured guest is Chris Hedges, in Toronto to do a three-week stint at the Monk Centre, and author of the newly published, Death of the Liberal Class.
The liberal class posits itself as the conscience of the nation. It permits us, through its appeal to public virtues and the public good, to define ourselves as a good and noble people. Most importantly, on behalf of the power elite the liberal class serves as bulwarks against radical movements by offering a safety valve for popular frustrations and discontentment by discrediting those who talk of profound structural change.
The Death of the Liberal Class examines the failure of the liberal class to confront the rise of the corporate state and the consequences of a liberalism that has become profoundly bankrupted. Hedges argues there are five pillars of the liberal establishment – the press, liberal religious institutions, labor unions, universities and the Democratic Party— and that each of these institutions, more concerned with status and privilege than justice and progress, sold out the constituents they represented. In doing so, the liberal class has become irrelevant to society at large and ultimately the corporate power elite they once served.
In listening to Hedges talk about his book,  he strikes me as a latter-day Howard Beale, the character played by the late Peter Finch in the movie, Network, who implores us all to cry out, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!" There is almost a neo-Marxist tone to Hedges's analysis, and he stops just inches short of calling for a revolution. But he is no crackpot radical. Chris Hedges is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and draws from history, philosophy, political economy, literature, sociology, and psychology to construct his well-wrought argument.

For the most part, I agree with Hedges's thesis. Where we differ, perhaps, is in the inevitability of his conclusion. I think there is a way out of the mess into which we've allowed ourselves to be seduced. I'm looking forward to the conversation tomorrow evening, and I'll write more on my specific ideas after the broadcast. If you're available to watch, it's Friday, October 22 at 20:00, repeated at 23:00 on TVO. I'll post the link to the video podcast when it's posted early next week.

Update: (26 Oct 2010): The video of the panel debate is now posted, along with my post-game analysis.

18 October 2010

Rethinking Employee Engagement

One of the LinkedIn groups I follow – Organization Development and Training – had an ongoing conversation that addressed the question of whether so-called employee engagement programs are effective. After all, a recent study by one of the name-brand, managerialist consulting companies, McKinsey, found that non-financial incentives like praise, recognition, attention, and the opportunity to take on new leadership responsibilities were only marginally more effective than the good old Taylorist approach of bonus incentive pay.

Given that a survey taken at a time of economic insecurity would find that economic incentives are more engaging than engagement programs is hardly surprising to anyone who looks beyond the restrictions of the assumptive box into which this study has been molded. But the conversation among OD practitioners expanded the question somewhat, and led to an observation from one person that employee engagement tends to be weakest among organizations which have no long-term purpose, but only a short-term vision—call it managerial myopia (nearsightedness).

The immediate response to that observation was a call for creating a balance between our individual passions and purpose, and those of the firm. The idea is that the organization’s interests being inherently superior to those of its members create a disconnection between individual’s (non-economic) motivators and those forms of engagement that turn on her/his intrinsic motivators. The responder observes that, “we are still wedded to the paradigm of the organisation holding the balance of power in a relationship. I think that increasingly that's a choice we make, not a truth.

The idea of organizations holding the balance of power in a relationship being a “choice” is only partially true. Over the past four centuries, that balance of power, and the subjectification of organization’s members to its institutional authority have been the received and accepted model that has shaped not only organizations, but Western society as a whole. It is received knowledge, certainly, but knowledge that has been consistently received and reinforced, predominantly by those who hold the privilege of societal power. What this suggests is that we have yet to fulfil the prerequisites for any hope of sustainable success in truly engaging employees through non-financial, supposed incentives. We first have to “unreceive” the knowledge that an organization’s (predominantly or exclusively economic) interests necessarily take precedence over the collective values of all its constituencies. In other words, we need to acquire both a new way of thinking about organizations, and a new vocabulary and discourse that supports that thinking, to effect the changes necessary to shift the last 400 years of “that's always been the way things are.”

To balance passion and purpose, I have proposed the idea of tactility to replace vision as the guiding sensory metaphor. The issue is not where we see ourselves in the future (which never arrives, of course), but rather whom are we touching, and how are we touching them, today? Are we touching – that is, creating the effects – in ways that we intend, and what subsequent effects (secondary, tertiary, and so forth) are being set in motion?

Those effects can be articulated as valence relationships—those connections that bind us and enable us to react and interact with each other, and with other organizations, communities and environments. It is through the effects we create by way of Economic, Socio-Psychological, Knowledge, Identity, and Ecological relationships that our passions and purposes become connected and viscerally expressed. When we balance the totality of effects among an organization’s various constituencies, employees (among other members) cannot help but become more engaged, or conversely realize that they and the organization are irreconcilably incompatible. The result? Organizations and their members are more engaged and aligned with each other, with their communities, and with their passions and purposes.

14 October 2010

Changing Education Paradigms

From the remarkably good RSA Animate, the latest animation from Sir Ken Robinson, on Changing Education Paradigms.

I like how he traces the false epidemic of ADHD among children, and how he connects the necessary engagement with the aesthetic to promote creativity and divergent thinking with the ANaesthetic effect of drugs like Ritalin that essentially turn off minds, disconnect engagement, and create compliant factory machine components.

What I like most is how everything that Sir Ken says, and how he constructs his argument, exactly parallels and complements my own ideas on No Educator Left Behind. It's not the ego-stroking validation that pleases me, but rather the realization that there are credible people elsewhere in the world who understand, as I do, that the modernist education project is fundamentally wrong for our time, and that doing more of the wrong thing will not bring about the requisite changes to sustain an already transformed present, and inevitably transformational future. Not only our current education system, but also our current fundamental model of what education is and should be - the education paradigm - are wrong for our time: we are spending incredible amounts of time, money, and effort to create great citizens for the 19th century who become completely disengaged and increasingly unable to survive in the 21st.

Standardization and testing won't do it. Fancy tech in the classrooms (alone) won't do it. Rethinking the fundamental tenets of education, as I discuss in No Educator, is the place to start - we simply have to get back to the basics.

12 October 2010

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time?

A perfect example of a completely misguided marketing message: the Charmin bear enjoying the softness and absorbency of the bathroom tissue, posed in front of a destroyed lake. The takeaway? "Use Charmin. Destroy ecosystems."

Marketing is about messages which, as Marshall McLuhan told us, are entirely effects. Looks like someone in this agency's creative department will be scrubbing toilets for some time to come...