Centralizing vs Network Politics II: All Part of the Plan, Research Time, 09/09/2014

In most workplaces today, the boss tells you what to do. He sits at the centre and his orders reverberate around the periphery. Quite a lot of businesses work well with this model. But they have one important flaw: the boss isn’t perfect, and he’s just one man (and it is still far too often a man).

I don’t have much of a background in business education or theory, and I’m not sure that my readers do either. The problem with being a philosophical writer, which doesn’t occur with my professional and creative writing, is that no one person can know absolutely everything. I’m not totally sure if it was anything other than mythmaking that convinced us that the storehouse of human knowledge was ever so small that a single man could master it. I’ve heard such things said about Aristotle and Gottfried Leibniz, but it all sounds like worshipful hyperbole to me.

So without a strong background in the theory of business, I’m not all that sure whether anyone in that field has theorized much about the problems that can come when a single person has total control over a massively complex corporate empire. But it seems obvious that a single person can’t literally run an entire corporate conglomerate, no matter how Colin Ward’s analysis of the centre-periphery concept of organization contrasts it with the network concept.

Rupert Murdoch, billionaire tyrant. Wait, I think I got this
picture wrong again. Or did I?
We may regard Rupert Murdoch, for example, as an evil mastermind. But if he were actually to start micro-managing every aspect of his businesses, it would be a disaster. Once a body becomes large and complicated enough it will naturally become more of a network. This is something that emerges* from studies of complex systems and the mathematics that describe them.

* What a pun that is.

Manuel DeLanda first exposed me to these ideas in his books, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, A New Philosophy of Society, and Philosophy and Simulation. All of these books are wonderfully illuminating, though Simulation is a little disunified and Intensive Science is pretty dense. An extra advantage is that none of them really top 300 pages, so it’s not like they’re all that long.

The Western conception of rationality, in the tradition, failed to understand this concept of the network, I think because the Enlightenment thinkers of the 1700s in Europe understood reason along the lines of self-conscious attention, perception, and thought. In other words, planning. That makes centre-periphery models of rational order quite appealing: the planner is in the centre, and all the pieces radiating away from it carry out his orders.

But this is totally inadequate to the way that ecological systems, and physical systems generally, organize themselves. The world looks messy because it creates a networked order from the interaction of all the bodies that constitute it. The reason it looks messy to us is because we’re linear thinkers who intuitively believe that the only true form of order is self-conscious planning.

Legendary architect Le Corbusier. Don't you
think he looks like Rupert Murdoch?
Self-conscious planning in a complex system is, however, disastrous. The discipline of city planning is best known for its unmitigated disasters. The centrepiece architect of the era of rational city planning, Le Corbusier, is perhaps best known for his urban catastrophe, when he designed from scratch the entire Indian city of Chandigarh. Its wide streets were built for cars, but offer no shade to pedestrians who use public transport. Its open spaces in the heat of India are utterly inhospitable to inhabitants. The city perfectly executed a concept, but is unable to support a thriving life.

While communities of people who may be disenfranchised by the rational plans of urban architects can organize their opposition, these groups are also just as frequently vilified by the state authorities who make those plans and profit from them. Those profits can come directly from corrupt practices, or in our legitimate sense through property taxes. Ward is also insightful in pointing out that state authorities have no interest to protect the poor through urban planning because the poor pay so few property taxes.

Ward was an early endorser of favela culture, how the self-built shanty communities, while not always being the most aesthetically pleasing in the traditional sense, emancipated the poor from enslavement to rents. It’s the only way that a poor person is ever going to own his own house without a sub-prime mortgage: occupying unclaimed land and building his own place.

Most state authorities, and any kind of authority, are always going to be opposed to that kind of activity. They’re central authorities, and poor people live on the periphery of every society. Good, rational planning just means that the peripheral people follow the orders of those in the centre. But the world doesn’t follow plans. It finds its own orders through the networks its own activities create.

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