Thursday, June 9, 2011

America: A psychic prison?

Recently I took a module in Organizational theory & Design, a subject that while it's more interesting than it sounds, isn't very useful in practice. Basically what we did was to learn about different images that could be used for analyzing and illustrating different kinds of organizations and organizational structures. For example, a "Machine" organization was an organization in which every worker had a specific function and strict guidelines to follow, and work was very repetitive, with all power and "thinking" done by the top managers. An "organism" organization on the other hand "evolves" with the environment and changes itself according to its environment in order to survive.

What, then, is a psychic prison and does America constitute a psychic prison? First of all, let me assure you it is not as dramatic as it sounds. The "psychic prison" metaphor simply states that members of an organization can be "imprisoned" in their roles and by commonly held perceptions about the organization. For example, an organization which perceives itself to be "excellent" can have a hard time adapting - "we're already excellent, why would we change?". No-one will dare to come up with any ideas for how the organization can improve, because the perception is that it is already excellent.

The organization easily takes on a life of its own, and the unconscious beliefs about the organization confines the members of it. If the organization is seen as inherently excellent, then no-one will want to change it. If it's inherently the most intelligent organisation in the industry, then how dare you suggest spending money on educating employees?
The metaphor is a bit broader and more complicated than that, but that's the part of it that we will focus on for now.

Now let's get back to America and how it constitutes a psychic prison: In this case, what I am talking about is "liberty" being the "prison" that confines American thinking. America, being designated by God to be the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, can never become anything else it seems. Despite deficits rising and foreign holdings of American bonds increasing, despite the TSA and the bailouts and the stimulus.

Some people warn that America is "turning into Europe". Turning into Europe? No, you're not. The European countries are drifting to the right as of now, spending far less on stimulus than America (my own country Sweden spent peanuts and also allowed the auto industry to fail). In Europe, we are busy cutting our deficits, taxes and public sector wages. I'd say this is because Europe is a more "organic" part of the world; we can see when a system isn't working anymore, when the environment has changed and we need to change. We haven't attached as many "labels" to ourselves, so we can be more flexible.

Of course this is a great generalization, and Europe has it's troubles too - a lot of them, as I have written about before. Yet, the fact that every attempt to describe America as anything else than the freest country on earth (you are not; Switzerland would be a good candidate) is shrugged off as libertarian nonsense. Everyone's been told since school that America is the land of the free, it's just as certain as the law of gravity is. Except the law of gravity can be proven scientifically.

It's kind of like a CEO watching his company's stock price collapse and its market share taken over by competitors while insisting that everything is fine and that the company is excellent, never specifying why or how.

This is not how the founders intended it. They were very clear that freedom was something not to be won once by them there at the time, but that it had to be earned by every generation, or else it will slowly slip away. What they intended was for America to be a "brain" (another metaphor). That is to say, a learning "organisation" which can remember things and find new ways around problems, and also heal itself if it is hurt (the brain has an amazing ability to find ways to repair itself and keep going even if some areas are injured). Most of all, they wanted America to be "self-managing". For an organization, this means that there are no managers or at least that power isn't concentrated to a few individuals, but the resources and power is spread out over the organisation, and workers self-organize. Kind of like the brain - every part co-operates with the other parts, but there is no real "centre" to talk about, no part of the brain that controls all the others.

I think the reason why Americans accept the obvious abuses the federal government is committing is because they are told they are free, so what is there to complain about? Yeah, so you get strip-searched at the airport, health insurance is about to be mandatory and you're 14.3 trillion in debt (and counting), but you don't dare to question whether you are free or how these things impact on your freedom, because you are afraid that that would shatter an important part of your worldview; that you are living in the freest country on earth.

If Americans recognize that "free" isn't something that you are inherently but something you constantly have to fight to be. Just like a company cannot be "excellent" without constantly finding out new ways to stay on top and continue be excellent.

We often discuss matters in terms of money, and as a future economist I love that in general. Still, money has no value if you're not free. Like the Bible says (paraphrasing); what good is it if you win the world but lose your soul? An integral part of America's soul is freedom, but that doesn't mean it can be taken for granted. Some things may be good economically, or good from any other approach, but still infringe on the freedom of the regular American citizen.

The stimulus debate is the most notable example. Everyone talks about whether or not the stimulus will shorten the recession and whether the cost is reasonable, but the more obvious disadvantage of the stimulus is that it makes Americans less free as it increases government power and gives the government the role of a saviour, rescuing Americans from the consequences of their actions. That is just not the role of the government, whatever the economic consequences are.

The ideal thing would be for the main issue in the following election campaign to be freedom, not the economy, health care or anything else. That's not possible you may think, and of course such a shift may be hard to accomplish in a single election. But let's remember that baby steps count. So maybe we can start by asking people "Are you more free today than you were four years ago?". It's a catchy slogan that just might make them think about the issue.

America right now is locked inside a psychic prison made by the perception that freedom can be taken for granted. This limits discussion and encourages self-censorship, like all psychic prisons do. It's time to break the chains, smash the bars and get real about where America is and where it is headed.

We cannot afford to do more time.

John G

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I understand your end result and your opinion about America. But I think you wrapped your ideas and opinions around apples and oranges.
You could have easily gave your opinion and wrapped your ideas around another entirely different concept. Im not buying the psychic prisons but i do agree with your main premise.

Reaganesque

John said...

Organizational theory is a complicated topic, I just wanted to try use it for something - I do try to apply what I learn at university to the real world.

However, I stand by that the "psychic prison" metaphor is as good as any when it comes to describing American politics.

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