Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: August, 2016

Snow’s world (2)

Snow’s world, the world of elites discussed last week, is based on the educational system. Elite secondary schools and the universities feed into it. They create the unity of outlook and the camaraderie that will sustain its members for a lifetime. But national systems of education differ: the German Gymnasium is not the French lycée, which is not the English “public school”. That, it seems to me, is why Snow’s World has always appeared in fairly distinct national varieties. England was one (Snow described it in his novels and essays), France was another, Germany, and the Soviet Union, were different again.

In recent years this has started to change. The élites are becoming more homogeneous, along with their educational systems. The urge to look beyond one’s borders and compare one’s situation with other élites is proving irresistible. The world of élites is now more and more an international world, rather than a locally rooted one, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out. In previous generations, national élites could live in splendid isolation from one another. Today, young members are encouraged to go abroad and study or get work experience. However, eventually they come home and take up the place that has been prepared for them, for that is where they belong. Only outsiders stay away for good. So the trend to international homogenization still has its limits.

On the other hand, these élites are also the place of what Snow called “the new men”, the modern managers, flexible, pragmatic and often ideologically neutral. To use Charles Handy’s terms, they tend to be Apollonian (dedicated organization men) or Athenian (members of élite teams, trading on their professional reputation with their “peers”). There is less and less room for the old-style Zeus (the paternal, intuitive “boss”) and for Dionysus (the individualist who wants to run his own show).

Whether it is caused by the trend to international comparison or the prevalence of management models, this increasing homogeneity of élites brings the risk of mediocrity, which seems inherent in bureaucracies but indeed all organizations. It’s good if everyone in the organizational leadership understands each other and subscribes to the same set of values and beliefs – it makes the place a lot easier to run – but a lack of mavericks and wilful eccentrics leads to a herd mentality and a loss of ability to innovate or even appreciate new situations for what they are.

This is where diversity comes in – a fashionable word, to be sure. Diversity means élites recruiting members from outside their own ranks, or at least entering into significant working relationships with such people. This is not just a nice thing to do for the sake of some supposed political correctness. It is the real answer to the problem of mediocrity in the élite ranks.

Snow’s world

For somewhat less than a century now, Western societies have been run from what I like to call “Snow’s world”. This is the world described by C.P. Snow in his novels and essays. It is a world of élites. It spans government, industry, academia and the professions.

It is the world of the “new men”, the managers, although it is apparent that it has grown out of tradition, and that the ghosts of former élites haunt it.  It is thoroughly modern, and of the modern world, although it continues the idea of an élite from earlier forms of society: the aristocratic and the bourgeois. The educational system, especially the élite secondary schools and the universities, have the job of keeping it fed with new recruits.

Snow experienced the system in England. There the old snobbery about the gentlemanly amateur was alive and well, even in the industrial age with its need for science and technology. He talked about this as the problem of the “two cultures”. He did note that there was a rising class of white-collar workers and technicians, but they did not have the polish or social self-confidence of the old élites. You had to go to university for that, a technical college wouldn’t do.

Snow, who came to this élite from the outside, was acutely aware of issues of class. His views were moderately left, and he served in a Labour government. A fellow like Snow, though he may be on the Left, does not really want to abolish the Establishment. He wants people like himself to run it. So he just ends up joining it. As the American historian Christopher Lasch has observed, when people from the working class get promoted into the élite, it just feeds the élite, it does nothing to better the lot of the working class; in fact it worsens it, because it deprives the working class of leadership.

Formerly, élites were thought to be leisured. Hard work was for the socially mobile on the way up from below. Today’s élites are no longer a leisured class – they are, as the British say, “running around like blue-arsed flies”. This is because Snow’s world is a technocratic world. The technical, the industrial has seized the initiative, and people have to be organized around it. The system is surprisingly neutral politically. It was able to function in the Soviet East as well as the capitalistic West. Snow’s world is a nomenklatura, to use a good Soviet word: a list of names from which élite vacancies can be filled. It has more in common with élites in other countries and systems than it does with the man in the street where it lives.

More recently, Christopher Lasch has talked about the “revolt of the élites”. That is to say, international élites are remodelling nations and societies to suit themselves, not the masses. Ordinary people are resentful, which expresses itself in right-wing populism; they know they are further from controlling the agenda of society than ever they were.





Camus’ problem

If I was asked what kind of a country Greece is, I would put it something like this: a bridge between Europe and the “East” that used to belong to Europe but no longer does.

Europe extends to the Mediterranean, its civilization began there, but for a long time now the Mediterranean doesn’t just belong to Europe. I call this “Camus’ problem”, since Albert Camus devoted much of his life and talents to writing about it, although he never solved it. He came from Algeria, which in his day was politically a part of France, and he always believed that the Mediterranean world still had something to say to the rest of Europe. In fact, it is apparent in retrospect that his issue was culture. France is dominated by Paris and the northern culture, whereas the culture of the South of France and the Mediterranean are marginal. Camus never felt at home in Paris, and he tried to interest French readers in the Mediterranean and its sane, balanced, relaxed outlook on life. But which Mediterranean did he mean? Camus exalted the supposed Greek heritage of the Mediterranean but ignored the Arabs under his nose. And look what happened. By no stretch of the imagination could most of the Mediterranean be called European today.

Now we come to Greece. The Greeks have always wanted “back” into Europe, after their long domination by the Ottoman Empire, and their symbolic value (to people like Camus) allowed them to do that. But recent events have made the rest of Europe uneasy about the issue of cultural compatibility with the Greeks (and the Cypriots). Their links are as much with the non-European Mediterranean as with anything else.

The Greeks are oddly like the Turks, their old enemies. They cultivated a European nationalism on the German model. They always wanted to be European like Western Europe. Under the dictatorship of Metaxas, the unfortunate rembetiko players were told to be less Oriental and more Western in their chord progressions and ornamentations! But you can’t legislate or censor that “Oriental” or “Anatolian” element away. Similarly, under Atatürk, the Turks tried to transform themselves into good Europeans, adopting the Roman alphabet, replacing the Sultan with a secular republic, and so on. But again, you can’t change culture by decree. The Turks are no more European now than they were then.

In fact, what Europe needs now is bridges and bridge-builders. Greece can do that (so can Cyprus). It can link Europe to the Middle-Eastern and Arab world. This would mean accepting the country’s historic mission – not as the Greeks would like it to be, but as it is. They are not going to lead Europe into a new Renaissance. But they can build a bridge to what Europe once included. And Europe cannot afford to be isolated. It cannot turn its back, as it did before, on the Southern and Eastern flank of the Mediterranean, mare nostrum, “our sea” (as the Romans called it, because they owned it, all of it). To what extent is it still mare nostrum? Who is nos?

Europe has basically “done a Camus”, turning its back to the Arab and Middle-Eastern world so it can focus on solving its own problems. There has been talk about including the Mediterranean in economic expansion, but it is no more than talk. There is no political will, no sense of priority. But the problem will not go away. It might just be a job for the Greeks.



The problem of ESL in the boardroom

In the business world, there is a saying that “he who owns the office, owns the meeting”. This means that if an executive can get people to meet in his space, he can dictate the agenda and the outcome to a great extent. But you could also say “he who owns the language owns the meeting”. If the meeting is held in your language, you have a similar home-team advantage to the manager who gets others to meet on his turf. This can be observed in international get-togethers, even of people belonging to the same company.

Holding such meetings in English may sound like a cool thing to do, but it hands power to any Anglo-Saxon there. This is seen in meetings of international companies where people from different countries are hammering out issues and, more often than not, competing with each other for resources. Many such meetings result in the English-speakers getting what they want, like larger budgets, and the others not getting a look in because they do not express themselves with sufficient facility, or do not take up enough space, signalling their power and importance in the manner appropriate.

What can be done about this, given that, in international companies and associations today, English is likely to be the only common language? What you need is an amicus curiae, a “friend of the court”, not an actual party to the process, who ideally knows the language(s) and culture(s) of the participants, but who is a literate English speaker and can express things quickly and effectively in English too. He can level the playing field by compensating for linguistic inequality and ensuring that all voices are heard. He is the one who gets everything down. I call this role the rapporteur.

The role of (meeting) rapporteur is known, notably in U.N. organizations, but it is usually a passive role, and is often confined to getting down conclusions after the fact. That kind of rapporteur is “seen and not heard”. The rapporteur role as I mean it is activist. This rapporteur intervenes to get clarity and full expression from all the participants, thus preventing viewpoints and ideas being lost or drowned out by louder voices.

The rapporteur, as his name suggests, is there to report on the meeting. He is a listener. He writes in real time, that is, while the people are talking. The way I do it, he shows the progress of the discussion projected overhead from a beamer device attached to his computer. So the participants are getting intermittent feedback about how the meeting is evolving, what has been said, and they get to clarify what they and others have said – without being able to censor it, which is always a temptation. Just after the meeting, the report circulates, for further discussion off-line if necessary. (More details on this on my author page.)







Negative power

In his book Gods of Management, Charles Handy talks about negative power. By this he means the power that groups and individuals have to hold the organization to ransom. It is particularly prevalent in what he calls Apollonian organizations like the factory, where people are cogs in the proverbial machine. These human cogs, as Handy points out, have the power to take themselves out of the machine. The most obvious way is a strike. Trade unionism learned to wield this as its main weapon in the industrial age.

There are other ways to exercise negative power as well. One that Handy mentions is absenteeism. Apollonian organizations have a lot of this. To cope with the unreliability of the cogs in the machine, Apollonian organizations have slack. They hire more people than they need. This is the price to be paid for efficiency in such an organization. Again, as Handy points out, if a cog falls out of a clock, the clock stops, but organizations which cannot afford to grind to a halt “staff up” so there are replacement cogs at hand.

People do not like being just cogs. People who are not appreciated have ways of making their presence felt. “Negative power is therefore fertilized by unhappiness, low morale or a feeling of powerlessness”, says Handy. Today we can see this not only in industry, but in whole nations. Time and again, voters ignore the appeals of their governments and vote destructively in referendums. Or they vote for right-wing populists who express the inarticulate popular anger and resentment. There are countries in economic trouble where the political leaders want to take the bailout and play ball with the rest of the world, but the people won’t follow, as happened in Greece.

Negative power did not disappear with the industrial age. In the knowledge economy – to the alarm of the new élites – it is alive and flourishing. You cannot eliminate it. It is the power of those who have no power. It is the talk of those who are not listened to.