20/20 (20 minutes of writing for 20 days): 2. On Institutions

When you look at a corporation, just like when you look at a slave owner, you want to distinguish between the institution and the individual. So slavery, for example, or other forms of tyranny are inherently monstrous. The individuals participating in them may be the nicest guys you can image. Benevolent, friendly, nice to the children, even nice to their slaves. Caring about other people. I mean, as individuals they may be anything, but in their insitutional role, they’re monsters, because the institution is monstrous.

Noam Chomsky in the film The Corporation

The first enormous truth flowing from our civilization is that, today, everything has become “means.” There are no longer “ends.” We no longer know towards what we are headed.  We have lost our collective goals.  We dispose of enormous means, and we put into action prodigious machines to reach nowhere…

Jacques Ellul in Présence au monde moderne

 Technique will not tolerate (or accept) any judgment passed on it.  In other words, technicians do not easily tolerate people expressing an ethical or moral judgment on what they do.

Jacques Ellul in The Betrayal of Technology (video)

In their respective, and typical styles, Ellul and Chomsky seem to overstate the point to drive home the point: “monstrous,” “prodigious”, “will not tolerate.”  In my experience in dozens of institutions, I see what Chomsky is saying and see how Ellul explains how it comes to be.

It may be a truism to say that an institution (pick one: university, city government, business, non-profit organization, etc.) is greater than the sum of the people who make it up but what that implies and why it happens is important.  We all participate in institutions, either employed by them, contributing to them or supporting them in some way.  And so, Chomsky’s words are important to consider.  Yes, he was talking about corporations. Here, I am saying it applies to all institutions.

Am I suggesting they are evil, or useless, or inherently violent–after all, monstrous implies no good.  I am not suggesting that, nor is Chomsky, I believe, saying they do not have a role in society.  Indeed, as the film argues, corporations do (or at least are designed initially) to serve the common good.  And yet…

And yet they fail.  Ellul provides some insights why that is.  First, all institutions are founded to accomplish an end, and except for a few strictly nefarious ones (drug gangs I suppose), the ones that most of us participate in have ends–often articulated in a mission statement–that are both laudable and lofty.  But what Ellul suggests, and I have seen, is that institutions quite frequently forget the ends to which they say they are striving; trading the lofty missions for not only something far more pedestrian but also something far more sinister.

Not only are they enamored with means rather than ends–the newest branding strategy, the coolest website, the hippest cause, the slickest ideas–but they trade the ultimate ends for these means, essentially making the means the new, de facto ends.  This may seem innocuous but can lead them down paths that have little to do with why they came into being.

Let me use an example that has repeated itself many times in my personal experience.  A wonderful non-profit with a great mission to rid the world of hunger, bring practical peacebuilding, or reduce child mortality.  At a certain point in its existence says “we could do more, we should do more, we must do more–we must grow, we must enlarge, we must carry our salvific efforts to the world (not just the puny piece we are now touching).”  Yes, this really happens.  Oh perhaps nobody actually says it just that way but “relevance” demands growth, the good we do requires scale.  And at that point, the ends have already started to shift.  At that point, the means start to be the focus and the ends slide away.

But I would take it a step further because at that moment there is also a new way of thinking about the “necessity–the “indispensability”–of the organization.  We are now the requisite organization and our survival, our eternality, becomes the most critical end to which we strive. And when that happens, when institutions aspire to godlike eternality, then truly monstrous things can and do happen.  Because when that happens institutions spend a whole lot of time trying to build allegiance to themselves.  And a whole lot of lies get told.

There is an understanding of “the fall” in Hebrew scriptures which says that the whole Eden myth is a story of humankind’s quest for autonomy.  Following quickly on the heels of that quest is the striving after eternal life as in “I want to be free from all constraints and I want and must live forever…”  A cautionary tale from our ancestors.  And a caution for our collective selves as well.

But Ellul goes even further suggesting that our own enamorment with “technique” and its focus on the one best way is also a culprit in the monstrousness our institutions become.  Today, the technical sophistication of even the least sophisticated organizations is something to behold.  Laden with technicians who refuse critique–and, who are, according to Ellul the high priests of “means”–we find ourselves in organizations incapable of accepting critique and incapable of seeing the dark paths down which they have wandered away from their true ends.

Am I overstating the case a la Chomsky and Ellul?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I don’t think so SO MUCH that I spend most of my days (it seems) trying to figure out how to reorient the institutions of which I am a part back to the true ends of their existence.  It is what I believe to be an essential ingredient of that elusive thing called leadership: leaders as guides to help institutions they lead find their way back to the path leading to the ends to which they all say they aspire.

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