Part II. Topics worth updating: more on control, differentiation, dread and betterment, revolts, yes-but, and coordination

More on control

Like the poverty premium, where poor people have to pay more for key services (insurance, credit, energy, shelter), people seeking full control of uncertain task environments pay a “control premium”: Control strategies cost them—and, of course, us—more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty. When their control excesses make the lives of others difficult or worse, this isn’t an externality to be corrected by taxing them or having the rest of us bribe them to become better uncertainty managers. Instead, their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto us. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us.

Here’s a different analogy to reinforce the point. Compare algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) and the current technology for gene editing known by the acronym, CRISPR. When it comes to ADM, the worry is that we don’t know how the algorithm works. What’s happening, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data into the algorithm? As for CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s the right thing to do.

Suppose we had a CRISPR for ADM, i.e., we could go into the algorithm and excise cultural bias. But even then we’d worry about, e.g., what is bias to some is not to others. For that matter, is there any doubt whatsoever that a new mechanism promising greater control in addressing one worry won’t produce another worry, equally if not more important? Control cannot answer the questions control poses.

So what? It’s hard to believe, for example, that all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI) “controlling” behavior will not need to be far more differentiated and contextualized, when it comes to really-existing policy and management implications.

Consider underwater oil and gas exploration. Alarms produced by autonomous systems have turned out to be false alarms occurring under already turbulent task conditions at sea. Indeed, operating at a higher level of autonomy and having to cope with indiscriminate false alarms may no longer permit the real-time operators to revert, just-in-time, to lower levels of autonomy, e.g., managing via more manual operations, as and when nothing else works in the context under consideration.

More on differentiation

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized if we are to analyze and to manage case-by-granular-case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, we do not mean more adaptive learning, when the systemwide error ends up being the last systemwide trial destroying survival.

While others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, we point to different systemwide reliability standards and only then, to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from different standards.

More on dread and betterment

Widespread fear and dread, so criticized by 18th century Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

The large-scale systems for betterment—whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other—are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they have to change. That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them.

We of course are meant to wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer is altogether evident: Most of the planet lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask—precisely because the answer is that clear. Hunting and gathering societies may be the most sustainable for the Anthropocene, but I do not remember any hunter-gatherer in Botswana in the early 1970s who didn’t want to quit that that way of life for something safer and more reliable.

More on revolts

For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a violent event at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:

since the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play [freies Spiel] is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.

Rather, the moment chosen should be pregnant—fruitful, suggestive—of possibilities that are not foreclosed because imagination has been arrested by catastrophizing the worse. Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.

One problem with today’s crisis scenarios of a violent Anthropocene is a preoccupation with a visualized climax. Obviously, post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier. But the point holds: In today’s scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there—like shining deer at night—with the glare of it all.

But the truth of the matter is that before or after the climax, thought (not just imagination) is still at work. Before, in the sense of thinking about the roads not taken; after, in terms of the what-ifs ahead. In fact, today’s unrelieved stream of crisis scenarios is itself proof of imaginations’ inability to let a prophesied climax do all the talking.

Where does this leave us?

Basically, it’s better to focus on crisis and catastrophe before or after they have happened rather than to be in the grip of their climaxes. For all we know, the Occupy Movement, Yellow Vests Movement, Hong Kong protests, the Extinction Rebellion and more were the apex of reaction. Any disappointment that one or more have not culminated into revolution or other “far-reaching substantive change” is one scenario only—which on reflection may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by. The whole purpose of revolt may be revolts (in plural).

More on yes-but and yes-and

A great deal of US politics and policy is caught up in the yes’s and no’s of pros versus cons, advantages versus disadvantages, and costs versus benefits. But there has never been consensus on making these their own either/or. Lionel Trilling, the literary critic, famously said of 19th century American writers “they contained both the yes and the no of their culture”. For Robert Frost, the poet, neither exists in its own right—“yes and no are almost never ideas by themselves”.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because—not in spite—of the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.

A character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives asks: “If simón is slang for yes and nel means no, then what does simonel mean?” That is difficult to answer, Bolaño describes:

And I saw two boys, one awake and the other asleep, and the one who was asleep said don’t worry, Amadeo, we’ll find Cesarea for you even if we have to look under every stone in the north…And I insisted: don’t do it for me. And the one who was asleep…said: we’re not doing it for you, Amadeo, we’re doing it for Mexico, for Latin America, for the Third World, for our girlfriends, because we feel like doing it. Were they joking? Weren’t they joking?…and then I said: boys, is it worth it? is it really worth it? and the one who was asleep said Simonel.

Bolaño’s translator (Natasha Wimmer) asks, did this Simonel mean “Absolutely”? For my part, I’d like to think simonel insists “yes” and “no” matter when followed by “but” or “and,” the first as a caution and the second as encouragement. To admit this is to be open to alternatives when yes and no aren’t: “Yes or no; or provide an alternative,” as emergency managers are put it.

More on coordination

I come from a policy analysis and management training with little good to say about calls for “more effective coordination.” When having nothing more to say but feeling compelled to recommend something, then comes the “what we need is more effective coordination.” Who can be against effective coordination? Though called for without a tincture of what to do, step by step and in real time. Like gold in seawater, coordination is impressive, but pointing that out is of scant use.

I’m not the only one who hesitates reading further when the document gets to the part where death and disaster are credited to “the lack of coordination.” When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

Such detail is of course difficult to summon, but that it is so rarely attempted leaves us to wonder just whose inexperience is revealed—the responders criticized or the callers for more coordination. Obviously, the more detailed the future scenario, the more likely it will fall short of what actually happens in the face of so much contingency; but how else to face uncertainty in the future than to demand details? For that matter, predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require stability in objectives, institutional memory, multiple reserves in case something goes wrong, and low environmental uncertainty, among others. Should the obvious need restating, we already knew this even before acknowledging we’re in the Anthropocene.

Designing leadership

–Take a peek at the historical track record of advisers to their leaders:

  • Plato and Dionysius II;
  • Aristotle and Alexander the Great;
  • Seneca and Nero;
  • Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf;
  • Petrarch and Emperor Charles IV;
  • Montaigne and Henri IV;
  • Descartes and Sweden’s Queen Christina;
  • Leibnitz and the Dukes of Hanover;
  • Voltaire and Frederick the Great;
  • Diderot and Catherine the Great; and
  • in case you want to add to the list, Adam Smith and the Duke of Buccleuch or Goethe and Prince Carl August, and so on through the centuries. . .
  • Or if you really want to be cringeworthy, just consider André Gide recommending against publishing Marcel Proust, Edward Garnett against publishing James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot against publishing George Orwell. . . .

I mean, get real: If these guys didn’t advise effectively, who the hell are we to think we can do better? (And, puhleeese, don’t throw up Kissinger and Nixon as a working template!)

–So what? Two things. It’s hard to imagine two words scarier in English than “designing leadership.” And we should take to heart the point behind, “It was beyond our mental capabilities to predict Bob Dylan winning the Nobel in 2016.”

Six big take-home messages from recent research on large socio-technical systems

1. The large socio-technical system in failure differs, oft-times radically, from that system in normal operations, where really-existing failure often ends up as a critique of earlier or prior definitions of “normal” and “failed.” Four corollaries are worth signaling:

First, the opposite of failure isn’t success; it’s achievement of reliable operations. (Reliable does not means invariant. In fact, invariant operations are highly unreliable.)

Second, if you know how normal operations work but do not know what failed operations will look like once failure occurs, then learning from failed operations and learning from normal operations must be very different. (Indeed, if failure is much more common than success, then the central tendency will to be regress to the mean after a success, i.e., to go back to what produces failure or are its initial conditions. If so, then doesn’t it make more sense to find ways to learn from failure than it is to learn from success?)

Third, system failure is the place where everything is actually connected to everything else, since each thing ends up as a potential substitute there for about anything else. “Need unites everything,” as Aristotlean notion has it, and need is greatest in collapse.

Four, one irony of the fact that normal operations tell us very little about failed operations is that failed operations often look over-determined in hindsight. After the fact, many factors can be found to independently contribute system failure if you are at a loss to say how normal operations on their own transformed into system meltdown.

2. Consider all those graphics that show large socio-technical systems to be densely interconnected with other systems. Not all of interconnections, however and importantly so, are ones of tight coupling and complex interactivity primed to fail in no time flat when normal operations are breached:

First, control rooms in many critical infrastructures manage interconnections so as to render them more loosely coupled than tightly so, and more linearly than complexly interactive.

Second, this management requires very, very smart people, and ones who are decidedly not automatic ciphers that need only know the difference between two prices in order to act rationally. What is irrational are those leaps from macro-design to micro-operations or back that ignore, when not altogether dismissing or ignoring, the knowledge bases and learning of the reliability professionals in between.

Third, in recognizing the limitations of macro-design and micro-operations, the operational knowledge in between basically redefines, retroactively, what those micro-operation and macro-design were “really” about.

  • Note, I am not saying that experience trumps design. Rather I’m insisting that both experienced-based micro-operations and design-based macro-policies and regulations are each insufficient as modes of reliability management. To adequately appraise risk, for example, experience must be allowed to critique macro-design and design must be allowed to identify the blind-spots of individual experience. The people with the skills, perspective and placement to do this effectively are reliability professionals. Their scenario building skills add a cautionary note to experience, and their pattern recognition skills help identify and fill in the gaps in design.
  • For example, the orthodoxy has been that to spread risk is a Good Thing. The problem arises when the risks end up highly correlated. That’s real pattern recognition for you. Novel financial instruments to spread risks ended up increasing their association with each other, as we saw in the run-up to 2008. That’s means managing the mess from the middle for you.

3. The messier the large system is, the more noise; and the noisier it is, the easier it is to confuse said noise for “the intentions” of system actors. Other post-hoc rationalizations—bureaucrats were mindlessly following the rules—also turn out to be more complicated at the case level on further inspection:

First, it is at level of the case and the event that you see power at work. (Another way of putting this: Do not commit the error of those who predict a future knowing full well they have no part in creating it. At least those utopian Saint-Simonians knew enough, it is said, to dress with buttons on the back of their clothes, so that others were required to help them dress, thereby fostering their communities.)

Second, at the case level you get to see things anew, if not for the first time, then as if so. Why? Because contingency and surprise are most visible case-by-case—which is to say the world in important senses is not predictably reducible to politics, dollars and jerks. (Each angel is its own species, argued Thomas Aquinas; Roland Barthes asks, “Why mightn’t there be, somehow, a new science for every object?”)

Third, at the case level you get to see why it comes as no surprise that behavior, practice, and implementation on the ground differ from the plan, design and law said to govern them. This finding is so unexceptional that when things do work as planned on the ground this must be a surprise worthy of study.

Fourth, it also should not be surprising that generalizations about power and such made from or in the absence of the case material are provisional and contingent—more so certainly than the generalizer commonly supposes. Such generalizations are better understood as only text on the surface of a palimpsest whose specifics have been overwritten and effaced below.

4. In reality, the chief challenge to governance isn’t so much the gap between the legitimacy and the capacity to govern as it is the societal complexity that undergirds widening or closing any such gap. This is to insist that not all of complexity’s surprise is negative; some surprises are good messes to be in.

5. In a complex world whose messiness lies in having many system components, each component serving different functions, and multiple interconnections among the many functions and components, a field’s blind-spots can often be strengths under different conditions. Three corollaries are to be noted:

First, science and technology are at their best when each admits to the blind-spots its very strengths demonstrate.

Second, bad is positive, at times. Complaints about bureaucratization are as merited as the recognition that bureaucratization is one way decisionmakers resist trivializing issues further. Even administration is a kind of fastthinking when compared to some alternatives.

Third, not only is the chief feature of this messiness surprise, the greatest surprise is how many ways the uncertainty, complexity, conflict and incompleteness afford for recasting (redescribing) the so-called intractable. Having many components, multiple differentiation and high interconnectivity has, again, its upsides, not just downsides. Complexity sands away any shield of photo-clarity and reveals the contingent possibilities that have been missed.

6. Complex messiness also implies that some kinds of accidents and errors—including sabotage—are going on that are not noted by anyone, including at times the perpetrators acting unintentionally.

We are already tolerating a level of “mistakes” for which we are not managing, which raises the issue of just what accident level we are already tolerating as part of our “adaptive capacity.” So there may be a subtle truth in what one expert told us, i.e., originally everyone learns high reliability by accident and from accidents. (Note, however, this is not the same as valorizing “trial and error learning.)

Keep it simple?

I

Not to worry, we’ll scale up later, soothes the techno-managerial elite. Later on, presses the happy-talk, we’ll relax assumptions and add realism. Don’t bother yourselves with the quibbles; we know how to reduce inequality (just give them a Universal Basic Income!), overpopulation (just don’t have babies!) and save the environment (just don’t cut down the trees!). So much of these just-this suffocate in their own fat of “stop thinking about the uncertainties and get on with it!” This time it’s different, they insist; we really do know where to start, they insist. They insist: Just leave the complications to academia.

A war? Not to worry, economists tell us, it only amounts to some 1% of national income. Lost $350 million in one quarter? Not to worry, that’s small beer when compared to the university’s endowment of $30 billion. Lost over $5 billion in trades? Little more than a flesh wound compared to all the firm’s profits and assets. Government is predicted never to have a budget surplus again because of financial crises? Not to worry, there’s no need to balance the budget if the country’s nominal GDP normally grows at 5 percent per annum. And anyway there’s Modern Monetary Theory to print how much you need, whenever.

II

What’s going on here? Has economics lost the plot, like the actor playing Hamlet, who finished the bedroom scene with Gertrude but forgot to kill Polonius?

(Auguste Comte, sociology’s founder, is reported to have had such an aversion to economics that he tried convincing French officials to establish a chair in the history of science financed by abolishing a chair in economics. Now that’s what economists call a trade-off!)

The chief problem with “start simple and then scale up” is that each scale/level is complex in its own right. The map smooths out shoreline, but visit the shore and there’s nothing there so smooth that way. To start simple and scale up makes as much sense as trying to pinpoint the shoreline through the eye of a needle. Again, complex is about as simple as it gets.

Jorie Graham’s take on the climate emergency, and how her poetry matters

I

No one would accuse Jorie Graham of being hopeful about the climate emergency. There is not a scintilla, not a homeopathic whiff of environmental optimism, techno-social-otherwise, in the poetry I’ve read of hers.

Which poses my challenge: Can I nevertheless find something to move forward with from her four recent books of poetry, compiled as [To] The Last [Be] Human? Is there some thing, other than anger and dread at the way things are going, that I can use in my responding to the climate emergency?

II

To expect answers from poets is to make an outrageous demand. Still, that’s what I’m doing here.

Graham directs such an intense beam of darkness on the climate emergency that I ask: What’s left, if anything, that glimmers? Whether she sees them is not the point. That I see and name them, as others might too, is.

III

There are two easy ways to finesse my challenge. First, Graham provides instances where she has been wrong (“. . .how you/cannot/comprehend the thing you are meant/to be looking/for”). Presumably being wrong could be with respect to her views on the climate emergency as well. Second, there is no reason to believe her readers read her as she hopes, regardless of any belief there will be no readers if things continue as they are.

But that kind of line of argument is too dismissive of what Graham is doing here.

To lay my cards out then: Graham’s analytic sensibility shines through the poems’ dark prospect for me. One can historicize her work or point to her admissions of fallibility, but none of that matters. It’s her scalpel-sharp talent to get to a point and in doing so make that point wholly matter. As much is going on in the compilation’s four books, the following remarks are confined to those about and for the climate emergency.

Sea Change

IV

An illustration, one from many, reflects the constellation of factors at work for me (from the compilation’s first book, Sea Change):

                                                                         the last river we know loses its
form, widens as if a foot were lifted from the dancefloor but not put down again, ever, 
                                                         so that it's not a 
dance-step, no, more like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair, although
                                                         also the rest of the body is
missing, beware of your past, there is a fiery apple in the orchard, the coal in the under-
                                                         ground is bursting with
                                                         sunlight, inquire no further it says. . .  (p. 12)

There’s that tumbling out and after of words and the turns of phrase that deepen the rush. Then they bounce off and back from the two hard left-side margins and the right-side enjambment. For someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed, right in front of me.

Some might describe this rush of words a compulsion to continue forward, but I see hard walls being repelled from and pushed up to, and sometimes through (as in the hyphen-less “dancefloor”). Not as though it were hope. Rather: as a coiling that toggles between everywhere necessary and never out of sight/site. A resilience for the climate emergency.

V

Better yet, the analytic sensibility works for me. A personally striking passage in Sea Change is:

the sound of the bird lifting, thick, rustling, where it flies over--only see it is
                                                       a hawk after all, I had not seen
clearly. . .(p7)

I know that sound. I can hear the rustled lifting up. Thick is exactly what it is. I see it.

Graham isn’t so much describing something to me. Nor do I take her meaning “this might be the last hawk. . .” I read the lines as if a report from a side planet where she resides entirely like mine: except this world in which I am has fast-forwarded. It’s the hawk-here that rises from the field and flaps toward me-here and I know it because I contrast it to her then-and-there.

VI

A tic in her sensibility is especially illuminating: her intermix of macro and micro, general and specific, universal and particular, without an in-between gradient (my terms). Two examples toward the end of Sea Change illustrate this (here too breaking into her flow):

                                                . . . .It is an emergency actually, this waking and doing and
cleaning-up afterwards, & then sleep again, & then up you go, the whole 15,000 years of 
the inter-
                                                           glacial period, & the orders & the getting done &
the getting back in time & the turning it back on, & did you remember, did you pass, did
you lose the address again. . . (p55)
   . . .The future. How could it be performed by the mind became the
                                                        question—how, this sensation called tomorrow and
                                                        tomorrow? Did you look down at
                                                        your hands just now? The dead gods
                                                        are still being
                                                        killed. They don’t appear in
                                                        “appearance.” They turn the page for
                                                        us. The score does not acknowledge
                                                        the turner of
                                                        pages. And always the
absent thing, there, up ahead, like a highway ripped open and left hanging, in the
                                                        void. . . (p45)

Again—that rush of words, use of margins, turns of phrase that cut to and make a point—but what’s most notable for me is there is no middle between future and mind, gods and hands, the emergency and losing an address.

I come from a profession and training where in contrast, because conditions get complex, we look for the meso-level(s). There are those emerging patterns and formations not seen at the level of individual cases nor at the level of universalized generalizations. Instead for Graham, the complexity is in that wide-open combinatorics of micro’s and macro’s. This too is quite a different sensibility for the Anthropocene.

P L A C E

VII

I had a difficult time making sense of the placement and role of “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” at the beginning of the compilation’s second book. Why is this poem so different from the Graham country that follows and we know so well by this point? A clue offered itself when I later crossed T.J. Clark’s more recent, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the present.

In comparing Cézanne’s version of a Pissarro painting to the original, Clark pinpoints many features attributed to impressionist or modernist painting:

The reader will have registered the familiars: groundlessness, airlessness, absence of contact, lack of distance but also of proximity, lack of the sense of a palpable shared world, uncertainty, a strange false vividness. . .a vividness that is irresistible but puts one nowhere… (p50)

These features were striking precisely because I could not find them together in P L A C E, except “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950.” Save for the latter, many of this book’s poems are tactile, grounded and tensile, vividly there, tangibly calamitous at times and utterly confident in their urgency for the palpably shared world, human and nonhuman.

Where then does “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” take its readers for what follows in P L A CE? One answer, my answer, starts with the poem’s last lines:

When my mother’s voice got closer it had a body.
It had arms and they were holding something
that must have been a basket. My mind now
can go round her, come in front, and wrap her
as her arms wrapped that basket.
And it must have been wicker
because I see in the light the many lucent browns, the white tips,
as she steps out of the shadow
in which nothing but her hands and the front of her act of carrying
are visible. And when her body arrives
it is with the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine,
which the heavy basket is still now carrying,
and her bright fingernails woven into each other,
and her face with its gaze searching for me,
gaze which felt like one of the bright things she was carrying
in front of herself, a new belly.
All I was to invent in this life is there in the wicker basket among the lemons
having come from below the horizon where the sound of the market rises
up into the private air in which she is moving,
where she is still a whole woman, and a willing woman,
and I hear what must be prices and names called out
of flowers and fruit and meat and live animals in small cages,
all from below us, at the bottom of the village, from that part
which is so comfortable to me which is invisible,
and in which everything has to be sold by noon.
I think that was the moment of my being given my name,
where I first heard the voices carrying the prices
as her face broke and its smile appeared bending down towards me
saying there you are, there you are. (pp65-66)

It’s also difficult for someone with my training and background not to read these lines and the ten poems that follow (to and including “Torn Score”) as a layered palimpsest. It’s a commonplace in policy analysis and public management that current policies have overwritten past policies, but never completely: Erasures are not entire and different bits of different past texts surface in a new version. This isn’t a completely arbitrary analogy on my part. Graham clearly treats some of the sequence poems as commentary on “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950″ and commentaries form an important part of the history of really-existing palimpsests.

VIII

So what?

By the time we get to “Torn Score,” “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” with its sunshine, pregnancy. body and more has been excised and reassembled, twisted and re-margined. The score has in-deed been torn; the sequence-palimpsest is scored over. “Torn Score” starts:

I think this is all somewhere inside myself, the incessant burning of my birth
            all shine
            lessening as also all low-flame
            heat of
love: and places loved: space time and people heightening, burning, then nothing . . .(p100)

The earlier mother “saying there you are, there you are” to the kicks inside has become a kickless “yes” of a wondering I-am:

            this world that 
                                             was, just minutes ago, the only one that
            was – you’re in it
            now – say yes
            out loud – say am I a
            personal
wholeness? a congerie of chemical elements? of truths held self-
            evident? – how do I see them?. . .(p101)

It’s “artificial fire” that has replaced “the many lemons entirely struck, entirely taken, by sunshine;” the earlier “body” is now “sacrificial” and “animal;” the remembered “smile” becomes “the last bus out no longer held in memory by anyone”; and “I first heard the voices” becomes a question, “a suddenly right second-thought?”

If we start with “Torn Score,” how are we then to recover anything like a “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950,” had we not read the latter from the start? For that is how a palimpsest has to be read: from the most recent text though to earlier ones, and only then as far as has been recovered or reconstructed.

IX

This will sound harsh but it follows from my construction. By the time we get to “Torn Score,” Graham has rendered “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950” unrecoverable. (As if the latter is now invisible in her body of work as its own fossil record of the Anthroopocene.) This is more than the earlier poem is now extinct. If read backwards from “Torn Score” to the a layer below (“Treadmill”), right off the reader is warned about any exercise in recovery:

                                                                           death by water, death by
wearing out -- death by surprise -- death by marriage -- death by having rummaged 
into the past, into the distant past -- death by ice core and prediction -- the entrails are lying on 
a thousand years of tabletops. . . (p92)

We are by this point in that Graham country with its propulsive phases between staggered margins, where rummaging in the past is also a death foretold. The last words of “Torn Score” are “all appetite”; the final words in P L A C E are “I can’t wait until tomorrow.” Who then needs prophecy, let alone rummaged signs from the past, when now is the writing indelibly on the wall? Yet few would be so foolish as the predict a poet’s next poem from their body of existing work. Why different for the Anthropocene?

X

Again: So what?

It means Jorie Graham’s analytic sensibility takes us far, and farther than we thought we could or should go, but that far and not further. It requires another kind of analytic sensibility–different poems from Graham?–to take the accreted palimpsest now called the climate emergency and recover from below anything like a re-readable “Cagnes Sur Mer 1950.”

That “re-readable” is very important when it comes to the optic of a policy palimpsest: It’s to go back and, in our case, find that line, “saying there you are, there you are,” and, in reading that, find you are no longer as distant as you would be if it were extinct but not as close as you would be had you been around when first read.

Fast

XI

One of the complexity challenges of the climate emergency can be likened to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first section of poems in Graham’s Fast, the compilation’s third book. This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she labels and evokes. The headline in her onwards-now: “we are in systemcide” (“Shroud,” p148).

XII

To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others (pp141-157)—is to experience beginnings—“I spent a lifetime entering”—conjoined immediately to the ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”) We saw such absence of middles in Sea Change as well.

By not narrativizing the systemicide into beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… (p154)

She achieves her elisions with long dashes or —>; also through series of nouns without commas and of endings without periods. Along the way are questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running smoothly.

XIII

So what?

Graham’s lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

So much for any bridging meso-level! The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I also feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since the latter is part of my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is catastrophizing or not.

For me, the climate emergency does have middles with far more mess than memorable beginnings and always endings—but that in no way diminishes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

Runaway

XIV

Analytic sensibilities are each unique because each doee not narrow the ambit to one topic but consolidates across many. This is demonstrated in Graham’s preceding three books and well manifest by the time we get to Runaway: death, mothers, children, birds, stillness, wind and a leaf. It even more outrageous for me to ask, but still fair enough for my opening challenge: How does her overarching sensibility illuminate the climate emergency for me?

XV

The sense and sensation of immediacy (my stale terms) recur more intensel, it seems to me. As in:

                                                                                                                         Any
breeze and I'd be human again. Swirl of leaf and I'd see it again. The vacancy. The
crust afloat the thing itself. There being no further than this as-if
hallucination. The hallucination of no as-if. The end. What is utterly. Is this

ancient. Is this. As if a huge pity but entirely and only made of matter. Where
has motion gone--it has taken time fate need. All lies here now in
the seen. Not seen as such just there entire in. the laying-out of itself in the
which-is. No if. That's it. The stillness of no if. . .(p270)

It’s an immediacy with those earlier and now other tics: the rush of phases without commas (“time fate need”); questions that are answers (“Is this//ancient.”); ambiguities (“All lies here now”); and some turning toward irony (“That’s it.” as in “The end” earlier). There is also that deliberately placed adverb, “utterly,” and italicized terms, both of which are pinpricks to (re)turn me to her persistent presentism.

That “turn” and “turning” are also recurring terms in the compilation demands recognizing that this immediacy is not stone-solid. This kind of movement-within-now is highly suggestive, I believe, and I want to conclude with a remarkable passage shwoing how (“Thaw”, p256):

It was like this:
someone turned your way.
It was a free turn. It was made by them freely.
And what they did then was this.
You had done something. You
seemed to become un-
masked. You
had done something you should not have done. You felt in you that u
wished you had not.
And they did something with their free face,
they tossed it out at you,
a thing not yours to dial-up or own – a thing free – a free thing –
they forgave you.
You are not sure you know what this means. But you are sure this happened once. You
were a thing
that required it.
And it was a thing which was not exact, not on time, not wired-in,
which was able to arrive in
time – just in time – & could be
given.

This I read not as hope or love, it is not resignation, nor does it sound like the earlier “a huge pity” but rather: rings honest, even in the irony, and like a bell-weather, can’t be un- rung.

XVI

So what? What does this tell me about the climate emergency?

My answer in recasting her insights turns to an older optic, and one more familiar in my profession. I stand in a fast-flowing creek and the pebbles below look like luminous treasure in the refracted sunlight. I am of course disappointed when I scoop a handful up and take the closer look. It’s nothing like treasure. Until I see that “true as a wet stone’s shine” I have also been handed (in the phrase of Sally Festing, poet). Where are we registering that version of “shine” in the Anthropocene?

Principal source

Jorie Graham (2022). [To] The Last [Be] Human. Introduction by Robert MacFarlane. Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA

Narrative Policy Analysis 2.0

  • Narrative policy analysis, then and now
  • When dominant policy narratives fail, look to the space opening up for more complex metanarratives
  • The global counternarrative of human agency
  • Narrative, counternarrative, metanarrative: our next Constitutional Convention by way of example

Narrative policy analysis, then and now

I

Why would we ever think a book on policy written nearly three decades ago remains relevant? In answer, though narrative analyses of policy issues have evolved over the three decades since Narrative Policy Analysis was published, two foci of the original approach remain salient. First its terminology and second, its drive to identify narratives that underwrite policymaking, given current intractability.

II

Start with the terminology. It’s next to impossible to avoid terms like policy narratives. They are those stories with beginnings, middles and ends, or if cast as arguments with premises and conclusions that policy types and managers tell themselves and others in order to take decisions and justify them.

The narrative analytical approach continues to ask you to begin by identifying the different types of narratives in the issue of concern—some of which are very visible—the dominant policy narratives—others of which have to be found or identified, including marginalized counternarratives.

Assume you—the policy analyst, manager, researcher or decisionmaker—find a policy narrative to be too simplistic for the complexities at hand. You can rejigger that narrative in three ways: Denarrativize it; provide a counternarrative or counternarratives; and/or offer a metanarrative (or metanarratives) accommodating a range of story-lines (arguments), not least of which are versions of the simplistic narrative and preferred counternarrative(s).

  • First, denarrativize! To denarrativize is to critique the dominant policy narrative, point by key point. The best way to do that is to bring counter evidence to each point the offending narrative holds. To denarrativize is to take the story out of the story, i.e., to disassemble it by contravening its parts. Abundant case evidence exists to call into question the Tragedy of the Commons, for example.
  • First, counternarrativize! The chief limitation of denarrativization is the inability of critique on its own to generate an alternative narrative to replace the discreditable one. In contrast, a counter-story challenges the original by virtue of being a candidate to replace it. Common property resource management is said today to be the counternarrative to that older Tragedy of the Commons narrative.
  • First, metanarrativize! A metanarrative is that policy narrative—there is no guarantee there is one, or if so, only one—which the narrator holds in order to understand how multiple and opposing policy narratives are not only possible but consistent with each other. Claims to resource stewardship is a metanarrative shared by policies based in the Tragedy of the Commons as well as in other explanations, including but not limited to common property resource management. In this metanarrative, a group—the techno-managerial elite, “the community,” the Other—asserts stewardship over resources they do not own, because they alone, so the metanarrative goes, are capable of determining and adjudicating where and in what form better management holds.

III

The second advantage of the original approach continues to be its recognition and acceptance that decisions have to be made. Yes, of course, taking time to deliberate, being reflective and having second thoughts remain important, but even acting these ways end up being a decision of real import.

So, at some point you face a choice over which is the better policy narrative. For narrative policy analysis, a better policy narrative meets three criteria:

  • The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, interrupted and/or polarized.
  • The narrative is one that also moves beyond critique of limitations and defects of the dominant policy narrative (criticisms on their own increase uncertainties when they offer no better storyline to follow).
  • The narrative gives an account that, while not dismissing or denying the issue’s difficulty, is more amenable or tractable to analysis, policymaking and/or management. Indeed, the issue’s very complexity—its numerous components, each varying in terms of its functions and connections—offers up opportunities to recast a problem differently and with it, potential options. Problems are wicked to the degree they have yet to be recast more tractably.

This means that the preferred policy narrative can be in the form of a counternarrative; or it can be in the form of metanarrative; but it won’t be in the form of a critique or other non-narratives like circular arguments or tautologies.

Nor should you think that in a planet of now 8+ billion people you have to invent a preferred policy narrative from scratch: Preferred policy narratives—note the plural—should be assumed from the get-go to exist and are being modified.

When dominant policy narratives fail, look to the space opening up for more complex metanarratives

I

Policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisionmaking for a variety of reasons. Some narratives are internally self-refuting. If all policies need to be evaluated to determine whether or not to continue them as originally stated, does that mean we might one day conclude no further need for any such assumption? Or: “Climate change is a problem of unimaginable scope and magnitude.” Well, not thoroughly unimaginable, it seems.

Far more policy narratives are externally refuted. It’s a truism that gaps arise because the beginnings, middles and ends of policy statements do not congrue with the very messy, in medias res of actual policymaking. More, all policy narratives entail their semiotic opposites, as in “A thing is defined by what it is not.” If you assume in your policy or management strategy that “a” leads to “b” and “b” to “c,” it is inevitable someone will seek to find refuting cases where, e.g., not-a leads to not-b but both lead to c nevertheless (or at least don’t stop “c” from being realized by other means). And again that world of 8+ billion people is complex enough to delay you in assuming otherwise.

II

This means that stabilizing the assumptions for policymaking requires active efforts to handle refutations. Those efforts often seek to foreclose their occurrence; other professionals recognize such control is not possible and seek instead to better manage occurrences.

Two ways to foreclose refutation are obvious, though one more familiar than the other. The less familiar is to identify new or more urgent crises to grab our attention, even if only for a time until–surprise!–the next news-grabbing crisis comes along. For example, if the drain on productivity because of hay fever, headaches and heartburn in the workplace was about the $150 billion drain two decades ago, just think of what the costs must be in 2022! Now that’s a crisis in health care and we’re doing really nothing about it as a nation!!

The more familiar way to foreclose the chances of refuting a policy narrative is for policymakers to dismiss or lie about the difficulties; another is for them to exaggerate by convincing themselves and others that stopping short of the full complexities is ok–“keep it simple” for the time being, until when we can scale later, and anyway nothing we do now can’t be corrected later on. This strategy–if you can call “full control over time” a strategy–is especially tempting when the policy is passed off as a promise to reduce the originating complexity and uncertainty.

Another way, and the one I prefer, is to recast the complex issue so as to render the original and its continued lying and exaggeration moot. Whether the reframing manages to reduce the need for dissembling is a case-by-case question, and there are certainly no guarantees the reframed problem is more tractably manageable even though just as complex. That said, I do not see how we can conclude recasting isn’t worth the management effort because lying and exaggeration come anyway with control wizardry.

III

So what’s new?

If policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisonmaking because their refutations aren’t managed via recasting the issues more tractably, then narrative and its failure are better thought of as conditions for change and not just the results of having not changed. Or to rephrase it more positively: What are the conditions under which you–we–want the prevailing policy narrative to fail?

For example, as any public health official will remind you, it’s not vaccines that work, but vaccinations. (It’s not airplanes that fly but airline companies, as Bruno Latour put it.) In this view, the development of a vaccine (or better plane) is only the first or one step in managing the spread of disease. The conditions under which we actually want the prevailing policy narrative to fail is when we take a necessary change in focus to be from, say, developing the COVID-19 vaccines to an even wider and deeper panoply of vaccination processes.

IV

This in turn begs the question about the metanarratives for these shift-points or changes in the dominant narratives. What broader narratives, if any, exist for how shifts and changes are triggered from one policy narrative to another?

One such metanarrative is that for sustainability, where techno-managerial elites guide and decide what is necessary by way of achieving and ensuring global sustainability. Since any narrative entails its opposite and since there is no one set of techno-managerial elites, the other equally clear entailed metanarrative is far less palatable:

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.

https://brooklynrail.org/2022/03/field-notes/Endgame-Finance-and-the-Close-of-the-Market-System

V

In other words, a complex world where metanarratives are posed just as starkly and clear–save the world or die by war –must be a world that demands an even greater appreciation of how things are far more complex than that. To put the point another way, what looks to be an easy choice–anyone in their right mind would choose sustainability over war!–isn’t even a choice. Why? How can you, for example, avoid that other binary, What is neither sustainability nor war?

Answers to the latter question raise to view a different metanarrative about complex-all-the-way-down. In this metanarrative, there are many elements to living, each having multiple functions, and with many interconnections among the components and functions, wherever one looks. In this metanarrative, war and sustainability are notable engines of their own contingencies, surprises and unpredictabilities. In this metanarrative, war or sustainability promise a control neither can’t deliver, which in turn unleashes all manner of unintended consequences. In this metanarrative, choice can’t avoid taking into account those unintended consequences and comparing them against the others associated with far different and more nuanced counternarratives than war or sustainability only.

The global counternarrative of human agency

I

Since the issue here is complex, let me state my conclusion at the start: In the policy and management world with which I am familiar and from which I am generalizing, human agency is the only global counternarrative I have been able to find. Because human agency is constrained differently at different times in different places and by different factors, it cannot and should not be seen as own dominant or hegemonic narrative. It has a much more important function, as we shall see.

These differences in context and function are manifestly obvious the second anyone defines human agency. Here is my definition (not an uncommon one): “an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action“. Mine accents the reflexivity, but your preferred definition may instead highlight self-determination, imposition of the one’s will on the environment, or some sort. I suspect similar or parallel differences, to which we now turn, would be observed in applications of your definitions as well.

II

To be brief and by way of differences, there are to those who think the realization and/or control of human agency are among core principles around which to design large-scale systems involving humans, individually or collectively. Certainly over-arching notions of “the individual” and “the collective” are contested at the macro-design node. Others might immediately focus on the individual or micro-level, where here the agent acts in real time, reactively or proactively or otherwise. Here too contestation abounds over terms, if only because of different optics from psychology, phenomenology, law, microeconomics, and more.

Then there are two other levels and units of analysis, which are the ones I want to focus on with my definition .

First, there is human agency as empirically expressed and observed across a run of different cases of “individuals,” “capacities,” “meaning-making,” “task environments,” “purposes” and “reflexivities” for starters. (Think of the analogy of searching out family resemblances, if any.) Are there patterns to be recognized over a run of different cases of human agency, and do these patterns constitute empirically contingent generalizations, even as they fall far short of anything like macro-design principles?

And speaking of macro-design principles, are there cases where one or more of the contested principles have been modified to reflect local conditions and circumstances? For example, is a country’s driving code enforced and implemented differently in its mountainous regions than on its wide-open plains? More formally, have macro-design principles been customized to reflect local contingency scenarios?

III

So that we are on the same page, here are two examples of human agency used from the pattern recognition and localized scenario nodes, one from a case study of migration and the other from case studies of child labor:

Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time (Albahari, 2015; D’Angelo, 2018a), it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

First, as the data [from three countries] have demonstrated, labor, and the need for children to work, is the predominant lens through which young people and the adults that surround them conceptualize children’s engagement with gangs and organized crime. This was in contrast to the other standpoints that permeate discourse. Labeling the children as gang members is a poor reflection of their drivers of involvement in crime and is likely to stigmatize children engaged in a plight to ensure their own survival. Alternatively, the young people were not child soldiers nor were they victims or perpetrators of trafficking or slavery. A victim lens is also problematic in this context. The relationship between young people and organized crime is complex and multifaceted. Young people are victims of acute marginalization, poverty and violence but they do have some agency over their decision making. The data from all studies illustrated how gangs offer young people ways to earn an income but they also provide social mobility, ‘social protection’ (Atkinson- Sheppard, 2017) and ‘street capital.’ In some instances, criminal groups offer young people ways to earn ‘quick and easy money.’ Thus, the young people are not devoid of agency, but their decision making should be considered within the context of restricted and bounded lives.

Atkinson-Sheppard, S. (2022). “A ‘Lens of Labor’: Re‐Conceptualizing young people’s involvement in organized crime.” Critical Criminology https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-022-09674-5

IV

So what?

From my experience and reading, human agency (as defined and illustrated above) looks very different from the positions of pattern recognition and localized contingency scenarios than it does from the much more familiar macro and micro positions in policy and management.

Far less mentioned are really-existing better practices for realizing human agency that have evolved over widely different cases or for modifying principles over widely different contingency scenarios locally. More often, I have come across case studies and literature reviews that assert “best practices” in the form of macro-principles (“this is what it means to act democratically”) or where the “best practice” has been automatically scaled up from one particular site or a handful of such sites only. This is certainly true not just in the migration and child labor literatures with which I am familiar.

V

Again, so what?

One could, of course, counter there are no “better practices” anyway in the absence of best-macro ideals involving democracy and justice. I however believe the premature invocation of macro-principles accounts for why the really-existing better–please, not “best”!–practices are rarely discussed. The notable exceptions–e.g., participatory research and action generalized across a wide variety of cases and modified in light of a wider variety of equity principles–can be counted on two hands.

This is why I also believe human agency is best understood as a more or less insistent counternarrative for moving away from dominant and domineering micro and macro-level narratives of human action. In this view, overarching claims that human agency, in theory or by right, govern more or less all cases is a non-starter for actually-existing policy and management.

One thinks of rush to judgment in macro-labeling election results and protest numbers as “populist,” as long as the behavior is differentiated into alt-right, left, authoritarian, or nationalist populism (etcetera). Again there are exceptions, but it is a rush to judgment when the criteria for this first-cut differentiation pre-exist the analysis being offered and where these criteria in no way emerge contingently from the political complexities of elections, protests and agency driving the cases at hand.

Narrative, counternarrative, metanarrative: our next Constitutional Convention by way of example

My entry point centers on an exchange of letters between critic, Edmund Wilson, and novelist, John Dos Passos, during the first half of the 1930s. Their interchange focused on the need for radical structural change in the US government and Constitution.

One of Edmund Wilson’s biographers calls the Wilson/Dos Passos correspondence “in its scope and dramatic interest second in American letters only to that of Jefferson and John Adams”. The picture I seek to recast with this interchange from the Republic of Letters is the entrenched institution of this US republic and its fifty states.

Their narrative

The correspondence was provoked by Edmund Wilson’s 1931 Appeal to Progressives in the New Republic [NR], parts of which read:

Not only are the people in a capitalist society very often completely ignorant as to what their incomes come from; it is actually sometimes impossible or very difficult for them to find this out. And as long as a fair proportion of the bankers, the manufacturers, the middle men, the merchants and the workers whom their capital and machines keep busy are able to make a little more money than before, no matter how unscrupulously or short-sightedly, we are able, as a nation, to maintain our belief in our prosperity and even in our happiness….

Our society has finally produced in its specialized professional politicians one of the most useless and obnoxious groups which has perhaps ever disgraced human history—a group that seems unique among governing classes in having managed to be corrupt, uncultivated and incompetent all at once….

1931 and outdated? Hardly, when the bankers have metastasized into global finance, when our public utilities have been sold off to corporate risk-takers, and when the best news we have is that the rich like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, wearying of empire, try to make good in the happy-talk of philanthropy what we once demanded and expected of government.

“Just read your battlecry,” Dos Passos writes a few weeks after Wilson’s 1931 piece appears,

Of course all the [New Republic] can do is stir things up and try to smoke out a few honest men who do know something about industrial life as she is lived…If you can keep up a series like this you really will have started something—though I’m beginning to think that every publication ought to be required by law to print at the bottom of each page:

NB. THIS IS BULLSHIT

. . . .[T]he trouble with all our political economic writing and the reason maybe why it doesnt interest the ordinary guy who hasn’t joined the fraternity of word-addicts is that it is made up right in the office and springs from neither experience nor observation…

True enough, and Wilson eventually circulates a more urgent manifesto. “The present crisis of the world—and specifically the United States—is something more than a mere crisis of politics or economics; and it will not pass with the depression. It is crisis of human culture. What faces us today is the imperative need for new social forms, new values, a new human order.”

What is needed, Wilson feels, has moved beyond experiment to revolution. “Sure I’ll subscribe to it,” Dos Passos writes Wilson in reply to the new battle cry,

—but I don’t think it’ll cause any bankers to jump out of fiftieth story windows—what are you going to do with it?—post it up on billboards? it might go well on toilet paper like [a laxative] advertizing—or is it going to be laid on [President] Hoover’s breakfast table?….Where is it going to be used—?

Wilson ends up forwarding material to Dos Passos from another periodical, New Masses, and Dos Passos writes back in March 1934,

I think it’s very important not to add to this mass of inept rubbish on this subject—what is happening is that the whole Marxian radical movement is in a moment of intense disintegration—all people like us, who have no taste for political leadership or chewing the rag, can do, is to sit on the sidelines and try to put a word in now and then for the underdog or for the cooperative commonwealth or whatever….

The only alternative is passionate unmarxian revival of AngloSaxon democracy or an industrial crisis helped by a collapse in the director’s offices—That would be different from nazi socialism only in this way: that it would be a reaction towards old time Fourth of July democracy….How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.

Late 1934, Dos Passos writes to Wilson about recent events in the Soviet Union, including the murder of Stalin’s intelligence chief,

This business about Kirov looks very very bad to me. In fact it has completely destroyed my benefit-of-the-doubt attitude towards the Stalinists—It seems to be another convolution of the self-destructive tendency that began with the Trotski-Stalin row. From now on events in Russian have no more interest—except as a terrible example—for world socialism—if you take socialism to mean the educative or constructive tendency rather than politics. The thing has gone into its Napoleonic stage and the progressive tendencies in the Soviet Government have definitely gone under before the self-protective tendencies….Meanwhile I think we should be very careful not to damage any latent spores of democracy that there still may be in the local American soil.

These remarks provoke Wilson to respond in early January 1935:

…I don’t think you ought to say, as you do, that a country which is still trying to put socialism into practice has ceased to be politically interesting…One doesn’t want to give aid and comfort to people who have hopped on the shootings in Russia as a means of discrediting socialism. Aside from this, you are right, of course, in saying that Americans who are in favor of socialism oughtn’t to try to import the methods of the Russians….

Dos Passos fires back,

[N]o government is in good shape that has to keep on massacring its people. Suppose, when that curious little [Italian] Zangara took a potshot a Franklin D. [Roosevelt], the U.S. Secret Service had massacred a hundred miscellaneous people, some because they were [Italians], others because they were anarchists and others because they had stomach trouble, what would all us reds be saying…What’s the use of losing your “chains” if you get a firing squad instead…Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out—if the coming period of wars and dictatorships give anybody a chance to work anything out….

About Russia I should have said not politically useful rather than politically interesting….By Anglo Saxon Institutions I mean the almost obliterated traditions of trial by jury common law etc—they don’t count for much all the time but they do constitute a habit more or less implanted in Western Europeans outside of Russians….

Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do—and I cant see any reason for giving the impression of trying to induce others to engage in forlorn hopes one wouldn’t go in for oneself.

“Don’t agitate me, comrade, I’m with you,” Wilson countered at the end of that January,

Surely it’s entirely unnecessary to worry about the possibility of a Stalin regime in America. I can’t imagine an American Stalin. You talk as if there were a real choice between Henry Ford on the one hand and [American Communists] on the other; but who outside the Communists themselves has ever seriously entertained the idea that these individuals would every lead a national movement?

“But” responds Dos Passos soon in February 1935,

it’s not the possibility of Stalinism in the U.S. that’s worrying me, it’s the fact that the Stalinist [Communist Party] seems doomed to fail and to bring down with it all the humanitarian tendencies I personally believe in—all the while acting as a mould on which its obverse the fascist mentality is made—and this recent massacre is certainly a sign of Stalinism’s weakness and not of its strength. None of that has anything to do with Marx’s work—but it certainly does influence one’s attitude towards a given political party. I’ve felt all along that the Communists were valuable as agitators as the abolitionist were before the Civil War—but now I ‘m not so happy about it.

Dos Passos then shifts his letter to a point Wilson had made to the effect that Marx belonged to a group of romantics that “came out of a world (before 1848) that was less sick, had much more spirit.” “By the way,” Dos Passos continues,

I don’t agree with you that a hundred years ago was a better time than now—they had a great advantage that everything was technically less cluttered and simpler—but dont you think perhaps in every time the landscape seems somewhat obstructed by human lice for those who view it? We have more information to go on, more technical ability to carry ideas out and ought to produce a whale of a lot of stuff—if I was a European I wouldn’t think so, but here we still have a margin to operate on—

Later that same February Wilson writes Dos Passos another letter, the parting shot of which is its own “By the way,”

it is being rumored that you are “rubbing your belly” and saying that “the good old Republican party is good enough for you.” Maybe you ought to make a statement of your present position.

. . .which Dos Passos does. The month after, he writes Wilson,

I finally consented, against my better judgement, to put my name down on the [leftist] Writers Congress roster. I’m going to try to write them a little preachment about liberty of conscience or freedom of inwit or something of the sort that I hope will queer me with the world savers so thoroughly that they’ll leave me alone for a while. I frankly cant see anything in this middleclass communism of the literati but a racket….People haven’t any right to make a living out of politics—It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.

“It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.” “Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out.” “Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do.” “How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.” That said, at least here in the US, according to Dos Passos, “we still have margin to operate on”.

What margin do we have today?

My narrative

Start with the margin that the framers of the US Constitution saw fit to endorse in Article 5—a new constitutional convention. Oh no, no that won’t work, you say. How would most of our state legislatures or Congressmembers ever agree to hold a Constitutional Convention?

Answer: We hold it for them. We don’t wait. We counter with our own constitutional convention.

My counternarrative is this: We have 465 congressional districts, and 465 delegates to a Peoples’ Constitutional Convention sounds about right. Anyone on the voter rolls or adult able to show district residency would be eligible to vote and any voter from the district could run as a convention delegate. Party affiliation or endorsement would, of course, not be required. The candidate with the greatest vote plurality would be the district’s delegate. The cost of this nationwide election and delegate process would be, say, US$1-2 per person, or some $600 million, with another $50 million to hold the actual convention.

The US government won’t finance this, and corporate funding would for obvious reasons be ruled out. One can imagine a consortium of individuals, foundations and overseas governments willing to defray what we can’t pay ourselves. (To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, Forbes estimated in 2017 that the net worth of author and large charity giver, J.K. Rowling, was roughly $650 million.)

The charge of the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention: To redraft the US Constitution, e.g., through a series of amendments. Think: the US Constitution as our metanarrative, the one now to be recast.

What a waste of time and money, you interject, since the real government—the states and feds—would just ignore the work of any Peoples’ Constitutional Convention.

Let them. Let them say the peoples’ mandate is illegitimate. Let them ignore a convention that represents no government, no court, no army, and none of the techno-managerial elites, just those elected to come together to hold our government, our courts, our military, and our techno-managerial elites to account. Let them ignore the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention and if they do, we’ll hold a different-premised one, and if that also does not work, we’ll go global and elect a World Parliament and then let them ignore that too.

Oh no, no, no, you can’t think that way. Pandora’s box would be opened! Constitution-making in the Confederacy witnessed not just further entrenchment of unconscionable chattel slavery, but also the first Department of Justice, a national citizenship requirement for voting, no functioning supreme court, a six-year term limit for president, civil service reform, strictures against protective tariffs, a district court structure, disavowal of the Monroe Doctrine, and provisions for a presidential item veto, executive budget, and no recess appointments.

Am I recommending all that? No. Am I saying all that was implemented? No way. What I am doing is asking this question: How else are we to get a parallel version of this range of substantive change without breaking up the country? What about the unintended consequences of not doing so or otherwise?

But of course. How silly of me. There are all those other metanarratives about how things can’t continue this way and must change for the better.

Principal sources

The letters are in: Edmund Wilson (1977), Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY and John Dos Passos (1973) The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos, Gambit, Inc., Boston, MA. I’ve followed their spelling and grammar throughout, while editing in one case still-offensive ethnic expletives.

Other key sources are: (1) L. Dabney (2005), Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY; and (2) G. Monbiot (2003), The Age of Consent, Flamingo, London: Chapter 4. (As some readers may have twigged, I am adapting and paraphrasing George Monbiot’s proposal in The Age of Consent.)

My Confederacy material draws from: (1) W.B. Yearns (1960), The Confederate Congress, University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA; R. Bensel (1990), Yankee Leviathan: The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK: Chapter 3; P. Van Riper and H. Scheiber (1959), “The Confederate Civil Service,” The Journal of Southern History, 25(4): 448-470; C.R. Lee (1963), The Confederate Constitutions, Greenwood Press Publishers: Westport, CN; and E. Thomas (1979), The Confederate Nation: 1861-1865, Harper & Row: New York, NY.

Engineering a soft landing of the economy, derisking private investments, ensuring big systems fail gracefully, and other ways to slice clouds in half

–Engineers profess the need for large hazardous systems to “fail gracefully.” That assumes a degree of control over technological failure as it is happening and, as far as I can tell, there is nothing “graceful” about a large technical system failing or failing to recover.

“Control” is also problematic when it comes to the operations of large critical infrastructures. These infrastructures have to be managed beyond their technical and regulatory controls in order to be reliable (i.e., ensuring the continuous and safe provision of services considered vital to society).

Another way to put the point is that these systems can’t be controlled for efficiency’s purposes as they cannot be managed reliably that way.

–So what?

It’s not just the sheer hubris expressed in phrases like “engineering a soft landing of the economy.” It’s not just the idiocy of thinking not only that risks of major investments can be managed, but that private investments can be “derisked” through public sector support (fiscal, monetary and regulatory). It means that even anti-utopians have been delusional at times. Karl Popper, philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he called the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It’s the case that blueprints for piecemeal health insurance–and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter–have been damaging. Here, utopian engineering is the least of our problems.

Would it fairer to say–more realistic to say–that the health care mess, along with other ones, manage us as we try to manage them?

When dominant policy narratives fail, look to the space opening up for more complex metanarratives

I

Policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisionmaking for a variety of reasons. Some narratives are internally self-refuting (think: “Everything is relative”). If all policies need to be evaluated to determine whether or not to continue them as originally stated, does that mean we might one day conclude no further need for any such assumption? Or: “Climate change is a problem of unimaginable scope and magnitude.” Well, not thoroughly unimaginable, it seems.

Far more policy narratives are externally refuted. It’s a truism that gaps arise because the beginnings, middles and ends of policy statements do not congrue with the very messy, in medias res of actual policymaking. If that failure weren’t bad enough, all policy narratives entail their semiotic opposites, as in “A thing is defined by what it is not.” If you assume in your policy or management strategy that “a” leads to “b” and “b” to “c,” it is inevitable someone will seek to find refuting cases where, e.g., not-a leads to not-b but both lead to c nevertheless (or at least don’t stop “c” from being realized by other means). And a world of 8+ billion people is complex enough to delay you in assuming otherwise.

II

This means that stabilizing the assumptions for policymaking requires active efforts to handle refutations. Efforts often seek to foreclose their occurrence; other professionals recognize such control is not possible and seek instead to better manage them.

Two ways to foreclose refutation are obvious, though one more familiar than the other. The less familiar is to identify new or more urgent crises to grab our attention, even if only for a time until–surprise!–the next news-grabbing crisis comes along. For example, if the drain on productivity because of hay fever, headaches and heartburn in the workplace was about the $150 billion drain two decades ago, just think of what the costs must be in 2022! Now that’s a crisis in health care and we’re doing nothing about it as a nation, are we?

The more familiar way to foreclose the chances of refuting a policy narrative is for policymakers to dismiss or lie about the difficulties; another is for them to exaggerate by convincing themselves that stopping short of the full complexities is ok–“keep it simple” for the time being, until when we can scale later, and anyway nothing we do now can’t be corrected later on. This strategy–if you can call “control over time” a strategy–is especially tempting when the policy is passed off as a promise to reduce the originating complexity and uncertainty.

Another way, and the one I prefer, is to recast the complex issue so as to render the original and its continued lying and exaggeration moot. Whether the reframing manages to reduce the need for dissembling is a case-by-case question, and there are certainly no guarantees the reframed problem is more tractably manageable even though just as complex. That said, I do not see how we can conclude recasting isn’t worth the management effort because lying and exaggeration come anyway with seeking greater control via policymaking.

III

So what’s new?

If policy narratives fail to stabilize the assumptions for decisonmaking because their refutations aren’t managed via recasting the issues more tractably, then narrative and its failure are better thought of as conditions for change and not just the results of having not changed. Or to rephrase it more positively: What are the conditions under which you–we–want the prevailing policy narrative to fail?

For example, as any public health official will remind you, it’s not vaccines that work, but vaccinations. (It’s not airplanes that fly but airline companies, as Bruno Latour put it.) In this view, the development of a vaccine (or better plane) is only the first or one step in managing the spread of disease. The conditions under which we actually want the prevailing policy narrative to fail is when we take a necessary change in focus to be from, say, developing the COVID-19 vaccines to an even wider and deeper panoply of vaccination processes.

IV

This in turn begs the question about the metanarratives for these shift-points or changes in the dominant narratives. What broader narratives, if any, exist for how shifts and changes are triggered from one policy narrative to another?

One such metanarrative is that for sustainability, where techno-managerial elites guide and decide what is necessary by way of achieving and ensuring global sustainability. Since any such narrative entails its opposite and since there is no one set of techno-managerial elites, the other equally clear metanarrative is far less palatable:

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.

https://brooklynrail.org/2022/03/field-notes/Endgame-Finance-and-the-Close-of-the-Market-System

V

In other words, a complex world where metanarratives are posed just as starkly and clear–save the world or die by war (a semiotic binary, if there ever was one!)–must be a world that demands an even greater appreciation of how things are much more complex than that. Or to put the point another way, what looks to be an easy choice–anyone in their right mind would choose sustainability over war–isn’t even a choice. In a complex world, how can you, for example, avoid that other binary, What is neither sustainability nor war?

Answers to the latter question raise to view a different metanarrative about complex-all-the-way-down. In this metanarrative, there are many components, each having multiple functions, and with many interconnections among the components and functions, wherever one looks. In this metanarrative, war and sustainability are notable engines of their own contingencies, surprises and unpredictabilities. In this metanarrative, war or sustainability promise a control neither can’t deliver, which in turn unleashes all manner of unintended consequences. In this metanarrative, choice can’t avoid considering those unintended consequences against the others associated with counternarratives far different and more nuanced than war or sustainability only for policy and management purposes.

Instead of “differentiated by gender, race and class,” why not more about heterogeneity and complexity

I First, the examples.

Microfinance initiatives

“The detailed review of the evidence above uncovered an even more nuanced picture, reflecting large variations across the effects of different interventions (credit only, savings only, community-based finance, mixed microfinance) and for different people in different contexts. Findings across the meta-studies were heterogeneous and often inconsistent, both within and across meta-studies, and many did not find evidence of expected or presumed impacts.”

https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/14269

Criminal justice

Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have one “criminal justice system;” instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html

Related structural racism

This is the case, for instance, with broad-brush rhetorical attacks on ‘structural racism in criminal justice’ that confuse the different scales of the American penal state (federal, state, county and city), overlook the hyperlocalism and administrative fragmentation of a criminal justice system that is not a system, and amalgamate the different practices of legislating, policing, pretrial detention, prosecution, public defence, plea negotiation and litigation, sentencing, supervising, court-mandated programming, incarceration, and sentence administration, each of which has layers of internal complexity, and may or may not produce looping ethnoracial disparities. . . .[“Structural racism”] replaces meticulous study with facile sloganeering, and pinpoint remedial action with vague calls for systemic changes that are unlikely to come about or to produce their expected results. In so doing, this vogue word betrays its ostensive purpose: to excavate the social conditions of possibility of ethnoracial justice.

Loic Wacquant, sociologist, a https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii133/articles/loic-wacquant-resolving-the-trouble-with-race

Digital sovereignty

The analysis identifies seven different but overlapping narratives of digital sovereignty in the German discourse that serve to promote partly contradictory political agendas. We argue that this diversity is not a bug, but a feature. Specifically, it supports rich internarrative linkages which benefit the broader resonance of each individual narrative. It also enables a broad set of political actors to enlist digital sovereignty for their specific priorities.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gove.12690

The Dasqupta Review on the economics of biodiversity

Dasgupta talks of “the economy” (a phrase used 91 times) in the singular, as if only his chosen economic system could exist – an idealized market capitalism. All variety in actual social provisioning systems and alternatives across time and space are conveniently ignored.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14747731.2021.1929007

State capitalism

The heterogeneous literature on the ‘new state capitalism’ has provoked considerable academic and popular interest in recent years, but also critique regarding how to analytically bolster the concept and enhance empirical understanding.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/0308518X221083986

Contemporary time

Infrastructural time, Appel (2018b) argues, partakes of a similar temporal structure, wrapping futurity and deferral together in a bewildering, purgatorial admixture. This is how Ko Tun and many other villagers relate to developmental time: through the tense of the not-yet. While developmental time signals the mythic, utopian time-space of modernity, forged in liberal empire, the not-yet points to its manifest social worlds. Those worlds are building and crumbling, on the threshold of figuration, and fraught with uncertainty. They are heterogeneous in a way that blends modernist promises and non-linear time. In Dawei, heterogeneous time is not about premodern exceptions, but rather the differential worlds of postcolonial capitalism—in all its multiple, dissonant, contradictory actuality.

https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/4b7c-1h54

Gig economy

More specifically, I argue that the combination of the technological structure of gig work (nearly automatic, open-access employment, algorithm-driven work process) plus workers’ ability to choose schedules and hours yields an unusually heterogeneous labor force on a range of dimensions, especially patterns of work in other jobs and portfolios of household incomes. As a result, worker experiences are also more heterogeneous than in conventional workplaces. One implication is that the nexus of management control cannot be reduced to algorithmic control, as some accounts have it, but rests in significant part on the role that market discipline plays. For workers who are highly dependent on platform earnings, the fear of job loss (Bowles 1985; Schor and Bowles 1987), is an important disciplinary device that enhances technological control. By contrast, for those workers who have other jobs, pensions, and family incomes, algorithmic control and fear of deactivation are less powerful. They are able to carve out more autonomy and satisfaction in platform work. This helps to distinguish platform-based gig labor from other forms of labor relations, and clarify its novelty

https://digitalage.berlin/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Brief-3_Schor_final.pdf

Scaling climate change and response

Why don’t some things scale easily? Scaling up our collective response to climate change has been notoriously difficult because people neither agree on problem definitions nor solutions; because the effects of climate change and mitigation efforts translate into different real-world experiments depending on location; and because different constituencies in the global political economy don’t agree on how to value what. Any site where scaling is made to look easy should thus raise red flags about a likely lack of comprehension or inclusiveness of perspectives.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/03063127211048945

COVID-19 preparedness and response

However, these general trends mask significant heterogeneity in responses as countries neither entered nor went through the crisis alike. . . .Overall, the pre-pandemic global outlook was heterogeneous across different geographies. . .

https://www.esm.europa.eu/publications/regional-responses-covid-19-crisis-comparative-study-economic-policy-and-institutional

Cybersecurity breaches

These results nonetheless highlight the ways that data breaches can have a heterogeneous effect on brand. . . .Although data breaches have become more common according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, there is little evidence that companies have drastically improved their cybersecurity infrastructure.

https://academic.oup.com/cybersecurity/article/7/1/tyab021/6362163

Tax havens

The use of tax havens varies considerably from bank to bank. The mean percentage of profits booked in tax havens is about 20% and ranges from 0% for nine banks to a maximum of 58%. The mean effective tax rate paid by the banks in our sample is 20%, with a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 30%. Seven banks exhibit a particularly low effective tax rate, below or equal to 15%. To better understand this heterogeneity, we analyse the use of tax havens by three banks with a relatively high presence in tax havens: HSBC, Deutsche Bank, and Société Générale. We observe a diversity of situations. . .

https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-03350725/document

Municipal housing

Taken together, the analysis of the four cities paints a complex picture of the role of public control in the field of housing . Clearly, the degree and form of this type of government intervention differs considerably, reflecting established institutional settings, historical path-dependencies and power relations . On a general level, the level of public control differs in regard to the main driver of governing (top down vs . bottom up), in their relationship to urban social movements, as well as whether their efforts reflect historical continuities or newer developments . Whereas Vienna (as well as Amsterdam to some extent) represents a case of strong continuity, a distant relation to social movements, and a top-down approach, this contrasts starkly to Barcelona and Berlin, where recent years have seen profound changes with regard to public control in housing, strongly pushed forward by social movement activities . All four cases, meanwhile, in different areas, provide innovative policy approaches to promote such activities . They are developed to different degrees, however, and subject to structural constraints and power struggles

https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/user_upload/RLS_Study_Municipalism_in_Practice.pdf

Labor protests during the COVID-19 pandemic

Finally, the dataset reveals significant variation between countries and regions. Political, economic, and institutional contexts clearly matter in shaping patterns of protest. Nevertheless, over-generalisation about the role of national institutional factors should be resisted, given the huge differences we found within countries. For example, a comparatively large volume of protest were identified in healthcare in India but very little in retail, and the same can be said of Nigeria; we therefore examine reports from these country cases in more detail below. Moreover, among the handful of countries reporting no protests, there is no consistent economic or institutional profile. Hence, we suggest that spikes in protest in particular sectors and countries are likely to reflect not only the national institutional context, but also contingent factors and strategic decisions made by the actors involved. To illustrate this point, we examine in more detail reports from the five countries with the highest levels of protest in the two sectors: France, India and Nigeria for healthcare, and the United States and Argentina for retail.

https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—inst/documents/publication/wcms_860587.pdf

II So what?

In a world where gender, race and class are the first-round differentiators, it is far too easy to conclude: Structural problems require structural solutions. That proposition is grotesquely premature and lethal to any first-round respect for heterogeneity, variation and complexity.

Why? Because the proposition willfully ignores, if not outright dismisses, concrete approaches for concrete problems, locally. Such an approach could care less about canvassing cases of what is actually working here or there so as to be usefully modified for elsewhere.

The global counternarrative of human agency

I

Since the issue is complex, let me state my conclusion at the start: In the policy and management world with which I am familiar and from which I am generalizing, human agency is the only global counternarrative I have been able to find. Because human agency is constrained differently at different times in different places and by different factors, it cannot and should not be seen as own dominant or hegemonic narrative. It has a much more important function, as we shall see.

These differences in context and function are manifestly obvious the second anyone defines human agency. Here is my definition (not an uncommon one): “an individual’s capacity to determine and make meaning from their environment through purposive consciousness and reflective and creative action“. Mine accents the reflexivity, but your preferred definition may instead highlight self-determination, imposition of the one’s will on the environment, or some sort. I suspect similar or parallel differences, to which we now turn, would be observed in applications of your definitions as well.

II

To be brief and by way of differences, there are to those who think the realization and/or control of human agency are among core principles around which to design large-scale systems involving humans, individually or collectively. Certainly over-arching notions of “the individual” and “the collective” are contested at the macro-design node. Others might immediately focus on the individual or micro-level, where here the agent acts in real time, reactively or proactively or otherwise. Here too contestation abounds over terms, if only because of different optics from psychology, phenomenology, law, microeconomics, and more.

Then there are two other levels and units of analysis, which are the ones I want to focus on with my definition .

First, there is human agency as empirically expressed and observed across a run of different cases of “individuals,” “capacities,” “meaning-making,” “task environments,” “purposes” and “reflexivities” for starters. (Think of the analogy of searching out family resemblances, if any.) Are there patterns to be recognized over a run of different cases of human agency, and do these patterns constitute empirically contingent generalizations, even as they fall far short of anything like macro-design principles?

And speaking of macro-design principles, are there cases where one or more of the contested principles have been modified to reflect local conditions and circumstances? For example, is a country’s driving code enforced or implemented differently in its mountainous regions than on its wide plains? More formally, have macro-design principles been customized to reflect local contingency scenarios?

III

So that we are on the same page, here are two examples of human agency used from the pattern recognition and localized scenario nodes, one from a case study of migration and the other from case studies of child labor:

Specifically, the current mainstream narrative is one that looks at these people as passive components of large-scale flows, driven by conflicts, migration policies and human smuggling. Even when the personal dimension is brought to the fore, it tends to be in order to depict migrants as victims at the receiving end of external forces. Whilst there is no denying that most of those crossing the Mediterranean experience violence, exploitation and are often deprived of their freedom for considerable periods of time (Albahari, 2015; D’Angelo, 2018a), it is also important to recognize and analyse their agency as individuals, as well as the complex sets of local and transnational networks that they own, develop and use before, during and after travelling to Europe.

Schapendonk, J. (2021). “Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe.” International Migration: 1 – 14  DOI:10.1111/imig.12923

First, as the data [from three countries] have demonstrated, labor, and the need for children to work, is the predominant lens through which young people and the adults that surround them conceptualize children’s engagement with gangs and organized crime. This was in contrast to the other standpoints that permeate discourse. Labeling the children as gang members is a poor reflection of their drivers of involvement in crime and is likely to stigmatize children engaged in a plight to ensure their own survival. Alternatively, the young people were not child soldiers nor were they victims or perpetrators of trafficking or slavery. A victim lens is also problematic in this context. The relationship between young people and organized crime is complex and multifaceted. Young people are victims of acute marginalization, poverty and violence but they do have some agency over their decision making. The data from all studies illustrated how gangs offer young people ways to earn an income but they also provide social mobility, ‘social protection’ (Atkinson- Sheppard, 2017) and ‘street capital.’ In some instances, criminal groups offer young people ways to earn ‘quick and easy money.’ Thus, the young people are not devoid of agency, but their decision making should be considered within the context of restricted and bounded lives.

Atkinson-Sheppard, S. (2022). “A ‘Lens of Labor’: Re‐Conceptualizing young people’s involvement in organized crime.” Critical Criminology https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-022-09674-5

IV

So what?

From my experience and reading, human agency (as defined and illustrated above) looks very different from the positions of pattern recognition and localized contingency scenarios than it does from the much more familiar macro and micro positions in policy and management.

Far less mentioned are really-existing better practices for realizing human agency that have evolved over widely different cases or for modifying principles over widely different contingency scenarios locally. More often, I have come across case studies and literature reviews that assert “best practices” in the form of macro-principles (“this is what it means to act democratically”) or where the “best practice” has been automatically scaled up from one particular site or a handful of such sites only. This is certainly true not just in the migration and child labor literatures with which I am familiar.

V

Again, so what?

One could, of course, counter there are no “better practices” anyway in the absence of best-macro ideals involving democracy and justice. I however believe the premature invocation of macro-principles accounts for why the really-existing better–please, not “best”!–practices are rarely discussed. The notable exceptions–e.g., participatory research and action generalized across a wide variety of cases and modified in light of a wider variety of equity principles–can be counted on two hands.

This is why I also believe human agency is best understood as a more or less insistent counternarrative for moving away from dominant and domineering micro and macro-level narratives of human action. In this view, overarching claims that human agency, in theory or by right, govern more or less all cases is a non-starter for actually-existing policy and management.

One thinks of rush to judgment in macro-labeling election results and protest numbers as “populist” as long as the behavior is differentiated into alt-right, left, authoritarian, or nationalist populism (or whatever). Again there are exceptions, but it is a rush to judgment when the criteria for this first cut differentiation pre-exist the analysis being offered, where the criteria in no way emerge contingently from the political complexities of elections, protests and agency dominating the cases at hand.