Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900

The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Glass half full

Who are the puppets and who the puppet masters?

Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half full or half empty perspective. Optimistic or pessimistic – make your choice and draw your conclusions. Let’s try some optimism for a change.

In spite of what we hear about poverty and social decay, most of us in the UK lead comfortable lives compared to those of our grandparents. The people who manage this satisfactory state of affairs are executives and senior players in a whole range of businesses, institutions and bureaucracies.

They are well rewarded of course, in many cases vastly over-rewarded because a fair number of them are useless parasites. But from a glass half full perspective, perhaps the price is a small one if we consider the advantages.

So if the situation works out to our advantage, who comes out on top? The executive who is owned body and soul by his or her business? The senior bureaucrat who works every weekend just to stay on top of the job? It isn’t always like that of course, but it can be and is it isn’t clear who is jerking the strings. Chicken or egg?

We have reached a stage where enjoying life isn’t wholly a question of money. Not so long ago it was money, but now it isn’t. Okay so only a few of us can afford to swan around in an Aston Martin, but what’s the point of that with speed cameras all over the place?

What’s the point of being even moderately wealthy? What luxury or lifestyle advantage lies beyond the reach of the majority? Again it is a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half empty or half full perspective...

...pauses for a sip of old Madeira...

...right where was I? Oh yes. Taking things a step further, what would the world be like if an unfamiliar social perspective were to emerge? One where the ambitious executive is a menial, deceived into swapping his or her leisure for ludicrously expensive gewgaws and an illusory social status?

Suppose we are in the middle of some gigantic process of discovering the good life? Suppose those who manage it for us are just as much puppets as we are? We jerk their strings just as much as they...

...or is that the Madeira speaking?

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who in the world am I?

Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.
Lewis Carroll - Alice in Wonderland

Only the other day I noticed how rarely I describe my own character. Took a while to pick up on that one didn’t it? Over sixty years.

Very occasionally I might think of myself as a bit of a bookworm, but not often and I make sure I moderate the description with words such as a bit of a. Perhaps I don’t want to create too strong an impression on myself. So on the whole I don’t explore the possibilities of defining my own character. Are others equally reticent?

I suppose a verbal description of oneself is bound to solidify something - irrespective of whether it ought to be solidified. It is bound to create verbal channels, habits of thought which are seen as consistent with one’s previously defined character.

It’s not that we don’t do this kind of thing at all, this personal introspection. It must go on in a diffuse, partly non-verbal and somewhat unstructured way. But do we firm it up with unambiguous descriptive sentences? Do we define ourselves, clarify what we are and what we are not?

In my case the answer seems to be mostly no. I prefer observation and the fluidity of possibilities... Oops – is that a verbal description of myself?

Well maybe it is, but does it help to formulate a definitive verbal view of one’s character? I don’t really know because I’ve never done it in a structured way and I’m sure it is too late now.

Friday, 17 October 2014


Suppose many orthodox social and political narratives are either completely false or far more inaccurate than we have hitherto supposed. It’s not much of a supposition, but I’m thinking of narratives based on old-fashioned generalisations about human behaviour.

From similar causes have arisen those notions which are called universal or general, such as man, dog, horse, etc. I mean so many images arise in the human body, e.g., so many images of men are formed at the same time, that they overcome the power of imagining, not altogether indeed, but to such an extent that the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals (eg colour, size etc.) and their fixed number, and only that in which all agree in so far as the body is affected by them is distinctly imagined.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics (Boyle translation)

We are all familiar with the weaknesses of what Spinoza called universal or general notions. As he says, they are substitutes for a level of individual detail we cannot possibly attain. We have to use generalisations, clambering around their many pitfalls as best we can.

Yet modern search engines and databases have already acquired a level of individual detail about many aspects of our lives and habits. They have moved on from the ancient and intractable situation where the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals.

So Spinoza's point is being made obsolete by technology, by huge modern databases which are not constrained by our ancient need to generalise. Not surprisingly their information is valuable enough to be sold to third parties. With safeguards it is said, but who believes that?

So generalisations are no longer necessary for those with deep pockets. We know it of course, but how do we deal with it?

How might we acquire such information ourselves without a government’s ability to twist arms? The short answer is that we can’t. The information isn’t likely to appear in books either because there is too much of it and the financial return would be inadequate. Neither is it likely to appear in academic literature for the same reasons.

So for global corporations and presumably governments, Spinoza’s problem is rapidly becoming outdated. The big hitters don’t need his universal or general notions. They have at their fingertips a colossally detailed corpus of information about human behaviour which lies well beyond the reach of most ordinary folk.

What do they know that we don’t?

How to manipulate our behaviour in order to ensure bovine social and political attitudes? Almost certainly, so the only political answer is smarter voting.

Oh oh – not smarter voting again. Rats.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Role model

Nick Clegg has waded into the debate about Sheffield United football club re-signing former player and convicted rapist Ched Evans who is expected to be released from prison this week. 

From the BBC.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has urged Sheffield United's owners to "think really long and hard" before re-signing convicted rapist Ched Evans.

Clegg, Sheffield Hallam MP, said: "When you take a footballer on, you are not taking just a footballer these days, you are also taking on a role model."

Whatever conclusions one reaches on this issue, there is something particularly odious about a prominent politician using it for his own ends. Is Clegg really so desperate that he will stoop to using a high profile rape case to polish what he perceives to be his political credentials?

The answer is obviously yes.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White collar robots

My working life was almost entirely spent in environmental science. Over almost forty years I saw it change from a piecemeal, locally-based effort to a full-blown global bureaucracy with the UN at the top. It became process-driven.

Apart from an ambitious few who knowingly go with the flow, most capable scientists don’t cope well with bureaucracy. Their working ethic tends to be based on two assumptions.

The truth will out.
People are essentially ethical.

Unfortunately the truth isn’t that powerful and process-driven people are not known for an unequivocal reliance on ethical standards. As a result most scientists do not compete well with the implacable nature of process-driven bureaucracies. By the time I left, the good scientists had mostly departed and process worship was setting every agenda.

Even so I had an interesting time and probably learned more about human nature and the nature of institutions than I then realised. I now look back on it as a time of profound social change which eventually became obvious, but had been rather less obvious only a few decades earlier.

One reason why the left/right political dichotomy no longer works is that both sides of the political divide are process-driven. They also seem increasingly willing to merge their processes. The traditional left always loved process with its tendency to centralise every decision and its endless mistrust of the uncontrolled.

Today even our local electrician is enmeshed in process - trained, certified tested and certified again. The butcher the baker and even the candlestick maker too no doubt. Maybe the latter will make a comeback after a few more years of process-driven energy policies.

So political right dances hand in hand with political left because government and global business are nothing if not process-driven. We are entering a process-driven world where most young people probably have no prospect whatever of avoiding process-driven employment.

Everything they do will fall into one of two categories.

It will be part of a documented process – or
It will be forbidden.

The vast majority will have no outlet for their modest talents because there will be no tick box for modest talent. Process rules. White collar robots are the future.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The stitch-up

The Guardian reports.

Britain’s main political parties are heading for a pre-election clash over the introduction of English votes for English laws after the Labour party announced that it would boycott a “Westminster stitch-up” on the issue.

William Hague, the leader of the Commons, is chairing a cabinet committee that will examine proposals to introduce English votes for English laws, known by its acronym of Evel, at Westminster.

Of course it's a stitch-up in that it wouldn't happen if the coalition parties didn't see some party advantage to be gained. So what? It is a genuine issue just the same.

So the Labour party is seen to put party advantage ahead of a commonplace issue of democratic accountability. No surprises there, if the situation were reversed, the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be just as devious.

Many of us would much prefer to see a Labour party where democracy is an ineradicable part of its basic raison d'être. A party which fights for the interests of ordinary voters against the rich and powerful without ever sacrificing principle to expediency. A moral oasis in a corrupt world. Yet it ain't so. Never was.