…yet the new cannot be born. This prescient insight was recorded by Antonio Gramsci in the late 1920s in his prison diaries. He went on to say that ‘in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. Whilst Gramsci was talking about the political situation in Europe just before the rise of the Nazis, his quote is getting a lot of airtime recently. It would appear that we are in such an ‘interregnum’ period again, where an established order is in its death throes but no coherent narrative exists for what will replace this order. To me, this doesn’t just apply to neoliberal politics and economics, but also to the way we currently organise work. Over the past 13 years in our coaching business we have witnessed a steady increase of ‘morbid symptoms’ in all sectors of the economy. The broadly accepted model for managing work – the vertically integrated and hierarchical organisation in thrall to scientific management and relentless supervision and evaluation of individual performance – is everywhere and only a miniscule number of entities dare to deviate from this norm.
But it’s no longer working. The organisations are vastly inefficient and choking on self-imposed rules. A recent Deloitte report found that 16% of all resources are spent on complying with rules and the average manager spends 9 hours every week complying with self-imposed, internal rules. The compliance workforce is the fastest growing sector in the economy. Combine this with relentless pressure to achieve and an omnipresent measurement culture and it should come as no surprise that workplace stress and anxiety claims are growing at double digit rates. As the organisations increasingly lose their ability to supply the services and products that customers and citizens actually want, they rely on market power alone to cement their continued existence. Self-preservation has become the ultimate purpose of practically every large organisation we encounter and it is also the key motivation of many of the people who continue to work in environments that are affecting their mental health.
The desire to control all and any risk stems from the enlightenment philosophy – the human longing to control nature and master its inherent randomness through the creation of predictable (mechanistic) structures. We have only extended this hallowed principle with the addition of the concept of individual perfectability in the last 50 years. By constructing a meritocracy to eliminate the perceived injustice and randomness of hereditary, political or nepotistic transitions we were aiming for even greater predictability – the highest reward will inevitably go to those who put in the most effort. Today, this proposition is still wildly accepted, yet in laughable discrepancy to reality. CEO salaries bear no resemblance to skill, effort or even actual company performance. Whilst all employees are relentlessly measured and trained, little opportunities for expressing genuine talent or innovation exist and rewards are not correlated with individual performance or contribution.
What happens inside organisations and outside in the ‘real world’ is also no longer in alignment and the stresses are starting to show. Our underlying economic model is built on the assumption of everlasting growth, despite the simple fact that such never-ending growth will eventually exceed the available resources on earth. Whilst this ideology remains dominant, actual behaviour has already changed. In most Western countries energy use is in decline on a total and per-capita basis. Since all productive activity relies on energy inputs, it follows that we are already consuming less. We can begin to make out some of the outlines of the new order in this transition – the rise of decentralised and democratised energy generation and communication technologies, primarily through rooftop solar PV and the Internet. With decentralised manufacturing technologies, such as 3D printing, now entering the mainstream we are getting closer to an economic model that will mostly do away with the need for large corporations and bureaucracies. This transition can’t come too soon as multinational corporations relentlessly usurp power from the political sphere which remains trapped in territory bound nation states incapable of coordinated global regulation and taxation. The alternative, the continued ascent of mega-corporations to a risk-free nirvana of all-engrossing compliance makes for the great proliferation of dystopia movies recently, but will hopefully never come to pass in reality.
We should expect the continued increase of morbid symptoms of a system stuck with nowhere to go other than turning serious business such as politics and security into theatre to divert attention from the powerlessness suffered by all actors bar a handful of the 0.01% who constitute the true global elite. As in prior transitions, expect people on the ground to make the choices in response to changing circumstances which will usher in the new order. I do not expect a new ideology or narrative to emerge until after most of the transition has already happened. Sometimes the simplest slogan (“Wir wollen raus!”) will suffice to galvanise people into action when the time is right. in the meantime, regaining some semblance of the individual freedom to act is the primary choice on offer today – becoming self-employed, generating your own power and minimising dependencies that keep you trapped in your current job, such as excessive mortgage payments and private school fees. Expect the speed of the transition to keep increasing, as the underlying technologies are growing exponentially. By 2030, we will probably live in a very different world.