One dead hand, and one living: examining the past’s grip on the present

Empirical evidence of success has its limits as a way of selecting leaders, decision-makers, and philosophical frameworks.

Don’t get me wrong, a meritocratic review of past performance is far superior to claims of divine mandate, brute coercion, and/or the ability to weave appealing ideas and rhetoric without any grounding in reality.

But the problem is this: a track record of success is necessarily evidence of success under past conditions and past definitions of success. If those conditions have changed – or if our knowledge of those conditions and what constitutes success has deepened, possibly as a result of observing the effects of those past “successes” – what counted as success in the past may have no bearing on success in the future, or indeed may even indicate a predisposition to failure under the new circumstances.

In its neutral form, I call the tendency to make determinations based on influence (including but not limited to evidence) from the past parelthocracy, rule of the past. And as a historian and human rights advocate, I will gladly affirm that there are good reasons to attend to the lessons of the past! Fetishizing the new, and ignoring/trivializing/falsifying history, is, ironically, an age-old mistake.

However, there are two related terms which are less benign, for when parelthocracy turns inert or resentful:

  • palaeocracy (rule of the ancient) is the fossilized persistence of ideas past the point where they clearly no longer apply; and
  • notocracy (rule of the back, as in turning one’s back) where power is used to attempt to prolong or recreate past conditions for the sake of doing so rather than because of any objective good – or, just as often, create the conditions of an imagined or delusory past.

 

Palaeocracy

Consider the colossal carnage in WWI trench warfare, where generals who rose through the ranks due to successes in cavalry warfare collided with the realities of mechanised industrial death-dealing. This constituted palaeocracy, where outdated ideas simply happened to be prevalent among those in charge and to persist in the face of evidence.

Other factors, especially classism, nationalism, and vested economic interests, also played major roles in the butchery and bungling, of course. But the generals on both sides were not only misgoverning from our historical perspective, but failing on their own jingoistic terms, because they were simply unable to comprehend that, for all their extensive training and experience, their understanding of war was almost totally redundant.

Two key ingredients of this example of palaeocracy, and a common though by no means universal element of palaeocracy in general, were operational distance – the fact that those making decisions were rarely anywhere near the implementation of those decisions – and a hierarchy designed to centralise information and decision-making authority. These two things meant that the generals could go literally years without the fact of their own redundancy being apparent to them, ignorant of the reality their troops faced, and often not even asking the right questions about their strategic situation. In this light, the astonishing victim-blaming of their troops and the lower echelons of the hierarchy as inferior, inadequate, cowardly, excessively sentimental, treasonous, and so on, becomes both more understandable (though still completely unforgivable) and a clear symptom of palaeocratic bungling.

 

Notocracy

As an example of notocracy, see the ability of oil and coal fortunes to buy delay in otherwise self-evidently desirable changes to energy policy. These billionaires and corporations accumulated tremendous wealth and political influence by (along with the usual shenanigans) being exceptional providers of energy under old, less-informed understandings of the world. It isn’t their fault that those understandings predated the invention of more distributed, cheaper, egalitarian, secure, and sustainable forms of energy generation, and unwittingly ignored the climate-destabilising effects of mass fossil fuel use.

What is their fault is the way they are now using the power thus accumulated to intentionally obfuscate climate science (see Doubt is their product) and the scientific and popular mandate to change; and more importantly, to ensure governments continue to subsidise and support their outdated technology, while at the same time withholding from the newer, cleaner, fairer tech the same economy-shifting levels of support that underwrote and continues to underwrite the success of fossil fuels.[1]

This is not simply an inability to adapt mental models to new information. It is a wilful, aggressive attempt to preserve outdated arrangements in the face of abundant evidence that this benefits nobody but the owners of the fossil fuel industry – and ultimately, not even them. Hence, notocracy rather than palaeocracy.

As this example suggests, the extra effort involved in notocracy means that its advocates are highly motivated, both in their reasoning and in acting on that reasoning. That motivation is often financial or political, but can be purely emotional, based on the same psychological drives as nostalgia.[2]

Notocracy is not the same as resistance to change where change is (a) avoidable and (b) for the worse. A worker resisting the erosion of their wages and working conditions is not doing so out of notocracy, unless there genuinely is no other way to keep the business running and there are no other businesses present or likely to arise where the worker can find a job. The chief executive who fails to cut their salary and bonus packages before asking workers to take a cut in pay and conditions is driven by notocracy, and also a sense of entitlement (the two often go hand in hand).

A final key point about notocracy is that the “past” is not necessarily the actual historical past. In fact, I would argue that this kind of obsessive devotion to a past way of doing things, outside of overwhelming personal vested interest such as the fossil fuel example above, is quite often the result of a partial and selective, or even outright false, understanding of the past, often as mythologised through particular partisan lenses.

 

The qualities of parelthocracy

Both of these toxic modes of parelthocracy are almost always accompanied by denial and/or wilful blindness about the aspects of the past that were undesirable, or historically contingent and no longer applicable. (In some cases, the “past” for which palaeocrats and notocrats yearn never actually existed![3]) Active efforts to conceal, ignore, destroy evidence of, or shout down contradictory facts are more prominent in notocracy (palaeocracy tends to rely on incumbency to get away with just shutting its eyes to inconvenient truth) but can occur in either. Likewise, messengers can get shot in organisations or communities suffering either mode, but in palaeocracy this will usually take the form of social penalties such as labelling the person a troublemaker, overly ambitious, or otherwise too big for their britches, whereas a notocratic reaction is more aggressively punitive.

Parelthocracy (and its more malign subtypes) is of course a trait of any real endeavour; science itself is prone to these tendencies. Not only in the sense that “science advances one funeral at a time” – that’s not science per se but the social context around science. Rather, because science involves an incremental gathering of empirical data, those data need to be recognised as historically situated rather than somehow being magically representative of eternal truth.

A live contemporary example is the way machine-learning AI algorithms draw bigoted conclusions from empirical data… data which was of course generated by societies with centuries-long legacies of bigoted systems heavily impacting social outcomes, and gathered by fallible human scientists influenced by the unconscious assumptions of those bigoted systems.

However, as attested by the fact that these discussions exist relatively early in the development of machine learning, science is much better equipped – and far more predisposed – to identify and overcome these same tendencies than most other human institutions.

The dangers of palaeocracy and notocracy also exist at smaller, more local levels. Palaeocracy is more common, as lower stakes mean less likelihood of corrupt self-interest, but notocracy is driven as much by emotion as greed, so both can be found.

“Seniority” in employment and management tends to mean not only experience but also a tendency to devalue new ideas, especially those from junior staff, and new cultural forms. To the managers in question, this feels like sensible conservatism, the “wisdom of experience”, but from the outside – especially in service organisations where the decision-making is not technical – can objectively result in inferior outcomes.

 

A concrete example that I have personally verified follows. A staff member of a local not-for-profit institution became aware of a regional brainstorming call for ideas that related to one of their areas of interest and expertise. The staff member had an idea that was both relevant and practicable enough to at least discuss, but the process for submitting the idea required that it be submitted by someone more senior. The staff member in question passed on the idea to their manager, only to be told after the deadline for submission had passed that the manager had decided not to contribute anything at all to the call for ideas (thereby impoverishing the brainstorming process), rather than submit an idea that the manager “did not understand”. No attempt to contact the staff member for clarification had been made, and other people to whom the staff member showed the idea found it perfectly comprehensible and worth discussing.

In confirming this story, I also established that the manager in question is widely regarded as hard-working, talented, intelligent and collegial, and was legitimately very busy in that time. This incident is not intended by me or the person who reported it to me as a personal criticism of that manager. But clearly there were other options than simply doing nothing, such as:

  • trusting their staff member enough to submit the idea as-was;
  • delegating the work of clarifying and submitting the idea;
  • submitting the idea with an appropriate caveat;
  • or recognising the value of the kind of initiative the staff member was showing, and shuffling priorities for the few minutes necessary to clarify whatever had confused the manager.

The final irony is that the idea was a simple, elegant framework for fostering and supporting innovation.

 

This example shows that palaeocracy need not be the result of an explicit commitment to old assumptions and ideas. It can simply be the result of institutional pressures squeezing out the time required to evaluate and develop new ideas. Indeed, the non-profit and government sectors are particularly and increasingly prone to these pressures, thanks to relentless funding cuts and “efficiency” drives that characterise efficiency as “doing more of the same for less” – a definition which embodies palaeocracy in no uncertain terms.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

 

Avoiding toxic parelthocracy

The past is indubitably important in understanding and making the most of the present. Engaged awareness of our history and the causal systems within which we operate is the living hand of the past, a strong guiding and supportive force.

But the past can also lay heavy on us, a dead weight holding us back and dragging us down.

My hope is that by naming and briefly describing palaeocracy and notocracy I have given managers and planners tools to avoid or at least minimise these tendencies. I have not named healthy parelthocracy because it is simply part of wisdom.

(And technically it is not a “-cracy”. Where our relationship to the past is healthy, even the strongest traditions are viewed in terms of the value they offer to the living people who embody them, and are not treated as ruling impulses to be honoured at all costs. The ancestors who bequeathed us these traditions, assuming they did so out of love for their descendants, would not want them to be harmful.)

The key takeaway is that we need to redefine assumptions around leadership and power to better reflect this principle that past success is not always a guarantor of suitability for future success.

In particular, we need to build into our systems for making decisions and assigning responsibilities a repeated check-in about whether the environment (or our understanding thereof) has substantially changed, or for that matter whether the people involved have substantially changed in ways that affect their suitability for the role. If we find that there have been major changes in our operating context, we should probably expect to need similar changes, perhaps even radical ones, not only in our operations but in our decision-making processes.

We need to rethink our attitudes to leadership and past decisions, to recognise that the decision and/or leader that were selected in the past may have been perfectly correct at the time (or at least as correct as was humanly possible in the context) but may not be the best choices now – without this being in any way a negative reflection on anyone involved. (After all, in some cases it will be the exact same qualities that made a choice the correct one in the past that make it now incorrect!) Loss aversion makes the shift to a world where leadership is not a ladder to climb but a temporary mantle bestowed for particular purposes psychologically difficult to adjust to; but once it is established as a norm it will serve substantially better than current hierarchical modes of advancement.

(As a side benefit it also mitigates against the Peter Principle.)

But beyond specific choices and individuals, we particularly need to apply these principles to systemic frameworks such as budgets, procedures, and hierarchies. Humans have a natural capacity and even tendency to adapt to change, though not always consciously, and certainly with a countervailing conservatism. But the whole point of such official structures is to be a fixed reference point; metrics are compared to previous years’, procedures are designed to produce consistent outcomes and can go years without change, and even budgets, which are produced annually, tend to be templated on the previous year’s. Changing these frameworks requires actual effort, which in and of itself is a cost, even before we start considering implementing the concrete changes these bureaucratic changes reflect.

Of these three areas of change, the most important is probably the shift away from fixed hierarchies towards more flexible and inclusive decision-making processes. Giving a meaningful voice in the discussion to more people, especially to those closest to the actual interface between budgets/procedures/frameworks and the real world, makes it far more likely that outdated ideas will be confronted with relevant new facts. Other necessary changes will flow from this.

As a significant and closely related side benefit, it also fosters inclusion of a broader range of demographic voices in the decision-making process. This is self-evidently true on simple numerical grounds – where there’s room for more voices, you get a wider range of them. But just as crucially, the nature of privilege is such that dominant groups will be over-represented in decision-making positions, and subordinate groups will be concentrated at the operational, “lower” levels.

But all three aspects of systemic frameworks need to be examined, and in some ways the more so the more successful an institution has been in the past. My post tomorrow will discuss the parelthocratic perils of success, with particular reference to libraries.

 

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[1] That they have the gall to fund think-tanks which purport to advocate a “free market” is especially insulting; if they are serious about a “level playing field”, they should either insist on their competitors and their competitors’ customers receiving the same subsidies as them and theirs, or reject all government subsidy and repay everything they have received to date, indexed to inflation if not at market interest rates throughout the period.

[2] In fact, I originally called notocracy nostocracy instead – but recent psychological research indicates that nostalgia can be a useful coping mechanism, and by definition this sort of denialism is unhealthy.

[3] One need only look at the quite recent idea that videogames are a masculine pastime. I am old enough to remember a time in my childhood when my sisters and I happily played PC games made by women without anyone thinking this was weird (well, not the gender aspects; the pastime itself was sometimes viewed as a bit strange, and I heard a few comments that it was unusual to see siblings collaborating as we did to beat the games). Yet some elements of the community have taken it upon themselves to treat women on the scene as interlopers. This is a clear case of false notocracy which has been consciously socially engineered by marketeers, and then further engineered and weaponised by outside forces – some of whom had previously been openly, viciously contemptuous of games and gamers – as part of a broader culture war.

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