donderdag 30 december 2010


The words ‘grief’ or ‘violence’ or ‘pain’ do not belong to the vocabulary of organizations. Because there grown-ups work together based on mutual consent and rational alignment. That’s what I sometimes hear from participants in my workshop Thinking for someone else, in which I – in the footsteps of the philosopher Levinas – regularly use those words, even if we discuss work situations. My answer is that some words may indeed sound strange in the context of organization and management, but that they really can tell us something about that reality. And that time may be ripe for a variety of unusual word connections.

As to that latter thought I feel strengthened by the publication of the book The judge’s new clothes by the Dutch judge Rinus Otte. Because the book calls forth a number of unusual associations. Of judges with misery, of organizations with grief, of management with being pathetic. These unusual connections are there already for some time, so Otte suggests, but something in our minds keeps us from associating the said things with one another.

The association of judges with misery gets profile only relatively recently. Namely, Otte tells us, since judges are locked up in planning and control cycles in which targets are fixed and results are measured. Because much of their work processes are standardized, judges from a center point turned into a link in a chain. They have little grip anymore on the organization of their daily work. The juridical process is planned for them, not by them. The thinking is being done for them, and thus they started to show increasingly dependent behavior. They started to make one another’s lifes a misery and to complain a lot, especially about the workload, says Otte.

That’s pretty miserable indeed, but – according to Otte – no more pathetic than the fate of many other professionals, because the planning and control bureaucracy has raged almost everywhere and made people mellow. That of course makes it no less severe, as the malaise now almost gets the features of a genuine cultural crisis.

The words organization and grief seem to stem from two incompatible vocabularies. Organization stands for ultimate rationality and functionality. There may be some links with the realm of emotions, but these connections are subject to strict censorship. Emotions in that context should invariably radiate positivity and enthusiasm and be about connectedness. The association of organization as a reasonable concept with grief keeps feeling uneasy, but Otte makes clear to what extent that association within the administration of justice is identifiable. The Dutch paper NRC reports that Otte was baffled about the “unhappiness” and the “organizational violence” that he encountered at his court (and, appearing from his quotationmarks, the reporter found it strange words a well in this context).

Something similarly uneasy applies to the coupling of managers and being pathetic. According to the prevailing perception managers are still mainly associated with vigor, coolness and, again, reasonableness. Yet, however often the words energy and charisma and connection may be used in those circles, Otte’s book makes quite clear, according to the NRC, that management of the criminal process is mainly rather tiresome. “Tensions have grown over the last five to ten years” and “What you see is a lot of communication between deaf, people don’t reach each other”.

The interesting question, of course, which lays behind those uncomfortable associations is: what makes our brain to take one kind of associations for granted and to find other kinds of associations odd, even though reality offers us many reasons for such an unusual association to be made? To be continued.

Also see Bauman, Levinas and business ethics

donderdag 23 december 2010


Lately I heard Abram de Swaan in his Thomas More-lecture speak on “The financial regime, the consequences of a modern false doctrine”. It is a pleasure to listen to De Swaan in his double role as scientist and performer. His devastating story about the ridiculous belief of politicians and economists in the ‘discipline of the market’ and its poor results got a welcome reception with me and the rest of the audience.

An important message of De Swaan was: please also ridicule those bankers and executives who imagined themselves to be the best and the brightest. Because if they really are so clever, why did it all go so terribly wrong? And if they really think the market is that important, why do they let themselves be saved for billions by the state? And why then do they pass each other the plum jobs, in closed systems of cooptation? No, the free market is first of all for the others, for subordinates, not for the top.

Let scorn come over those bonus catchers, says De Swaan, and the scorning may be very well left to him. Yet I found De Swaan stronger at those moments when he, in the context of his analysis of the situation, put forward something else. Namely the finding that some parts of the false doctrine have a kind of irresistible attraction. For example the idea that the free market as an invisible hand manages to organize society. Or the complex mathematical models by which risks could be calculated (or be mislaid) and predictions could be made.

De Swaan confessed that he himself in his scholarly work liked to work with mathematical models and that he knows the fascinating charm that may emanate from them. These models, in which everything fits together neatly and logically, can generate such a rush that you truly start to believe that reality is like the models. Even in a free society it can apparently happen hat great minds get in the grip of a false doctrine.

Indeed, I think that's more interesting than scorn. Not only because De Swaan here brings himself into the game, which I certainly appreciate. But especially since he touches on an element that has great explanatory power when it comes to analyzing a stalemate as we have fallen into. It is not just ill will of some greedy bastards, but also the magical effects of logic and mathematical models that have been at work here. Say: the euphoria of thinking, also of thinking in good faith, such as by economic scientists. They, according to De Swaan, through their preoccupation with models and abstractions contributed to the legitimisation of financial malpractice.

Besides explanatory power, the phenomenon of deception by sheer thinking provides a better starting point for a constructive conversation than scorn can offer. There is undoubtedly a lot of greed in the world, but also a lot of well-intentioned illusion. And there's more to talk about the latter - precisely because there are good intentions behind it - than about greed because the latter is equivalent to ill will. And a conversation about ill will immediately will be an allegation.

Scorning the best and the brightest, who have made themselves so ridiculous, may be liberating and that appeared when we listened to De Swaan. But one should be cautious not to get into yes against no and into a fight to the finish. Because De Swaan and his audience will put it off then against “If you're so smart, why aren’t you rich?”, big money’s justification.

donderdag 16 december 2010

Reversal of values

Recently Naima El Bezaz beautifully described her experience of seeing the film Des Hommes et des Dieux by Xavier Beauvois. Her style of description is completely original and authentic but of such a character that I think many Jews can identify with what she writes.

The movie is set in the nineties of the last century and is about a group of French monks who inhabit a monastery in the Algerian mountains. It is the time when Islamist terror groups step up their fight against the secular Algerian regime. They sweep the country, devastating and murdering anyone they regard as enemies: Westerners, Muslims who don’t take Islam seriously enough, Christians. It is soon clear that the monks are going to be a target for the terrorists and that actually it is the best for them to leave the country as soon as possible. Indeed, the Algerian government demands the monks to leave, if only to later have no diplomatic row with France.

But the monks refuse to leave. They continue to do what they have always done: live with the poor local people, supporting them with equipment and medical assistance. The people of the village feel at home in the monastery and the monks take care of them as if they were their children. Leaving the monastery would be tantamount to treason, the monks have to continue their mission of mercy and protection. There will be no happy end.

As this story unfolds in the cinema, El Bezaz describes herself and her feelings while she consumes the film. And then it appears she experiences a reversal of values. At the beginning of the film she is full of sympathy about so much love and selflessness on the part of the monks. She even feels a twinge of envy for those men who manage to generate such warmth and affection for the poor villagers. In the mosque things sometimes may be quite different!

At this point in the film she is still neatly in line with the journalists on the chairs beside and in front of her, who above all seem to be deeply impressed by such amounts of selflessness and charity. They are likely to join the chorus of invariably enthusiastic critics who already made the film receive the Grand Prix at Cannes.

But suddenly she feels a deep anger welling up inside. This happens when the monks after long deliberation decide to stay. But why? Where does that anger come from? It’s all about pure love and selflessness, what objection could one possibly have against that?

Apparently there is a lot to object against that, such is what El Bezaz shows us. The ordinary Algerians, at least the villagers, are living in a crippling fear. They would pay a fortune if only they could leave. “And then there are those French monks who do have the chance to leave and so save their lives, yet choose to stay where they are”. This triggers the anger and disgust of El Bezaz. It is the combination of the naive dog eyes of the monks and their patronizing superior sacrificing themselves for that pitiful mountain folk which she experiences as an example of imperialist thinking.

This description can be read as a debunking of something which is pretty hard to uncover: the violence that lies behind the superiority of complete self-sacrifice. And which is particularly noticeable for those who simply want to bear and continue their own existence. About the vilification of these pursuits by the ‘superior and noble Christianity’ Jews and Israel can have their say.

This has got much to do with Thinking for someone else.