Resisting the Deadly Virus

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It matters little which system I join; they all have the same character.

~ Jacques Ellul

I ran into one of my former students the other day. He declared: "you were right; you said the entire institutional system is coming apart, and you were right." "And I’ll bet that, at the time I said this, you giggled and guffawed along with your classmates," I replied. "I’ll admit that I did, but I’m also admitting that you were right." I then told him that one didn’t have to be clairvoyant to see what was coming; that the self-destructive nature of institutionalism is implicit in the premises by which modern society is organized.

When asked by a reporter, "what do you think about Western Civilization," Mahatma Gandhi is said to have replied: "I think it would be a good idea!" Gandhi’s words reflect the historic — but too often unacknowledged — struggle between the creative, peaceful, and life-enhancing forces of civilization, and the violent and destructive character of institutionally-centered systems, particularly those organized around the state. Based upon the study of past civilizations, there is an almost deterministic sense that Western Civilization has been destined to collapse, as though cultures go through comparable birth-life-death cycles as organic systems.

Part of the dilemma in which mankind has long found itself arises from our dualistic nature: we are not only unique individuals — each with a DNA unmatched by any other — but also social beings who require the cooperation and companionship of others. None of us would have survived for more than a few hours had our mothers, following our births, tossed us beside the road and continued along their ways. We require the constant, loving assistance of adults to get us to a point where we can sustain ourselves. As adults, we discover the advantages of a division of labor that permits us to exchange our work efforts with others and, in the process, to live well, not only materially but psychologically.

There are implications to such fundamental truths that have proven destructive to our capacities for living both productive and personally satisfying lives. If social cooperation is essential to our very existence both as individuals and civilizations, what organizational forms are supportive of and, alternately, detrimental to, such ends?


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Such a question is crucial to the long-term well-being of a society due to the record of past civilizations’ respective declines and falls. For all of the creative, life-sustaining benefits that have arisen within civilizations, there are internal forces that contradict such advantageous interests. These destructive influences can be analogized to a virus which, if left unchecked by inattentiveness, can metastasize and overwhelm immune systems. This virus is institutionalism, or the transformation of organizational systems from convenient tools, into their own purposes for being, an inquiry I made in more detail in Calculated Chaos.

I have likened the course of history to what is known as the "cutting-and-filling" functions of a river. On the outer side of the river — where the pressure is greatest — the river cuts into the surrounding bank, bringing dirt, silt, gravel, and plant life into the current. On the inner side, where the river’s force is lessened, the debris accumulates, carrying out its filling role. Most of us like to imagine ourselves on the "cutting edge" of events, but we must remember that it is on the filling side where new growth — in the form of plant life — takes place.

The course of the river — when its cutting and filling functions complement each other — expresses the processes of continuing change that are essential to the health of any living system. Our economic life, for instance, has been characterized by Joseph Schumpeter as one of "creative destruction," wherein the established gets altered or replaced by the new. Schumpeter saw this as a "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structures from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one."

The problem is that many of those who have been able to establish their positions on the banks become uncomfortable with this incessant interplay between the destruction and creativity that is the productive process. They may then undertake efforts to restrain such changefulness, a topic I explored more fully in my book In Restraint of Trade. They usually begin with voluntary efforts to restrain the pace of competition. But, being unable to keep up with the dynamics they face, they turn to the state, which — by enjoying a monopoly on the use of violence — is able to forcibly constrain such creative threats to the status quo.

Herein are found early symptoms of the virus that can attack and destroy an otherwise healthy society. Because of its powerful energies, the river may cut into the banks upon which established interests have set their foundations in the expectation that they will enjoy permanency.

When dealing with diseases to our bodies, we are accustomed to focus our attentions on symptoms, and imagine that they are what ail us. We too often assume that, if we can suppress the symptoms we can restore our health. We apply such thinking not only to personal health concerns, but to political matters. Thus, as the conflicts and contradictions of our thinking generate increasing social violence, many find it easy to imagine that guns are the cause of our difficulties, and promote legislation to criminalize gun ownership. If children — failing to find inspiration in the mechanistic and regimented teaching methods of formal education — pursue their own interests, they may be singled out for drugging or other behavior modification practices. As the American corporate-state expands its militarization throughout the world, the reactive anger of foreigners is explained away as the "terrorism" inhering in non-Western cultures.

Just as a competent physician will look beyond the manifestations of a disease in search of its root causes, we — as members of a civilization — must learn how to discover deeper causes for the terminal state of our culture than those superficial explanations that entertain more than they inform. My reading of history points to institutionalism as the deadly virus. The infection seems to take hold at the point when an organization becomes repeatedly effective, such that its members want to make it permanent. In the minds of its supporters, the system is transformed from being a convenient tool for the accomplishment of mutual objectives, and becomes an abstraction; an end-in-itself.

The health of a system depends upon its capacity for resiliency and adaptability to changing conditions. A business organization facing a new source of competition must, in a free market, either make an effective response to the price and/or quality of a competitor’s product, or suffer income losses that may eventually force them out of business. Accepting the institutionalist premise that having become established entitles one to a permanent status is, as the historians advise us, an invitation to the collapse of a productive civilization.

As the belief in institutionalism fully infects our minds, we regard the preservation of established systems as more important than maintaining the conditions that led to the creation of such organizations in the first place. Liberty and spontaneity come to be regarded as threats to a status quo that must be maintained at all costs. Evidence for this paralyzed mindset is found in the current practice now being engaged in with the federal government bestowing untold hundreds of billions of dollars upon banks, insurance companies, automobile manufacturers, and other major corporate interests that have been labeled — in words reflective of institutionalism — "too big to fail."

Microsoft and Time magazine — whose established economic interests are challenged by the Internet — have recently proposed that the government license access to the Internet. This is the same proposal Hillary Clinton made, a number of years ago, in proposing a government "gatekeeper" that would keep just anyone from putting their opinions out into the world. The free flow of information is quite liberating, as the consequences of Gutenberg’s 15th century invention made clear.

Licensing has replaced Inquisitions as the principal means for protecting established institutional interests from the specter of unbridled competition. Physicians, lawyers, dentists, accountants, and numerous other trades and professions have used this self-protective device. The logic remains the same in each case: a state licensing board will be set up — comprised of persons already in the business — to decide who will and will not be permitted to compete with them!

Whether we are considering licensing, the establishment of tariffs, or the opening of the federal treasury for wholesale looting to benefit the friends of those holding the keys to the treasury, it is always governmental force that is called upon to transmit the virus of institutionalism. The nation-state — which has become the "typhoid Mary" in all of this — continues to expose otherwise healthy tissue to the disease-ridden influence that has reduced Western civilization to a terminal state.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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