Frazzled institutions

NetWork

The photograph by Cea is Branching Morphogenesis, a walk-through installation by Jenny Sabin, consisting of 75,000 cable ties resembling neural net of the brain. This is a pattern and organising structure at the heart of our nature – and a far cry from institutional patterns highlighted by the likes of Virginia Woolf in an earlier post.

Diarmuid O’Murchu calls institutions “frazzled” in Adult FaithThe financial crisis of 2008 has reminded us that “banking institutions are more vulnerable than anybody had suspected”. O’Murchu’s observation that “all major institutions are in a state of identity crisis” reflects Dee Hock’s view of “organisations increasingly unable to achieve the purpose for which they were created, yet continuing to expand as they devour scarce resources, demean the human spirit and destroy the environment.” (Birth of the Chaordic Age, p 28). He lists:

  • Schools that can’t teach
  • universities far from universal
  • corporations that can neither cooperate or compete, only consolidate
  • unhealthy health-care systems
  • welfare systems in which no one fares well
  • farming systems that destroy soil and poison food
  • families far from familial
  • police that can’t enforce the law
  • judicial systems without justice
  • governments that can’t govern
  • economies that can’t economise

Hock’s comment on this is that “such universal, ever accelerated institutional failure suggests there is some deep, pervasive question we have not asked.”

One question I often bear in mind in relationships is “how big or small do I now feel?” Our usual answer is “small” in relation to institutional life. There’s not much we feel we can do except for the institution in which we walk tall and big ourselves up in relation to everyone else. We walk away, in increasing numbers, where we can.

For Hock, the problem is our “Industrial Age organisational concept” which is “a wrong concept of organisation and leadership based on a false metaphor with which we must deal. Until our consciousness of the relational aspect of the world and all life therein shall change, the problems that crush the young and make grown people cry will get progressively worse.”

For O’Murchu “all the major institutions we know today evolved as instruments for the implementation of patriarchal power. Many are beaking down and losing credibility, giving way to networks with a greater potential for collaboration and adult empowerment”. For O’Murchu institutions “inherently disempower” however democratic they may try to be. “No matter how democratic a hierarchical system is, it will fail to do justice to the aspirations of the people. People want to participate. They want to be involved; in a word, they want to exercise their adult creativity. And when that goal is jeopardised, it is then we need policing … the prevailing power – culturally, politically, religiously – feeds power. Only in a minimal and superficial way does it empower.”

Competition and control are the assumed guiding principles for institutions and our evolutionary history. But work done by micro-biologist Lynn Margulis suggests a paradigm shift to our thinking and our organisation. Margulis’s theory of symbiogenesis highlights an orientation for cooperation rather than competition.

Human imagination has been “domesticated” by institutions, according to O’Murchu, so that the “human being is seen primarily as a deviant creature whose behaviour has to be tightly controlled. Instead of being perceived as creative adults, whose long evolutionary history verifies … a heavy commitment to conviviality and collaboration, humans have been subjected to highly destructive imperial control.”

O’Murchu suggests that there are other “structural strategies” besides institutions with their “top-down hierarchical line of control, usually with clear distinctions between “us” (at the top) and “them” (at the base)”.

I suppose that our institutional framework has been shaped by the myth of The Fall. But there is a dangerous circularity to that assumption. The argument may be that the Fall accounts for human sinfulness which needs to be controlled (by institutions). But institutions (religious) account for the Fall. One depends on the other as is being increasingly recognised. The emperor/institution really is in the all together.

In some ways the church has been tarred with the same brush and there is decline in confidence and “bums on seats”. But then there is another more hopeful sense in which some Christians are behaving less like institutionalised “bums on seats” who are envisaging alternative structures for the sake of the least, last and lost.

Developing viable alternative structures seems vital (as well as inevitable) in a world in which  institutions have become so devalued. Alternative structures are already emerging in the form of networks but the context for that emergence is still governed by institutions who become ever more fearful and seem ever more remote from a (human) nature that is essentially cooperative, collaborative and convivial.

 

2 thoughts on “Frazzled institutions

  1. This was a good way to start the day, David. Thank you. We need to re-title the story about leaving Eden, I think – ‘The Growing Up’; ‘Leaving Home’; ‘Made for struggle’….

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