“It is a gross prejudice to think that the future will always know more than the past. Every generation is born totally ignorant, and just as we are only one failed harvest away from starvation, we are also only one failed generational transfer of knowledge away from darkest ignorance. Although it is true that today many people know many things that no one knew in the past, it is also true that large segments of the present generation are more ignorant than were large segments of past generations. The level of policy in a democracy cannot rise above the average level of understanding of the population. In a democracy the distribution of knowledge is as important as the distribution of wealth.” (Daly & Farley, Ecological Economics, Island Press, 2004, p. 41)
As is sometimes the way I decided to write this introduction after I had written the main body of the article. It occurred to me that it would help readers if I gave them an advance warning of what it was going to be about. It also occurred to me, after I had written it, that what I had written was an illustration of the ideas of archeologist, historian and social observer Joseph Tainter – that civilisations collapse not because they are subjected to stress surges like wars, epidemics and harvest failures but rather because they have become so complex that they cannot organise a response to such stress surges. The growing complexity of the civilisation means that it loses its resilience.
But what does it mean to say that a society becomes “more complex”? There are different kinds of complexity but in this article the chief one that pre-occupies me is the growing degree of labour and skill specialisation – with an increasing number of occupational types in an increasingly varied pattern of industries. In this article I am arguing that this ultimately leads to a degradation of society’s ability to understand itself and its own processes and problems.
In a pre-industrial society there were very few occupational groups and most people lived it a world in which it made sense to be a generalist, to possess and practice of variety of skills. Nowadays it is the very opposite. People tend to focus their employed working lives in ever narrower specialisms. They need higher and higher formal qualifications to get a job at all. A major part of the argument here is that this has consequences for the ability of a society to understand itself and its environment. This is reflected in a degradation of discourse about problems and what might be done about them.
At a relatively early stage in the development of the industrial division of labour some critics were warning that there were draw backs that were not being taken into account. One such was Karl Marx who, in his essay “The Poverty of Philosophy”, used the term “craft idiocy” to describe the narrow mindedness that can come from a narrow and exclusive skill focus. In my argument here the same applies to professions and academic disciplines that are too narrowly focused. This can lead to a distorted and impoverished debate about ecological, economic and social priorities in the political process. Even what passes for scientific and professional level discourse is heavily influenced by the blinkers that specialism has put on the faces of supposedly competent people. What passes for the considered judgements of experts are typically pre-judiced by a failure to be aware of a wider picture. Thus, to return to the idea of Tainter, a society can fail to organise a response to the stress that it is under because its elite and its intellectual helpers are so specialised that they have become narrow minded, prejudiced and lack the breadth of vision to take in the wider picture of what is going on.
Prejudice – what it is and why it is ubiquitous
Let’s start with the concept of prejudice. When you look at the word closely, and break it down, it becomes clearer what pre-judice is. Pre-judice means pre-judgement. Drawing a conclusion too early or before one is in full possession of all relevant facts.
To be prejudiced is to have decided before one is properly and fully informed. It is to be acting before one has important information.
Prejucide therefore contains the idea of ignorance as a component part. But ignorance is another word that requires deeper examination. If we break down the word “ignor – ant” into its separate parts we notice an idea that someone is inadequately informed because available information has been ignored. Of course, that may not be true at all. One may be ignorant about things because those things have never been a part of one’s experience and more generally one has never seen, read about or heard of these things.
Lichtungs des Sein – a clearing in the forest of unknowning
The German philosopher Heidegger describes our experience of being alive (“being” or “sein” in German) with a metaphor. It is as if each of us exists in a clearing ( of a forest) – Die Lichtung des Seins. The idea to be conveyed with the metaphor is that what any person knows is “inside their clearing” but, beyond the edge of the clearing, “the forest” is an area of darkness or, more accurately, of unknowing. The idea of unknowing here does not carry any moral or ethical connotations – it is not necessarily a personal or group failing – though it might be. After all there is no way in which each of us can know about everything. While one can create a “bigger clearing to live in” – by research, study, learning – as well as more generally by being open minded – there will always be a limit to what one can get to know in a lifetime.
The idea of a clearing is of course a metaphor and analogous metaphors describe the limits of knowledge in different contexts. For example “the fog of war” describes how, in conditions of human conflict, accurate knowledge that will help one decide what to do is likely to be very difficult to come by. Above all this is because enemies are likely to be seeking advantage by secrecy, spreading false information and seeking to create misinterpretations. All these add greater complication to the fact that in war situations may be fast moving and changing dramatically.
War is the most intense of human conflicts but falling short of war there are also multiple forms of economic, political and military rivalry – as well as interpersonal conflicts of various kinds. As a general rule the higher the level of conflict, the lower the level of trust and the lower the level of trust, the more difficult it is to know what is happening because information is less likely to be reliable and/or it is being actively managed to pursue rival agendas. This management of information can take a number of forms.
There may be taboos that discourage people seeking information about things as well as writing or talking about them. Long before formal secrecy and censorship is instituted (by the state or to maintain commercial secrets) a lot of people decide to shut up about some things and not ask awkward questions. In situations of conflict where certain types of information would undermine a shared agenda a “three wise monkeys” approach may be adopted by a group without any formal decision being taken to do this. Don’t look, don’t ask or hear and keep your mouth shut.
Of course the boundary between knowing and unknowing is not always a border that is fought over, that is influenced by rivalry between individuals or groups. None of us can know more than a tiny fraction of what is happening in the world and we are microscopic against the scale of the universe. Compared to most of the history of humanity society is currently characterised by a huge amount of specialisation in education, training and jobs, as well great differences in levels of power, authority, wealth and comfort or poverty. The languages we speak, different places we live in and our relationships to these places, our gender and age, our varying family circumstances and obligations all differentiate every individual from every other person.
In each case, individuals interpret what is happening in the world on the basis of what they already know or think that they know based on their unique experience. As Anais Nin said “We do not see things as they are but as we are”.
In seeking to push back “the edge of the clearing”, to deepen our understanding of what is happening in our world, we first of all draw upon our specialist training and personal experience. If we are thinking about human affairs we will often assume that other people will act in particular situations in a similar way to the way that we would. We may implicitly assume that they have the same kinds of motivations and will make the same kind of arrangements. Assumptions from one part of our life, experience and training may slip over to influence how we think about other things and situations.
It is common for people to think of the management of state finances in a similar way to the management of household finances for example. Some kinds of engineer may think of people as if they are mechanical components – with little awareness of the feelings, emotion and the free will of human subjects which makes them different from cogs in a machine. Social relationships are then thought as akin the mechanical relationships. Instead of thinking of people as ends they are regarded as means. They become “human resources”. Such interpretations matter in a time of crisis.
There are several different types of interpretative error where people unsurprisingly rely heavily on what they think they know and not on what they cannot yet know or have not yet learned. One is in human emotional relationships. Psychologists refer to “projection” when people assume emotional responses from other people are, or will be, like their own. In this case however there is something else happening. One’s own thoughts, feelings, motivations and desires are not only seen as existing in others but they are also denied as happening inside oneself. “I am a nice person and don’t hate anyone – it is those bastards who are full of hatred that need to be watched and kept under control”. “I have great respect for women – it’s those Mexicans who are rapists”.
Fach Idiots or “idiotisme du métier”
Another example is to be found in what German’s call “Fach Idiot” ( or in French “idiotisme du métier”). A Fach Idiot (a literal translation would be a topic or subject idiot ) is someone who knows absolutely everything that there is to be known about a specialist topic – but absolutely nothing about anything else.
The concept came into use in the 19th century indeed Karl Marx wrote of it in his critique of Proudhon (in his work “The Poverty of Philosophy”). Describing the effects of the division of labour Marx wrote that
“What characterizes the division of labour inside modern society is that it engenders specialized functions, specialists, and with them craft-idiocy.”
Marx then goes on to quote a 19th century French author, Lemontey
“We are struck with admiration,” says Lemontey, “when we see among the Ancients the same person distinguishing himself to a high degree as philosopher, poet, orator, historian, priest, administrator, general of an army. Our souls are appalled at the sight of so vast a domain. Each one of us plants his hedge and shuts himself up in his enclosure. I do not know whether by this parcellation the field is enlarged, but I do know that man is belittled.”
The problem with Fach idiocy is that a Fach Idiot has a tendency to interpret the world though the distorting prism of their own subject or skill speciality which, without being aware of it, they feel gives them the transferable concepts that can be applied in every field of human relationships, current affairs, science or culture. (Or any field that counts as being worthy of such cursory consideration that the Fach Idiot deigns to bestow on it).
While more extreme forms of Fach Idiocy (or craft-idiocy) might be rare the point being made here is that in more mild forms it is very common. It is closely related to what the french call déformation professionnelle – an occupational role of medical doctor, teacher, lawyer or manager is so deeply internalised that it cannot be turned off outside of work. It conditions how a person interprets and acts with their partner and children too. In small talk an environmental official first of all asks about the energy efficiency of your car, the police officer sees signs of criminality everywhere and the mathematician solves mathematical problems in their spare time.
All of this appears sad and a cause for concern but there are many situations where Fach Idiocy and “deformed professionals” can have damaging effects, serve the interests of powerful groups and in some circumstances be positively dangerous. The narrow minded specialists of a particular subject may be the ones that come to be seen as the appropriate experts to judge how dangerous something is. In a study called “Late Lessons from Early Warnings” which reviewed why it had taken so long to take regulatory action against particular threats to public health and the environment, one issue that emerged was that the “wrong” speciality too often came to be seen as the experts that society should get its advice from.
“Where effects that are the domain of a particular specialist field may initially be more pronounced, or discovered at an earlier stage, this can lead to a situation where regulatory appraisal becomes unduly dominated by, even ‘captive’ to, a particular discipline. This can lead to a form of ‘institutional’ ignorance, as opposed to the society-wide ignorance discussed above. For both asbestos and ionising radiation the setting of standards was strongly influenced by the preoccupation of medical clinicians with immediate acute effects. In both cases, the toxicology and epidemiology of long term chronic effects remained relatively neglected. The introduction of MTBE was based on bodies of knowledge concerning engines, combustion and air pollution. The water pollution aspects associated with persistence and significant taste and odour problems were essentially disregarded, though the information was available.” (See Chapter 16 in http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental_issue_report_2001_22)
A more up to date example of this is the way that, in regard to the public health and environmental consquences of unconventional gas, geologists and petroleum engineers had much more apparent knowledge at an earlier stage and were able to use that professional knowledge to profile themselves as experts, not just on the geology and engineering, but as experts on health and safety and public health and environmental consequences too. In the UK the head of Science at the British Geological Survey opined, on the basis of his knowledge, that fracking was a low risk activity. In a book, supposedly about the scientific method as a way of guiding judgements on fracking Professor Mike Stephenson unthinkingly relies a number of times on his own subjective opinion formed by personal experience in the oil and gas sector. For example
“….all of these are nuisances that are associated with other industries and oil and gas activities. I don’t mean to minimise them, but they are the sort of things that we can cope with. Trucks can be re-routed; noise can be put up with, land can be reclaimed just like it can after any industrial activity like quarrying.”
Actually the occupational fatality rate on fracking sites are 2.5 times that on building sites in the US. The professor of geology is lulled into a false confidence by his collegiate relationships and experience in the industry. I do not know why but I suspect that since he personally has been able to put up with deafening noise on short visits to well pads he assumes that people living nearby will too.
Perhaps even less apparent to a professor of geology is that the short term nature of setting up a gas field means that the fracking industry often relies on a transient labour force. This has consequences too. Working very long hours, the workers have often resorted to amphetamines to stay awake. Indeed, if one gathers together the research evidence one finds that
These are not the sorts of consequences that one would expect a geologist to predict and indeed they do not.
Because of the problem of “Fach idiocy” we should not be overly impressed when the Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society came together to produce a report, proclaiming that with proper regulation and following best practice, fracking could be made safe. Its authors were in the main engineers, geologists and geographers but there were no public health or medical specialists and no independent expert on scrutinising industry practice in the oil and gas sectors.
This is not to deny that geologists or geologists have a role in public health and environmental issues but what we have here is an assumption about the relevance of particular knowledge and expertise that appears to have gone too far.
Ivan Illich and the critique of professionalism
The examples of professional hubris are many. Professionalism of various kinds is more than a little vulnerable to over estimating the adequacy of specialist knowledge, which is conditioned to fit with particular institutions and to serve particular vested interests. Professional expertise encourages professional prejudice (pre-judice) when a particular way of doing things builds up vested interests. For example, when the assumption takes hold that the best way of treating a health problem is drug medication it will lead to a build up of capital and employment in companies making and selling the drugs. It will become connected to particular practices in medical training, marketing personnel targeting doctors prescription practice and lobbyists targeting politicians. The influence of this drug industry may become difficult to shift even if new information comes along that shows that the drugs are not such a good idea at all.
This is the point to note the relevance of ideas from Ivan Illich, a maverick intellectual, who developed a general critical viewpoint on professionalism and institutions. His view was that beyond a certain point specialists, professionals and the institutions that they serve have a disabling and disempowering effect on and for the very individuals that they purport to serve. The ability of ordinary people to improvise DIY responses to meet their needs, in convivial and learning relationships with their peers, is undermined by experts and institutions that falsely claim to have the necessary knowledge to do a better job. Take teachers and schools for example:
“….the production of knowledge, the marketing of knowledge, which is what the school amounts to, draws society into the trap of thinking that knowledge is hygienic, pure, respectable, deodorized, produced by human heads and amassed in stock….. [B]y making school compulsory, [people] are schooled to believe that the self-taught individual is to be discriminated against; that learning and the growth of cognitive capacity, require a process of consumption of services presented in an industrial, a planned, a professional form;… that learning is a thing rather than an activity. A thing that can be amassed and measured, the possession of which is a measure of the productivity of the individual within the society. That is, of his social value.” (Illich on Deschooling Society.)
Everywhere you look there are negative consequences of these arrangements. Without self taught abilities the qualified expert reigns supreme – and will often do a considerable amount of damage because their professional knowledge undermines traditions and arrangements for self help or has been captured by the assumptions of vested interests. As a result there is now good quality evidence that the leading cause of death in countries like the USA is not heart disease or cancer but medicine itself – as well as the fact that a large proportion of medical interventions have no real purpose or useful function but are very profitable for medical and ancilliary industries. (http://www.webdc.com/pdfs/deathbymedicine.pdf)
People are discouraged from developing their own understandings of their situation by professionals and experts with their academic qualifications. Academic qualifications in which universities get a vested interest can override the proper weight that should be given to lay experience, vernacular learning and DIY arrangements in multiple fields. Take for example, language learning. In one of his books Illich describes how in societies without a formal education system learning another language if you needed to was ordinary and unremarkable. It was nothing to boast about – and certainly did not need several years of an expensive university education.
Knowledge that is respectable is not knowledge that is truthful
Nor are the issues just about unnecesary expenditure on teachers and professionals. What is at stake here is also whether we are going to be able to understand the world in ways that, as Illich put it, are not “respectable” and “deodorised”. Because the official narrative told by officials is so often a lie it is difficult to make sense of what is going on if we take the story as told by institutions at face value. The problem with instutional curriculums is patently obvious to any refugee who is supposed to regurgitate what it says in their citizenship studies that Britain, with its history of imperialist oppression, is a global beacon for “fair play”.
“Official reality” is a part of the “consensus trance” – what we go along with and eventually ‘sort of believe’ in order not to rock the boat. Official reality, including that fed us by another branch of professionals working for public relations agencies, involves a conceptualisation of the world that takes out any idea that those who govern and service us are ever abusive, exploitative and incompetent. Official narratives would have us believe that if the prime minister exhorts us to something then we should take him or her seriously. Of course this is a nonsense.
Believing what the institutions and professionals would have you believe in many fields is to be a mug. There are plenty of areas where it will be positively bad for you. For example in areas like emotional and psychological well being if you give up attempting to develop your own understanding and narrative about your emotional life you will have given up your independence. You will be accepting the negative labels of doctors and other professional “carers”. You will be allowing a medically trained doctor, a member of the Royal College of Psychiatry, to tell you that you have faulty genes and faulty brain chemistry with the implication that you will always require his or her medical training to assist. This “assistance” is likely to be medication that turns down the volume control on consciousness and damages the brain – while producing good profits for pharmaceutical companies. It is a win win for the doctor-pharmaceutical industry alliance and a lose lose for their patients and the rest of society.
Experts in cruelty and intimidation
Often various types of “expert” are deployed on an official mission whose real purpose is to undermine and invalidate – like those “experts” who, in the UK, judge whether people are fit for work or whether they should receive disability benefits. When 60% of appeals against these decisions are upheld there is good reason to believe that cruelty is the chief aim of the process with the aim of discouraging people from claiming rather than actually establishing the truth of whether people can work or not. (Illustrated in the recent UK film I, Daniel Blake). This also has the useful function for the managers of the system as tying the victims up in an endless Kafkaesque struggle to survive. In society at large it also makes it appear that the problems of an under class are self generated instead of what is really the case – that these problems largely arise out of the stupidity, narrow mindedness and ignorance of the managers and professionals themselves.
Professional hubris is therefore all pervasive but not noticed for what it is because the people damaged by it are blamed by the perpetrators. The Fach Idiots, and “deformed Professionals”, the “craft idiocy” of inappropriate specialists are allowed to overestimate their competence and unable to see that they are making acute problems into chronic ones. At a time of increasing economic and social chaos the effects of the toxic division of intellectual labour makes the social crisis far worse. It keeps people busy – but not in a way that would enhance self help and mutual aid.
Consider for example the consequences of “professional deformation” and group-think among police professionals. It is in the nature of their jobs that they are likely to be pre-disposed to see signs of criminality everywhere. In a generalised social crisis they are likely to interpret social breakdown solely or mainly as a breakdown of law and order and as a failure to control criminality. Operating with this mind-set they are then likely to be bestowed great power as the turmoil gets greater.
A social crisis that few understand
Perhaps worse of all is what can happen at a society wide level. There are occasions when people lack an explanatory framework for their declining ability to respond to circumstances that bewilder them because they have no comparable experience and nothing to guide their actions. If that happens to individuals their wild and emotional reactions are likely to be judged by their peers as evidence that they have gone insane. When it happens to entire societies it is a bit different. Pseudo explanations of what is happening are likely to constructed that substitute for real explanations.
For example paranoid stories appear to explain what is causing the chaos because society is supposedly under attack by an identifiable group that is then persecuted as witches, as heretics or as agents of a foreign enemy. Suddenly a once great society like the USA is under threat from Mexicans and Muslims. To unite everyone around making the USA great again these enemies must be slung out.
Mobilisation to attack the “enemies of the people” gives a group a shared purpose – i.e. it appears to restores the predictability, routine and control because people are working together purposefully. During the early days of the Nazi dictatorship in Germany the term used to describe this process was “Gleichschaltung”.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930s the chaos had to end. Gleichschaltung was immediately understandable to those who worked with machinery and to the police and military. Get people back into uniform. Line them up, get them to march in step with each other, turn left, turn right. Stop. Stand to attention, shoulder arms, present arms. All together like parts of a synchronised machine.
“It is a word rarely to be found in older German dictionaries. ‘Gleich’ means equal, ‘Schaltung’ means switch, as in an electrical switch; Gleichschaltung
therefore means switching on to the same track or wavelength, or, to put it in one word, alignment or co-ordination. It became, in 1933, the word for the process by which all organisations and associations existing in society were nazified and some, such as the political parties and the trade unions, were simply suppressed. The word was meant to hide the fact that what was going on was in flagrant breach of all previous notions of freedom, civil rights and self-government. It was a way of glossing over the threat of terror and violence that compelled individuals and organisations to come to heel.” (http://www.history-ontheweb.co.uk/concepts/concept72_gleichschaltung.htm
If society becomes a machine of synchronised cogs then who drives or steers it? Complete order requires someone to give orders. Who gave the orders? A psychopathic madman. His orders created chaos and millions died.
But all the way through this process, not only during the military advances but all the way through the long retreats, right to the bitter end in the battle of Berlin, those whose lives were synchronised thought that they knew what they had to do as the chaos grew all around them. Had they not followed the purpose given to them what would they have done? They had no idea – so they followed the “granfalloon”.
A granfalloon is a collective parallel to individual madness. When people lack a real understanding of, and solution for bewildering conditions then they create themselves an imaginary one. Such a collective purpose may be ultimately meaningless ahd hopelessly nebulous (like “making America great again”) but, by bringing people together with a shared loyalty to symbols, rituals and beliefs the appearance of a common cause is created. A common definition of a granfalloon as “a proud and meaningless association of human beings.”
“In social psychology, the concept stems from research by the British social psychologist Henri Tajfel, whose findings have come to be known as the minimal group paradigm. In his research, Tajfel found that strangers would form groups on the basis of completely inconsequential criteria. In one study, Tajfel subjects were asked to watch a coin toss. They were then designated to a particular group based on whether the coin landed on heads or tails. The subjects placed in groups based on such meaningless associations between them have consistently been found to “act as if those sharing the meaningless labels were kin or close friends”. (Source Wikipedia)
The Irish author Jonathan Swift satirised this attitude in Gullivers Travels where he described the origins of a long running war between Lilliput and the nearby island of Blefescu in an ideological dispute over whether one should break open hard boiled eggs at the little end or the big end.
“It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy; but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments.”
Likewise Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, describes a miserable and impoverished island where people are given a reason to exist by inventing a religion which one part of the population adopt while the state tries to suppress and to ban it….
Most of the time people assume that they know what is happening around them. Alas this is not the case. For example at the end of 18th
century large numbers of people from England settled in Australia and found that there were already people there who they thought of as primitives. They took the land of these native people and hunted them down in programmes of genocide. What the white settlers noticed was that the landscape of Australia was ideal for grazing cattle. What they did not notice was that is was because the Aboriginal people were managing the entire eco-system, the entire landscape, with fire management to largely be a grazing landscape for the animals that they could hunt with ease. The Europeans assumed that their way of using the landscape was superior and worked long hours. They regarded the Aboriginal people with contempt because they appeared to work little. Yet they did not recognise that the Aboriginal people did not need to work a lot because their detailed knowledge and sophisticated ecological system management made that unnecessary. In short the white settlers were completely unaware that they were living in the presence of a society that was a lot more sophisticated than their own when it came to managing and living on the Australian continent. Nor did they realise that this society had been truly sustainable for it had lasted for at least 8,000 and perhaps 15,000 years. The English settlers’ military organisation and brutality prevailed however and it was not until over 200 years later that a tiny number of academics from the European cultural tradition realised what had happened had been a catastrophic regression. Most white Australians still live in ignorance and assume that they belong to a cultural and historical tradition that represents “progress”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sko-YDIULKY
This example should serve as a warning. Whole societies can regress and jointly agree that their descent into barbarism is progress.
Much of the time people assume that there is some rationality and logic to the way that society is organised and that the professionals and experts who run our institutions know what they are doing. We can trust them to take the right decisions because they have been trained to a very high level and have qualifications. In this article I have attempted to show that the complete opposite is a more plausible description of our condition. Most of the time most of us have not a clue what is going on in the society and the economy and that is true for everyone including the structures of social power and hierarchy – right from the top of society downwards including the teachers, lawyers, engineers, doctors, economists – you name it. It is perhaps because many people have an uneasy feeling at the way society is going that they feel hate at what they think of as “the establishment”.
At every level of society there are big black holes of ignorance partly deliberately created as spaces of hiding – for example the secrecy jurisdictions through which a large part of global money flows are routed. Partly these holes in the fabric of knowledge remain unseen because of an assumption of competence and rationality on the part of particular national or cultural or professional groups – assumption of rationality and competence that are shared illusions.
None of us know what we do not know – and much of what we do not know are unknown unknowns. That said it is the fate of some people to be aware of what to most people are unknowns before everyone else.
Energetic and ecological limits are mostly unknown because they are taboos. It would be great if people found out more about these limits because responding to them seems to me to the be the most pressing of all agendas for society. What is more likely however is that the bulk of the population will now pre-occupy themselves with granfalloons instead – and plenty of very educated people will help them.
Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside for a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in the health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped develop Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of the Feasta Energy and Climate Working Group and the Co-ordinator of Cap and Share UK. His life-long interest is why and how people and systems break down. He lives in Nottingham.