Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The persistance of history.

I often wonder why more progress hasn't been made in adopting the ideas championed by Cemex, Ford and the many other companies I've described here. I was thinking about this general topic again this morning and here's where I ended up:.

Edward Gibbon, writing in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, claims that human nature never changes and that history is determined by mankind's predilection for faction, self-seeking and contention, augmented by environmental and cultural differences. Gibbon teaches that, despite technological advances, the tragedy for so much of the world is how societies are still ancient in a political sense. People in poor nations, he writes, exhibit "a carelessness of futurity." And even amid the "progress" of the developed world, many of our institutions remain corrupt and decadent because of money (this is in the news every day now). Economist Kenneth Boulding's summary of world history is that "Wealth creates power and power destroys wealth." I don’t look for all this to change anytime soon. As Joseph Campbell observed in the forward to The Masks of God, "I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still ... put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends, or by madmen to nonsense and disaster."

Specialists who see organizations through the lens of their particular profession often fail to understand the reality of political life. In politics, we're commonly faced with choices among necessary evils. Many human problems can never be finally solved because the ultimate values involved are at odds with one another. Values like economic progress and settled communities can't always be made compatible. Sometimes we must choose between them. In this sense, the search for the perfect organization or the perfect society is the pursuit of an illusion. And organizations aren't laboratories in which scientific theories can be tested by observation and experiment. Outcomes often depend on political judgment and good political judgment requires courage and luck, an artist's sense for place and time, and an instinct for what is and what isn't workable. The qualities that make a great politician are as elusive as those that make an artistic genius.

History however provides patterns which give us alternative contexts for thought and action. It's a shame that examples of learning from experience are as rare as diamonds on the beach. "If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us," commented Samuel Coleridge. "But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us."

Rather than learning from history, most of us follow instead the siren song of the poet, Christina Rossetti:

The downhill path is easy, come with me and it please ye,
We shall escape the uphill by never turning back ....

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