Learning relationships in Vietnam

Learning relationships in Vietnam

I’ve written about organisations on this blog, and I’ve written about people, and I’ve written about politics. What I haven’t talked about enough is relationships. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks but was finally prompted to do it today by this story about the role of Blair’s personal leadership style in the UK’s involvement in the attack on Iraq. The edited version is that other ministers felt they owed Tony Blair, that he had done so much for him that they didn’t wish to oppose him. He got on with planning the attack on Iraq and they got on with doing what he said. What’s interesting here is that it would be easy to think in abstract terms about the machinery of state, the hierarchy within a cabinet, but one of the dominant factors in Blair not receiving enough opposition was the personal power he had, the types of relationships he had with people around him.

It reminded me of working in the civil service, a short phase of my misguided youth. I felt that many things were being done crushingly badly in my field of work, but it was harder than I expected to get others to agree with this. They were personally invested in it was one problem, but the other – and it took me a long time to realise how important this could be – was that the department I worked for was a social entity, and people felt a social pressure to conform, just as they might do when buying a new car despite new cars being poor value. At the same time, of course, staff felt the pressure to obey their managers common to all hierarchical organisations. It was the combination of the two types of pressure that made up the silence within which everyone busied themselves with tasks that made no sense.

Here is Silke Helfrich on the meaning of the commons:

Once again, it is not enough to understand commons mainly as “collective resources” or to focus on the institutional side of it, as the Nobel Prize winning political scientist and economist Elinor Ostrom did with her “Design principles for commons institutions.”

Both framings are very very helpful, but they don’t address many of the subjective, social and personal dynamics within commons-based institutions. Is there a inner logic woven through human interaction that holds a commons together?

This reads to me as reaching towards a conception of organisation/ownership as expressions of relationships. I think all types of organisation and ownership work on relationships: the success of the violent British ruling class over many centuries seems to depend on their socialisation and friendships and alliances formed in public schools and Oxbridge, to take an example from the dark side. That raises the question, incidentally, of what the rest of us learn at school, or with our childhood peers. My own experience in small organisations suggests that the relationships even within groups that try to be democratic are often characterised by the types of dynamics familiar from authoritarian classrooms. Consuming the words of a dominant figure is a way of showing respect, and mutual respect is hard to come by.

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