The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Hard Problem of Leadership

We have lived under representative democracy for a long time now, and while it has had its victories and there have been good leaders, it’s fair to say that most of the leadership, most of the time, has been bad or even evil, and that representative democracy has failed its biggest test—managing climate change and environmental collapse.

This is a Green Age After the Collapse Article. You can read the others (this is the fourth), here.

The other forms of leadership we’ve tried since the invention of agriculture have all, likewise, been more bad than good or have failed to scale well enough to protect themselves. Kingship, rank societies, big man societies, feudalism, imperialism, direct democracy and so on. On the economic side, when it’s not identical to the political, we’ve also tended to choose bad leaders, whether they were merchant lords, corporate CEOs and boards, guild masters or slavers. Most systems work well for a few generations, then fall apart. Seven generations when you’re lucky, more commonly three, as with neoliberalism.

Just thinking back over my life, I can’t think of a President who wasn’t doing more evil than good. This even includes Carter, who was the neoliberal leader before neoliberalism. The case for every other President is clear: Obama, for example, ramped up drone assassinations and encouraged the banks to steal people’s homes without the necessary paperwork, while massively ramping up shale oil and gas production and bragging about it.

As for corporate leadership, the idea that Musk, Bezos, Gates, and the various banking CEOs and so far are good leader is ludicrous. They are, to be sure, successful, but the society they have created is heading towards catastrophe. Even when you look at a man many worship, like Steve Jobs, you find a mixed legacy at best. Jobs opus was the smartphone. And while it’s a marvelous piece of technology, when you look at the actual literature of the effect of smart phones, it’s that the more you use one, the less real friends you have and the more unhappy you are.

And the weird thing is that Jobs didn’t even invent the underlying breakthrough, which is to say the graphical GUI, any more than Gates invented the PC (Jobs has a better shot there). And the people who make the most money out of the internet and the world wide web didn’t invent either of those things—both were invented by government supported researchers.

What Jobs and co did is bring certain ideas to scale, which is necessary if the idea should be brought to scale. But there are many different ways that an idea can be scaled and it may not require the sort of psychopathy that is common to corporations; that is, indeed, part of their DNA.

Leadership is one of the few core problems: if we can’t get it right, we can’t get anything right, because almost everything is downstream from our decisions as a species, and our leaders, whoever they are, make the most important decisions.

We have to select leaders better, or we’ll never live in good societies for any length of time, and those of us who do luck out and live in one, will indeed, just be the recipients of luck.

I’m going to write about this more, soon. The next step will be talking about Plato and the book of his everyone loves to hate, The Republic.

Because Plato’s specific solution might be repulsive to almost everyone, but he was trying to answer the right question, and we need to understand why we hate his answer, and if we’re right to do so.

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Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – March 31, 2024


The Hard Problem of Leadership: Scale and Good Leaders


  1. And while it’s a marvelous piece of technology, …when you look at the actual literature of the effect of smart phones, it’s that the more you use one, the less real friends you have and the more unhappy you are.
    This same process occurs with every new technology/chemical/drug/product. It becomes universally used before its effects are studied/known by the users. By then society/people have become in a sense addicted to the product and curtaining it’s use is a monumental task. Combined with the propaganda from those making money off the product, and them capturing the media/government/science journals and it’s near impossible.

  2. capelin

    “…or have failed to scale well enough to protect themselves.”

    The crux of any solution probably lies with figuring this out.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Capelin — yes. City states seem to perform best, but they don’t last, and they tend to war a lot with each other.

  4. bruce wilder

    Good small-scale organization requires large-scale organization of the social and political ecology. The psychopaths subvert the large-scale organization, which is often beyond the ken of the citizen and beyond the ability of democratic movements to comprehend and affect.

    Banking and finance might be an example. The New Deal created a diversity of mostly small-scale (certainly by 21st century standards of small) financial institutions: commercial banks and savings and loans and credit unions and mutual insurance and stock brokers and so and on. There were some very large-scale institutions that helped to make that diversity of small-scale operation possible — deposit insurance and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and there were a bunch of others. Some operations of routine banking are demonstrably more efficient at a small scale — credit assessment of business is one critical function that works well where it involves personal relationships and human judgement and observation of circumstance and character. Knock away or subvert the integrity of the institutions that enabled small-scale banking to thrive and lay off some of the portfolio risks of local concentration, for example, and the only kind of banking institution that can survive is one that is politically very, very powerful and the only way to become very, very powerful politically is to become huge and dominating and, frankly, corrupting. The advantages of size and political power have to yield a return that offsets the disadvantages of large-scale, which in banking are considerable. In stark terms, a JP Morgan Chase has to become enormous and politically powerful to survive, because internally it is festering sewer of inefficiency and corruption. The pursuit of political power has to be by means of corrupting practices, so it just feeds on itself.

    Laissez faire is a recipe for the growth of corrupting political power, because it ignores the need for some kinds of overarching architecture, deliberately chosen, that can make sustaining small-scale organization possible.

  5. Purple Library Guy

    This is a problem I have thought about quite a lot. As a leftist, I come at it largely from noticing the two main strands of left wing thought–the relatively centralized state-oriented socialist strand, and the anarchist variety with its tendency to decentralized direct democracy. Both have fundamental problems of leadership.

    But I have concluded that the distinction between the kind of leadership problem which is all about crappy leaders, and the kind of leadership problem wherein the governance doesn’t scale, are not just mirror images. They are fundamentally different in kind. And what I have concluded is that the first kind of problem is insoluble, it is essential to any kind of large polity with powerful individual or small group leadership. It comes from the creation of a distinction between rulers and ruled, which results in the rulers having different interests, attitudes and culture, and information from the ruled. Almost inevitably they rule for the rulers (generally including some technocratic group that participates in rulership) rather than for the citizens. Furthermore, just because any civilization is made up mostly of the people, not the rulers, inevitably the rulers’ self-dealing and ignorance about the situation lower down are bad for the polity’s health and will pile up what Marx called “contradictions”. I could argue this at length, but for this discussion I’ll just assume it; I would like to note that individual leaders CAN occasionally resist all these factors and do good things, it’s just really bloody rare and tends to require major popular pressure to also exist. There are just mighty damn few Hugo Chaveses.

    But the second kind, the problem that systems along the lines of direct democracy do not scale, is NOT insoluble. It’s a technical problem. And it’s a technical problem which has confronted hierarchical systems as well–they’ve just solved it better. This may be partly because solving this problem for direct-democratic, relatively leaderless systems is harder. It is probably also just that there has been a lot more work put into solving the problem for hierarchies. Just in the time I’ve been alive, organizations have gotten a lot better at doing hierarchy, allowing bigger transnational corporations, incredibly complex “project management” with special software assisting the processes, sophisticated communication technologies and so on. There are masses of software products for helping hierarchies organize, endless “business schools” dedicated to researching and teaching people how to effectively dominate subordinates and make large hierarchies effective, and so on and on.

    But in a broad sense, many of these technologies would also be useful for creating a non-hierarchical, direct democratic organization that scaled. I have in fact figured out how to do it.

    Before I describe it I’d like to talk briefly about why failing to scale is in fact a crippling problem. There are two reasons. The most important is, if you have a governance type that does not scale and you are opposed by a governance type that does scale, you lose. There’s no point in having lots of lovely little societies which then get assimilated by the Borg, or the Romans, or whoever else out-organized you. The second is that there are actually things that a large organization can do that are useful that a bunch of little ones can’t. For instance, there’s standards: Imagine you have a group of 30 anarchist towns, and they all use different railway gauges and electrical plugs and USB-like-thingies and http protocols. Besides that, there are projects that people might want to do which require mobilizing a lot of resources, like big bridges, or long railways that don’t break off at every town that decided they didn’t want to bother, or space exploration, or co-ordinated action against climate change. But really, the key problem is that decentralized small-scale organizations get eaten by large scale organizations. Anarchists know it’s true, they just can’t hack the leadership problems of centralized socialism so they pretend (centralized socialists know the anarchist critique of socialist leadership issues is true, but they want to win, dammit, so they pretend too).

    So, how do you do it? How do you scale direct democracy and break the “iron law of oligarchy” and so on? Well, the fundamental problem with direct democracy as it gets larger scale is that of information/decision overload–people can’t be involved with all the decisions, there are too many. But consider that this is a problem with autocratic/oligarchic rule as well–one man at the top cannot possibly be involved in all decisions all the way to the bottom of the pyramid. There have been an amazing number of schemes dedicated to allowing the general will of rulers to be transmitted, so that all the little individual decisions follow that general will without the rulers having to pay attention to them. None have been perfect, hence the phenomenon of micromanagement and the tendency of organizations to subvert the intent of particularly annoying management decisions. But they work pretty effectively.

    I have a group of ideas and principles for getting past this problem. The first is to separate the idea of any given person actually being involved in every decision from their right to be involved in that decision. In my scheme, most people aren’t involved in most decisions–but they could be if they wanted to, so if some group is making a decision that affects a lot of people and pisses them off, they can join that decision-making group and contribute to making that decision different.

    The second is distributed, nested decision making and the principle that bigger groups’ decisions trump littler groups’ decisions. So, say there’s a group of people who work in a salmon hatchery on some stream. They’ve got a little decision making group for deciding how to run the salmon hatchery–but note that anyone can join it, they don’t HAVE to be working at the salmon hatchery. There is a broader group that is a decision making group about how to do things about the stream; it has sub-groups like the hatchery group, the sport fishing group, the marina association and stuff. There is a broader group than that for the whole regional watershed. OK, so, say the sport fishing group is deciding to allow some practice which is going to be a problem for the salmon spawning. The majority vote in that group is to allow that practice. But! A minority can vote to kick it upstairs; if say 30% or something think that this decision shouldn’t be made just by the sport fishing people, the proposal gets moved to the stream group–all the subgroups will now see the issue and vote on it. If the stream group think it’s too hot to handle it can get moved to the watershed group. So a vote by the stream group would overrule a vote by just the hatchery group, and a vote by the whole watershed group would overrule a vote by the stream group. Ultimately, a vote by the whole country overrules everything smaller. This turns on its head the autocratic approach in which decisions by smaller groups higher up overrule larger groups lower down.

    Related to this, my approach suggests that in general, people should be expected to serve in a few decision making groups, and groups should generally have a few people randomly assigned to them by lot, like jury duty. This helps prevent little closed groups from getting insular about their decisions.

    My approach requires substantial use of modern communications technology and software to help decisions get made. This allows for various factors that make even theoretically democratic organization turn oligarchic to be eliminated. Specifically, it escapes the agenda and the ability of someone to literally set the agenda, to define just what decisions get made and how they are framed. So the process at the level of a decision making group goes like this: Someone in the group identifies an issue that needs to be decided on. They submit an issue description and maybe a couple of possible decisions that could get made about it, to the group. A timer starts. There is a conversation thread about the issue, and anyone in the group can add decision options, so you end up with a few proposals of action that could be taken. When the time is up, the proposals are frozen and people can vote (also with a time limit). The vote is some kind of ranked choice setup, and the winning proposal is adopted. This avoids a problem often seen in US state-level voting on issues, where some group gets to carefully define a proposed solution, and you end up either getting their self-serving solution or you get nothing, so whatever issue isn’t dealt with at all. With this kind of software a decision making group needs no leader–anyone can initiate proposals, nobody can control an issue once it is raised. The software doesn’t currently exist, but lots of social software of equivalent or greater complexity does–it shouldn’t be that hard.

    With this, it should be possible to have an organization in which small scale or specialized decisions get made at the small scale, but rarer, broader decisions to mobilize social resources on a larger scale can be made by larger groups, with no hierarchies, leadership or class structure required.

  6. Some Guy

    ‘The Republic’ is great, but most people don’t understand it all.

  7. Some Guy

    Also, leadership is a non-issue, or more precisely, it is an effect, not a cause. Good societies have good leaders, bad societies have bad leaders. As a bad society, there is nothing that can be done to put a good leader in charge.

  8. I think we can agree that the leadership in the West was of a higher quality (albeit not anywhere close to moral or good) immediately following WW2 compared to circa 1980 forward. Why?
    Post WW2 the oligarchs had both an internal and external competitor in the far left parties and the USSR. The internal competitors were systematically destroyed by the oligarchs. Leftists were canceled in ways that make todays cancel culture look benign.
    Ironic that the free-market theories of competition suggest that capitalist systems will deteriorate without a strong internal and external anti-capitalist left.

    The difficultly in developing a system that selects good leaders is not the problem. It is much worse than that. Our problem is that the oligarchs have been actively sabotaging such a system from developing. They have been waging war against those who advocate for something else. They not only control the means of production, but they’ve captured the schools, the media, and the medical/science journals. Government cannot solve the problem because as Karl Marx pointed out “The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The cart cant go before the horse. The power (and wealth is only one type of power) of the oligarchs need to be taken and smashed to bits so small you need a microscope to view them.

    The lesson of 1984 is that if society let’s the dystopia get past a certain level you bloody well get used to it because you wont be overthrowing it. It’s either now or never, or never is already our forever.

  9. Mary Bennet

    The first thing one needs to understand about The Republic is that Plato’s dialogue is a record, enhanced by Plato himself later, of a conversation between Socrates, two of Plato’s brothers and some other wealthy Athenians which did in fact take place. So, record of a real event.

    About the longevity of republics, if not direct democracies: Ancient Masillia endured and flourished from the time of its founding, c 600 BC till being on the wrong side of a Roman civil war. Masillia was substantially destroyed, not by “Rome”, but by a Roman, Julius Caesar. Julie was you’re with me or against me kind of guy and had no opinion of the Masilliots’ natural gratitude to Pompey Magnus for his successes against piracy. So, a good 500 years. Ancient Rhodes flourished for about 300 years, I believe. And the Serene Republic lasted from the time the first Doge married the Adriatic Sea, 7thCent. AD, IIRC, till being conquered by Napoleon.

    Addendum, I know Venice was involved in the slave trade; so was everyone else, the wicked business being a true equal opportunity endeavor. I also note that many of those who condemn Venetian slave trading have nothing to say about the Ottoman Empire and earlier Muslim caliphates and sultanates which provided the market for captured humans

    Addendum 2: The ancient Masilliots seem to have understood the precarity of their position. Their strategy seems to have been twofold. First, alliance with Rome, the meanest and toughest of their neighbors. Second, the sending out of colonies all along the shores of the Gulf of Lions and maintaining close ties with them. Masillia even appealed to the Roman Senate on behalf of faraway Lampsacus on the grounds of cousinship, Lampsacus claiming to also having been a Phocaean foundation. The point here being that Masillia took kinship with her own colonies and other Phocaean settlements quite seriously and must have found it to her advantage to do so.

  10. Ian Welsh

    The Republic part 1 reads like Socrates, part 2 does not & Plato almost certiainly, in some dialogues, put words in Socrates mouth. If it’s definitely a record, do you have a source for that? (I’m willing to believe it, but it doesn’t jive with what I was told when taking philosophy.)

  11. Mary Bennet

    Can’t find documentation, sorry. It is my belief, maybe wrong, that Symposium, Crito, Phaedo, Apology, and first part of The Republic did begin as memoirs of Socrates’ conversations.

  12. Jorge

    What I’ve recently realized: under neoliberal ideology, an oligarch’s family office (investment manager team) is the only organization which has the legitimacy to do society-level planning for, say 25 to 50 years out.

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