January 22, 2017

Dumb and Dumber?

One of the lessons of Mintzberg's Strategy Safari is that trying to define strategy itself may be impossible. Or at the very minimum, to define it may be as difficult as trying to explain life. One of the major pathways to getting there, though, is likely explaining why people (especially in groups) act in a collectively and even laughably incompetent manner.

Kenneth Payne has one explanation: the source of strategic dysfunction is often simply the search for (socially defined and pursued) self-esteem. Strategy becomes less externally defined and more of a kind of personal theater of the absurd; an exercise in magical thinking and dramatic performance rather than the making of an desired external reality. This is a simple if not crude way of explaining strategy, but it seemingly works. But the counterpoint is that Winston Churchill acted in almost the same manner as Saddam Hussein and is seen as a great leader instead of a delusional loser:

>Churchill won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953. This is revealing: Churchill was a better writer than orthodox strategist. His delusions were as larger than life as his correct notions were. But Churchill’s resort to grand narrative was far more successful than strategic orthodoxy can capture or comprehend. More often than not, the strength of conviction behind a strategy’s more tenuous elements wins more in war than its tenuous connection to reality warrants.

Perhaps the trap that is inevitable here is that fantasy itself plays a much larger role in strategy than most people think. Any kind of strategy is, in some ways, a leap of faith. One does not know if it will succeed and part of the process of selling it is to pretend that you do. Shared fantasy also motivates people to come together and provides a shared language and mythos they all can consume. World War II propaganda art is interesting in this light. It is tawdry, kitschy, and ridiculous, but you can glimpse why fascism, communism, and liberalism were all at one point competing ideas about the future. They are myths that deal with quite literally determining the course of history, which is what Francis Fukuyama meant by the idea of the "end of history." Don't get me wrong. It's not that we should be nostalgic for the time of "real" struggle or fundamental political questions. We were lucky to make it out of the 20th century without all becoming radioactive mutants! The clash of myths nearly destroyed the world and certainly took – from World War II to 1991 – untold millions of lives away and left millions more forever scarred.

One myth outlasted the others, only to later crumble from within. What is left of Fukuyama's brand of liberalism is progressively fading from its own internal contradictions to the point where even Fukuyama himself is ringing the alarm bells. There are myths waiting to replace it, but they are to older myths what fanfiction is to original content. They are degenerative and often more representative of the obsessive and ultimately insatiable hunger of the fan for subcultural wish fulfillment and consumerism on a level that even the market cannot really ever fully satisfy. At the same time, the fan also knows on some level that this mode of culture is cheap and disposable, hence the desire for memes that mock its formulaic and often emotionally manipulative nature. This mode of mockery is a form of self-protection because it protects from emotional involvement and projects a kind of detatched, savvy, and ironic persona. But moreover it signals awareness that the culture created by the "post-industrial"/"knowledge" economy is ultimately so disposable and useless that its value can only come through an kind of bizarre re-arrangement and pastiche that exposes its artificiality.

In such an environment it is predictable that politics and strategy will be distinguished by stupidity. Not just garden variety stupidity. Infuriating, face-palming, and despair-inducing stupidity. The old myths don't work anymore, and one can only pillage pop culture for new ones for so long until nothing is taken seriously anymore and everything becomes either an awkward fanfiction, someone else mocking an awkward fanfiction, or sheer collectively experienced confusion. Certainly any kind of shared vision of the future – strategic or otherwise – contains lethal doses of fantasy and involves telling people they will prevail when you do not know that they can or will. But perhaps one of the conditions for fantasy to minimally "work" is narrative – or rather the ability to connect small narratives to overall grand narratives through the deep structure of an new world they were promised. Today, it is impossible for this desire for meaning to be satisfied through a narrative process of connecting small narratives to larger ones. Instead, it is satisfied by a a million different little narratives unconnected to each other and the voyeuristic reliving of the fragments of older and larger ones that once had potency.

Tags: concept