Institutions vs. the Authentic Collective

Being as fascinated as I am with the abstract concept of the institution, I am finding Butler Shaffer's Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival to be not just perceptive and engaging, but a positively eerie (and more articulate) statement of the beliefs at which I have arrived. And not just the political observations and conclusions: I find the theory of institutional dynamics that Shaffer lays out transitioning quite often between psychology and outright metaphysics. Perhaps this is because I see the institution as a good example of the kind of false collectivism that has ground the individual down into nothing more than a unit of replaceable labor and brand demand.

A great excerpt on how institutions falsely co-opt collectivism:

Because we have derived so much benefit from our associating with one another, most of us have no doubt expected that bringing people together into institutional collectives will foster greater social unity. But this has not been the case. Our expectations have failed to materialize because we have failed to distinguish between those spontaneous, unstructured organizations in which people come together for their mutual interests, and the structured institutional systems that mobilize people, inducing them - through intimidative or coercive means - to sacrifice their individual interests in favor of the alleged collective good. But on close examination, what is purported to be the collective good ends up being on the narrow good of the institution itself. One of the consequences of our being pushed together by institutional pressures has been an increased social isolation, a pulling away from one another. Perhaps Newton's third law of motion offers some explanation for the paradox of a society disintegrating as a result of its organization.

What I see him implying, and what I believe myself, is that there is an authentic collectivism - but it can only arise from the full expression of individuals; it cannot be a sublimation of individuals' qualities. This is why the shortcut of coercion is such a disruptive means to the collective end - it is not only crippling the collective entity being created, but it's also bringing into the entity countervailing forces that don't just disappear from lack of expression.

I believe that since there is a self-evidently true sense in which we are all one, and that the distinctions we draw between ourselves and the universe at large are arbitrary and not based on any essential truth, we all bring a unique part of the Creator, the divine intelligence, to the table. All of the pieces of the fragmented social memory complex are necessary for the puzzle to be completely assembled into what it shall become. The converse is important: none of us have the formula for how the final assembled organ of collective conscious shall look or act in our heads, since we can only realize this identity through allowing it to be, not pursuing it. If we did, we'd be the Creator (and in a sense we are, but not in the sense that we're here in this reality reading this post). I see the negative path, essentially, as the usurpation of this post of being the Creator, and of therefore reordering what is already a perfect and complete creation from a limited, fearful perspective.

While my theory is almost certainly more "new age-y" than Shaffer would adopt, he expresses the tension false, institutional identity creates in somewhat congruent terms - and also hints at an achievable unity we can achieve if we only stop forcing it:

Our willingness to relate ourselves as institutionally-defined beings has provided us with an effortless substitute for understanding who we really are. These agencies have encouraged and pandered to the fears and cravings that have caused us the embrace them. We have become attached to so many external values in our live, including the institutional systems that promise to protect and promote those values. Because of our attachments to things outside ourselves, our fears and desires become accelerated, intitiating more intensely felt needs to adhere to these agencies. the consequence of all this is a vicious circle: the futher removed we are from and understanding of our personal selves, the more attached we become to external authorities; and the more tightly we embrace these institutional entities, the less we know and understand ourselves.


On the other hand, if our individual interests and those of the institutions with which we are associated exactly coincide, we will experience no such internal division of purpose and, hence, no sense of conflict. Which is why institutions are so anxious to have us identify with them. Because they have purposes of their own that transcend any conflicting personal interests, and because they can accomplish their purposes only through us, institutions have an incentive to promote those attitudes adn conditions that will get us to subordinate our wants to theirs and submit to their authority. The expansion of our ego boundaries serves this end quite well. To the degree we identify our very beings with an institution, we are unlikely to experience any conflict between our interests and those of the organization...


It should be clear that whenever we identify with anything, whenever we choose to live as externalized, other-directed persons, we are abandoning reality and embracing a gigantic lie....

I take this institutional identity to be emblematic of the false collectivism that underlies many societal evils. It's not that the institutions have no utility; far from it - they would never survive if they weren't minimally useful. But because they do not constitute a fully bottom-up groundswell of the total, organic creativity of human individuals, they rely on the imperfect, incomplete intellectual resources of a minority, who cannot get it right all the time. That's why institutional solutions always require continuous maintenance and ongoing management - conveniently justifying the perpetuation of the institution. Indeed, Shaffer goes further:

If institutions are to sustain themselves and grow, they require an escalation of the problems that will cause us to turn to them for solutions.

OK, my excerpting is getting tedious, but I cannot recommend the work highly enough. And I'm excited to see what Shaffer's suggestions are. It seems clear to me, though, that whatever institutions have become that has made them so uniquely totalitarian and threatening, we need to develop a philosophy that opposes that.

Read this article
Written on Sunday, April 20, 2008