Facebook as False Public

24 02 2014

We make a bold pretence to be separate and autonomous individuals, but really we are social selves. Driven by our evolutionary past to club up, quarrel and cooperate, we are obsessive about status and in-groups and out-groups and who is doing what to whom and how we appear to others. Much of the very contents of our minds are in fact absorbed from our families and cultural contexts, from institutional agendas and the ornate edifices of topical figments we endless build around ourselves. Even the language we use to think and interact binds us to others. Alone and walking slowly down the stairs, we suddenly imagine we are being watched and so experience ourselves from outside. In that instant, this ‘eye of the other’ makes us feel very different indeed, arousing, as it does, an external view, one we never really grasp, one often distorted by our own imaginings. We are, therefore, both a private self and a social one, though perhaps not separate. Certainly, however, we are Janus-faced and our self, if singular, differs when observed from different perspectives.

As social selves, we need recognition of our efforts. We need public space, social interaction and a reflecting community. It is here that we perform our public selves, learn how we affect others and gain that strange visibility of how we appear from outside. In the ancient world, many were given carefully structured public spaces in which to perform this part of themselves, perhaps in discussions within an army forum, or a general democratic assembly, a religious debate, a criminal jury, a coffee-shop, a community group or a political meeting. These public spaces were profoundly educational in that they schooled us in what our collectives required and how we contributed or detracted from that. This was, therefore, not about drawing attention to ourselves. Recognition here meant contributing to a collective endeavour, to a community of concerned citizens, to politics.

Nowadays, of course, we are more studiously separated, atomised and denied public space. Bearers of negative rights, trumpets of our own self-interest and pretending we think for ourselves, we are easy to control. Divided, conquered; there is little politics today, and fewer public spaces. (For most of us, the only thing that comes close is that of our work environment, though this association is for quite different purposes). We thus crave something we will never have and can hardly conceive. This is why the little public spaces we have so regularly degenerate into private ones. Consider the political meetings, training workshops and public debates you have attended only to hear one private concern after another. ‘This happened to me.’ ‘That happened to my friend.’ ‘I believe this.’ ‘I have this problem.’ In this way, we innocently clog up the few public spaces we still have with private concerns, reducing political participation to a therapy group. But still we hunger for public recognition.

Rousseau said that politics is a collective agreement on what should be done. He saw this agreement as not merely a pile of self-interested views but something more, something like a contribution, by individuals, of what their public selves thought we should do. The ‘General Will’ was not, therefore, just a product of collective agreement, but also a gathering of something that resided in us all. There was a part of us, a public part which when combined with that same part in others, generated a vocal plural subject. A public thus appears in space as a combination of public selves. This is what we have lost and what we crave.

Facebook meets that craving. It is dominated by contributions of a private nature, here projected out into what masquerades as a public space but is, in fact, merely a space that gives attention, a publicity engine for the self, a public mirror, a display of misguided public longing. Constituted by private matters and projected into a group of spectators (‘friends’), the ‘eye of the other’ titillates, but it does not educate and it does not combine. Where Facebook has been used to enable public deliberation, it has proven strangely inadequate. It enables us to look at each others’ faces, but do not exchange our public selves.

Facebook is a false public space, one characterised by imagined private selves playing for attention from false public communities. It rehearses the dominance of the private individual, it distorts the notion of a collective quest for understanding and furthers our descent into a politics oriented to attention and appearance. ‘Look at me’ is not the same as ‘let me contribute this’. Effective structures for online public display and political deliberation will continue to evade us if we fail to distinguish between private and public interests, attention-seeking and the urge to contribute, engaged communities or merely piles of imagined spectators. We are recognition-hungry, and we can be relied upon to bolster our sense of self in the only ways left to us. Facebook is a corporation that will teach us one, false, way to make a public space.


See Follett, M.P., quotes on group interactions – http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/follett_3.htm
Rousseau, JJ., The Social Contract
Habermas, J., Encyclopaedia Article: The Public Sphere
Burkitt, I., Social Selves
Honneth, A., Recognition
Kohut, H., Analysis of the Self

Political Psychologists find themselves at the Freud Museum

6 02 2014


Session on Leadership, Democracy & Hubris

5 01 2014
Research Café – March 4th 2014

2.30 – 5.30 p.m. Board Room, 309 Regent Street, London W18 2HW

This Research Café, organised jointly by the Daedalus Trust (www.daedalustrust.org.uk), and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster (http://www.westminster.ac.uk/csd), provides an opportunity to explore areas for interdisciplinary research on leadership, organisational well-being and, in particular, political leadership in a democracy. This is the fourth in a series of Daedalus Trust Research Cafés where we hope to engage in a café style conversation to explore the following questions and themes:

  • What is good leadership in a democracy?
  • How have democracies identified, managed and contained hubristic leaders?
  • Are there adequate structures and processes to “bind, shackle and brake” democratic leaders without inhibiting their ability to give of their best?
  • What drives hubris? Historical, cultural, social, organisational and neurological aspects.
  • In difficult times, nations, businesses and other social institutions require leaders who are confident, assertive and prepared to take risks. What processes might be employed to guard against degeneration into hubris? What distinguishes charisma from hubris?

These themes will be introduced in brief presentations to be given by three speakers with unrivalled knowledge and experience in their fields:

The Rt Hon Lord Owen, CH FRCP is a doctor by training and was neurology and psychiatric registrar at St Thomas’s Hospital, London, before becoming a Research Fellow. He then entered politics and in Labour Governments served as Navy Minister, Health Minister and Foreign Secretary. He co-founded the Social Democratic Party and was its leader from 1983-1990. From 1992-1995 he served as EU peace negotiator in the former Yugoslavia. He now sits as a Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. He has business interests in the US, Russia and the UK. Lord Owen has long been interested in the inter-relationship between politics and medicine and the key books and articles are ‘Hubris Syndrome: An Acquired Personality Disorder?’, Brain 2009, In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 years (revised edition, 2011), The Hubris Syndrome (revised edition, 2012) and ‘Hubris in leadership: A peril of unbridled intuition?’, Leadership 2013. He is a founder and Trustee of the Daedalus Trust.

Sir Bob Reid is Chairman of ICE Futures and ICE Clear Europe. He is a Director of Intercontinental Exchange Inc., Diligenta Limited, Jubilant Energy and EEA Helicopter Operations. He is Chairman of the Foundation for Young Musicians, Learning Through Landscapes and Edinburgh Business School. He joined Shell in 1956 and spent much of his career overseas, including posts in Brunei, Nigeria, Thailand and Australia. He was Chairman and Chief Executive of Shell UK Limited from 1985 until he retired in 1990. He was also Chairman of British Rail and Deputy Governor of the Bank of Scotland until he retired in 2004. He was born in Cupar, Fife. Sir Bob is an advisor to the Daedalus Trust.

Lord Bikhu Parekh is Emeritus professor of political philosophy in the universities of Westminster and Hull and a Labour Member of the House of Lords. He is the author of several widely acclaimed books of political philosophy; a recipient of the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Political Philosophy and the holder of over a dozen honorary Doctorates. Lord Parekh was chair of the Runnymede Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (1998-2000), whose report, The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, was published in 2000. He is vice-chairman of the Gandhi Foundation, a trustee of the Anne Frank Educational Trust and a member of the National Commission on Equal Opportunity. His academic interests include political philosophy, the history of political thought, social theory, ancient and modern Indian political thought, and the philosophy of ethnic relations.

If you would like to attend, please email jane@daedalustrust.org.uk. Early application is recommended as numbers are limited and invitations will be issued on a strictly first-come-first-served basis.

There ARE Other Organisational Forms

17 12 2013

In AD 9, the Caeliae family of Rome lost their favourite son.

Marcus, a young and ambitious centurion, had mysteriously disappeared, along with the rest of Legion XX, on a distant border of the empire. No one could tell his family what had happened. There were no bones to help them grieve. Left to endlessly imagine his fate, and with their worst fears fuelled by rumour, they tried their best to honour him. And so they build a cenotaph in Rome, inscribing it with a heartfelt request to place his bones there, should they ever be found.[1]

Rome saw itself as a champion of organisation. Augustus, surveying his massive empire, deemed the Germanic tribes ripe for Roman law.[2] And so he dispatched Publius Quinctilius Varus to the frontier, placing beneath his command a crack force of five legions, among them the XXth. Varus was a slight and serious man, a lawyer, not highly born, whose many successes were more the product of self-belief than privilege. He was a father, a citizen, passionate about the greatness of Rome, fond of detailing the virtues of discipline and the many benefits of hierarchy. On occasion, he guessed his lack of military experience was a frequent subject for discussion among his men. For a whole summer, he fortified his encampment on the Rhine, setting up lines of supply, drilling, waiting. Finally, his scouts detected a group of renegade German auxiliaries operating deep in the forest beyond the border. Varus, confident that this was his chance of vindication and glory, led three of his legions over the river in order to give chase. Among the soldiers who waded through the muddy water that day, at last to emerge panting, grinning, on the far side of the river, was the young centurion, Marcus Caelius.

The centurions shouted orders and the men obeyed, stumbling forward onto the far bank of the river. The land into which they marched was like nothing they had ever seen before. Criss-crossed by deep ravines and fast running streams, the progress of the legions was constantly hampered by thick vegetation. Often, they found that a particular ravine was so tight and clogged with trees that they could not pass, and so they had to retrace their steps. By the third day, it had begun to rain heavily. As the march continued, the troops and baggage handlers became strung out in a long line. Unable to operate on the periphery of the column, his scouts could not inform Varus as to the position of the German auxiliaries ahead. Gradually, the simple difficulty of moving forward came to occupy all the Roman efforts. Heads down, feet in mud, slick ruts filling with dark water. No. Not this way. Turn around! Stalled, waiting, they squinted into the dark forest on either side. Thick twisted trees obscured their view. Rain ran down their faces.

In a tent in the dripping forest, the war council of the Cherusci, the largest of the Germanic tribes, sat and talked about the Romans. They were crossing the river now, moving in a long line towards them over the plateau. Arminius and his friends knew them well. He himself had fought in their legions in one time, and his brother worshipped them, hoping above all to one day be Roman himself. As the scouts arrived, breathing hard, giving their news of the column’s advance, the council made its plans: a tactical withdrawal, an ambush, slaughter, then a general uprising of the downtrodden tribes. Arminius, no rude savage, but fully cognizant of the language and civilization of Rome, would succeed where Hannibal had failed. Swiftness, that was the key: invisibility; small units operating without centralised command and control, yet nevertheless coordinated, brought together in their actions by a common hatred. They would teach the Emperor and his subjects a lesson they would not easily forget.

teutoberg_forest_trees_1200xHaving crossed the river and entered the Teutoberg Forest, the three legions under Varus’s command were never seen again. They vanished without trace. Weeks passed with no news, and even the reconnaissance patrols from the main camp found nothing that would indicate either their whereabouts or their fate. At one point, the remaining troops managed to locate a handful of locals who had been in Varus’s baggage train, now back in their Cherusci villages, but they could get little sense out of them. It seemed there had been a battle, but none could (or would) say what had occurred, nor could they help find the site of the encounter. Weeks passed into months, and it was during this time that Marcus’s family built the cenotaph to their son in Rome. Shaken, Augustus dispatched more troops to the frontier, offered rewards for information and quietly abandoned the project of civilizing the Germanic tribes.

Six yeas later, a reconnaissance patrol finally found Marcus Caelius’s bones. Tacitus recounts the moment when the soldiers stepped out into a long thin clearing, deep in the Teutoberg Forest:

Across the open ground where whitening bones, scattered where men had fled, or heaped up where they had made a stand. Splintered weapons and horses’ limbs lay there, and human heads, fastened to tree-trunks. In nearby groves were the barbaric altars at which they had sacrificed the tribunes and centurions in cold blood.[3]

The discovery sent shock waves throughout the empire. In the capital itself, there was panic.[4] It was true, then, what they said about the barbarians: they were savages; they sacrificed to hungry Gods. Rumours of imminent invasion were rife, slaves imagined their freedom at last assured, senators moved their mouths but could not explain how three crack legions could possibly be overwhelmed by little more than a disorganised horde.

There was shouting. Way down the line of troops, out of sight, the rear of the Roman column was being attacked. Varus tried to keep them moving, hoping to gather his forces on open ground. What stopped them was a volley of arrows coming from the trees in front. Men crumpled, and Varus watched, horrified, as even his personal guards were struck down. Now there was screaming. A veteran officer took over, barking orders and running back to marshal the defence. From the rear of the column came news that many of the baggage handlers and light troops, only recently pressed into service from local tribes, had disappeared into the woods. At that moment, they also discovered that the ravine in which they stood had been blocked with heavy felled trees. Heads up; squinting at the walls of dripping green; waiting.

A hail of darts struck them from both sides. Men fell, and others crouched behind their shields. In places, pockets of troops fought as best they could, but, when they struggled across to help others, they found only smears of blood upon the grass. No bodies. Amid the screaming, the chaos and the blind thrashing at an invisible enemy, Varus cowered, trembling. He took out his sword, got down on his knees and jammed the hilt roughly in the ground. That day, fifteen thousand men died. They never saw their enemy.

There are other organisational forms.

[1]   Keppie, L. includes a photograph of Marcus’s cenotaph at plate 18, in The Making of the Roman Army: From Republic to Empire, London: Batsford, (1984).

[2]   Webster, G. The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries AD, London: A. & C. Black, (1985), p. 34.

[3]   Tacitus, The Annals, I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (1972), 61-2; see also, Velleius Paterculus’s description of the battle in Grant, M. (ed.) Readings in the Classical Historians, New York: Scribner’s, (1992), p. 362.

[4]   Keppie, 1984, p. 168; Luttwak, E.N. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century AD to the Third, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, (1976), p. 24.

Boris Johnson’s Mouth

1 12 2013

He opened it to express his thoughts, but they were not his own. Boris Johnson’s mouth holds that CEOs and Kings are superior beings, that all the rest are less than human, that greed and unkindness and envy and fear – these are the values to yearn for. What kind of people do we want to be? We want to be mean and cruel and stupid and in charge. This is what humanity has learned.

From that mouth came a torrent that perfectly captured the way we live. So lost are we, so disfigured, that there is no resistance. As across history, the rich have once again disconnected, and now revert to the most primitive myth of all: the divine right of privilege. Unfettered, they believe they are the best and that they deserve what is theirs. They are the good. They are the strong. Indeed, it is precisely their strength and riches that prove they are best. See how God (the market) has favored them? Not quite trial by combat, but trial by money.

For the rest of us, we gaze dumbly, full of passive wonder, hungry spectators as our rulers strut and blow. We do not confront them. We want to be near them, to worship and pander. If another who lacks status should approach, we do as we were told to do and push them down. Scroungers! Foreigners! Chavs! Muslims! Women! Be mean. Be cruel. Envy. Greed. This is the kind of person we are taught we want to be. This is what humanity has learned.

Out of that mouth came the sing-song arrogance of self-congratulation, the careless hubris of a victorious class. As the Big Lebowski so eloquently put it, ‘the bums lost,’ and they really did. The left is defeated, the labour movement destroyed, public services dismantled and decency and any possibility of collective action – gone; disabled people assessed by computer; community centres closed; mass unemployment and a generation of wasted youth. And here comes the environment our elites have bequeathed us, the dirty growth, the land grabs and bureaucratisation, the dismantling of democracy. Bow to the market! Leave the bankers alone! Be passive! Ape their meanness and live in fear. They are the winners. This is what we have learned.

From Boris’s mouth came the views of the Tory party. They hate him not because he disagrees with them, but because he says aloud what they really think. They lie but barely know it, so lost are they in the collective hysteria of their victory. Gove calls others ‘ideological’. Cameron promises to preserve the NHS. Osborne says everything is fine. Boris does not speak, and nor can he think, for himself. The primitive vitriol that spews from him in fact expresses the learning, the forgetting, the studied stupidity of the victorious. From his mouth came the full horror of our circumstance. For, in truth, he was simply playing to the crowd.

And what does that say about the crowd? Is this the kind of people we want to be? Is this all that we have learned? Somehow, we must recall that ours is a voluntary servitude, one we are encouraged every day to chose. It is therefore also one we can refuse. Millions now watch that mouth with the sound turned off; we see it move, chewing, dribbling.

More than anything we want to find a way to learn, a way to be different, to stop the destruction and think and speak for ourselves.

One day, soon, he will play to a very different crowd.

MEDSIN Conference talk on power, corruption and the NHS

30 11 2013


15 11 2013

Free-Rideritis is a disorientation of public policy first identified by Rohit Lekhi at the end of the C20th and now widely acknowledged by scholars of organisational dysfunction as pandemic. Building on the work of rational choice theorist Mancur Olsen, Lekhi showed that public services were becoming increasingly oriented to preventing the ‘free-rider’ – classically defined by Olsen as one who reaps the benefits of collective action without contributing to them. However, while Olsen studied this phenomenon in small groups, and speculated about the rationality of individual selfishness, Lekhi applied this to public services more generally. And not only that; Free-Rideritis concerned not real free-riders, but entirely imaginary ones.

We mistrust everyone, and must be hyper-vigilant in our search for ‘shirkers,’ ‘skivers’ and ‘bad teachers.’ At any time, anywhere, we might be confronted with one not pulling their weight, and so must structure entire organisations to prevent this individual from doing so. This is a disorder of accountability, carcinogenic in its growth, sclerotic in its effects, constrictive of the productivity and creativity of everyone else. Michael Power might call it a ‘ritual of verification’; Michel Foucault ‘neo-liberalism’, while Max Weber might prefer ‘rationalisation’, here into an ‘iron cage of administration’. But actually, Free-Rideritis is more accurately seen as a collective fantasy of control, a tightening, an expression of the deep mistrust of humanity by elites.

Public services have, as is well known, been re-engineered from their early orientation to the needs of the populace, first to those of ‘clients’, then ‘consumers’ and finally, to ‘producers’ – i.e. to themselves. It is thus common to find institutions entirely focused on their own organisational needs rather than those people they were originally intended to serve. This mission drift was marked, but unnatural. Indeed, it reflected the sustained and purposive attempt, by politicians of both major parties and administrators brought in from the private sector, to undermine and dismantle the welfare state, (sometimes referred to as ‘shrinking the state’ in order to ‘expand the state’ in areas such as defense, banking support and ‘nannying’). Once the public sector had been hollowed out and ‘revealed’ to be ineffective, it could be privatised.

Free-Rideritis is thus a manifestation of a more general land grab, in which public funds are transferred to private companies. We should expect more of the same, more siphoning-off of public funds, more checks, tests, metrics and performance indicators, more suspicion, mistrust, fear, isolation, competition and plain nastiness. Only when the citizenry object en-masse to the real free-riders in our society, will it suddenly, and surprisingly, stop.


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