The Gnosticism of Power

Those in power regularly reveal themselves to be oblivious to conditions in the real world, and to material constraints on transforming their commands into reality. There’s good reason for this: Their power insulates them from direct experience of the material world, and from direct experience of the constraints offered by material reality.

For example, earlier this month the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a judge could rightly weigh a police officer’s memory of events, as recalled in testimony, more heavily than video evidence. That’s right: When a video recording of events contradicts the subjective recollection of a police officer, so much the worse for what actually happened. A cop’s “experience” and “superior observational skills” should carry more weight even when what the cop observed didn’t happen.

As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s really not that unusual. Back in the 1960s systems theorist Kenneth Boulding observed that “the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.” The system of information flow in a hierarchy is designed to filter out messages from below that contradict the carefully constructed images of the world in the minds of those at the top. Advancement in a hierarchy is predicated on being a “team player,” which means reinforcing the image of reality held by those at the top and protecting them from exposure to any, you know, actual reality that might contradict it. So naturally when those in authority inadvertently come into contact with real-world information that undermines their official worldview, they dispose of it as quickly as possible using all available Hazardous Materials protocols.

At the same time, those at the tops of hierarchies make decisions, and issue endless decrees to those below them, in utter disregard of the actual resources required to carry them out effectively or possible material constraints on their implementation. The Pharaoh of Egypt anticipated the very best practices of today’s corporate CEOs in the age of downsizing when he said “Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore:  let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks, which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them; ye shall not diminish ought thereof.”

When the implementation of the Studer Group’s idiotic management gimmicks was at its peak frenzy a few years ago, we all got (as “gifts” for “Employee Appreciation Day”) little inspirational booklets full of all kinds of sayings from Gandhi and Mother Theresa about giving endlessly without expecting anything in return, out of the sheer fulfilling joy of doing good for others. “Take no care for thy paycheck or staffing ratios. Behold the lilies of the field: Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” They also reassured us in a newsletter that we could provide “extraordinary patient care” despite our “abundance or lack of resources.”

Oddly enough though our management, despite their seeming belief that we lived in a world of pure light and spirit beyond the concerns of the physical world, were not similarly immune from the requirements of the material realm. Our corporate CEO made an $18 million salary that same year, plus a $3.6 million bonus. And management constantly poor-mouths us about the need to economize on staffing because “nursing staff is our biggest cost” (even though the salaries in our hospital’s C-Suite are probably the same general order of magnitude as hourly wages for all nursing staff). I had to wonder why management couldn’t just miraculously multiply its funds to hire enough staff, like Jesus did with the loaves and fishes. That’s apparently what they expected us to do when it came to providing adequate care with the dangerous and criminally negligent staffing levels they provided us with.

So people in authority are completely out of touch with reality. What does that mean for us? The good news is voluntary self-organization, like horizontal networks, is running circles around the old government and corporate hierarchies and eating them alive, like piranha skeletonizing a cow. Over twenty years ago John Gilmore said “The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.” Self-organized networks and other voluntary associations, similarly, treat the intrusions of irrational authority as damage and route around them. We’re building a world in which the irrational interference of those in authority is becoming less and less relevant to our lives and their stupid commands are becoming unenforceable. Maybe you’d like to join us?

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory