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Neither Increased Freedom of Action Nor Lowered Costs of Transaction

November 17, 2009

There are goals that require more effort than an individual can apply alone.  But organizations will also form around goals or tasks that are within the individual’s capacity and for which the effort of additional individuals would add nothing.

Consider a group that meets to write letters to prisoners.  There are no transactions to examine and it’s more efficient for each individual to write their own letters than to pool efforts collectively.  Why then do such groups form?  Because they create internal pressure to stay on task.

Groups often form when individuals feel like they should adopt a goal, but are not sufficiently motivated to carry it out on their own.  All they can commit is the energy to show up and then be propelled forward by the ease of conformity to group decisions or orders from leaders.  By temporarily abdicating individual responsibility to an outside source they don’t have to individually expend the mental energy evaluating the best course of action each step of the way.  Either somebody else higher up in a hierarchy can do that for them or, through collective decision making, they can expend a much smaller individual contribution of thought to a larger pot.  Groups form out of laziness.

It’s one thing to post the contact info of anarchist prisoners online for all interested to use and another for people to gather for the specific purpose of writing those letters.  Sure they could tackle writing them individually on their own time, but it would be as yet another possible commitment to be weighed against many others over every instant of their day.  That takes energy.  Most of the time people will gravitate towards the lowest expenditure of thought.  They don’t like to live in the changing here and now, constantly evaluating and reevaluating the best course of action immediately before them, they like — as best as they can get them — set tasks with externally defined parameters.

This is not always something to run away from.  It can be instrumental to recognize that the majority of folks in your organization are not self-motivated and require input and methods of reward and/or accountability before they can be expected to contribute.

But it sheds light on the post-leftist critique of organizations wholesale.  It is easy for the initially self-motivated to subsume themselves in the group and adopt solely the motivational support it supplies.  This is part of what’s grasped at by talk of groupthink.  Rather than the dynamic interrelations of engaged and self-motivated individuals freely associating as need be, we regularly present ourselves with the false choice between a collection of individuals insufficiently motivated to get shit done on their own and the lumbering dinosaur of “sufficient” motivation that an organization may provide.

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