This piece makes the point that while social and political institutions appear permanent, they are subject to the same weaknesses and vulnerabilities as the human beings that staff their bureaucracies.

"All institutions exist only because we believe in them and live our lives in compliance with their demands."

Institutional power is the power of the government, the churches, the corporations. Corporations in particular wield enormous power over our lives. They control how we spend our working day and how we spend our leisure time. Through the media they control what we consume, how we are entertained, and how we think.

Institutions may seem permanent, monolithic, omnipotent and hyper-rational. They may appear to be invulnerable to any attempts to overthrow them, change them, or mitigate their influence.

But institutions are not machines made of steel. Even the most powerful institution is nothing more than a community of workers—ordinary flesh and blood people. And ordinary people are stupid, incompetent, and irrational. Most hate their jobs and many hate the institutions they work for. Ordinary people are jealous of their superiors in the institutional hierarchy and contemptuous of their inferiors. Ordinary people can also be heroic, stubborn, non-conformist and moral. They are often willing to speak out and stand up for what they believe is right.

The leaders of large corporations are always rich. They often surround themselves with sycophants and portray themselves as god-like—omniscient and infallible—like the institutions they run. But managers too are just ordinary people, with all the usual human flaws and inconsistencies. Overwhelmed by data, they make irrational decisions based on gut feelings. They spend money on inefficient technology just because it is flashy or sexy. They take advice from experts who know nothing. They hire incompetent people because they themselves are too incompetent to know better. Just like ordinary people they are vengeful and money grubbing. They can also be ethical and caring.

Far from being rational, smooth-running machines, large institutions bumble and stumble along, wallowing in inefficiency, waste and disastrous miscalculations. They are riddled with cracks, weaknesses, vulnerabilities and contradictions. In fact, the only thing that sustains them is their illusion of permanence. Their lifeblood is the tacit support we give them. All institutions exist only because we believe in them and live our lives in compliance with their demands.

May 2001


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