Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Conquest's Third Law

Of Robert Conquest's three 'Laws'...
  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
The one which I used to find hardest to agree with was the Third.
(Note: I can't find any authoritative internet provenance for these Laws - but they have been posted on numerous blogs.)

But I have come to realize that the Third Law is correct - so long as we notice that it refers specifically to a bureaucracy - and not to every type of organization.

Indeed, the point at which Conquest's Third Law is noticed to become true can be taken at the point when an organization actually becomes 'a bureaucracy'.  

The point is that any bureaucracy shares more in common with other bureaucracies than it shares with its former or historical self before it became a bureaucracy.

In other words, every bureaucracy usually begins life as an organization with a distinctive, sometimes unique, ostensible function - it's 'bumper sticker' role, or 'what it says on the tin' - but when it becomes a bureaucracy it starts behaving as if it was aiming and structuring-itself to do everything-except its ostensible function.

I have experienced for myself two types of organization crossing that line and becoming bureaucracies - the National Health Service - which shed its professional domination and became a bureaucracy in the early 1990s - quite suddenly as a result of intentional legislation; and the British university system which lagged by just a few years and changed less abruptly, but crossed the line in the late 1990s.

Take the example of universities. Leaving aside the research function ; universities used to function mainly to pursue educational goals. They would try to admit those students who had the best educational qualifications and who would do best in examinations, and beyond - within the educational domain.

I am not at this point trying to defend the way that universities used to function: they were very imperfect institutions! But simply to note that - within the limits of human incompetence, the survival need for income, idleness, corruption and bad luck - they operated to pursue what they considered to be educational goals.

But now universities are bureaucracies, and Conquest's Third Law applies; so that - overall and on average, they have become organizations that pursue everything-but educational goals. This may sound far fetched but it is true! The educational function is now treated as a constraint rather than as the aim.

As a constraint, this means that universities more-or-less have to pretend to do educational things; but they do as little as possible of this, and what little they do (if you know what is really going-on, in actual practice) is mostly a matter of appearance rather than substance.

This can be seen in the number of things which British universities now do, and which they state to be aims, that they did not used to do - and this corresponds to the deployment of resources (money and time) including manpower: affirmative action/ inclusion/ multiculturalism/ sexual revolution across all activities (such that this is perhaps the single major aim) - and activities now including 'engagement' with the local community, sustainability and other green issues, active and frequent publicity via the mass media, internal advertising (propaganda directed to faculty and students about the success and excellence of the institution), programmes of new building and environmental enhancement.

When it comes to teaching, the activity is redefined in terms of a multitude of things which are not actually teaching - matters such as the structure and organization of courses; the procedures for approving and monitoring courses; the aims and objectives of courses; achieving uniformity across courses; gathering feedback and responding to feedback on courses; the use of visual and audio-visual aids, internet and new technologies in courses; educational research and auditing of courses; and the allocation of teaching awards and prizes to people who teach little or not-at-all, and whose contribution has been administration of teaching 'innovation' in teaching subjects or methods, or research into teaching; schemes and notions for improving teaching of neglected or oppressed groups such as women or people who cannot speak well the language in which instruction is given...

The point is that all this new and extra effort, all the extra personnel and resources concerned with 'teaching' are directed at pretty much everything-except actual... teaching (teaching being that inter-human activity that goes on, or is supposed to go-on, in the classroom). 

And therefore: de facto, the bureaucratic emphasis on 'teaching' is at-the-expense-of real teaching.

The same applies mutatis mutandis in all bureaucracies.

In a nutshell; just as bureaucracy is parasitic upon organizations, so bureaucrats make all organizations into generic bureaucracies of a primarily bureaucratic nature; thus bureaucracies are intrinsically organizations that are parasitic upon their ostensible function

And this is the explanation of Conquest's Third Law.