Reading notes (2020, week 43) — On forging global Fordism, sensemaking as a critical capability for leaders, and ancient democracy for an online world
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: The global legacy of Fordist mass production and its appeal on both the left and the right; why leaders must shift gears from assuming that they understand the world to being curious and experimenting; few aspects of modern democracy have made their way into online communities; a tool for understanding; the lasting impression of Alexander the Great; Frank Horvat’s love letter to the Big Apple; great architecture amidst a spectacular Chinese landscape; and, finally, Hannah Arendt on progress.
Forging global Fordism
“The utopian ideal of globalization has imploded over the past decade,” Justin H. Vassallo writes in The World Henry Ford Made, in which he dwells upon the historian Stefan J. Link’s book, Forging Global Fordism: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Contest over the Industrial Order (Princeton University Press, 2020).
“To reverse this decline, political forces on both the left and the right are converging on the imperative to use industrial policy — the strategic process by which governments, either through state support of industrialists or state-owned enterprises, build up and diversify domestic manufacturing. On the left, the Green New Deal represents a futuristic and ecologically sustainable industrial policy, one that undergirds a strong public sector, progressive distribution, a job guarantee, and efforts to correct historical injustices. On the right, policy ideas are more muddled due to the powerful grip of free market ideology, yet a vocal ‘communitarian’ cohort across Europe and the United States is pivoting toward heterodox economics. ‘Globalism,’ in the view of these populists, has eroded the economic sovereignty of nation-states, shrinking historically key sectors and unleashing new forms of anomie. Industrial policy thus looks to be an instrument for reaffirming national sovereignty and restoring the social bonds that producer-oriented economies ostensibly foster. While only the left addresses the climate crisis, both visions are concerned with the social value economic activity generates, in contrast to neoliberalism’s justification of unimpeded self-interest.”
In a search for an alternative to neoliberal globalization, these two competing visions both reflect the enduring power of ‘Fordism,’ the industrial system that launched mass production in the early twentieth century and shaped many of our expectations of modern life, Vassallo notes.
In Forging Global Fordism, Stefan J. Link’s explores “the relationship between industrialism, political ideology and global competition, while also shedding important light on our tumultuous present moment.” One of the its key insights “is that Fordism was as much a theory of social organization as a scientific system of productivity, and it was highly malleable within different political and economic contexts,” Vassallo writes.
“Situating the global spread of Fordism within Europe’s struggle to ‘catch up’ to U.S. industrialization after World War I and prepare for the next conflict, Link shows how Fordist America, as well as Ford’s philosophy, animated what he terms European ‘postliberals’ on the left and the right in their ambitions for autarky and dominion over ‘great spaces.’ In doing so, Link explains how the ‘isolationist’ 1930s set the course for modern globalization. ‘Rather than interrupt,’ he argues, ‘depression and war actually accelerated and intensified the global spread of Fordism,’ due to the industrial policies of activist states such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
In their respective quests for machine tools, automotive material, and expert knowledge of mass production techniques — all of which informed the construction of ‘dual-use’ factories — delegations from each country sought and obtained technology transfers from Ford’s famed River Rouge plant in Detroit throughout the 1930s. At the seeming apex of isolationism in the twentieth century, the Ford Motor Company provided critical blueprints and other forms of assistance that could be harnessed in equal measure for economic development and total war.”
“In a rich analysis of the regime’s various strategies to coerce industry, Link shows that by embedding Fordist mass production within a ‘steered market economy,’ the Nazi state accelerated industrial growth, stimulated employment, and recovered badly needed foreign exchange. […] In Hitler’s vision, Link writes, ‘mass production had a precise double role: it was necessary to create and sustain the armaments complex that would allow the conquest and control of territory in which industry would supply a vast contiguous market with a standard of living to match America’s.’ The obsession with control over a vast geopolitical space, inspired in part by America’s genocidal pursuit of continental dominion in the nineteenth century, reflected Hitler’s fervid security concerns. In the prospective postliberal world order, a Germanized Europe would be ‘self-sufficient’ through a combination of advanced industry and the supply, through frontiersmen and slave labor, of essential raw materials and foodstuffs from Eurasia.”
As an agrarian society, the Soviet Union’s challenge of adapting to Fordism was far more formidable than what Nazi Germany faced.
“Soviet policy, according to the party leadership, would distill Fordism to its scientific mechanisms, laying a foundation that would enable the country to obtain ‘economic independence’ from the capitalist international system. This vision was consistent with Stalin’s pronouncement that socialism would be achieved first in one country. Beginning with the first Five-Year Plan in 1928, radical modernizers dominated Soviet industrial policy, leading to a punishing pursuit of Western technology transfers that resulted in horrific famine. Link insightfully argues that the decision to ramp up agricultural collectivization was not a tragic scheme born of ideological militancy and bureaucratic folly but instead a calculated risk to squeeze as much as grain export as possible out of the peasant population to pay for the machinery needed to build and bring online plants.”
“Reflecting on the postwar recovery in Western Europe, Link addresses a deeply unsettling legacy of National Socialist industrial policy: Volkswagen and other German automakers had been primed for mass production through the various forms of support and compulsion Hitler’s regime administered. Their energies no longer siphoned into a war economy, Fordist consumption in the American sense could finally take off in a democratic West Germany allied with the United States. Rather than consider the industrial strategies of the Nazi state in isolation — and therefore as merely reflecting the choices of a mercurial and fanatical chain of command — Link perceptively suggests that ‘historians might look to the many other authoritarian, activist, and development-oriented states of the twentieth century’ for substantive comparison.
It is worth recalling that the rise of different activist states in the 1930s all had a common focus on public works and infrastructure. This structural feature fed back into the international race to grow economies of scale that centered on the innovations, supply chains, and value-added inputs of national auto industries. Once we step back from Link’s close reading of the factors that established Fordism in the central antagonists of World War II, we can more fully observe the developmental state in all its various incarnations, from liberal democratic to totalitarian. Its successes have depended not just on the implementation of Fordism, but on the particular ways the state oversees the Fordist relationship between industry and labor.”
“While the world depicted in ‘Forging Global Fordism’ seems at first blush far removed from our own, the book makes a convincing case that in all its various guises, it was Fordism — perhaps more than any other system of social organization — that shaped our present, and now deeply uncertain, world order.”
“That contingency helps put the ascent and subsequent post-industrial underdevelopment of the United States in historical, comparative perspective. Among the activist states of the twentieth century the most successful was Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it benefited significantly from the fact that Fordism had already matured in the United States. Because America maintained its edge in technology and industrial capacity, the shift to a war economy enabled it to outgun Nazi Germany while sparing Americans the levels of sacrifice that the Nazi, Soviet, and other war economies inflicted on their populations. Fordist manufacturing, in turn, became inextricable from conceits about the American Century; for decades it defined U.S. growth and the postwar idea that growth would ensure shared prosperity. Although Ford himself was virulently anti-union, a more assertive regulatory state that supported union rights molded, rather than blotted out, his producer populism.
In retrospect, the historic labor-capital compromise of the postwar era transformed the ‘cooperation’ that Ford extolled into technocratic, state-mediated industrial relations. When that system was abandoned, most abruptly in the United States, in pursuit of a flexible, high-tech ‘knowledge’ economy, industrial policy was subject to the new political taboo against strong government. In turn, industrial policy became the domain of China — now the world’s largest car manufacturer — and a few other late twentieth-century developmental states, while the much heralded new American economy became concentrated in a handful of globalized U.S. cities, barely reaching de-industrialized regions.”
“The international and domestic political tensions this policy regime has produced give the lie to the midcentury promise of permanent, self-sustaining, and inclusive economic growth. In a tacit negation of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, Link concludes that ‘the type of development competition that spread Fordism … will continue to be with us, shaping a global economic order that is ever contested, never finished.’ One might add that elites who ignore signs of underdevelopment in democratic societies overestimate the durability of institutions and norms in the absence of a collective stake in where the economic future lies.
Taken together, these historical insights suggest that the resurgence of rightwing populism today may reflect a final, belated crisis of Fordism. It thus poses a distinct philosophical and policy dilemma. The paradox of the Fordist era for Western countries is that it symbolizes the historic conversion of oppressive factory work into an unequalled period of shared prosperity and economic democracy. On the one hand, the manufacturing jobs of the past were hardly what we think of as good jobs today, and many disappeared through automation rather than trade deals. On the other hand, the zenith of manufacturing correlated with high rates of unionization, a stronger public sector, and levels of taxation that encouraged reinvestment.
In some quarters the left has developed a tendency toward nostalgia for this period of more broadly shared prosperity. An important inference to be drawn from Link’s book is that we must resist a too simple embrace of its industrial policy, for it can easily ramify in ideologically unfavorable directions. For the communitarian right — not so far removed ideologically from the postliberals of the interwar period — the Fordist era represents not social democracy but the cultural cohesion and natalist values that paternalistic corporations once encouraged. As much as most conservatives have assailed the welfare state, it is conceivable that some will embrace industrial policy — and thus some version of a steered economy — in response to the cumulative pressures of underdevelopment and a more unstable phase in global affairs.
History warns that this particular turn toward dirigisme can quickly cohere with illiberal and belligerent visions of national renewal. To militate against this outcome, progressives will have to redouble efforts to frame the Green New Deal as the surest way to create millions of new, decent jobs that revitalize the economy. By invoking U.S. mobilization during World War II, and the cooperation upon which victory depended, any left committed to an egalitarian future must ultimately reconcile the traces of Henry Ford’s world in the new one being born.”
Sensemaking as a critical capability for leaders
Although the American organizational theorist Karl Weick isn’t the only one affiliated with the idea of sensemaking, he certainly was the first to articulate it as a coherent framework for perception, cognition, action and memory. His achievement was “to take a breathtakingly broad array of ideas […] and craft these into a set of properties that we can use to understand how we create order from the flood of sensation we experience every waking moment of every day,” Laura A. McNamara writes in her reflections on Karl Weick and social theory (EPIC, 2015).
Chapter Two of Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations — which contains what is perhaps his most cited sentence and the ‘recipe’ for sensemaking, How can I know what I think until I see what I say? — captures the seven constituent ideas of sensemaking as emergent interpretation (as summerised by McNamara):
- Sensemaking is matter of identity: it is who we understand ourselves to be in relation to the world around us.
- Sensemaking is retrospective: we shape experience into meaningful patterns according to our memory of experience.
- How and what becomes sensible depends on our socialization: where we grew up in the world, how we were taught to be in the world, where we are located now in the world, the people with whom we are currently interacting.
- Sensemaking is a continuous flow; it is ongoing, because the world, our interactions with the world, and our understandings of the world are constantly changing. You might also think of sensemaking as perpetually emergent meaning and awareness.
- Sensemaking builds on extracted cues that we apprehend from sense and perception. Cognition is the meaningful internal embellishment of these cues. We articulate these embellishments through speaking and writing (the ‘what I say’ part of Weick’s recipe) and, in doing so, reify and reinforce cues and their meaning, and add to our repertoire of retrospective experience.
- Sensemaking is less a matter of accuracy and completeness than plausibility and sufficiency. We simply have neither the perceptual nor cognitive resources to know everything exhaustively, so we have to move forward as best as we can. Plausibility and sufficiency enable action-in-context.
Although sensemaking has been considered vital to the success and survival of organisations, ever since Weick introduced the term in his 1979 book The Social Psychology of Organizing (1979), it is rarely mentioned as a critical capability for leaders in turbulent times, Deborah Ancona, Michele Williams and Gisela Gerlach (hereafter the authors ‡) write in The Overlooked Key to Leading Through Chaos.
Their research shows that sensemaking is, in fact, a predictor of leadership success. Yet it doesn’t figure into executives’ mental models of great leaders. “This is a problem,” they argue. “The pace of change in our world is increasing exponentially, but sensemaking — a necessary tool to navigate these turbulent waters — is unseen, undervalued, and underdeveloped. Not only do leaders fail to properly use sensemaking themselves, but it’s a capability that is often ignored when hiring, evaluating, developing, and promoting leaders. As a result, leaders and organizations aren’t nearly as effective as they could be.”
The authors view their findings as a call to action. “We must shift gears from assuming that we understand the world to being curious and experimenting, and from believing that sensemaking is required of only senior leaders to cultivating it at all levels of the organization,” they write. “Rather than immediately jumping to solutions, we must start with collecting data and scrutinizing it for trends and patterns that point to better solutions; rather than ignoring warning signs of failure, we should learn from others what those warning signs might be. This is not the time to do less sensemaking — it is the time to supercharge your organization’s ability to do more.”
Apart from elevating and institutionalising sensemaking in organisations, for which the authors make several suggestions, for it to be effective, they also advice to embed it into the organisational structures and processes.
First of all, sensemaking should be embedded into the company’s leadership capability models for all types of leaders at all levels, whether it’s a coaching leader, an entrepreneurial leader, or the architect of a new strategic initiative. Once done, the authors write, programs for talent development at every level of the organization can follow. This way, sensemaking “will become part of the organizational vernacular. It will be recognized as an important factor in organizational communication and coaching conversations.”
It must also “become a criterion in hiring and rewarding employees. Hiring for sensemaking ability means looking for individuals with a wide network and an ability to reach out to many stakeholders, listen, see patterns in complexity, and think across polarities such as efficiency versus effectiveness, or safety versus economy. Hiring people who are open to new ideas and able to rapidly test their assumptions is critical.” Employees should also be rewarded for maintaining and growing their sensemaking skills.
“As we experience exponential growth in available information, a quickening pace of technological change, greater interdependence, and increasing complexity, sensemaking is more important than ever. It is needed to map the changed landscape, make sense of our current reality, and continually redraw those maps and refresh that understanding as circumstances change. To make the best decisions and execute them most effectively, organizations need to recognize sensemaking as a critical capability and step up efforts to practice it by teaching, modeling, and embedding it at all levels. We know sensemaking works, even if we often seem blind to its value.”
‡ About the authors
Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management and founder of the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Michele Williams is an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship and the John L. Miclot Fellow in Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa. Gisela Gerlach is a professor of business administration, human resource management, and organization at the Universität Koblenz-Landau.
Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown, by D.G. Ancona (from The Handbook for Teaching Leadership, Sage Publishing, 2011)
Sensemaking in Organizations, Karl Weick (Sage Publications, 1995)
Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, by Christian Madsbjerg (Hachette Books, 2017)
The Sensemaking Organization: Designing for Complexity, by Cyndi Suarez (Nonprofit Quarterly, 2019)
Ancient democracy for an online world
“If we want to understand what is happening on the internet today, then it makes sense to focus on early democracy — as well as early autocracy — rather than modern democracy, where popular participation in governance occurs more or less only at the ballot box,” David Stasavage and Nathan Schneider write in Ancient Democracy For An Online World.
“There are much older forms of collective rule than the trappings of democracy most of us see today — the competitive elections, the party platforms, the term limits. A great many societies on multiple continents over several millennia practiced a form of rule in which leaders are held accountable not at the ballot box but, instead, by the fact that if they sought to rule alone, and not jointly with their people, they could never get anything done.
We can call this type of governance ‘early democracy.’ It closely parallels what is happening in many corners of the internet today. It is a form of governance where rulers — like online benevolent dictators — were not necessarily chosen by their people, but they faced significant constraints on their rule. Most importantly of all, rulers were in a weak position with respect to society,” Stasavage and Schneider write.
“It is striking, when you stop to consider it, how few aspects of modern democracy have made their way into online communities. A typical union or parent-teacher association elects its leaders, but Facebook groups usually do not; the company provides no tools designed to enable such an election. Online communities do not tend to establish juries, elected boards, bylaws, referendums or other procedures of self-governance. Cases where such structures do exist, like Wikipedia, are outliers.”
“With accountability crises cascading across our modern networked world, it is time to get serious about the next evolution of democracy online — or risk jettisoning any semblance of democracy altogether,” Stasavage and Schneider argue. “Historically, democracy has tended to evolve and flourish when power couldn’t become too concentrated. Thus, proposals for more active antitrust enforcement of online platforms resonate back through the centuries; similar limits on concentration could apply to communities within platforms as well.
Also relevant are more technical proposals for requiring platforms to be more interoperable with their data and functionality; if users can move from platform to platform more easily, carrying their data with them, they can put greater pressure on platforms to be accountable, like in early democracies.”
Not all regulation needs to come from above, though. “Also important for evolving platforms’ democracy is enabling new forms of counterpower. This can include building associations among groups of users, such as sellers on Amazon and drivers on Uber, or trusts that hold the data of social media users, so that ordinary people can use collective leverage to make their voices heard. Some platforms could be reconstituted as cooperatives or trusts. Counterpower can force platforms to develop creative strategies for ensuring that people’s voices are heard before an outright confrontation occurs.
Advanced online democracies may end up looking very different from modern democracy — which is, after all, largely a product of 18th-century ideas. Governance hackers are experimenting with opinion polling through artificial intelligence, cryptographic juries for resolving disputes and the dynamic selection of delegates in real-time, issue by issue. Someday, online communities might be able to design a custom democracy for themselves as easily as installing apps from an app store. Rather than simply replicating modern democracy, we have an opportunity to develop previously untried forms of democracy.”
And also this…
In A Tool for Understanding, David Byrne wonders what if, instead of hating each other’s beliefs, we learned more about where they come from?
“Adam Gopnik, writing about the Nazi ‘angel of death” Josef Mengle in The New Yorker, noted: ‘There is nothing surprising in educated people doing evil, but it is still amazing to see how fully they construct a rationale to let them do it, piling plausible reason on self-justification, until, like Mengele, they are able to look themselves in the mirror every morning with bright-eyed self-congratulation.’ The point is, we shouldn’t excuse behaviors that harm others — we should simply try to understand why those behaviors happen and the mechanisms that are used to justify them. To paraphrase the writer Hannah Arendt when she was accused of justifying what the Nazis did: To understand is not to excuse.
What does all this tell us? It tells us that, though I may disagree with folks on certain issues, those disagreements are nonetheless rooted in values that they — and I, to some degree — share. Our beliefs and our politics may be very different, and yet, by recognizing the values behind them, I can, to some extent and in some instances, empathize and understand why someone might feel differently about an issue than I do. It helps me to not judge them as ignorant or evil, and gives us a foothold, a place to start a conversation.”
Few historical figures have left such a lasting impression on such a variety of cultures as Alexander the Great, according to Harry Cluff. In Like so many Alexanders, he writes:
“He exported Hellenic customs across the world, connected eastern and western trade routes, founded more than twenty cities and was unbeaten on the battlefield, but his greatness is most evident through his ubiquitous presence in various literary traditions. His military career and pioneering leadership even warranted a reference in the Holy Scriptures of new religions. He surfaces in the Bible in Daniel 8:5–8 and 21–22. He is also mentioned in the first Book of the Maccabees and crops up in the ancient Persian poem, the Shahnameh. His possible appearance in the Qur’an is perhaps the most intriguing example of his persistent recognition.
In Surah (sermon) 18 of the Qur’an, a character called Dhu al-Qarnayn or He of the Two Horns appears. The prophet Mohammed claims his story was revealed to him when he sent two messengers to the Jews, who had a superior knowledge of the scriptures, to ask them whether Mohammed was the true prophet of God.
The rabbis are said to have replied ‘ask him (Mohammed) about a man who travelled and reached the east and the west of the earth, what was his story. If he tells you about these things, then he is a prophet.’ God divulged this story to Mohammed to allow him to prove his legitimacy to his followers.
It is related in verses 83–101 of Surah 18 and is known as the tale of Dhu al-Qarnayn. The Qur’an says God made Dhu al-Qarnayn strong and ‘gave him the ways and the means to all ends.’ After encountering an unspecified tribe on his travels, Dhu al-Qarnayn asks God to divide them into a group of evil and a group of good so that he can punish those that offend nature and reward those who commend God’s creation. Following this exaction of God’s will, Dhu al-Qarnayn journeys on between two mountains where he finds a foreign people ‘that scarce could understand a saying.’
However, in their desperation, this tribe manages to communicate the real nature of their plight, explaining how the forces of Gog and Magog are hellishly afflicting their land. They plead with Dhu al-Qarnayn to erect a barrier between their settlement and the domain of their foe. Dhu al-Qarnayn accepts and begins constructing a fortification for this bedevilled nation. When He of the Two Horns is finished, he notes that the protection is a gift from God and that when God decrees its fall, a grand battle against the evil of the earth will ensue until the very end of time. Exciting stuff.”
“Whether Alexander is Dhu al-Qarnayn has been disputed by many Islamic scholars. Some are more comfortable ascribing this Qur’anic credit to Cyrus the Great. Others have advanced the candidacy of the Himyarite king, Saʿb Dhu-Marathid and the Yemenite warlord Messiah ben Joseph. But in his lifetime, Alexander was depicted with horns in the vein of the Egyptian iconography of Ammon-Ra. Coinage from a pre-Islamic era identifies the epithet of Dhu al-Qarnayn as Alexander. Most convincingly, Syriac and Ethiopic Pre-Islamic manuscripts of the Alexander Romance have been discovered that closely resemble the story of Surah 18.
Nietzsche said that Alexander was ‘one of the most humane men of ancient times,’ but a man who was tempered by a ‘tigerish lust to annihilate.’ That characteristic may explain why he features in so many cultural traditions. From Jewish histories to Indian folk tales, from Iron Maiden songs to Qur’anic references, Alexander’s legacy endures. Pericles happened to describe this phenomenon of posterity best, when he said ‘the whole earth is the tomb of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.’”
Frank Horvat, the groundbreaking French fasion photographer, who has died aged 92, loved the bustle of the Big Apple. Side Walk, Horvat’s love letter to its street life, was published this month by Éditions Xavier Barral.
The Chishui River (赤水河) forms part of the boundary between the Chinese provinces of Guizhou and Sichuan and flows into Yangtze River in Sichuan. It is sometimes called the River of Wines since there are several types of famous Chinese wines originated along the river.
Amidst this wonderful landscape, Jiakun Architects, founded in 1999 by Liu Jiakun, has created a pavilion and museum. The site, overlooking the river, was originally the production area of Lang liquor, which has been one of the leading Chinese liquors for centuries.
“The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, and better, and better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.” — Hannah Arendt on progress ‡
‡ From the comments Hanne Arendt made during her final interview, in the midst of Watergate and the Yom Kippur War, with the French writer Roger Errera (New York, October 1973). A transcript of this interview is published in Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview (Melville House Publishing, 2013), which also contains interviews from 1964 and 1970.