James C. Scott

What business can learn from Occupy Wall Street

November 21, 2012: 8:35 AM ET

Insubordination can be a managerial virtue, argues James C. Scott in Two Cheers for Anarchism.

By Michael Schrage, contributor

FORTUNE -- Should you hold even the slightest sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street crowd and the anti-globalists who took on the World Trade Organization in the "Battle in Seattle," you'll find that James C. Scott's Two Cheers for Anarchism makes their arguments far more coherently than they do. Even if you consider them obnoxious mobs of hypocritical hooligans, you'll still find yourself taking the book's arguments seriously. If you actually admire them, then you'll love this book; it's the most sophisticated Ivy League support you're likely to see.

Alternately insightful, inciteful, and insulting, Scott makes an idiosyncratically intellectual case that technocratic elites aren't to be trusted, and insubordination is a virtue to be cherished. Needless to say, Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale.

Where "community organizer" cum political provocateur Saul Alinksy had his Rules for Radicals, Scott effectively offers aphorisms for anarchists. This book is about the subversion of institutional power. In short, it's Alinsky with tenure.

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, et al, the global scalability of individual acts of insubordination creates a "new normal" for seemingly entrenched elites and potential rebels alike. That's why it's important to understand the intellectual -- and anti-intellectual -- underpinnings of modern resistance movements, whether you're running Exxon Mobil (XOM), Google (GOOG), Greenpeace, or an authoritarian/totalitarian state.

"Acts of disobedience are of interest to us when they are exemplary, and especially when, as examples, they set off a chain reaction, prompting others to emulate them," Scott observes. "Then we are in the presence less of an individual act of cowardice or conscience -- perhaps both -- than of a social phenomenon that can have massive social effects. Multiplied many thousandfold, such petty acts of refusal may, in the end, make an utter shamble of the plans dreamed up by generals and heads of state ... But just as millions of anthozoan polyps create, willy-nilly, a coral reef, so do thousands upon thousands of acts of insubordination and evasion create an economic or political barrier reef of their own."

Exploring "everyday forms of resistance," as Scott calls them, is central to his work. Power and institutions are frequently defined in the context of the disobedience, subversiveness, and insubordination they provoke. Ironically, Scott points out, slavish adherence to plans and policies often proves the most effective way to revolt. He delights in examples of how "work to rule" -- that is, ruthlessly following formal institutional guidelines and regulation to the letter -- virtually guarantee that operations will grind to a halt. (Cf. Alinsky's Rule 4: "Make opponents live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.")

Discursive and impressionistic, Two Cheers for Anarchism is different both in tone and substance from Scott's magisterial Seeing Like a State, his 1999 opus that dismantled the technocratic pretentions and arrogance of what he called "high modernism" -- the political sensibility and aesthetic that complex cities, states and regions can be meaningfully planned and programmed by sophisticated elites.

With an almost clinical dispassion, Scott explored the not-so-grand failures of grand planning, and the reasons why grand planners so consistently delude themselves. His passionate support of vernacular, bottom-up innovation, by contrast, made abundantly clear that he had thought seriously about how organizations should strive to create meaningful balances of power between individual initiative and institutional imperatives. It's a wonderful, breathtaking book.

 Two Cheers is more personal, more intimate and, frankly, more self-indulgent. The best and most resonant part of the book is the "Preface and Acknowledgements." The reader will come away with an excellent sense of Scott's reasons and rationale for writing a smaller book in which anarchism's questionable virtues loom so large. Scott's internal ambivalence and self-doubt become those of his readers. Every serious leader or manager worried about the trade-offs between empowerment and oversight, or informal versus formal processes, or drawing lines between constructive dissent and insubordination, will see themselves here.

My favorite slice was "Fragment 16 -- A Modest, Counterintuitive Example: Red Light Removal." Here Scott describes Dutch traffic engineer Hans Moderman's successful effort to improve traffic safety and civic comity by removing traffic lights from city centers. Abandoning traffic lights made everyone -- pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers alike -- more alert and aware of one another. Why? Because the absence of imposed external controls elicited greater personal autonomy and responsibility.

"The effect of what was a paradigm shift in traffic management was euphoria," Scott writes. "Small towns in the Netherlands put up one sign boasting that they were 'Free of Traffic Signs' ... and a conference discussing the new philosophy proclaimed 'Unsafe is safe.'"

Is red light removal really "anarchic?" Or is the call to greater autonomy and accountability what's most important here? For all Scott's philosophizing about "anarchism," his book can and should also be read as a manifesto about how individuals should choose to govern themselves in organizations -- as citizens, not subjects; as employees, not wage slaves; as professionals, not rent-seekers. In this sense, Scott comes across more as a populist than an anarchist.

Consequently, it's both a pity and a flaw that Two Cheers is written as if Twitter and the Internet didn't exist. Marx, whatever his shortcomings as a person and political economist, was an astute observer of technology and its implications. For whatever reason, Scott is not. Technology appears in the scenery rather than as a major character or context. Given that so many power relationships and so many opportunistic subversions are enabled by digital media (hello, Wikileaks and Anonymous!), Scott missed real opportunities to upgrade his politico-organizational insights for the post-industrial age.

Similarly, the markets that most interest Scott are the black and gray ones. This would have been a better book had Scott recast at least a few of his everyday resistance arguments into more economic contexts. The maker movement and the rise of open-source technologies go unmentioned, although both support his anarchic arguments and sympathies.

Nevertheless, Two Cheers for Anarchism deserves more than two cheers in review because Scott usefully expands the vocabularies that leaders and managers need to have around the critical issues of power, control, and resistance. Every effective leader I know loses sleep over how best to empower their talent and constructively align their people. And all the successful leaders I know -- especially the entrepreneurs -- have at least a little streak of anarchism -- of creative destruction -- inside of them. For this reason alone, they will find Scott's insights and incites worth their time.

Our Weekly read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities.

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