A metaphor for the transformation that overcomes people when they surrender their judgment to a group, to a managerial institution, to a complex bureaucracy, or to a government, as the price of belonging to it. For example, the ten-year-plus period of intense learning required in order to be able to cope with the detail, diplomacy and boredom of negotiating trade agreements with the World Trade Organisation and the European Union makes it unlikely that anyone who has achieved expertise in it will question the aims of the organisations involved, or the essential assumptions of sustained growth and globalisation.

There is uncritical commitment to the aims of the institution; the person ceases to think as a free agent; her approach to a problem is not directed to understanding it, but to dealing with it in ways which reflect the institution’s values.

The pressure to do so is strong. It might be better for everyone else that some institutions—a government, for instance—should do nothing other than benignly watch the world go about its business, except that most institutions that did this would quickly fall apart, because they derive their identity and their claim for funds from what they do. They need a mission. Gross absurdities of ideology can be pursued, energetically, ruthlessly, coldly and with a straight face by the individual member, because, locked in institutional capture, her speech and action reflect the corporate will. She has become a different animal.

And the matter is more critical when the institution involved is the urban institution itself. Urban society, in its inheritance and its deep character, is a machine driven by the coordinated action of its inhabitants. In the very earliest days of urban history, when the majority of even elementary technologies, such as pulleys, were still to be invented, the work of the city would have had to be minutely organised, not only by a top-down authority, but by a thick, all-penetrating sense of coordination, almost like a flock of birds that moves and shifts direction with simultaneous single-mindedness (Unlean). Institutional belonging in that sense has weakened, but it has never gone away.

For medieval European towns and villages it was as much as they could do—and often more than they could do—to invent and sustain ways of keeping large numbers of people fed, watered and sheltered in one place; they were in many ways still rooted in the land, deeply aware of practical considerations of harvest and season. The modern urban state, by contrast, has much greater freedom: urban impulse is insulated from rural causes and consequences; the time-lag between decision and consequence is long. Bad logic can flourish; there is little or no quick, sanity-saving, feedback. The modern urban-everywhere-institution—it spread its roots and its immune responses deep into the countryside long ago—has been able to impose its will at leisure.

So you don’t need an interview to belong to an institution. You are already in one. If you are very lucky, you may spend some of your life groping and inventing your own way forward, but your escape from the institution may happen only on days off. It is the institutionalisation that presents itself as real life, and it may employ so much of the personality that the real person closes down.

And this means that the bureaucratic economy seems to bring with it a particular and most remarkable occupational hazard, metamorphosis: “Candidates should be advised that they may find themselves turning into a golden ass, a Wolf Fallacy of the steppes, a crustacean, a cockroach or a rhinoceros.

The employers regret any inconvenience that may be caused, but cannot be held responsible.” Metamorphosis seems almost routine in Western literature: the gods of Greece and Rome regularly change their victims into animals of various kinds; princes become frogs in the fairy tales, and there are variations on the theme of change and mistaken identity in the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Pygmalion legend, The Odyssey, Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Ring, Swan Lake. . . . Many of these cases of metamorphosis, despite their alarming symptoms, are relatively mild: the person takes a bit of time to discover, or to reveal, who he or she really is, and when the revelation happens, there is resolution and rejoicing. The metamorphoses of our own time, however—notably Kafka’s disturbing story of Gregory turning into a giant and anguished cockroach, and Ionesco’s story of everyone else turning into a rhinoceros—are not so sunny. Here we have, not a revelatory transition into becoming the person you really are, but deep burial inside an animal not noted for its independent thinking. The part of you that consists of a free agent with independent critical judgment ceases to exist.M11

So, how do you cope? The French philosopher-novelist André Gide gives us a guideline—the opposite to the one he intended. For him, going along with what he saw as institutions built on hypocrisy—such as the family or the state—is a case of self-deception, a deception no better than counterfeiting money: “Don’t worry about appearances”, he wrote, “what is important is being”—which, he notes, requires sincerity. But that does not take us much further, for you can quite easily be sincere about the role you are already in. Indeed, you will need to be, because otherwise it would be hard to fulfil it, least of all in a senior position. That is institutional capture for you: like the builders of the Bridge over the River Kwai, you embrace the role that has been thrust on you: sincerity is about learning to love the cell into which you have been locked. And, once established, it is powerful: if you believe something, and if you are sincere about it, then that is all you need to know; sincerity itself is its own quality control, the entire justification for practically any view on practically anything.M12

But here we also have a clue to recovery from the dream world in which ideologies, fallacies and sincerity give uneasy symbolic reality to whatever idol or graven image happens along. What we need is at least something that stays still. Identity is this fixed point; that which says that you are you. But it cannot do this if you are captured by an institution, or if you have institutionalised yourself as an intellectual or expert. What gives identity roots and holds it still as you is encounter, the act of recognising something—a person, a practice, a thing, the spirit of a place—on its own terms. And to do that, in turn, requires the world of real people and real places, with their own traditions and narratives. These are precisely the conventions, manners, institutions and families that Gide railed against: the particular circumstances of a particular stock of social capital belonging to particular people in particular places . . .

Still life at last. From particularity—from living its own particular story and encountering those of others—identity derives roots. If its identity is constant, there is a real, wide awake chance that a place and its people may learn to cope. So it is possible to avoid metamorphosis; to bravely avoid, that is, starting a new, secure and pensionable career as a rhinoceros.


Related entries:

Second Nature, Character, Calibration, Humility, Reformer Fallacy, Hippopotamus.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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