Appreciation for Joyce Appleby

When I saw the obituary for Joyce Appleby in the New York Times on January 2, two emotions collided within me immediately. I was very sorry for her death: she was one of those people who I would like to see live forever because as long as they can breathe they are likely to write and as long as they can write their likely to tell us important things. I was glad that the Times recognized her because their obituaries in recent years have displayed a tendency to peculiar choices for these important notices. I agree with John Donne “that any man’s death diminishes me” but I scratch my head at the number of column inches given over to the composer of The Hokey Pokey or an innovator in infomercials. My sadness was leavened by delight at the recognition of an important person, one whose life of the mind made a difference for me and, I think, many other people.

I came to Joyce Appleby relatively late in her life but because she was a historian who wrote not only productively but incisively her work will continue to affect me and others for a very long time. The book that introduced her to me and to which I still return regularly for reference and refreshment was The Relentless Revolution A History of Capitalism. For an explicitly capitalist society (even though some feel that designation is not wholly accurate given the amount of government influence), Americans learned very little about the meaning and history of capitalism. When high schools broach the subject as in the Common Core Curriculum they seem to either avoid the ‘ism’ and focus on capital or present the less controversial framework of ‘market economies’. Alternatively, some private schools like the one my youngest child attended several years ago used revisionist and unabashedly subjective, leftist books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History, which are unafraid to use the word ‘capitalism’, but only in the way that Harry Potter insists on saying Voldemort.

After a lifetime working in and consulting to organizations, I find this lack of attention surprising. Even though capitalism is the ‘water in which we swim’, we are learning about it at the ‘micro’ level, which has significant disadvantages such as never seeing the whole picture of the system that influences so much of our lives. This lack of perspective is a little like trying to understand the human body from being handed a series of parts and organs: we may never see how they fit together to form something powerful and even still mysterious despite all our science. Capitalism is not just markets, investments, or the movement of goods: it is a system and like many systems nonlinear, sometimes producing activity that we cannot assign patterns. Knowing what people thought about capitalism seemed daunting to me because Mark’s hovered over its study for a child of the 60s as did Marcuse and Adorno. Their politics were not my main objection; it was their prose that put me off.

Then like many an English major, I found my path in life diverging from teaching short story elements and subject verb agreement. I swiveled through a number of different organizations until joining the employee relations department of American Airlines in the mid-1980s. An airline is a solid example of the capitalist system: individuals invest in equipment that allows the provision of a highly marketable service. Being around the people who ran American like Bob Crandall at that time was an education in capitalism. I had grown up in my father’s electrical engineering business and so had a sense of profit and loss, sales and investing, but the world where RPM — Revenue per Passenger Mile — ruled was far more sophisticated. American Airlines employees were very conscious of our stock market price, our market share, and the amortization of our airplane fleet. At American, I was most definitely a capitalist tool as I dealt with airport general managers and labor union representatives.

But still I did not study capitalism even as I moved out of that world to become an organizational consultant. I did realize the truth of my father’s dictum that the older we get the less we know. Really paying attention to people and organizations reveals complexity previously unrecognized and unimagined. If we can move past “the definitions and expectations of our personal environment” to eventually (and arduously) reach a point where “we can step back from and reflect on the limits of our own ideology or personal authority; see that anyone system or self-organization is in some way partial or incomplete”, we understand there is so much more underneath the daily events that we enter. This way of being, which Bob Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey term ‘the self-transforming mind’ requires us to hold the world away from us in order to examine it more usefully. I have found that entering into frames that others construct allowed me to gain this distance, this knowledge of other forces.

While that explanation seems lofty and even abstract, my introduction to Joyce Appleby came from browsing the remainder tables outside Labyrinth Books in Princeton New Jersey where I live. The copy of The Relentless Revolution that I bought had a mundane appearance, but contained a convincing blurb from Sean Wilentz whose Rise of American Democracy engrossed me a few years earlier: the relentless Revolution, a crowning achievement, shows that capitalism is as much a matter of values and ideas as of supply, demand, and balance sheets.…” In the 25 years since I had left American at that point, I realize that helping companies get the most out of their talent or finding better ways to make decisions and set strategies was very much about ‘values and ideas’. All of those moves are the skin of capitalism. There are assumptions and forces beneath the surface that determine the shape or even existence of managerial action without any of us usually thinking about them.

I sense that capitalism’s history would matter for the same reason that any history matters. Thucydides tells us (as translated by Donald Kagan) that history even when it lacks “fabulous tales” might “be judged useful by those who seek an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it…” Understanding why and how capitalism started would give me insights into what drives it and its conscious and unconscious adherents. As one of the best contemporary historians, John Lukacs stated in End of an Era “… as in everything else, one may know one’s purposes better than one’s motives.” Knowing the history of something may be a way to understand better the motives behind it.

My experience with organizations squared with Joyce Appleby’s observation early in the book that economies are entangled with society and culture; we have to keep in mind the nonrational, often political, sometimes inconsistent hearts and minds of “those who use their resources to organize an enterprise or cluster of business and Corporation operators devoted to producing for-profit.” My dealings with companies from very different industries and geographies had me agreeing strongly with her statement that, “all people may be self-interested, but what interests them depends a lot upon the society in which they had been reared.” One-size-fits-all only in elastic waistband track suits. An organizational consultant is well advised to eschew recipes, prescriptions, and cookie-cutter solutions even if the alternative of listening and observing to find the real way that people think and act in a particular enterprise is much more difficult and — perhaps more pertinently — sellable at lower margins.

Appleby’s contention that “at the cultural heart of capitalism is the individual’s capacity to control resources and initiate projects” proved relevant to me in my consideration of how an organization might better involve its employees. The further away an organization gets from allowing an individual to control resources and initiate projects the less innovative it is likely to be. Of course, there is always a tension between appropriate decision-making rights and desirable innovation possibilities, but into many of the organizations I encountered the scales were tipped heavily to operate and maintain, to restrict the ability to control resources and initiate projects to a very small group of senior managers. Likewise, her belief that “questioning authority proved critical to getting novelty accepted” is true not only in the early laboratory of capitalism that was 17th-century England but in the sometimes stagnating corporations 21st century America. Productivity is always the same since the inception of capitalism: we must apply our resources for the greatest gain and do so enduring risk while creating value. What constitutes gain, value, and risk might be up for debate but the history of capitalism suggests that we are kidding ourselves if we believe that somehow our ‘market economy’ has ascended beyond the limits of the system.

I have read accounts that characterized Joyce Appleby as a left-wing historian. I found her to be a pragmatic and probing historian although likely especially from now having looked at her earlier writings a liberal like myself. Her observation that as a result of the Enlightenment in France and England that people came to see themselves as “creators of their own social universe” is important to me because I find that this awareness is critical to success and even happiness in our work lives. If as she concludes our forebears shifted from believing that “the world… Was not a given to be studied and revered but rather work in progress to be improved”, that mindset still serves us well and deserves a reboot now and then. Her concerns about capitalism are worth serious consideration. The concentration of capital changes things and as she warns takes “a lot of the optimizing agility out of the ‘invisible hand’” of Adam Smith.

I liked Joyce Appleby because she came across as honest and humble while being insightful and intelligent. Perhaps it was her early career in journalism that provided a propensity for questioning assumptions and overturning scenarios. In one of her last books, The Shores of Knowledge, she wrote about the ways in which the discovery of the New World affected science and technology. I found it useful guide for innovation today because of its explication of the ways in which knowledge and experience must come together to overthrow old paradigms. Curiosity counts whether it is about the material world or the people sitting next to us in a meeting.

Her humility was evident in a quote from early in The Relentless Revolution: ““Teaching is a great revealer of one’s ignorance. Everything seems to fit together while one is taking notes from someone else’s lecture. When the task of making sense of the past falls on you, gaps and non sequiturs stand out like hazard lights.” I think the same can be said of a manager or a consultant or other contributor to an enterprise who tries to make sense of the present for self and others. We are confronted constantly with what we don’t know, but the best of us keep trying to shrink that space even when it seems an impossible task. The least I can do is to offer this appreciation of Joyce Appleby who made the increase in my knowing such a pleasure.