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Real work versus legibility

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

You may recognise the name (Prof) Steve Keen. Arguably he is the only/best economist in the world, with a model that predicted the last crash, and a great track record and huge social media presence since. His model deals with the critical role of private sector debt, amongst other things largely missing elsewhere. Despite the large number of highly paid and highly intelligent economists around the world in various institutional settings, the only way Steve can get his work done is via Patreon crowd funding.[1] Or put the other way around, lots of people want to fund Steve to do work that otherwise won’t get done.

Is this situation/pattern common? How many times does the crucial work not get done because it cannot get done inside of the official contexts in which it occurs? The official processes are formed around the need for senior and powerful people to be able to read what is happening: the official procedures therefore have to fit within their understanding of the world. We have written before about legibility, citing James Scott’s Seeing Like a State. The mere act of requiring that something be understandable can destroy the thing being looked at.

The “management” picture of something has often been simplified to a point where it can’t operate. The relevant experience is not available to “management”, so metaphorical understanding cannot develop. The picture and language that underly the requirement for legibility often do not support the distinctions that need to be made. In “management”, we preserve the illusion that people know what they are doing. In sponsoring real work, people take the other view that they know at least that the official line is not right, and that we desperately need something else.

Steve Keen cannot do his work inside the legible structures of neoliberal economics, but plenty of people outside those structures want his results, want his challenge to orthodoxy to exist. It is even possible, given the anonymity provided by Patreon, that the governor of the Bank of England could, with a private hat on, be a sponsor.[2]

Real work: anything that pushes against imposed legibility. Our thesis is that real work is what happens, what is needed, to deliver outcomes that are not available down the prescribed route. Real work creates the possibility of insight.

With a sensitive and flexible view of language we can see how this works.

The health metaphor (again)

My mother, bless her, explains to me how hard it is to deny sugary foods to children because of the natural equation between sweetness and love. She had a childhood that was not exactly deprived but maybe deprived of love and certainly of a father at home. What I can remember of my sixties childhood was an absence of sweets but an abundance of English puddings. And I can remember an alliance of schoolkids, including myself, who went to the cake shop together on the way home from school.

And we need to get our hearts around obesity being a symptom of malnutrition, not a product of gluttony and sloth. The fat infant or child is being fed sugar and carbohydrates that disrupt their endocrine system and inflame their bodies. It is a form of starvation as can be seen by introducing a proper high fat diet and watching them recover. This is quite an emotional challenge on top of wanting to give kids sweet food.

I saw this first hand when my daughter was in hospital at age two. In the next cot was a very voluble girl of a similar age, in hospital for “failure to thrive”. They measured each square centimetre of toast the child could be persuaded to eat and yet at visiting time the parents stuffed bags of sweets down the child, apparently unnoticed by the nurses on the ward. What a disconnect, what cognitive dissonance, what a failure of “management”.

“Every child matters” but babies are being born highly disadvantaged by the epigenetic switches triggered by the mothers’ insulin resistance during pregnancy. They are born being unable to tolerate the diet of cereals they will be fed. We fail to respond to an epidemic under our noses because our very intelligence has been subverted. What we see and feel are not the facts that are salient when we recover our hearts.[3]

Here is Roy Lilley (for the record, he doesn’t get this) on his nhsManager blog this morning:

Change is the most worn-out over-used, devalued word in the lexicon of management. It’s a word that is used by purveyors of the status quo to hide their real intent. A word that is used to disguise serving up the left-over breakfast as a reheated dinner.

What does it take to feel in our hearts and bones that the tidal wave of ill-health overtaking our population is being served up to us by the people charged with our health and wellbeing? To look at a bunch of obese young children in the playground and feel anger and guilt? Not at the kids and their parents but at our national, supine failure to govern ourselves? To allow the innocent to be exploited and dumped?

The read-across

I keep my fingers and toes crossed that you can feel the pattern in the previous section. Well enough at least to see the same pattern operate elsewhere in your life. For illustration, I feel I have to choose a subject area where there is an obvious problem but one that most people still don’t react to in their beings, no matter what their intellectual grasp. I excuse my mother at 91 but not myself.

Let’s try and shine a light on organisational life as we know it. If you follow my mate Bob Marshall on Twitter (@flowchainsensei) you will see him beatifically dispensing contrarian wisdom. Everything you believe about organisations is diametrically opposed to the truth. Drip, drip, drip, day after day. My summary would be “please just trust people to get on with their work”, “can you please discuss endlessly the things that matter and how they change”. And that, of course, is far-out super-radical revolutionary dynamite. Gosh. It will get you fired.

Recently we have seen hospital doctors fired for claiming their A&E departments were understaffed and unsafe. And a doctor disciplined for making a mistake because the A&E department was too busy, making him too slow: Catch 22. It’s not worth wage slaves doing real work. And yet, maintaining the swan[4] of management illusion takes some degree of real work

I saw some speculation about yesterday’s volatility on the stock markets, that it looked like workers might be getting in a position to ask for wage increases, and that finance hates that and threw a wobbly. We need not doubt that, just like the purveyors of cereals, sugar and vegetable oil, there are mighty forces determined that workers should be powerless. No matter how deleterious that is to the economy proper. Tribal stuff: remember how you had to downsize to put your share price up?

A tweet from George Monbiot:

Stock markets slide for a day. Result: mass panic and wall-to-wall coverage.

Soil is sliding off the land worldwide, threatening the entire basis of human survival. Result: indifference, no coverage.

What is salient is not important

What is important is not salient

Almost everyone I have ever known in a work context has a version of the “I still have to pay the mortgage” speech. They are not wrong of course. But that means you need to find the people who have suitable sensibilities to hear what needs to be said in a less censored way. Our work culture is highly constrained by the use of money to exert control: which of course may have nothing or even less to do with real work. That is why Bob Marshall exists.

Many people understand that they are wage slaves. The only reason they go to work is because they are paid to do so. Many people understand that the work they do is not socially useful, nor a meaningful contribution to anything. These are closely linked concepts: being controlled and directed by someone so that you get paid is a pretty bleak experience, avoided by those who can.

The pandemic we face in the 21st Century is a psychological phenomenon rather than a biological one, but in my view, it is equally parasitic. Its name is ‘deceit’, and our political & economic institutions are riddled with it. MarkGB, Renegade Inc

If we think about jobs that have innate social usefulness, perhaps teaching and nursing[5], then we can see how the whole drift of the “submit to control so you can be paid” syndrome is to remove the usefulness and meaningfulness of the work. It is almost as though if you managed to enjoy doing something useful that would be wrong, would not amount to work.[6] The heart of the deceit in the quote above is the insistence by management that increased control improves the work in some way. It does not, and never will.

I am drawing a parallel between a food culture that is making the majority of people seriously ill and a work culture that is causing near universal psychological distress. The food culture was brought about by the corruption of nutritional science, by corporate drive for profits at any cost, and by capture of the regulatory authorities. The work culture arrives because of a certain way of socialisation of people in the west, each believing that they face life alone. It has also come about by a direct concern of corporate managers and a more general ascendancy of sociopathic financialisation. They are just as demonstrably wrong and poisonous as the food industry.

We need to demolish the notion that western wage slaves are just playing out human nature.

How we are

It is so easy to think that the way we feel isolated from each other, and the way we feel separate from the natural world that we are so obviously a part of, is just the way it is, rather than a cultural artefact that in some sense we have chosen. Just like the food manufacturers insist that sugar gives us energy, corporates point to their success in providing jobs. The real question is how we need to relate in order to be useful and productive, and that question is both hidden and run away from.

Its just a village surrounded by other villages. Its difficult to know how many people live here, because in Africa we don’t count people. Sobonfu Somé.

I have rehearsed here before how we think we have five senses. Those senses just happen to be the way our separate bodies access the world: they emphasise separation, existential loneliness if you like. But the “science” position is that we have at least 9 senses and depending how you count 32. The most obvious sense that we ignore culturally is our sense of balance which has its own sense organ in the inner ear. You might want to think about whether we have cultural vertigo because we ignore it!

It is also worth rehearsing that we attach our five senses to our heads. The way we think about them is to suppose that information about the world through our senses gets integrated in our brains. So, we distinguish sharply between that and our gut instinct, for example, which requires paying attention to what our body thinks and says. Even that explanation divides head and body in a way that has no foundation in our living processes.

In Sobonfu Somé’s West Africa, the dominant sense is balance. It is both the dominant physical sense and metaphorically the dominant cultural sense. From six months, children are being taught the cultural centrality of balance. Children can attach themselves to any adult in the extended family whenever it suits them in order to find their balance. Just translate that for a moment into a work environment as we know it: that would work well. Of course, in these societies there is no ready distinction between work activities and other activities. David Graeber would say that the value being produced is in people, as of course it is with us, except we deny it and count the things that have been made instead.

Cultural psychology is the study of how subject and object, self and other, psyche and culture, person and context, figure and ground, practitioner and practice, live together, require each other, and dynamically, dialectically and jointly make each other up. Kathryn Linn Geurts

We live in a culture that reveres measurement. “Give me the numbers.” In the food domain we could think about obesity. The GP will weigh you, and that from then on defines your health status. Obesity then moves from being a bodily symptom of something, to a lifestyle choice that will make you ill. It is not even the best number — girth is a better single number — but there is an industry built around weight. Or in diabetes, the one number is blood glucose. This is a mistake that kills people because you get prescribed insulin and it is actually the combination of high blood glucose and high insulin that wrecks your arteries. The complex dynamic interplay of at least those two numbers over time is what a responsible doctor needs to know, but we live in a “one number” culture. One ring to rule them all, and hey presto, darkness.

The balance that those Africans know from the age of 2, so wonderfully captured in the ability to carry heavy loads on the head with perfect grace (and incidentally wonderful efficiency) is naturally dynamic and inclusive. If such a person says they can’t carry something, they don’t mean what we would mean, they mean they cannot do it and be in balance. Remember they are just paying attention to a sense we neglect and therefore we miss the metaphors from.

I hardly need to rehearse the single numbers that dominate the workplace: the fabled bottom line, the timesheet, the productivity. You could look at the work of the Beyond Budgeting group, very blue chip, to understand the vast waste that a budgeting or a targeting system introduces, but we don’t want to know. We live in our heads, so our reality consists of concepts that become isolated. We need cultural psychology to wake us up, but we typically don’t know there even is such a thing.

Real work again

To a manager making his demands for legibility, the work he can envisage is always within the enterprise he is controlling. From the perspective of someone trying to do real work, the context for the real work is unlikely to lie solely within the enterprise: this is the problem with legibility. So, the person looking to pursue a real work agenda, the Steve Keen if you like, generates his own new context in which the work makes sense and can be continued where it needs to go. Stepping outside the system in this way necessarily leaves those people who are entrained in the system processes floundering/foundering.

There is a communication challenge here, for us and for the person doing real work. The frames for language necessarily shift.

I just read (Prof) Tim Noakes’ book The Lore of Nutrition. It documents like a scary detective novel how he was put on trial by his university colleagues for daring to suggest that the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in South Africa might be associated with the official dietary advice being wrong. Noakes’ father died of diabetes, amputations, and dementia, before Noakes himself found how to correct his own diet and regain his health. Talk about real work. And talk about becoming a pariah.

Actually, Noakes solved the communication problem first. Both on social media and with a phenomenally successful cookbook he managed to reach the people who needed to hear, in their hundreds of thousands. That made him a target with the institutions who relied on money from sugar, cereal and vegetable oil companies. Hence the trial. And hence why the three angels, women from round the world who had uncovered the corruption and incompetence, gave up their time to come and give evidence about the science.

The trial only ended last year. And the fallout in terms of academics not being willing to serve on the industry bodies dedicated to misinformation and confusion is still happening as we speak. Big Tobacco all over again.

And our point here is …

People who think they know better will always try to limit the scope and to direct the action. I know some really lovely people whose service to the world fits those parameters. If you want to caricature it, this is the white man’s burden and Oxfam in Haiti.

Instead of thinking right and wrong or any binary choice, we are pointing to how the real work will always reconfigure and repurpose what is. There is no hope for the school system qua school system or the health system qua health system. They have greatly outlived themselves and preserved themselves as the putative repository of expertise while they sell us down the river. The people who know how to do real work will reinvent them sooner or later and they will not be heroes while they do. Like Tom Noakes they will be vilified, and people will attempt to destroy them.

Every time you hear the word transparency or accountability or “what gets measured gets done”, your imagination should go into overdrive. Every time those words are used you can be sure that there is a limiting misconception that in effect makes the real work unavailable and delays and undermines what needs to happen.

And of course it is no use me saying this. I cannot actually give you those rather directive clues. You have to do the imaginative real work on all the things that matter to you. And by the way this is precisely what robots and AI can never do.

[1] Steve Keen’s Patreon page:

[2] Though, if Mark Carney is indeed supporting Steve Keen’s Patreon, it’s below the $100 publicity radar:

[3] I don’t want to have to recall every hour of every day that we are having our strings pulled. I know it is advertisers’ job to sell us damaging and addictive foodstuffs by telling us how healthy they are. I know that supermarkets’ business model is to sell us nutritionally useless products with a high mark-up and a long shelf life. And they have had decades to find out how to do that effectively. I loathe the “wholemeal”, “farm fresh”, “low fat”, “healthy oil” spin as much as I loathe sitting in the GP surgery to be misled by their dietary advice on the screen. Dished up, one suspects, by the same string pulling (aka corruption and regulatory capture) as everything else in our food “culture”.

[4] You know the one: swans serenely glide along the Isis, whilst the feet paddle madly, unseen beneath the surface. Think of an iceberg, if you prefer.

[5] Though perhaps not even those, as practiced in modern, “efficient” institutions

[6] There’s something ironic to be found in an ethic of work that proscribes playfulness, enjoyment, fulfilment, meaningfulness, etc., in pursuit of efficiency to the detriment of usefulness.



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works