Re: SOC: The Challenge of "The Second World"

From: Greg Burch (
Date: Wed Mar 14 2001 - 06:05:58 MST

On March 8, 2001, Carlos Gonzalia wrote:

>>Date: Thu, 8 Mar 2001 09:21:03 EST
>>Subject: SOC: The Challenge of "The Second World" (Was: Argentina economy)
>>Working to understand and change the things that have caused this kind
>>static condition is just as or perhaps more important than working to
>>introduce new technologies into such societies and improving the basic
>>conditions of material life. What is it that societies as disparate as
>>we find in Colombia, Nigeria and Burma have in common that has held them
>>from the benefits of real modernism? Why have attempts to aid development
>>these countries proved so ineffective for so long? Looking at places
>>modernism has had a false start seems to me to be as important as studying
>>those where it has been most successful.


>As for the causes of this stagnation in countries like mine, I'd like to
>this list of (again, deriving from my personal and subjective experience)
>most apperent causes:
>- generalized corruption: I'm talking about the billions-of-dollars size
> corruption here. Government officials receiving bribes, government
> awarded to mediocre and unscrupled businessmen, budget funding being
> towards "thank you" projects and black hole funds. Money laundry, drugs
> weapon trafficking, and favoritism/selling of services have been the
> way of our governments since I was born. Mafias are/were being run from
> provincial government and federal department positions as a matter of
> thing.

I agree that this kind of corruption is endemic in the “second world” societies
I have personally experienced and read about. Corruption in large institutions
tends to be one of the primary targets of “reform” of both well-intentioned
outsiders and internal critics. However, my experience indicates that “top-down”
reform of large institutions usually ends up with little success, since
it seems to be little more than treating the symptoms of a problem with
deeper roots. As an example, I have seen many instances of what Europeans
and “Anglospherians” would call “corruption” at every level of second world
societies, especially in the realm of private business, that usually isn’t
addressed by institutional reformers.

It is VERY difficult to write about this without running the risk of being
labeled a “cultural chauvinist”, but I think that being able to honestly
address this phenomenon is vitally important and may lie at the heart of
much of the problem of the cultural, economic and political stagnation that
afflicts the two-thirds of the world that has not been able to make the
transition to self-reinforcing progressive modernism. In this regard I
think the new “culture matters” school of social science has broken through
to a previously unavailable level of insight and analysis. Once again I
recommend Francis Fukuyama’s book “Trust” as an excellent introduction and
overview of the ideas being discussed in this school.

To summarize my views on the commonality among the societies that seem to
be trapped within a matrix of behaviors we might call “corruption”, the
old saying “it’s not WHAT you know but WHO you know” seems to be the unifying
thread. I have seen the same problems in societies as diverse as Mexico
and China, all relating back to a habit of running institutions (be they
businesses, universities or government agencies) based on placing a higher
value on personal relationships than on objective merit or accomplishment.
 Fukuyama’s analysis of how this works in terms of “high-trust” versus “low-trust”
societies is, in my experience, extremely fruitful.

In this regard, it is important for us to realize that the “relationship/merit”
dichotomy isn’t by any means an all-or-nothing duality. The US certainly
has its share of “old boy” dynamics within its institutions and classic
“low-trust” societies like China and Mexico have long-standing traditions
of merit-based achievement (I’m thinking of the Confucian examination system
in the case of the former and the almost fetishistic attention that Mexicans
seem to pay to academic titles like “licenciado” and “engenero”.)

The challenge seems to lie in gently but effectively shifting the importance
away from basing social decisions on the “old boy” system of personal and
family relationships toward one based on more objective measures of individual
merit. This can be done at a level of institutional reform, but also must
be addressed at a broader, deeper and more subtle level of cultural change.
 Of course, the higher stress placed on personal relationships in the societies
in question can ultimately be seen as so fundamental to their character
that making this kind of change might be seen as a kind of “cultural suicide.”
 If so, it may be a question of choosing the manner that those cultures
will be extinguished. But I prefer to think of it as the same kind of process
of self-improvement that extropians believe should be a part of each individual’s
own growth and development.

>- incompetence: people in positions of decision/power simply lack the
> ability and background to understand the problems we have. This is due
> plain ignorance, ideological blindness, or gross mismanagement ideas
> rooted in a tradition of bureocracy.

I think this problem is very closely related to the first one. The infuriating
bureaucracy encountered in all parts of the second and third worlds is,
in fact, just an expression of the “relationship-based” way of organizing
institutions in low-trust societies. Again, attempts to address the symptoms
rather than the cause are doomed to failure. Streamlining or abolishing
one set of bureaus will just result in their formal or informal recreation
in another guise as the “old boy” network re-asserts itself.

>- endemic violence: corruption and incompetence both foster violent answers
> situations of conflict in an already much stressed social environment.
> goes both for the lower-classes individual (many times forced to literally
> steal for a living and food) to the mafias that prosper in association
> the corrupt governments, to the ideologicized security/army forces (still
> deeply stuck into the fascist killer-squad and anti-communist
> camp mentalities). People trying to change things in a too loudy voice,
> or denouncing the miserable spoiling of the governing mafias have quite
> often found a grim end in a highway ditch, shot on the head by a police
> officer on the pay roll of some politician or businessman.

Here I see an expression of a different face of what may be, again, the
same root problem. In this instance, it is the lack of functioning institutions
and cultural habits of legality. The most effective check on the urge to
seek violent solutions to problems of social conflict is the common belief
that such conflicts can be resolved in a just manner through processes that
are fair and impartial. But functioning legal institutions are utterly
undermined by the kind of personalistic corruption that is endemic in the
second and third worlds.

In this regard, I have often noted that one can look at the superficial
institutions in the societies in question and see a complete and elaborate
legal system – ON PAPER. There are courts and law books in Brazil and Malaysia,
but no one believes that they will actually function in the way that their
“institutional design” indicates that they ought to. I often represent
business interests originating in second world countries in their dealings
in the US. One of the first and on-going tasks I have in this work is explaining
that in fact the courts and laws here actually do work as they say they
do most of the time here. There is an expectation that I am a “fixer” rather
than a real legal counselor and advocate and that my effectiveness is a
function of some personal influence I may have with the court, rather than
the merits of the factual or legal arguments we may be able to offer in
favor of our position.

>- inefficient and malicious foreign influence:

[snip a very good but lengthy description of the malign interaction of policies
of agencies like the IMF with the stagnant ideological polarities in the
second and third worlds]

I agree that the prescription of “transparency” and “economy” offered by
the IMF and World Bank have been largely ineffective in addressing the real
problems, and I propose that this is precisely because they are treatments
of the symptoms rather than the causes of the problems.

Your comment about the ideological stagnation in these societies, Sr. Gonzalia,
has a very telling example in current news: “Subcomandante Marcos’” speech
in Mexico City this week was as simplistic and backward as anything I have
heard. It could have been given by Che Guevara, and offers the same old
failed Latin American Marixist ideology of the 1960s as a proposed solution
to the very real problems that the Zapatistas have called attention to.
 It was a real heartbreak to hear his words, because they cast a bright
light on the fact that there is no really new thinking going on.

All of this is only diagnosis and prognosis (the latter because I feel sure
that the disease will only worsen so long as the root problems remain unaddressed),
but not prescription. Unfortunately, this diagnosis cannot lead to a quick
“cure”, because it points to a basic problem that is not easily addressed
by simple formulae. To say that the problem is “cultural” doesn’t suggest
quick or simple solutions. How do you change the basic habits of mind that
are inherent in almost every aspect of people’s lives? One thing that won’t
work is simple, “top-down” institutional reform. Instead, what is required
is a broad-based and deep impetus to honest self-assessment. How this can
be fostered is the real challenge.

       Greg Burch -
     Attorney::Vice President, Extropy Institute

    "We never stop investigating. We are never
      satisfied that we know enough to get by.
   Every question we answer leads on to another
      question. This has become the greatest
          survival trick of our species."
                -- Desmond Morris

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