Systems of Survival

I brought up Systems of Survival in my last blog and mentioned I wanted to return to the ideas in this book and go into them at length. The author is Jane Jacobs, a very creative thinker but fairly obscure as intellectuals go, known mostly for her work in urban planning. The topic is ambitious – she has gone through journalistic and archival records of public life cutting across historical epochs and continents to try and abstract moral principles operating in public discourse that transcend human history and culture. What’s the use of taking all this out of context? Well, she quickly hit upon vital applications in the study of political corruption and crime, topics you can think of as timely or timeless, on which moral philosophy has heretofore shed little light.

Although her non-Western sources are usually presented through a Western analytical lens (ancient history or anthropology), it is tempting to give her credit for having transcended these limitations with a natural history of human civilization that doesn’t flatter present circumstances as the best of all possible worlds. Her abstract principles are compellingly simple and her approach to organizing them into systems is at once easy to support with empirical examples and theoretically coherent. So rather than worry too much about her idea’s pedigree, I’m running with it as a tool for studying motivation, organizational behavior and corruption.

Her idea is that in public life, there are two possible codes of conduct that are internally valid but diametrically opposed to one another, and civilization needs adherents to each to play different roles for which their different values are uniquely suited. I liked this at once, because I enjoy dissecting false controversies and I think one of the main reasons Americans look for post-partisan candidates is that we see false controversy in the very way our bipartisan system is organized. Strikingly enough, her two moral codes of conduct fall out along the same fault lines as the Democratic and Republican parties in U.S. politics. One moral code of conduct is for commerce, the other for governance. She calls the second category of roles “guardian work” because it encompasses the military and police, but administrative and regulatory watchdog work that is in the public interest (rather than providing services from the private sector) belong in the same category.

I’ve illustrated her two lists with examples from Russell Crowe’s filmography to show how closely they correspond to the professions of the characters he plays. For me the correspondence between the ideas in the book and the values in these movies is fascinating and encouraging. I think movies are fertile territory for illustrating this sort of theory, because of the plurality of perspective so common in film. You can see characters from different walks of life interacting on their own terms, and have a sense of each person’s perspective in the same scene even if they disagree. Of course, we know Russell Crowe best for playing “guardian” types, muscular and adventurous, but Cinderella Man is an interesting exception. For Jim Braddock, boxing is a professional sport and his adversaries aren’t supposed to be trying to kill him. Work isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and outside the boxing ring he shuns force and puts the utmost importance on abiding by voluntary agreements rather than simply taking what you can for yourself.

The first thing you might notice about these lists is that they seem incomplete. Universal virtues appear on neither list, though Jane Jacobs can think of many: cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom. No one disputes these virtues, whereas adherents to the moral code of commerce hold values diametrically opposed to those of adherents to the guardian code of conduct. It is the values that have twinned opposites that distinguish these ways of life from each other and function interdependently with the other values within the same code.

She recounts being surprised to discover a variant on her own idea in Plato’s writings, and notes how adamant Plato was that each citizen must mind his own work and not try to do anyone else’s, in support of her claim that corruption occurs when people mix and match values from both codes and combine roles. She points out that the British navy was set up with a merchant fleet that merchants did not wish to operate themselves, because of the temptation to use warships to raid one another’s trade ships if they were responsible for their own protection from piracy, fearing anarchy would make the seas un-navigable if trading vessels were armed. In the drug trade this is a constant threat, because drug dealers are quick to resort to violence.

She does point out that there are jobs in civilization that mingle the priorities of governance and commerce, inevitably as without guardian enforcement of contract rights or fraud liabilities, commerce would be an unreliable way of life. The darker side of collusion between governance and commerce is illustrated in the colonial history that prefigured what we now call globalization. I used a graph to illustrate these overlapping responsibilities and undertakings, and used the axes to underscore the basic functions and modus operandi of each code of conduct. Jane Jacobs argues that in many managerial and administrative jobs, one must wear two hats, one at a time, adhering to the code of conduct appropriate to the task at hand. These are delicate responsibilities, easily mishandled. The corporate confidentiality agreement among tobacco executives in The Insider is an example, ethical when it protects trade secrets, unethical when it conceals knowledge of fraudulent public statements or practices like adulteration. The Brown & Williamson lawsuit against Jeffrey Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement was not upheld in court because the expectation that he withhold knowledge of corporate malfeasance was unethical. The U.S. government is less understanding of whistleblowers within the guardian services, treating Wikileaks as treason instead. But this hypersensitivity to betrayal of government secrets is closely linked to the edict “shun trading,” which for a public official means not selling out the public interest, not selling military secrets to the enemy, and not subverting one’s professional responsibilities for bribes.

I doubt I’ve said enough to be clear yet, you should really read the book. But I’ll keep drawing examples from movies as I think of them, to try and show how her ideas work. So far my favorite examples are Master and Commander for guardian/governance values, and Cinderella Man for commercial/professional values. I pulled a picture from the scene where Jim takes his son to the butchers to return the salami because it underscores the importance of not taking what you need without paying for it in a voluntary transaction. In Master and Commander, in contrast, the crew speculate that if they take the Acheron as a prize, they’ll enjoy shares of her stolen loot. Thus far, the basic taking/trading distinction.

The importance of luxuries like rum and music on the HMS Surprise is part of the guardian way of life, dangerous at times but taking some of its core values from hunter/gatherer lifestyles rich in leisure time and creative arts. Jane Jacobs speculates that one reason hunter/gatherers cultivated skills in art and other leisure activities was to keep their predations on the game animals sustainable. The introduction of fur trade in the Americas subverted this conservation ethic and created incentives to maximize kills and waste meat in favor of pelts. Rum also functions as largesse, dispensed by the powerful to placate subordinates expected to abide by a rigid hierarchy with few rewards at the bottom of the pecking order. Hierarchy and discipline are explicit themes in the script, along with cunning, prowess, fortitude and tradition.

State largesse comes into play in Cinderella Man when Jim goes on welfare, and as such it is help he is reluctant to accept. He would not expect charity without obligations from peers, and it hurts his pride as an equal among other ordinary citizens to go to the welfare office. His friend Mike dismisses FDR’s reforms as politically motivated and not a redress of what had been taken from families like theirs. Jim repays the welfare office as soon as he’s able as if it had been a loan, like the cash assistance he asked for at Madison Square Garden, which he also repaid. As a professional boxer and wage laborer, he’s uncomfortable taking something for nothing even when his family is in need, impatient to return the welfare money even when his family’s future is still precarious. It’s a matter of keeping true to his own way of life, which has no part in governance, although he respects the need for the government to step up in a national emergency.

I’ll refer back to this account of the core concepts in Systems of Survival later, so I hope it’s adequate since you probably won’t have time to read the book. I have a lot of ideas about how to apply this theory of corruption and public life to the analysis of other movies, and I’ll bring in more material from the book as I go along. Hopefully I’m not the only one eager to see how far her ideas pan out. I think I can use them to study corruption in hospitals, since my work is in public health, so I have a great deal of interest in the details of her theory.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from her book, about elementary school children evincing guardian virtues without coaching, lifted from John Holt: “Ten is a heroic age for most kids. They remind me in many ways of the Homeric Greeks. They are quarrelsome and combative; they have a strong and touchy sense of honor; they believe that every affront must be repaid, and with interest; they are fiercely loyal to their friends, even though they may change friends often; they have little sense of fair play, and greatly admire cunning and trickery; they are both highly possessive and very generous – no smallest trifle may be taken from them, but they are likely to give anything away if they feel so disposed.” Jane Jacobs thinks if Holt had watched the same children at a yard sale, they would have taken just as naturally to the commercial virtues, that all this is in human nature and flows naturally when the appropriate task is at hand.

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Filed under A Good Year, Acting, Cinderella Man, Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, Master and Commander, State of Play, Systems of Survival, The Insider

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