Maintaining the Institutional Status Quo

AKA, strategies used to continue our stagnation.

Pretend that you are an influential and wealthy person. You have a significant amount of money and connections, perhaps you hold public office or are a CEO. Now, pretend that you have an idea about how to organize a portion of society differently—not a wholesale cultural revolution, but something ranging from a tweak to the tax code to a new schooling system or an amendment to the US Constitution. How do you do it?

Create New Institutions, Subvert Existing Ones

Institutions are reified ideas, platforms that establish rituals to cement social relations among individuals, then use those relations to carry out activities to further institutional goals defined by an often unstated ideology.

Creating a new institution requires action and advocacy. In the absence of a large and supportive existing institutional ecosystem, direct and often violent action is taken. This is how much of the industrial revolution was implemented in European societies that, at the time, conceived of themselves in ways very different from today—largely agricultural and not involved in state-supported markets for labor, education, and manufactured goods. The change involved massive suffering and bloodshed for generations, including wars, revolutions, and counter-revolutions. It destroyed much of the old order and grafted on a new, alien one with new institutions. However, this is akin to a cultural revolution and is not the focus here.

If a friendly institutional milieu exists, as in the present day, avoid the above consequences through indirection. Create an intellectual groundswell. If you can swing it, add a populist component as well and get popular organizations going—or at least conduct very careful astroturfing to give the appearance of such.

Use money and influence to fund and create true believers. Get them to do the necessary work, all at arm’s length. Perform ideological laundering, taking obviously self-interested money with an agenda, washing it through special institutions, and creating end products in the form of position papers, blog posts, news editorials, academic papers, and true believers. Some people will catch on and expose the operation, but most of the time the connections will not be traced, and most investigative articles will be quickly forgotten as the press continues to churn through the news cycle. Remember, most news today is either from the government or from corporate PR, and most journalists are captured by class envy. This is great protection.

If you want to get nasty, fund groups that are opposed to your ideology, but use your funding to subvert people from the inside and to pick people you know are friendly to your interests or who will be less strident in their opposition. Get your opponents to publish your own ideas. Collaborate with your opponents, put them in your debt with your money and actions. Use funding to delegitimize the opposition. Also fund opposition that isn’t really opposition, but gives the appearance of being such. Fund “middle way” movements that talk about being reasonable and realistic, and which make others appear too extreme to be taken seriously.

Assume that you got your way and the reforms you were looking for are in place. How do you now defend your position?

Passive Rejection and Filters

Never underestimate the power to simply say “no” and reject alternatives in favor of the status quo. If you are in a position of power, doing so is lazy, easy, and often effective. Remove alternatives from consideration, whittle down the range of solutions to just one or two, and then have media “experts” evaluate and choose for the public. Fight and delay competing ideologies. Raise concerns with their political viability, claim they are not realistic, that they will have unintended consequences that will make things worse. Reject alternatives as unworkable or harmful. Keep people from understanding that alternatives may have been successful elsewhere. Bias the playing field without having to step forward and actively defend the status quo.

Don’t say no directly, as that is too active. Restrict funding for sources of opposition through legal and legislative maneuver. Increase funding for allies through same, creating a lopsided spending structure. Buy up opposition talent with better pay and benefits—if they’re rational, they’ll sell out to you. Pick off promising young minds by recruiting them to your ideas in school. Fund a program, construct a building, create a scholarship, get interns, give away or subsidize school books with your ideas, have your people teach a class. Have an institutional network ready to hire them upon graduation. Drain opposition personnel and monetary resources by coming at opponents from the side or behind, never stand up and fight directly.

Use passive filtering and professional/managerial (PM) culture to hire or sponsor people who will say no for you. Staff your organizations with people who will identify with its goals, who will toe the ideological line, and who will do necessary political detail work without explicit guidance. This requires people who are heavily educated but with only slightly above average intelligence. People who are well trained but incurious.

Hiring doesn’t have to be explicitly ideological, and rarely is. Most organizations know how to hire people who will “fit” with their culture. This hiring filter for PM workers comes after a host of other filters have already been applied, especially through primary and secondary education. If someone doesn’t fit in, they can be fired for trumped up reasons. Most PM workers don’t have unions and federal protections can often be circumvented by finding an unrelated cause. Office electronics are recording devices owned by the organization and workers have no right to privacy on them, but people will still talk and write incriminating things on them. People also make mistakes, and tolerating small or modest mistakes is a good way to accumulate a list of reasons to fire people when politically convenient.

The authoritarian workplace is a key component to maintaining the status quo.

The Long Run

Active and passive implementation work together on long timescales. Active agitation and pushing is necessary early on, to muscle in and get your way and create a new institutional ecosystem. Once you get your preferred options accepted as status quo, then mostly revert to passive work. Talk about the current institutions as the natural way things should be, and denigrate alternatives. Make others look like meddlers and activists. Talk about being apolitical. It is never a good time to bring up the subject of reform, and those who do are politicizing it. Others who propose concrete alternatives become vulnerable—attack them, but offer nothing new. This is status quo politics.

Most of all, don’t talk about the existing institutional structure as anything other than natural. And mostly don’t talk about it at all.

Expand this thinking across centuries. This is not conspiracy, it’s the intersection of individual human psychology, group dynamics, and institutional dynamics. The accumulation of the self-interest and altruism of individuals and groups, and its summation into something larger and often different than intended. The accretion of practice and ideology over time, with periodic sloughing away of dead matter in favor of a new direction.

For example, capitalist institutions through the early 20th century in the West were active and forceful within the West itself. Laborers were killed for revolting, riots and massacres were surprisingly common compared to the current era. Institutions favorable to owners of capital were repeatedly thrust onto the general population by the elite, provoking counteractions. Now that these institutions are in place, though modified by the counteracting forces, we suddenly find ourselves in an era in which “there is no alternative,” where passive filtering and acceptance dominate, and the tearing down of new ideas is now the bulk of the work of the PM class. There is still a great deal of activity necessary to maintain the current institutional edifice, but the massacres and riots are now largely exported to peripheral areas, minimizing the risk for elites at home.

The passive defense of the status quo is the current goal of the ruling class. It then becomes the work of the PM class, and leads to their ideological bankruptcy, rational “selling out” of interests, and lack of novelty and big ideas. Everyone at this level becomes a shill for conserving the power base from which their income streams flow. We end up with a society dominated by people with voids in their heads, either paid not to think or paid to destroy others. This is not a singular arrangement unique to the current era—it has happened before, but the extent of its spread and the risk to civilization have never been greater.

Any plan to break the status quo and leave the current era must deal with the above.


Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation

Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds

Various writings of Ian Welsh and Stirling Newberry