The Inherent Shoddiness of Everything

The leader introduces the team, praising their amazing teamwork. After building up the case, she proposes the big idea, brilliantly conjured by the team to solve the client’s pressing problem. All sounds good.

Of course she mentions not the heated meetings where people misunderstood each other. Or that one of the departments went rogue and did their own thing. Or how the writers and the art directors got a bunch of shoddy posters done without communicating their intentions to each other, because that was how they have always worked. Or the entire week they wasted on an idea that went nowhere, because the idea was not properly explained to the CEO.

None of this matter, as nobody imagined it happening otherwise. The job got done, right? And the client is going to love the idea, blissfully unaware of the mess concealed behind a seemingly polished presentation.

Such is work. Remember how much group assignments sucked? Work is more of that, except your projects now affect thousands or millions of customers. Surely there are wonderfully collaborative teams out there, but I suspect that most of us agree that teamwork universally sucks, and people in general are terrible at communicating.

If so, I wonder how we manage to get anything done at all. Yet we collaborated and produced truly amazing things, among many more obvious failures. We are surrounded with products which conception, manufacturing and retail span continents and involve hundreds or thousands of people. While I’m no libertarian, I can’t help but quote Leonard E. Read’s masterpiece I, Pencil, in which an anthropomorphised pencil explained his conception:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others. There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me.

The lesson, according to Lawrence W. Reed:

None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.

You don’t say.

Wonderful all this products of mass collaboration may be, if we see how most things are made, we will realise that they are far from perfect, and we might wonder why we put so much trust in brands. Even when products are exceptionally well made, there remains a bit of inconsistency and shoddiness. Look closer at a product, and you can almost see which features are demands from managers or the marketing team. You see the compromises dictated by accountants. And the half-hearted implementations. And the miscommunications, which always lead to someone saying in desperation: whatever!

Despite all this, as consumers we are led by clever marketing to believe that products are results of ingenuity and amazing teamwork. We blame the poorly done on bad decisions and flawed visions. We are blissfully unaware of all the miscommunications and messiness that went into the products that we use.

Now, please allow me to shift the topic… like most products, government policies and visions are the result of collaboration – one between people with competing or opposing interests, ideologies, mandates, and ambitions. As the popular quote frequently attributed to Otto von Bismarck goes:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made… to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

Teamwork was seldom amazing, even in political entities that swear by a common vision – friends in the Malaysian government offered me glimpses of the miscommunication that happens daily in Putrajaya, and I can’t help but draw parallels with a typical day at work. Proposals are misunderstood, people talk cock, high-level ministers broadcast unrealistic targets that everyone else ignored – no matter how shiny and promising a political sausage looks, it was, after all, built with a mixture of workplace politics and serious miscommunication. Yucks!

All this endemic miscommunication makes change hard, even if there is sufficient will and vision. When people talk over each other’s heads and nobody understands what the fuck is going on, we naturally revert to standard operating procedures. Even in chaotic environments, old-timers get their jobs done as usual with little to no instructions, and new instructions tend to go unheeded or scorned at. New comers seek the experience of seniors, especially when attempts with new ideas and work-styles brought more trouble than appreciation, or when they stumble because they realised that no one cooperates with new ways. While change gets punished, the existing system produces suboptimal work effortlessly. Is it any wonder that we eventually succumb to gravity?

Yes, collaborations on a mass scale can magically produce wonderful results even with minimal and terrible communication, yet they are also extremely resistant to change. To change the way thousands or millions of people work, takes time and systematic reforms. A new leader is simply not enough for anything meaningful.

Armed with this insight, we should be more resistant of the allures of autocracy, especially when autocrats claim that more power is needed to realise big beautiful uncompromising visions.

As we look at autocracies worldwide, we see not nations that stand for powerful visions realised. The countries they governed look just as messy as democracies, if not more so. Despite Mr. Putin’s strongman image, Russia remains a Westworld of corrupt oligarchs which Putin must please or cautiously remove, and despite China’s amazing achievements, from time to time we glimpse fierce power struggles within the Communist Party. Furthermore, everyday we see evidences of misalignment between the Party leadership and its minions.

(Seriously, how did Winnie the Pooh got banned? I believe that it was likely the result of a censor trying too hard when second-guessing his superior’s wishes, rather than a direct decree from Mr. Xi Jinping.)

Let’s cast aside our fetishisation of strong, technocratic leaderships. Undeniably, there are autocratic nations like China and Singapore with consequential achievements, resulting in huge improvements to human wellbeing. Yet, the costs of achievements aside, be careful of attributing such successes to visionary autocracies. Neither autocracy nor democracy can solve everything. As means to an end, their effectiveness must rely on many factors. Autocrats don’t have as much power and control as we assumed, and autocratic leaderships remain massive and messy collaborations.

This shoddiness prevented much greatness from being realised, yet, despite all the existing horrors in the world, the inherent shoddiness of politics may have also prevented many leaders from executing their dystopian visions, and we should be thankful for that.

Back home in Malaysia, critics of Prime Minister Mahathir see him as a manipulative puppet master who single-handedly orchestrated all that plague Malaysia till this day, and hell bent on corrupting Pakatan Harapan from within in service of his racist agenda. Mahathir’s admirers on the other hand believe that he is the only one with sufficient vision, stomach, and cunning to push through necessary changes.

Such simplistic believes are tempting because they promise simplistic solutions. Throughout the world, conspiracy theorists obsess over the idea of a powerful mastermind single-handedly bringing the nation, or the world, to ruin for his selfish, hateful agenda, whether that puppet master is Putin, Bannon, Soros, or the Kochs. Conversely, people with autocratic tendencies claim that all the nation lacks is good people with the right vision, and the dedication to bulldoze agendas through. Yet assuming that humankind is universally bad with communicating and collaborating, no strong leader is sufficient to solve our ills. Nor are large scale conspiracies likely to be true. There is even a math equation to prove the intrinsic probability of a conspiracy failing!

While there is no doubt that Mahathir is a master politician, a closer look reveals a man often forced by the will of the majority to reinvent his positions throughout his political career. Decades ago, the Islamisation of the Malay majority and the threat of pas inspired Mahathir to recruit firebrand Islamist Anwar Ibrahim, to retain the support of a more and more conservative base. Decades later, with louder demands for institutional reforms and clean politics, the former autocrat had to reinvent himself as an apparently sincere democrat.

Again quoting Bismarck,

The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past. Mahathir greatest genius is co-opting his opponents whenever he feels the need to reinvent himself, even if that means sacrificing his original visions. A diverse and ever-changing nation is no place for stubbornness.

Yet, for all his shrewdness, he ended up leading a diverse and quarrelsome coalition consisting of Chinese-majority and reform-minded DAP, the PAS splinter AMANAH, and UMNO splinters like PKR and BERSATU. And it is obvious that, amidst all the squabbles, Mahathir have difficulty pushing anything through. Despite initial optimism from some and fears from others, more than a year after that landmark election, our news are filled with conflicts within the governing coalition and Pakatan Harapan has yet to get its act together and function as a cohesive whole.

Now, why did we expect any better or worse in the first place? A coalition with diverse opinions, interests, experiences, and worldview should not be expected to speak with a unified voice and act in unity. It will be surprising if Mahathir – or more reform minded Pakatan members, or anyone else – can reshape the nation as envisioned. Besides, a hostile and uncooperative civil service cultivated over the decades by the previous regime makes reforms really hard. Malaysia’s governance is more than just about who leads the government.

Sadly, with every failed attempt of change, the temptation to do things the easy and usual way gets stronger. Change is diluted and misapplied. The old system remains. Everyone succumbs to gravity.

In a nutshell: the world is much shoddier than most people imagined – and harder to change as a result. Neither Trump’s election nor Pakatan Harapan’s win has resulted in the massive change many hoped or feared. Rapid transformations like how Germany devolved into the Third Reich are often decades in the making, and they happen because they are endorsed by the masses. The statesman can only hope to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past. Change takes far more than great or terrible leadership.

All this may sound pessimistic, yet small changes are better than none. With enough perseverance, tiny acts build momentum over time.

True change will not come from leaders with vision and will. It can only come with systematic reforms that change how everyone and their interests interact. And powerful it may be, inertia will ultimately give way to gradual changes on a mass scale, like how Malaysians worry more about freedom and corruption today, or, on a darker note, like how Malaysian Muslims became more conservative over the decades.

Such changes are organic and involve millions of people, yet they can be, and have been, done. Every individual’s action counts! Before we know it, we would have taken one more baby step forward.