Rough notes towards The Modern Discorsi
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
— Tao tê ching xxii, trans. D. C. Lau
Assume we have a committee of some sort, whose members include two factions—a leadership and an opposition,—as well as some people who are not definite supporters of either, so that neither faction can be sure it would have a majority in a decisive showdown between them. Assume further that the opposition wants to supplant the leadership, and that the leadership wants to avoid being supplanted. (If this situation is entirely outside your experience of organizational life, you can of course treat it as a purely abstract exercise.)
The natural course of action for the opposition is to start arguments: to ask sharp and provocative questions, to request time on the agenda for a discussion of why the organization is not performing better, to challenge the chair’s rulings on procedural matters, to put down motions criticizing the leadership’s inefficiency, etc., etc. It is not vital that the opposition actually win all these arguments, or (if votes are taken) that it win the votes. The particular questions being debated are quite likely to be of only marginal significance outside the factional context. What the opposition is trying to do is to raise the temperature, to create a sense that the organization is in crisis and that the future of the leadership is in question, and to prod members of the leadership faction into unwise displays of arrogance or anger. (In democratic organizations, the leadership may in fact dominate proceedings—but the forms of open and collegial decision-making are usually quite scrupulously adhered to.) It is also, of course, seeking to encourage wavering members to come down on one side or the other: and, by forcing votes on secondary questions, it is measuring its support (and that of the leadership). Ultimately, it hopes the standoff will escalate to the point where it seems reasonable for the opposition to propose a motion recalling and dismissing the leadership—something that might be allowable under the rules at any time, but that would be unlikely to succeed ‘cold’.
A naïve leadership may be tempted to respond to these tactics either by defending its record, arguing vehemently against the opposition’s motions, etc., or else by using administrative devices to shut the opposition up (ruling opposition motions out of order on technicalities, moving them so far down the agenda that they are never debated, etc., etc.). These responses are not guaranteed to fail. But they are exactly what the opposition hopes and expects the leadership to do: they pile on the tension, encourage waverers to declare themselves, and keep the factional struggle at the forefront of members’ minds.
A more sophisticated leadership will consider the merits of doing nothing at all. Complaints and attacks will be met with nothing stronger than ‘You may very well have a point’; ideally, with no more than a smile. Wherever possible, opposition motions (short of a motion to sack the leadership) will be allowed to pass nemine contradicente. If it becomes absolutely unavoidable to take a vote, the leadership and its supporters will refrain from participating in the debate and will then vote with the opposition. Leadership motions to which the opposition takes exception will be quietly dropped. At all times, the opposition will be allowed to voice its criticisms—the more obstreperously the better; but the leadership will not try to defend itself, and under no circumstances will it criticize the opposition.
If this approach is pursued consistently, the opposition will find it almost impossible to build up to a decisive vote. It turns out that starting an argument with people who are firmly resolved not to argue with you is exceptionally difficult. Deprived of contested votes on minor issues, the opposition will be unable to assess whether the majority is likely to support it or not. (The leadership will not know either, of course; but in cases like this uncertainty favours the incumbent.) Wavering members will not see the committee as divided between warring factions: they will see one faction continually lashing out at shadows. With infinite patience, a leadership faction that almost certainly does not have majority support can maintain itself in position this way indefinitely.
I have seen this successfully done.
Thursday, 16 February 2017