Specious anti-specialisation speeches…

Mrs Towers and I were discussing the reluctance of “non-hierarchical” activists to admit the existence or desirability of a “division of labour.” There’s an ideology – often unspoken – that everyone can and should become as good at task x or y as everyone else. The flip side is that nobody should consciously set out to become an expert in any one thing, abandoning other things they have no interest or skill in.
It’s rarely articulated as bluntly as this, for reasons that need not detain us.

It is, of course, nonsense on stilts.

I think (but I could be wrong) that it comes from a confusion of that ‘non-hierarchicals’ often make between expertise and claims to general authority. They fear that person x, who has become very good at skill y, will suddenly start throwing their weight around and want to dominate tactical discussions about decision z.

There’s a world of difference between becoming good at a particular thing and trying to snaffle authority/kudos more generally. There’s a world of difference between offering everyone the same training opportunities (while being very very sensitive to the differing levels of self-confidence and sense of entitlement that people bring with them) and demanding the same outcomes and outputs be achieved (“we must all become equally proficient at everything”)

Some folks will be better than others at some things. For reasons of temperament, training, life experience. As long as there are enough people in a group who are basically proficient, then what is the big deal? As long as the basic skills are spread around so there isn’t that “oh, yeah, we had this great website but then the one person who knew how to maintain it left the city, and now it’s just stuck there” then what’s the worry? As long as middle-class people aren’t just using it as an excuse not to do the unglamorous and dreary grunt work, what’s the problem

The unwillingness to name and tackle this question is superficially about wanting ‘equality’ between all. However, I suspect underlying this is the basic distinction between people for whom activism is about self-expression and those who are organising – trying to build social capacity. The self-expressers are nervous of anyone becoming particularly proficient at any skill, because that would raise the more general issue of effectiveness and competence. The organisers – though they often daren’t call themselves that (which is where the conversation with Mrs Towers started, btw) – aren’t in activism for self-expression alone. It matters to them, for sure, but not nearly as much as ‘winning’.

See the distinction between activists and organisers discussed at rhizome

See also the DT post “The Point of an Organiser

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5 Responses to Specious anti-specialisation speeches…

  1. vera says:

    When I was a member of a worker’s collective (we ran a small publishing house together) division of labor was assumed and accepted. The problem there was in being able to confront others regarding the quality of their work. There seemed to be utter fear of conflict there, and when slacking off or incompetence occurred, people did not know how to cope, and the whole suffered.

    So yes, it does raise the issue of competence… more, in our case, than of equality which we assumed and which was largely true.

  2. Rhizome says:

    Once again, an insightful post!

    In non-hierarchical circles the situation ought to be that:
    *no-one is denied the opportunity to learn a skill should they want to give it a try
    *there’s a supportive environment for learning said skill, in which it’s accepted that the learner will make a few mistakes along the way (how else do we learn?)
    *having learnt the skill the learner is willing to pass it on to ensure sustainability (their own in terms of shared workloads, and the movements in terms of a ready supply of skilled people)

    But I do think that groups and movements ought to tolerate less than best… perhaps it shouldn’t always be those that are ‘best’ that take on a task, except in the rare moments when absolutely nothing less than best will do.

  3. dwighttowers says:

    Hey both,
    thanks for your comments!
    Vera- what happened? Did the collective grow the necessary quality-control skills, or did it collapse?

    Mr Rhizome
    “But I do think that groups and movements ought to tolerate less than best… perhaps it shouldn’t always be those that are ‘best’ that take on a task, except in the rare moments when absolutely nothing less than best will do.”

    Abso-fucking-lutely. People need the opportunity to test and display (to themselves as well as others) their new-found confidence and competence. In non-mission critical situations… but then it needs people willing and able to identify those and allocate work. Like, um, leaders…

    Dwight “Napoleon” Towers

  4. vera says:

    Heh. DNT, for now.

    What happened? The mismanagement that had been festering for some time, together with a downturn in the market (they said, I was the newbie there)… together with completely fake financial numbers… well, it fell apart. I believe I speeded up the falling-apart in my efforts to expose the truth about the business. Broke my heart… I loved being part of this.

    But it has a good ending. The US operation was wrapped up, and the remains of the business were handed over to the Canadian affiliate (who at the time comprised of a 2 person team and played only a minor role). As far as I can tell, they are running a successful operation now.

  5. vera says:

    Oh, one more thing. I think that the vast amounts of accumulated denial and unwillingness to hold people to responsible behavior and “excellence” spoke against fixing the situation states-side. I wanted to give it a chance, but it did not fly, and in retrospect, it was the right decision to wind it down and let someone else have a chance.

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