Reputation And Organizational Drift

At the opening of the American Revolution, the state militias were a formidable force. They went toe-to-toe with the British army, then the most powerful in the world, and came off reasonably well. However, by the time of the American Civil War, the militias of those same states had become a joke. Their first serious battle was a litany of logistical and tactical blunders, where “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous nickname because his men did not immediately run away.

This is unsurprising. The militias of 1776 were sharpened by frequent conflicts against the Native Americans, and had learned from both British officers and native allies. The militias of 1861 were far from the frontier and were led by local politicians and businessmen with no military experience to speak of. No wonder one was more competent than the other. A militia (or university, or retail chain, or…) often functions the way it does because of skilled people in key roles. If those people leave or lose motivation or get reassigned, then the organization will become very different. Whether it’s a restaurant losing its manager, or a militia losing its veteran commander, the dynamics are the same.

If new skilled people arise or gain power, this will also change the organization. After Paul Graham retired and Sam Altman took over Y Combinator, the company expanded from its previous role as a startup incubator. It is now also a central industry hub, as well as an interface between the startup scene and adjacent sectors. This is mostly due to Altman’s skill at networking and making durable alliances.

Skill isn’t the only dimension on which organizations can change. They can also change their purpose. For example, in 1800 the United States military was built for frontier defense, but by 1900 it was built to project power externally. Also, in 1963 the counterculture movement was about reforming a corrupt society via moral and legal pressure, but by 1973 it was about seceding from a corrupt society via sex, drugs, and rock and roll. If an organization’s mission changes drastically, then it may lose the skills needed to carry out the previous mission as the old generation dies off.

All this may seem like a banal point, and in a way it is. Organizations change. Everyone knows this, at least in the abstract. Nevertheless I see a persistent error where many, many people make predictions based on stories of an organization’s previous form in a way that is utterly incompatible with the realities of its current form.

Among the most striking examples of this phenomenon is labor unions. Contemporary unions rest their claim to auctoritas on the victories of unions from the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, unions fought—literally fought, with truncheons and bombs—against factory owners who used private mercenaries and sometimes public police forces to violently suppress any independent power bases among the working class. The unions succeeded, establishing an organized power base and using this to negotiate for higher standards of living, then enshrining their victories (the 40-hour 5-day workweek, the concepts of minimum wage and overtime pay, etc) in law and custom.

Today’s unions present their activities as the continuation of this struggle. They claim that the mission of “get higher wages and better working conditions for our members” has remained constant, and that any differences in their tactics are a sensible response to changing circumstances. There’s a narrow sense in which it’s true that both groups would endorse that mission as a subset of their goals, but from the broader perspective of trying to predict how an organization will affect things we care about—which is the only reason it’s worthwhile to bother with this sort of analysis—this is as spectacularly unhelpful as drawing structural parallels between the engineers who designed the Minuteman missile on the one hand, and the actual Minutemen who Paul Revere rallied on the other, because there’s a line of institutional descent between them that maintained the mission “defend America”.

When looking at the structural factors that determine an organization’s capabilities and its effects on society, contemporary unions are nearly as different from their historical predecessors as the military-industrial complex is different from a citizen militia.  Historical unions fought the state; contemporary unions are a branch of the state. The main negotiating tool of historical unions was illegal or legally-gray strikes; the main negotiating tool of contemporary unions is the bureaucratic application of legal privileges. Historical unions were mostly made up of the industrial proletariat, and fought on their behalf; contemporary unions are mostly made up of government service workers, and fight on their behalf. Historical unions were ideologically committed to expanding their membership into new areas in order to carry forward the class struggle; contemporary unions are uninterested in class struggle because their leaders are no longer working class, and are uninterested in dramatic expansion because they lack the ideologue’s soaring ambition.

This is all fairly abstract, so let me say it more directly. If the John L. Lewises of the world were around today, they would be organizing workers to illegally seize warehouses from Walmart and Amazon. From their perspective, capital still controls the world, and labor is less organized than in the unions’ heydey, so similar action would be justified. Their self-styled heirs would never do anything remotely this extreme. Even if they wanted to, they don’t know how. This means that their role in society is utterly different. It may be that contemporary unions are a force for good, but if so then it’s good as conceived of by Teddy Roosevelt rather than by Emma Goldman. The only thing today’s unions have in common with their historical predecessors is a brand.

This is an unusually stark case, but similar situations are common. Organizational continuity does not come about because of some metaphysical property of the organization itself. It does not come merely from people’s duty to the stated mission, or from adherence to procedures and org charts, or from new members automatically assimilating to the culture. Rather, continuity comes from an organization’s current members using selection, training, and internal structure to shape the organization’s future membership. There is continuity only to the extent that these mechanisms produce it. You can evaluate this by comparing an organization’s past and present activities, or its past and present people and culture, or even by looking at the mechanisms of continuity themselves.

While many organizations live up to their old ideals, many others will mislead you by claiming to be more like their predecessors than they actually are. If you don’t want to be fooled, you need to be able to look beyond an organization’s brand—the restaurant down the street, the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Church, the company offering you a job, the New York Times, or whatever else—and see its people and institutions as they exist today.