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 and investor. 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.

11 thoughts on “Reputation And Organizational Drift”

    1. I don’t know enough about the mid-20th century history to be certain, but several things point to WWII as the turning point. For one thing, “everything changed in WWII” is generally a safe guess on priors; many, many quasi-independent institutions were centralized during the war. More specifically, when John Lewis organized a coal miner strike in 1943, FDR responded by seizing the mines by force. That’s the kind of thing that can totally upend power relations and change the trajectory of a movement. Finally, by the 50s, my sense of pop culture has the unions portrayed as a stabilizing force of good respectable jobs rather than a hotbed of crime and revolution.

      1. It looks like William Hammat Davis ( played a large role in centralizing the unions, including the establishment of the National Relations Labor Board (, which has the power to determine (Ostensibly according to certain criteria) which unions can legally represent their workers through strike and negotiation. It also seems on the face of it that William Hammat Davis might have been genuinely pro-union.

        But Truman fired him right after he entered office, and kept the institutions Davis created for his own purposes.

        That NLRB wikipedia article includes all sorts of interesting aspects of goverment control over unions, like
        “The Federal Labor Relations Authority may strip a union of its right to represent workers” and “The NLRB also has the power to order an employer to bargain with the union, even though the union has not won an election”. In other words, the NLRB both monitors the mechanism by which unions are legally meant to be legitimatized, and can also legitimize unions even without an election.

    1. Standard imperial projection of force. It’s geared towards fighting foreign wars, defending distant allies, maintaining naval supremacy far from American shores, etc.

      1. It seems like it’s increasingly geared towards various kinds of wealth capture. Do you think that might become the primary purpose in the future?

        1. It’s certainly possible. Similar things happened with, e.g., the army of late Imperial Rome. In the US, I think this type of continued institutional decay is the default trajectory if nothing intervenes, but there’s still several decades left for something to intervene before things get unsalvageable. It’d probably take either a general revitalization of American institutions at the scale of the New Deal, or else a big war. I prefer the former for several reasons.

  1. What are the major forces that cause institutions to change over time? Environmental change? Natural Drift?
    What caused the major changes in purpose for the unions?

    1. To a first approximation, all institutions are either being founded (or refounded), or else decaying. Decay mostly consists of knowledge being lost via turnover, and of people turning institutional resources to their own ends. If the Succession Problem is not solved (which is what usually happens) then this will accelerate decay.

      For unions, it looks like a pretty normal pattern of drift over time, with an ideological discontinuity in the leadership during or shortly after WWII.

      1. That seems like a strange framing to me. You could also say they changed because they were so successful they were institutionalized. Unions appear to have the same problem as many reforms: success makes the forces that lead to change invisible, so people no longer understand their role in keeping the world/society/whatever free of the problem they were created to defend. Since the problem is no longer visible (or is less pressing), the organization changes to find a new justification for existing, and the public begins to see the organization as superfluous.

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