Originally posted 1/15/2005
Peter Drucker is often viewed primarily as a thinker and writer on business issues; however, his luminous accomplishments in this field should not cause one to lose sight of his substantial work on broader social topics. Here is a sample, and I think a very important one. The analysis starts out in 1000 AD, but is highly relevant to our own time.
The history of society in the West during the last millenium can–without much oversimplification–be summed up in one phrase: the rise, fall, and rise of pluralism.
By the year 1000 the West–that is, Europe north of the Mediterranean and west of Greek Orthodoxy–had become a startingly new and distinct ciilization and society, much later dubbed feudalism. At its core was the world’s first, and all but invincible fighting machine: the heavily armored knight fighting on horseback…To support a single one of these fighting machines–the knight and his three to five horses and their attendants; the five or more squires (knights in training) necessitated by the profession’s high casualty rate; the unspeakably expensive armor–required the economic output of one hundred peasant familites, that is of some five hundred people, about fifty times as many as were needed to support the best-equipped professional foot soldier, such as a Roman legionnaire or a Japanese samurai.
The knight exercised full political, economic, and social control over the entire knightly enterprise, the fief. This, in short order, induced every other unit in medieval Western society–secular or religious–to become an autonomous power center, paying lip service to a central authority such as the pope or a king, but certainly nothing else such as taxes. These separate power centers included barons and counts, bishops, and the enormously wealthy monasteries, free cities and craft guilds, and a few decades later, the early universities and countless trading monopolies.
By 1066, when William the Conqueror’s victory brought feudalism to England, the West had become totally pluralist…By 1200 these “special interests” had all but taken over. Every one of them pursued only its goals and was concerned only with its own aggrandizement, wealth, and power, and the capacity to make societywide policy was all but gone.
The reaction began in the thirteenth century in the religious sphere, when–feebly at first–the papacy tried, at two councils in Lyon, France, to reassert control over bishops and monasteries…In the secular sphere, the counterattack against pluralism began one hundred years later. The long bow–a Welsh invention perfected by the English–had by 1350 destroyed the knight’s superiority on the battlefield. A few years later the cannon–adapting to military uses the powder the Chinese had invented for their fireworks–brought down the hitherto impregnable knight’s castle.
From then on, for more than five hundred years, Western history is the history of the advance of the national state as the sovereign; that is, as the only power center in society.
Prof Drucker traces the evolution of this centralizing process over time. But around the middle of the 19th century, he says, the tendency reversed direction again, toward a new world of pluralism:
The first organization that had to have substantial power and substantial autonomy was the new business enterprise as it first arose, practically without precedent, between 1860 and 1870. It was followed in rapid order by a horde of other new institutions, scores of them by now, each requiring substantial autonomy and exercising considerable social control: the labor union, the civil service with its lifetime tenure, the hospital, the university. Each of them, like the pluralist institutions of eight hundred years ago, is a “special interest.” Each needs–and fights for–its autonomy.
Not one of them is concerned with the common good. Consider what John L Lewis, the powerful labor leader, said when Franklin D Roosevelt asked him to call off a coal miners’ strike that threatened to cripple the war effort: “The president of the United States is paid to look after the interest of the nation; I am paid to look after the interests of the coal miners.” This is only an expecially blunt statement of what the leaders of every one of today’s “special interests” believe–and what their constituents pay them for. As happened eight hundred years ago, this new pluralism threatens to destroy the capacity to make policy–and with it social cohesion altogether–in all developed countries.
But there is one essential difference between today’s social pluralism and that of eight hundred years ago. Then, the pluralist institutions–knights in armor, free cities, merchant guilds, or “exempt” bishoprics–were based on property and power. Today’s autonomous organization–business enterprise, labor union, university, hospital–is based on function. It derives its capacity to perform squarely from its narrow focus on its single function. The one major attempt to restore the power monopoly of the sovereign state, Stalin’s Russia, collapsed primarily because none of its institutions, being deprived of the needed autonomy, could or did function–not even, it seems, the military, let alone businesses or hospitals.
The challenge of the next millennium, or rather of the next century (we won’t have a thousand years), is to preserve the autonomy of our institutions–and, in some cases, like transnational business, autonomy over and beyond national sovereignties–while at the same time restoring the unity of the polity that we have all but lost, at least in peacetime. We can only hope this can be done–but so far no one yet knows how to do it. We do know that it will require something that is even less precedented than today’s pluralism: the willingness and ability of each of today’s institutions to maintain the focus on the narrow and specific function that gives them the capacity to perform, and yet the willingness and ability to work together and with political authority for the common good.
This is the enormous challenge the second millennium in the developed countries is bequeathing the third millenium.
(Essay written in 2000 and included in Prof Drucker’s book Managing in the Next Society, published in 2002.)