Drucker’s Prescience

Peter Drucker, in his 1969 book The Age of Discontinuity, discusses the increasing role of knowledge in modern societies and suggests:

As a result, it is quite possible that the great new ‘isms’ of tomorrow will be ideologies about knowledge. In tomorrow’s intellectual and political philosophies knowledge may well take the central place that property, i.e. things, occupied in capitalism and Marxism.

This must have seemed like a rather strange idea to most readers in 1969…the great new ‘isms’, and therefore the great political and cultural fault-lines, were going to be about knowledge?  Surely, debate about the nature of knowledge must have seemed like something more appropriate for a university philosophy course in epistemology than a likely major subject for the political and media stage.

But, isn’t this precisely what we are seeing now, with all of the assertions and arguments about ‘disinformation’, the assertions about ‘science says’ and resultant reactions and critiques, the revelations about social media bias, and the concerns about potential artificial-intelligence bias?  These are all arguments about what constitutes a valid, useful, and true source of information.

The whole idea that it should be possible to present and hear arguments for both sides of an issue…which is the entire basis of our political system and our justice system–is under attack. People argue that they are in danger if they are exposed to a view different from their own.  There seems to be a longing for a single, unquestioned source of truth.

Or maybe the whole idea of ‘truth’ is obsolete in many minds.  Things have reached the point at which there is actually a need to defend the possibility of objective knowledge existing at all.   Maybe one reason for the decreasing interest in the pursuit of objective truth is that most people today are much more insulated from the struggle for survival, and instead of worrying what truths reflect they way the world works–‘how can I keep my hut warm in the depths of winter?’–they worry about what truth-claims reflect the social world which they must navigate and will advance their position in this social world.  This is the view of the courtier, rather than that of the merchant, the peasant, or the warrior.

I’ve previously quoted something a wise executive said to me, many years ago:

When you’re running a large organization, you aren’t seeing reality.  It’s like you’re watching a movie where you get to see maybe one out of every thousand frame, and from that, you have to figure out what is going on.

If this is true of the person running a large organization, it is even more true of the individual in a democracy, both in his incarnation as a citizen and voter and his incarnation as an individual decision-maker in matters concerning his own life and that of his family.  He cannot possibly directly observe all of the factors bearing on, say, the border situation or the war in Ukraine or the Covid vaccines or the stability of the Social Security system, hence, those who control what frames are presented to him–and in what sequence–have tremendous influence.

Those who seek power and/or cling to power generally seek to control what is viewed as truth.  Someone at Twitter just remarked:

Fun fact: soviet psychiatry version of DSM 5 had a condition “truthseeking” (правдаискательство) used to commit dissidents for questioning the legitimacy of the bolshevik regime.

I doubt that Drucker foresaw anything as radical as some of the positions taken in today’s fights over knowledge, but overall, his forecast appears to have been a correct one.

Your thoughts?

17 thoughts on “Drucker’s Prescience”

  1. In light of the old “Truth is what serves the Party” doctrine and the antics of the ’68ers of the year he was probably writing this, it seems like a reasonable projection to make.

  2. “most people today are much more insulated from the struggle for survival”

    That is true for people in the West — especially people whose income comes from the government. The rest of the world? Not so much.

    Perhaps we in the West have been living through a rather anomalous period in world history. Western governments have been able to spend like drunken sailors for decades while much of the real physical work has been sent far away, out of sight. People can have materially satisfying lives as bureaucrats & lawyers, even though they are effectively non-productive overhead.

    Well, nothing lasts forever.

  3. Control of knowledge is what is important now. Only let the servant classes know what you want them to know.

  4. Drucker was a great man. I have read everything he wrote, including his autobiography. One thing he failed to predict was the final evolution of the Girl Scouts. He credited that organization with a brilliant marketing strategy. It began as a group of housewives who needed an activity that involved their daughters and filled their afternoons. As more and more women went to work, the marketing strategy shifted to “quality time” with their daughters. He thought that was a very wise shift in strategy as the culture changed. I don’t know what the Girl Scouts’ strategy is now as no one I know has a daughter in that organization. The culture war has destroyed the Boy Scouts, I know.

  5. Reading what Drucker wrote in 1969 is like an unearthing a piece of intellectual archaeology because you see many phenomena of today that have roots in his writing. One of the things that jumped out was his prediction of the benefits and detriments in the rise of the expert intellectual class that would because of its position would be tempted to wield power without feeling an accordant responsibility. In fact he was not all against the various student revolts of the time as they displayed a imagination and visionary spirit but only if exercised in a responsible manner

    So what about the problems of Truth for today? I think the problems we are seeing are a convergence of several trends that have gone back decades and are each mutually reinforcing. The first is the decline in the West of the belief in“Truth” with the capital T. C.S. Lewis had a nice statement of this in his 1943 “The Abolition of Man” but goes earlier to at least Nietzsche. The second is the rise to prominence of the scientific method as an epistemological tool and the accordant rise of the credentialed “expert” to define reality. The third is the rise of postmodern thought to the capture the commanding heights in American, if not all of western, society.

    As for a culture to function it must have a “Truth(s)”, something that is immutable and shared for a given culture to work. This is related to but distinct from Truth(s) related to natural law, what Lewis would call the Tao, that all cultures strive to understand from their unique perspectives. If a culture does not have certain bedrock “Truths” it cannot function, one of the debates at the time of the of the American founding was whether it was possible to build what amounted to a contractual republic on a continental scale with the only prior examples of republics being small Greek city-states that had unifying and unique cultures. What might some of the Truth(s) be? Look at the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. At the heart of the American Truth is the conception of a divinely-sparked individual who is capable not only of self-governance but also of existing in a definable private sphere free from the government. The American Republic itself claims to be built upon discovered truths.

    That is not to say that of the many people who believe in discovered truth will not disagree on what that Truth (reality) is or see it in different ways, but it does mean it exists outside of their own perceptions and desires.

    The scientific method is a fantastic tool for the discovery of knowledge, but it fails to provide an adequate means for describing phenomena. Thee scientific method breaks down an object into pieces that can be analyzed and tested for the development of theories, but it is not able to adequately to reconstitute those theories to provide an explanation of the whole phenomena. It can describe how part of the Universe or a given society works, but it can tell what that Universe or society actually is as a whole. Drucker actually touched on that when he stated a potential flaw of the knowledge-based expert was the belief that he possessed the ability by virtue of his expertise to make political decisions.

    Postmodernism provides an analytical approach for determining how knowledge and cultures are constructed, but it does not provide a epistemology for determining what is actually True or for the proper basis for a functional culture. It can come up with wonderful reasons for why knowledge or societies are built on power relations masquerading as justice or how through textual analysis discover social discourses that are built on power, but it cannot provide guidance on what to do or build because it doesn’t believe in a discoverable Truth but rather truths that are constructed. There can never be a good society because really we are all just bunch of contemptible meat bags and society now and forever more really is just about who is kicking the crap out of a whom.

    So what we have now are a large number of people who simply do not believe in the traditional conception of Western let alone American civilization. For the past 20 years belief in our Truth has been under constant attacks by postmodernists who have deconstructed our culture. For many decades the common conception of transcendental truths and the related belief in religion has plummeted. If there is faith in anything it is in “Science” and those who can claim its mantle (I am the Science), but “Science” is limited to only what can be directly observed and measured.
    I’ll use two examples of how the use of Science has corrupted our social discourse. The first is in the possession of firearms, There are plenty of (social) science studies that try to both link the number of firearms to crimes and to decry the possession of firearms to deterrence. However what Science cannot explain is whether people should have possess guns because that is a moral question that is based on natural rights. The second was in the response to COVID. There were plenty of studies (most were faulty) providing “proof” for masking, vaccinations, and lockdowns but that is not the same as justifying lockdowns or mandating masks and vaccinations because those are at root moral decisions with trade-offs that Science cannot answer.

    So if knowledge and truth is only socially constructed, why should I listen to whatever you have to say if it contradicts what I believe? After all what there is nothing special to what you believe because what you claim as “Truth” or “Justice” is just a will to power. Furthermore if you claim some sort of knowledge that cannot be verified by the scientific method then you are at best a snake-handler and at worst an idiot and there is no use even dignifying you as an equal worthy of debate. The loss of confidence in a Truth and a rise of belief in a useful but limited epistemological method (science) leaves the social body vulnerable to postmodernism which defines everything in terms of power and context. You end up with a demoralized society that not only cannot agree on what is true, because that is only socially constructed in terms of power, but cannot agree on a common language (differing terms of racism, democracy…) to talk to one another

    How can two people who have different views on how truth is constructed or different opinions on the efficacy of Science ever meaningfully talk with one another? For the Woke, postmodernism is not just a means of analysis but a how-to book. . If you disagree with them, you are not worthy of debate but are to be ignored or crushed. To paraphrase Lenin, society is about power, who is doing what to whom and they want to be the subject and not the direct object.

    We here think that this is just a final phase of decadence that cannot long exist in a reality defined by basic physical needs and wants, but my guess is that this can go on for a long time… and even if it cannot there a lot of very determined people in high places who are going to try

  6. I haven’t read Drucker myself, so won’t speculate on what he actually meant by his statement. However, it seems to me that “isms” have always been about knowledge. Religions are a prime example. All of them but yours are wrong, and all of them but yours have created elaborate fantasies that are firmly and blindly believed as “truth.” All the other “isms” I’m aware of have constructed similar fantasies about the nature of human beings, the purpose of human existence, the identity of Good and Evil, etc. We are not nearly as intelligent as a species as we think we are. If we start spinning elaborate theories, we almost invariably wander off into intellectual swamps. The depth of the swamps varies directly as the distance of the “truths” elaborated in the theories from repeatable experiments.

  7. I have held off on commenting because I really couldn’t make any sense of the premise. In my experience, “isims” have no perceptible connection to knowledge. Substituting the suffix “ology” doesn’t make something science: see scientology. (and no, I’m not going to capitalize that)

    Knowledge, such as it is comes from a chain of observations and measurements and even then has limits.

    If you were to take an object to the N.I.S.T. and ask them if it was a meter long. They would be able to tell you definitively if it was either too long or too short to be a meter, but if it fell within an exceedingly small gap between those points, they would be unable to tell if it was a meter or just very close. However, if asked, they would enthusiastically and at length explain exactly why they think that gap exists and just what they are planning to do to shrink it. Notice that I said “think” because they won’t really know until they do it.

    This is the nature of real knowledge.

  8. “If you were to take an object to the N.I.S.T. and ask them if it was a meter long. They would be able to tell you definitively if it was either too long or too short to be a meter, but if it fell within an exceedingly small gap between those points, they would be unable to tell if it was a meter or just very close.”

    You can still see the platinum-iridium bars in the N.I.S.T. museum that were used back in the day as the standard of length. Alas, they’ll never be able to tell you if your object is exactly a meter long because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,

    Back in the day one could still find some awesome old scientific instruments in the bowels of buildings on the N.I.S.T. campus. Among others I recall an old spectroscope, as long as a room, wonderfully preserved and maintained. It would seem hopelessly clunky today, but it was instruments like this that were used to observe the fine and hyperfine structure of atomic orbitals that enabled and confirmed some of the greatest advances ever made in our understanding of the physics of the universe we live in.

  9. Knowledge can be in the form of claims about the truth-value of statements: ‘The buffalo are likely to be good on this hunting ground’ or ‘Winds are from the southwest here at this time of year’ or ‘Heavier objects fall faster than light objects.’ But knowledge can also be in the form of meta-statements, ie, assertions about what sources can be relied on for truth…in traditional societies, mostly information passed along and down verbally, plus personal experiences…later, certain written documents accepted as authorities…Aristotle, the Bible…sometimes, certain individuals or organizations, such as a priesthood.

    In today’s world, there are far more claimants to be legitimate sources of knowledge. And some of these claimants are explicitly denying sources of knowledge that have worked well over recent centuries: for example, ‘objective, rational, linear thinking’ is now being classified by certain prestigious institutions (viz, the Smithsonian) as just a manifestation of Whiteness.

  10. “And some of these claimants are explicitly denying sources of knowledge that have worked well over recent centuries: for example, ‘objective, rational, linear thinking’ is now being classified by certain prestigious institutions (viz, the Smithsonian) as just a manifestation of Whiteness.”

    Worked well at what? For that matter, what do you even mean by the term, “worked well”? The term cannot represent an objective truth itself, since it expresses a value judgment, and all values are subjective, not objective. Some things are perceived to be valuable in the minds of individuals, and others not valuable, but the objective universe could care less one way or the other.

    If you are referring to social systems or systems of government that have “worked well,” use of the term is open to question in any case. Which of the systems has been the result of “objective, rational, linear thinking,” and, if so, how has it “worked well?” Did Nazism work well? Did fascism work well? Did Communism work well? What about liberal democracy? From a Darwinian point of view, it certainly hasn’t worked well. We find that class of people, who created it doing the opposite of what every other species on the planet does in order to survive, that is, favoring themselves over others, because they imagine it is “morally good” to do the opposite. In short, we find them committing suicide in order to maintain their “moral purity.” It seems that the loss of objective, rational, linear thinking at this level will not be particularly damaging because human beings lack the intelligence to apply it effectively to such complex systems.

    What about at the level of individuals? Supposing a particular individual possesses a certain level of intelligence, will teaching him that objective, rational, linear thinking is a manifestation of whiteness and, therefore, evil, have any ill effect? I doubt it. As long as records still exist and are accessible of the accomplishments of people like Faraday, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Schroedinger, Crick/Watson, etc., it will be obvious to such an individual what kind of thinking led to the great leaps in knowledge they contributed to mankind, and what kind of thinking led to those advances. As the underappreciated novelist Harvey Fergusson once wrote, most men don’t think, they believe. I doubt that those who actually do think will pay a great deal of attention to the Smithsonian’s opinion on how they should go about it.

  11. MCS,

    Speaking of Canada, I remember quite well when the entire Quebec grid went down in March 1989 went down due to solar storm. Nothing like losing your heat when it was 10 degrees. You bring up a great point which is the vulnerability of grids to failures of transmission lines, after all the loss of a long-distance line means the loss of the generating plants that line connects to.

    I’m guessing that a year or so we’ll see counterarguments by the renewable crowd to address the issue of generative unreliability by stating that if the wind stops blowing or its cloudy in one place that you can just bring in the power from somewhere it isn’t (as opposed to building a hydrocarbon-based backup system) Of course all you are doing is moving the point of failure from your local generating capacity to your transmission network. Do you know of any research into the issues of building a reliable long-distance transmission system? It would be a great piece of information to have

    I would like for someone to step up and state that the grid needs to be keep at 5-9 reliability and any proposal that seeks to alter parts of grid that does not meet that level of reliability is dishonest and to be suspected of ulterior motives.

    David, a follow-up question to that great link about coupling, what is the rational basis for someone to build a tightly-coupled system? Why would someone create a system that is so poised on the edge of failure? What incentives are those people responding to? The European alliance structure of 1914 was built based on rationally addressing the needs of the time (such as the decline of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, political instability of France) While we look back in retrospect at wonder at what they were thinking especially given Bismarck’s admonition about “some damn fool thing in the Balkans” However we went through 40+ years of s similarly tightly-coupled system in the Cold War with its trip-wire of MAD and we made it.

    This is an open question, but I wonder what behavioral and environmental attributes are necessary to make a tightly-coupled system work.

  12. Mike…I think that the *advantages* of a more consolidated or tightly-coupled system are more likely to be obvious up-front, whereas there *disadvantages* become known only after bitter experience. Sourcing from a low-cost country at the end of a 10,000 mile supply line would be one example.

    Related: Michael Gibson at Twitter:

    “One world gov could be the greatest existential threat we face. Once it flips totalitarian there is no safety valve for freedom. No freedom, no progress.”


    The post links a talk by Elon Musk critiquing the idea of world government and warning that it could lead to civilizational collapse.

  13. David,

    Gibson’s quote reminds me of discussion I had a few years ago with some colleagues where we were discussing at what point this is the greatest threat transition from “it’s what you don’t know that’s going to kill you” to “what’s going to kill you is what you think is for sure but is not”

    I think it is that latter fallacy which in part (but not at all) explains why some feel it’s rational to construct tightly coupled systems. To use a gambling analogy if you think you know hell the system’s going to work you feel confident about pushing all your chips onto the table as opposed to edging and diversifying your bets.

    The WEF and all these corporatist models of government are based on the same fallacy that I thought was burned out by the experience of the 20th century…. That Man posseses the means and the cognitive ability to create ex nihlio complex social systems. See also monkeys throwing darts at the wall beating hedge fund managers.

  14. As far as geographic diversity making wind power reliable: Been there done that, it doesn’t work. There have been at least two instances where the wind over virtually all of the U.S. between the Rockys and Alleghenies simply stopped for periods of hours to days. It also ignores the fact that while electricity moves at the speed of light (not quite but close enough) the networks are considerably slower and the fact that it is a synchronous network puts very tight constraints on just how far things get out of line before it twists itself apart, protective switches open and you have to restart from scratch. This is why, if you look closely as you are driving, you’ll see the occasional very high voltage line with only two conductors. That signifies that that line is DC and used to tie networks together while breaking the need for synchronization. They are very expensive, mostly in the switch gear and lightning protection, so only used strategically.

    Tightly coupled systems are passively stable as long as the number of constraints are equal to, or larger than the number of degrees of freedom. Outside of that, active control is necessary and the loop response of the control must be less than the time it takes the system to become irretrievably unstable and that time is directly dependent on the amount of counter force available and the time it takes to apply it. In this context, lots of very expensive, spinning but uncommitted power. That is lots of $$$. Even a fairly small power net is so far from well constrained that even with computers, control is a matter of probability with the cost rising exponentially as reliability approaches but never gets to 100%. And then a squirrel makes the ultimate sacrifice, A system that can break into small pieces means the lights come on in an hour or so, otherwise, crews will be using hack saws and the light may take days or weeks to come back.

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