Forward March, Fleas!

Yesterday, I posted about Charles Handy’s “Elephant and Flea” idea. Fleas, being “portfolio workers”. This sounds like a relatively new idea. And it sounded pretty radical when Peter Drucker (who as ar as I know was the first to argue that “knowledge workers” would become more valuable than just folks doing routine tasks). It is a short hop to Handy’s idea that knowledge workers would sell their knowledge however they choose to do so, and fall out of the employment rolls. They would become fleas.

In fact, this tradition goes way, way back. Socrates, perhaps, was one of the original fleas. He lived as he felt he should live, rather than in order to get a pay check. Indeed, the ancient Greek idea was that one had to fall out of daily routines in order to achieve wisdom. Hence, their “schools” where students might live together for decades. A flea infestation?

As James Burke brings out, the key value of these schools and the ancient Greek orientation in general was “forward looking”. Folks like Aristotle argued that if one invested sufficient time, one could come to a systematic understanding of the world around himself or herself — and hence live better. Tomorrow will be better than today. It was an intoxicating idea that one could argue created Roman Europe. As Rome fell apart, Augustine temporarily robbed western Europe of this notion (arguing instead that the material world was meaningless compared to one’s eternal prospects). But the interest in improving the world around us came roaring back with a vengeance when Aristotle’s writings were re-discovered and entered European discourse in medieval times. BTW, as Burke brings out, we can thank the Moors for that.

Here is the thing. Fleas were the first to argue that forward thinking was a good idea. Much later on, we embraced the idea that elephants bring us an even better future than we had enjoyed so far. Why? At first it was because discovering the new world was damned expensive and elephants (joint stuck companies) allowed for accumulation of capital. Later we got more excited about this  because reducing costs of production (in what we call the industrial revolution) also was damned expensive. Still later on, folks like Al Sloan thought elephants could promise us a better life on a permanent basis. Sloan et al believed in the “science of management”. So we get the curious idea that “what is good for GM is good for America”. We became “corporate”.

Well, we can take the blinders off now. We know that elephants are not designed as future value maximizers — they are instead, just a great way to accumulate capital for single ventures. In other words, they are a single use tool rather than a “magic bullet” cure for whatever ails us. So is it surprising that a certain number of fleas would jump off the lumbering beasts and ponder how they could do better? Think of it, if you will, as a neo-Socratic movement.

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