This is part 3 in our series surrounding high modernism and Digital transformation.
Why? Statecraft and high modernism have impacted some of the most significant nations in history and all our everyday lives in myriad ways. In short, it’s important.
By creating processes that are too technical, rigid or unrepresentative of the people and then forcing them on people you not only ignore the needs of the people but also diminish/remove their expertise. This leaves future endeavours weaker and in some cases impossible. A simple example can be seen in folklore in the middle ages. Conquerors used to salt the earth of defeated enemies so that no crops would grow and the people would starve. The effects would last decades meaning that no one could use the land not even them for expansion. T
To simplify this example even further you can look at the old English phrase, “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face” taken from a rather heavy-handed approach to abstinence practised by pious women in the 800s… you can imagine the rest.
High-modernist schemes and by extension rigid digital transformation approaches are potentially so destructive. They can lead the planners to ignore and often suppress practical skills that underpin complex activity, leading to lasting damage.
For his next example, Scott moves to Soviet Russia. Lenin’s design for the construction of the revolution was in many ways comparable to Le Corbusier’s design for the construction of the modern city. Both were complex endeavours that had to be entrusted to a trained minority with the resources, technical ability and willpower to push the plan through.
High modernism was integral to Lenin’s aims, to convince the Russian left that only a small, selected, centralized, professional cadre of revolutionaries could bring about a revolution in Russia.
This may sound familiar to many planners when you think of implementation projects where the information is siloed with a core team that is not representative of the needs of the wider company. In scenarios like this, the outcomes are rarely successful as you will see below.
In his work, The Agrarian Question, written between 1901 and 1907 Lenin fully savages the process of small-scale family farming while celebrating the gigantic, highly mechanized forms of modern agriculture.
For Lenin, this was not just a question of aesthetics or scale but a question of historical inevitability. Lenin believed that low-technology family farming was a dying industry just like the cottage weavers of preindustrial England. They would be replaced by large-scale, mechanised farming just as factories replaced the cottage industry. Peasant forms of production and the peasants themselves were, for Lenin, hopelessly backward and would undoubtedly be swept away.
Lenin’s plan was truly in the form of High modernist design as he wanted to do away with peasantry production, entirely, moving to grand, efficient and technological focussed forms of production. He ignored and even manipulated research that showed that small farms outperformed larger farms and enabled a better variety of crop production too.
For Lenin, the peasantry (Proletariat) was simply a means to an end, fuel within his machine for revolution, in the same way, that Le Corbusier saw the people as irrelevant to the process of city planning. The result in both examples was a process designed with what the planner imagined their well-being and productivity to be but they (the people) were not an active participants in its design, only its function. Lenin cannot make the revolution without the proletariat, but they are there to fight build and farm… not to think.
Bringing this back to modern times again think of when new management or a CEO comes in and begins to clear the decks of the established processes. Old processes, old tech and underperforming staff are often replaced, removed or repositioned within the company.
This creates upheaval and resistance within the workforce but in many cases, if those systems or staff are not replaced, the process for that part of the business is often left weakened. This can become irreversible leading to increased pressures across the business. As we will cover below, change is better when it can work both ways.
Lenin's work on the agrarian question became the base for Soviet “Collectivism” under Stalin. Collectivization was the design to combine small farms into larger arrangements under centralised control using modern, for the time, methods of technology. However, the overriding purpose of collectivization was to ensure the seizure of grain.
This purpose was obvious to peasants from the start, leading to years of bitter struggle between the peasants and the state over grain production and ownership. Those who fought back were called “Kulaks” and between 1930-1934 Stalin dispatched twenty-five thousand battle-tested, Communists to requisition grain, arrest resistors, and collectivize farms. It went further still, by showing resistance to the party, Stalin became convinced that the peasantry (Kulaks) were trying to bring down the Soviet state.
Again many of us who do digital transformation projects will have worked on a project where the thinly veiled machinations of a few key stakeholders can have a lasting effect on the project. Managing them effectively can make or break a project.
What followed the resistance was essentially a civil war or “de-kulakization” (Yes that's the actual term) and collectivisation campaign. The war and ensuing famine, killed between 3 to 20 million. The Gulags swelled, famine raged and more than half of the livestock died.
By 1934, the state had “won” its war with the peasantry. But the real kicker was that collective farms failed to deliver on any specifically socialist goals envisioned by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin et all.
They produced the same, if not fewer, yields than the small farms, only 1 in 25 was electrified one of Lenin's goals and there were a host of side issues. For example, speciality crops such as raspberries were not suited for large mono-crop state farms so they were effectively destroyed along with the knowledge of how to farm them.
You may be thinking “Jeez, a bit of a cock up lads” and you would be right. The situation was a precursor for the collapse of the Soviet Union and still has had a lasting effect on Russian farming.
This entire episode stands as a lesson in stakeholder management, favouring reversibility and flexibility.
Power was too consolidated with a small group driven by ideology; the planners did not see the people as anything more than economic units. They did not take them into account and instead placed a system upon them that did not work and was on implemented irreversible.
Had the stakeholders been managed by a larger representative group there would potentially have been more equity for the people. Had the stakeholders been flexible in approach and compromised with multiple parties then they could have created a system that worked for all.
Had the stakeholders not gone to the point of war and killed the people to implement a system they would have had better yields, and continued expertise and any changes would have been reversible.