Futility, the chasm between efficiency and effectiveness

We’re so busy. It’s exhausting, striving always to keep up, prioritizing, shuffling schedules, trying to be as efficient as possible. Still, we feel trapped more than satisfied, helpless not energized. I find myself haunted by these questions: What can I do that isn’t immediately undone by the juggernaut’s headlong careening? At what point do I have traction? Where do I have agency? Where can I have – if not control – then at least a sense of diminished futility?

This touches on the essence of freedom and liberty. If we are to hold onto a shoal hope, not simply wishing for or fantasizing escape; can we attain a position clear of despair, and not be dogged by the specter of futility?

Without such a foundation to stand on freedom is meaningless and liberty simply license. Unless we look at the question of freedom from a perspective that takes in a broader framework, one that gives freedom its value, we’re just posturing.

It’s easy to see how Capitalism has worked ceaselessly to commodify everything and everybody. It may be harder to admit that civilization itself was long at this task before Capitalism was ever considered. Capitalism has merely brought a terrible efficiency, the efficiency of modernity to the process.

Commodification began when this particular wild goat I hunt, this handful of berries I pick to feed “the people” who are all of the persons I know, intimately; evolved into cuneiform marks representing so many bushels of grain to be stored to appease so many people considered in the aggregate. It was a tangled series of moves, resulting in an abstraction from an engagement with the world as it touches us through what nourishes us and who matters to us; to an aggregated conception of atomized individual parts that, torn from their intimate connections and shorn of agency, have no other refuge but to insist on an individuality apart.

I’ve written before about the move from living communities of highly varied and multiple cascading inter-dependencies to a world of aggregates, ordered by similarity and type into silos of “useful” commodities; whether that be the taking of a living soil and turning it into the raw materials for concrete, or breaking up societies to create the raw materials for a “useful” army or work force.

How does “useful” relate to meaningful? Useful implies, embodies, a predatory outlook. Asking for utility begins with the rejection of the web of relationships whatever we are examining already inhabits. It strips our “target” of its agency and accepts the validity of resorting to whatever violence is required to bend or break our “object” to fit our purpose, a purpose we impose on it. Even when we speak of our own usefulness, we are either accepting our own commodification and bending to another’s will, or we are misunderstanding usefulness in a hapless attempt to minimize its damage without acknowledging and rejecting its implications. “Doing Good” so often falls into this trap in an attempt to ameliorate symptoms without changing the frame. The power of the Stockholm Syndrome is strong.

Futility rises to the surface at such times, warning us and preparing us for death, literal or figurative, the result of thwarted impulses towards meaning. Anxiety and obsession drive us to struggle against futility, but as with any auto-immune reaction, they run-away into pathology, leaving us less and less able to respond effectively.

Let’s puzzle-out the space between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency operates within the framework of utility. Once the initial reduction is made, breaking out “resources” from the fabric of being, then choosing the most efficient methods is the natural, brutal, reductivist way of carrying out the carving of one’s will upon that fabric of being.

Effectiveness, the search for effective action, right-action, is completely different. With a perspective aimed at searching out effectiveness, we are dissatisfied with the traps and illusions of utility. We see the way efficiencies destroy the foundations for effective action by stripping us and our world of the capacity to create the islands of delay and redirection that allow living systems to slow down the inevitable ravages of entropy and spin-off myriad moments and pockets of richness. We stand rejecting the lures of attempting to just steal from the fabric of being to create the illusion of richness through the accumulation of wealth. We see that even substituting inaction for the pursuit of efficiency is an effective first step. Not only a refusal of persisting to act badly, but creating a space in which the forces of regeneration can begin to repair what we are no longer actively destroying.

Efficiency holds within it a drive to list parts so as to be able to exploit them. Much of technology and science falls into this category of activity. We want to “know” about “things” so as to make them more “useful.” Effectiveness is a practice of attempting to see the interconnectedness that exists, so as to align our actions with that of other subjects, to leverage our agency towards common goals. Effectiveness insists on a light touch since any attempt to grasp hold of “things” tears them from the fabric of being and takes us out of the dance along with them. We precipitate out of active suspension, becoming part of the reduced world of surplus, scarcity, and waste.

In the tension between our immersion in the fabric of being and the atomized self’s struggle to achieve a stasis, a utopia, not of richness, but an illusory concretion of wealth, in which we wish to stop without falling; we define the human condition. The workings of consciousness are so easily misunderstood as signs of separateness from the rest as epitomized in Cogito Ergo Sum. Yet consciousness, our phenomenological embededness in experience, is the only window we have through which to glimpse an awareness of our integration into greater systems and structures.

Reductivism is probably the least capable framework within which to deal with paradox. It’s reflex, that of Alexander, to cut the Gordian Knot. Right there we see unknowable complexity treated merely as an impediment to willfulness and destroyed in a fit of efficiency to strip out the useful from its greater home. “Good Intentions” could be seen as a desire to pick away gently at the knot, still trying to unravel it, but unwilling to own up to the violence the unacknowledged, but still accepted attitude of utility demands.

Cutting, or picking at the skeins and strains of living complexity, is relatively easy to understand. We can accept or reject it. It’s only in the multiplicity of alternatives to these binary options that we find what cannot be reduced. These embodiments within life are complex, nuanced, and never static. Neither accepting, or simply rejecting utility, leads automatically to right-action, to effectiveness. Only engagement, in all its complexity and contingency can lead us to glimpses and hints of meaning, health, and connectedness that can break us out of the traps of futility and move us beyond our frustration at our lack of effectiveness.

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17 thoughts on “Futility, the chasm between efficiency and effectiveness

  1. Tony – this inspires me to think: how would it be to replace Marx’s use value / exchange value, with relationship value and meaning value as economic vectors?

    1. That is the general idea, although I think it goes deeper than Marx’s analysis of capitalism, right back to the dawn of commodification. Economics is a measuring tool, an analytic technique that relies on abstraction away from reality. What if that drive to abstraction, away from the particularities of life as lived, IS the problem? By problem, I mean the blind spot in the way we look at the predicament that is the human condition.

      The fractal model implies an organization that is self-similar at various scales. This is a hint at how we could look at “broader” scales, the kind of thing economics is trying to get a hold of, not by abstracting away from particularity, but by looking at the way self-similarity carries, and how we can get a “feel” for larger scales by delving deeper into the particularities at smaller scales, or vice versa.

      Anyway, these are some of the things I’m working on. Thanks for your comment, and for giving me an opportunity to enter into this dialogue, it’s helped me clarify some things!

  2. Your description of the fractal levels is very helpful, I’d never seen the possibility of that before. Now I wish for a word better fitted than economy -rooted in ‘household’, ‘management’ (ie control) and ‘thrift’ – to convey a sense of the generative /creative wealth that abounds through the interrelatedness of the web of life, unlimited but not uncontrolled. Yet, perhaps wanting a word rather than a tangle is me desiring some dubious illusion of a clarity that isn’t available yet …

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