Guest Post by Zsolt Mohacsi
The Old-New Abnormal
Feature image: Giorgio de Chirico: Metaphysical Triangle (1958).
Calamity is what blessings depend upon.
In blessings there hides the calamity.
Who knows the ultimate end of the cycle of calamity and blessings?
Is there no true principle that exists?
The normal may revert and become unusual.
The good may revert and turn into evil.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching
In this article, we briefly challenge the concept of the “new normal” everyone seems to cherish in the wake of the recent coronavirus pandemic, highlighting some apparent contradictions and patterns to encourage further discussion.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, myriads of idea-fragments, emotional outbursts, and impulsive suggestions about “what to do” have emerged; critical measures have often been taken in a panic, unfolding in the vacuum of a domain lacking not only moral principles, but also regular common sense. As it happens in times of need and trouble, the “state of play” shamelessly shows itself. The emperor has new clothes: companies, even ones with substantial cash reserves, have ruthlessly fired loyal employees to quickly improve financial statements, markets have plunged into unparalleled volatility, while businesses built on model assumptions have, with the robustness of a dry wafer, crumbled in an instant, often only because their masters had ignored the ancient warning of the seven lean and ugly cows. Indeed, the time horizon of their initiatives rarely extends beyond the next six months.
On the other side of the spectrum, vibrant discussions have arisen about a “new normality” to come, without any attempt to define “normality” and the nature of the perceived change. An almost hysterical hype has emerged from a flurry of impulsive behaviour, flooding social media and corporate communications. Currently, it is hard to find a presentation or an article that does not mention the virus, including this one, the reader might rightly and cynically note. However, we mention it only to the extent it helps us illustrate a deeper-lying set of problems it has brought to the surface. Most of the calls are no more than the squawks of the greedy predators of mayhem, riding the sudden wave of public interest in COVID-19 hashtags. They seemingly try to squeeze out every remaining drop of the rotten fruit of the pandemic to season their tasteless chowder of languid ideas. However, for others, the pandemic is only the latest manifestation of the much-venerated, profane idol: change.
Suddenly, a primitive virus has become “a catalyst for innovation”, the harbinger of “digital transformation”, and a catapult towards a monstrous “low-touch economy” (which sounds like a mild form of institutionalized sexual harassment). Self-proclaimed experts ask, as they confidently straddle a TED podium after having completed an online course in artificial intelligence, with a vapid tone of forced delight in their voice and the wondering gaze of a newborn calf in their eyes: what is the “new era” we are entering? What will be the “new normal”? How will we “adapt to the new situation”? Such questions stem from naïveté, ignorance, and in some instances, malevolent speculation. There are three tacit assumptions behind them: first, that before the pandemic a state of “normalcy” reigned in the aforementioned domains; second, that the phenomenon has fundamentally altered the tendencies and attitudes that underpin and dominate modern societies and the going concern of global business; third, that such an alteration is necessarily a “positive” development. Needless to say, these are false assumptions, even if clearly accepted at face value by the majority. Or, if we aim for more precision, it is the majority’s enthusiasm that calls for preoccupation and intellectual scrutiny in the first place.
What constitutes good or bad change? Today, the almost unequivocal response is: “change is good” (the keywords give forty million results in Google search vs. the three million hits for “change is bad”, to date). In this spirit, with purposeful exaggeration, we might even conclude that contracting metastatic cancer or a nuclear meltdown are outright appetizing, as both are a form of change. Without taking into consideration its context and its qualitative nature, change in itself is absolutely meaningless. In the domain of business, we inevitably encounter a tumultuous list of concepts taught in MBA classes on the matter. On a systemic level, we find “competition” or “digital disruption”, as venerated epitomes of change, constantly keeping companies on their toes with a nervous eagerness to adapt (and whoever adapts best is called the “leader”). On a company level, these factors translate into a constant readiness and a relentless agitation for “digitalization”. The adoption of these views implies an attitude of passivity on the part of the stakeholders (and especially of the employees). Meanwhile, the natural talents of mimicry and the Streber who impeccably recite the manifesto tend to become venerated as “leaders”. By passivity, we mean intellectual inertia, which needs to be counterbalanced by exuberant “passion” for beating KPIs or adopting new technologies, culminating in technomania. As such, we can often see the combination of both attitudes, i.e., a self-proclaimed expert talking “passionately” about the latest technological trivia, or a CEO screaming, running around and writhing in a sweaty shirt on the podium like a rabbit with rabies.
Without a higher purpose, an organic raison d’être for KPIs (say, creating wellbeing for the community or an environment in which workers can fulfil their potential), the solely quantitative incentive inevitably skews the aggregate behaviour of economic actors towards an unsustainable path. The usefulness of sentimentality is apparent: “being hyped” or “excited” or “passionate” are emotional states that are deliberately provoked or encouraged and used as fuel for the Grand Machine of modern business and push it further down its track to mayhem. The word “emotion” derives from the Latin emovere, which means “moving out”. Emotionality thus signals a state of displacement instead of “being in one’s place”, disharmony instead of harmony. Global businesses benefiting from the constant disharmony at the macro level need contributors who exhibit such a mentality. However, for such organizations, the only “good” change is one that increases profitability in the short term. Accordingly, they only adopt sustainability measures to the extent these measures improve profitability (examples abound in financial ads promoting ESG investments that outperform regular ones in times of crisis). Hence, they need stakeholders who do not see the contradiction with their own elemental interest; or even if they do, they relegate themselves in a state of passivity (“I can’t do anything about this”). This is the attitude reflected in the commonly shared and defeatist lunacy: “change is good”.
Naturally, we do not mean that the competitive element per se is bad or that KPIs like profitability are to be ignored. Communism has proven beyond doubt that eliminating both at a systemic level leads to poverty, despicable counterselection, further intellectual deprivation, and a flourishing black economy. KPIs are like the medical parameters of a body, like blood pressure: they need to meet certain criteria for the organism to function. The problem, as always, is the lack of context. For instance, the notion of competition should be relevant only up to the point where it serves the economic and spiritual wellbeing of the community, instead of being an idolised paradigm. It must be subordinated to higher principles. In ancient times, warfare was considered a conscious action to restore harmony. Today, permanent disharmony is the modus operandi of business; likely because it enables the accumulation and concentration of the most wealth in the shortest period of time. Hence the exuberant abundance of “serial entrepreneurs” or “top employees” (in an obvious parallel with Soviet-era Stakhanovism) or “social entrepreneurs” (an oxymoron laden with hypocrisy), caught up in the constantly accelerating vortex of “more and faster”, leading to inevitable catastrophes both on the personal (i.e. mental disorder) and the collective (i.e. pollution) levels. The latter development has even attracted the attention of contemporary philosophers like Byung Chul Han, albeit from a different standpoint.
Technomania is one of the most visible symptoms of contextlessness: driven by short-term profitability, it has become an end in itself – in the spirit of “let’s do it, because others are doing it” or simply because we can. For example, creating “virtual travel experiences powered by artificial intelligence” instead of increasing our level of consciousness (in this case, whether to travel at all to a given destination) , or tracking apps where proven ways (like testing) might do the job as efficiently. Such a virtualization goes hand-in-hand with the general mechanization of human existence, from being an expendable gear in the Grand Machine to using algorithms to match future wives and husbands.
As a result, the consequences of the pandemic have been widely interpreted within the prevalent views of our Zeitgeist, not only justifying, but also exacerbating the above-mentioned patterns. The coronavirus has become one of those cherished collective shocks that – according to the apparent consensus – inevitably lead to “progress”, without considering the qualitative nature of these changes. If we see increasing disharmony and more mechanisation, we can conclude that recent developments are unfortunately pointing us into the opposite direction of normality.