Systems of Survival Revisited

jacobs2After the US election, I heard frequent comments such as “Will we survive the changes?  “The systems are in total disarray”.  “Everything worthwhile will be reversed”. There were all kinds of mutterings about mixing commerce and government and that values were about to be thrown out the window.  The uneasiness in the air sent me back to a book I read sometime after its publication in 1992 – Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival, a Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics.  It is uncannily timely.

Jane Jacobs originally burst on the scene with The Life and Death of Great American Cities which seemed sensible when I lived in Manhattan in the sixties.  Much later as I did, she moved to Toronto, lived for many years in the Annex, and saved a number  of neighborhoods from being ravaged by a downtown expressway.  In the process she became the darling of city architects and planners.  I remember attending a celebration of her 80th birthday with many tributes and testimonials – one of which very much annoyed her.  She was suddenly a presence in the room reminding everyone in a strong voice, “I’m not dead yet”.

Indeed she wasn’t, and the works of her later years made her a prophetess one hundred years after her birth and ten years after her death by addressing some of the issues we are facing right now.

Systems of Survival is written in the form of a Socratic dialogue – a conversation among a group of friends and colleagues.  It allows Jacobs herself to play all the parts – and we find ourselves identifying with most of them here and there.  She gives her participants occupations and focuses their points of view –   a retired publisher who acts as host for their meetings,  a successful author,  a crime writer,  a young woman who wrote a book on animal instincts,  a loan officer who makes only one brief appearance, a lawyer who is the publisher’s niece,  and an environmentalist writer whose interests have made him an activist on that front.  They gathered to respond to an invitation by the publisher to explore “breakdowns of honesty”.  How timely is that?

You need to read the book yourself, so I’ll limit my description to identifying the systems that are explored and a few brief explanations.  Her key researcher, Kate, refers to the systems as syndromes.

I’m displaying the characteristics as mind maps rather than lists because it is easier to see the connections among the various elements.  The first is the commercial moral system.commercial-syndrome

The second is the system of hierarchies, the guardian moral system:


The lists focus on what is specific to each syndrome.  They don’t include other qualities common to both –  moderation, common sense, mercy, judgment are just a few of those examples.  The qualities cited are extracted from Jacob’s own comprehensive interests and reading – biographies, business histories, scandal and sociology are some of the things she cites. Her  copious explorations and reading were boiled down to some common behavioral precepts that were deemed worthy of reward or criticism. While some first seemed common to both lists, it was also evident that there were obvious differences and contradictions between  the two syndromes. But within the lists themselves some of the qualities had elements in common –  “be ostentatious”  and “dispense largesse” for example.

Kate also wondered whether the syndromes relate to occupations.  The first list is fairly straight forward and includes commercial and business occupations – and much of science.  She also notes the European roots of much of this activity.  The second list is trickier but includes  armed forces and police, aristocracies, governments and their departments, law courts, and religions – (especially established ones  as anyone can see from watching The Crown on Netflicks). They also show an eastern tradition as opposed to the commercial western one.

Both syndromes are explored and argued about at length.  It doesn’t take long to see that when commercial life develops conflicts, the guardian side has to step in and sort them out.  Some of the precepts seem quirky – like collaborate easily with strangers and aliens – until we reason that trade involves dealing with people who have different ways of living or values than we do – which is why we run amok when we try to expect our trading partners to share our views on things like human rights.

The roots of the guardian system lie deep in mediaeval chivalry where aristocrats have a distrust of trade and where ownership of land means that other people actually have to work it. When courtesy doesn’t work, one resorts to force.   Tradition is important and loyalty even more so.  Hierarchies and chains of command abound.  And because fighting and duels can’t take all of one’s time, the arts develop.

Jacobs goes on to explore what happens when the two syndromes are mixed in inappropriate ways.  Among the things we get is organized crime – guardian values mixed with commerce of questionable sorts and political corruption.  There are also anomalies where the two syndromes can meet.  The characters themselves wrestle with the moral dilemmas of both and ultimately move on to incorporate the best of both in their lives.

It’s a worthwhile read to start the new year.