I think we are witnessing the decline of the organization in the United States. I see two primary underlying causes:
- The rise of what is essentially an economic noble class
- The spreading adoption of social media by individuals
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830s, he was surprised and amazed by the sheer number of civic and social associations—”religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.” He said they exist and thrive because in a true democracy like America, the equality of all individuals is so consistent that no one person has enough influence to make any large impact on society on his or her own. So, Americans naturally form associations, with the intent that a larger number of citizens can be more effective than any single citizen can be.
This was so notable to Tocqueville because in his home country of France, and elsewhere in Europe, there was no such civic equality. A single nobleman could make a great impact on society of a degree that no ordinary group of ordinary folk could rival.
Things have changed since the 1830s. Loose associations crystallized into formal organizations, thanks in no small part to a Supreme Court (mis)interpretation of the Constitution in 1886 that recognized incorporated entities (which are legal fictions) as “persons” under the law, incentivizing informal, organic groups of people to structure themselves as corporate organizations. With this change, over time the citizen who belonged to associations evolved into the “organization man” identified by William Whyte in 1956.
What’s more, the inequality of wealth in the United States has reached such an extreme that we are now living with an economic ruling class. (See graphic, representing information from the Economic Policy Institute.) Think of how that affects social and civic organizations (we’ll leave aside political associations, as de Tocqueville did in this instance). One person can sponsor, say, an entire season at a performance theater more easily than 90 people working together can. We all know how much work it takes to organize the efforts of 90 people. Why bother, when hooking the right one person would take care of things just as effectively?
I know I’m just scratching the surface of the issue here, and I’m treating it reductively. The point is, at least in monetary terms, it takes a lot of ordinary citizens working together to equal the influence of a single member of the economic noble class. That’s a strong disincentive to associate with the hopes of getting anything done.
Economic inequality, meet social media: But what if it suddenly became a lot easier to form associations? What if a bunch of people could get together for a common purpose without the need for a lot of beaurocracy and a lot of money? It would be a good bet that you would see people disaffected by the inequality of power in our society take another shot at teaming up with their neighbors to do something good.
I think it’s obvious that social media makes these very things a lot easier. To take just one example, who’s in charge of Lancaster tweetups? No one. Is there a set system for organizing them? No. Is there any money behind it? No. But, are they well-attended? Yes. Can anyone initiate one? Yes.
In the face of something as powerful, widespread, and simple as Facebook events and Twitter, and in the face of formal organizations of ordinary citizens having far less power than entrenched individuals and corporations, I think we are beginning to see an important trend. The formal organization, inefficient and impotent, is on its way out. The (extremely) loose association, easy and far-reaching, is on its way back in.
I’ll write more about the effects I anticipate in this new social context. If formal organizations are on the decline, we will still have many organizations among us, but the “organization man”—anyone whose identity is defined by participation in formal organizations—will be a dying breed. One of the most important effects of that I anticipate is that “leadership” will become less important and necessary, and followership will take its place.