Is agile software development a living design process?

I recently wrote a post outlining some principles for doing Living Process Design, a concept developed by permaculturist, Dan Palmer. These were inspired by my experience with a house renovation and permaculture-inspired garden project.

As I was reading back over the post, I realised that these principles were familiar to me from my work in agile software development.

In theory, agile software development should be an example of a living design process. In practice, it’s not. I’ll use the 7 principles from my blog post to explain why.

Principle 1: Embed yourself in the context

We do this pretty well in agile software development. We have co-located, cross-functional teams that share knowledge. Teams usually struggle on two points.

Firstly, we often don’t have the high level business context i.e. why is our company spending money in this area. This is usually because the company itself doesn’t have a coherent strategy. It’s exacerbated by the fact that (upper) management is not part of the cross functional team and therefore we don’t have direct contact with them.

Secondly, we often don’t have the customer or user context. Sometimes this is because the customer doesn’t exist yet.  Sometimes it’s because we simply don’t have access to them. The most fulfilling projects I have worked on were when we had direct access to the customer.

Principle 2: Have high level goals, not specific ones

A high level goal might be something like “provide customers with an easy way to sign up for electricity connection”. Building software to achieve that goal is already a solution. A very expensive solution.

I have been on a couple of projects where a non-IT solution would have been preferable but we’d already assembled a software development team and couldn’t change tack.

Some companies are spending more time on product validation before the IT build begins. But most companies just start writing software. They move straight into specific goals and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Principle 3: Start small and iterate

We are getting better at this. There’s movement away from monolithic systems and product development is experimenting with ideas around MVP and build, measure, learn.

However, iterating implies starting with a functional first attempt and then re-visiting it to tweak, strengthen and harden it based on feedback. This re-visiting happens very rarely. It is perceived as “re-work” and seen as waste. As a result, there is a stigma attached to it.

Most agile projects have way too many features in the pipeline and not enough time to deliver them. We are too busy churning out new features to properly iterate on the solution.

Principle 4: Go Slow

This whole concept is anathema to most software delivery teams. We have “delivery managers”. We track velocity and cycle time. We use kanban boards to make sure that we are maximising flow. Everybody wants to know how we can go faster, not slower.

This is built into the DNA of corporations. Budgets are drawn up and expenditure is fixed in advance. Each project has a fixed amount of time and money before it even begins. You simply don’t have the luxury of releasing something, taking feedback and then reacting.

Principle 5: Maximise Optionality

Despite some good steps towards reducing complexity such as having “2 pizza teams”, the average software development project is still too complex. As a result, we are constantly bombarded by events that threaten delivery of the project. These include technical considerations but also internal organisational issues.

This results in a defensive mindset. There’s no room for keeping an eye out for opportunities. There’s no time to learn.

Principle 6: Embrace Randomness

Organisations have their own political structures. People have to lobby and compete for resources to get a project underway. In order to do that they have to tell a compelling story.

Randomness changes that story. This causes a political headache for whoever is advocating the story. Good middle managers quickly learn how to spin these changes and adjust the narrative. But this takes time and energy and you only get a couple of chances to change the story. After that, you appear as wishy-washy or incompetent.

Randomness also becomes harder to incorporate the more code you have written. If you change your mind and force people to throw away their work and start again, you burn some goodwill.

As a result of these dynamics, teams are averse to randomness.

Principle 7: Find the right people

In most organisations, teams are put together on an ad hoc basis.  (Note: there are a few organisations that have experimented with allowing employees to self select onto a team.)

As team size is still too big and turnover is quite high due to holidays and people leaving the company, the odds of putting together a genuinely high performing team are very low.

The reason our teams are bigger than they need to be is to hedge against the possibility that two or three people quit the company at the same time and thus threaten the delivery of the project. Companies prioritise stability and predictability over high performance.

In summary, agile software development falls short of being a living design process on the following grounds:-

  • We don’t have a holistic approach. Even when teams are told about the business goals, they are not actively involved in shaping those goals. You are there to deliver software, not to develop a business. The business still thinks of IT as a delivery function. In Jeff Patton’s words, this is the vendor-client anti-pattern.
  • We don’t have the high level goal in mind. By the time a team is formed, somebody else has determined both the business focus and the high level technical implementation. Individual team members are not encouraged to think about these things.
  • We don’t iterate properly. The focus is on getting as many features in before you run out of time and money. This called a Feature Factory.
  • We often have fixed dates which prevent an open-ended exploration of the problem space.
  • Teams are still too big and are randomly put together.

Many of these issues reinforce each. For example, because teams are too big there’s more complexity and more expense. Because it’s complex, you are always on the back foot and in a defensive mindset.  Because it’s expensive, you run out of time and money quicker. Because you’re running out of time and money, you can’t take the time to explore the problem space. Therefore, you can’t capitalise on opportunities. Therefore, you can’t pivot properly in the face of new information etc.

Some of these problems are hardwired into the organisation. The corporate governance structure imposes specific limitations on how funding is granted, who is to be held responsible for decisions etc. The most interesting companies in this space such as Gore and Semco have addressed this issue by changing their governance structures.

At one of my earlier jobs, the CIO got up in front of the IT department and told us that “the business would never become agile”. Many years later it’s increasingly obvious to me that this is where the problem lies. We have pushed as much as possible from the bottom up. The final steps towards a “true agile” are now at the organisational level.

Sanjuro the Antifragile

The wandering samurai, Sanjuro, is a character who appears in two of Akira Kurosawa’s movies: Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). He is a kind of flaneur of disorder and intrigue. At the start of the movie Yojimbo, we see him at a crossroads tossing a stick in the air to decide in which direction to walk. He follows the path into a town torn apart by greed and avarice where he gets to work helping the bad guys annihilate themselves in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

As I was rewatching the movies recently, I  realised that Sanjuro is probably the ultimate human embodiment of Nassim Taleb’s concept of the Antifragile.  A man who not only survives in chaotic environments, but thrives.

Sanjuro operates in situations of political intrigue and instability.  There are two broad groups of people we can use to characterise the dynamic: The Players and The Mob.

The Players are the leaders. They either wield political or physical (fighting) power. Among this group are the clan leaders, the rich, the bodyguards and henchmen. As a samurai, Sanjuro naturally belongs to this group.

The Mob are the low level fighters, the clansmen, the peasants and even the young aristocrats. Any people whose actions are governed primarily by their membership of a group and the group psychology which that entails.

The Players are Antifragile in their approach.  They run the show and drive events while the Mob haplessly react.  The two groups share a number of behavioural characteristics which I summarise below:

The Players
The Mob
Create optionality.  This element is crucial in the plots of both Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The victor is the one who has the best options going into the endgame.
Instantly accept any “opportunity” even if it seems too good to be true (which it often is because it’s a trap laid by one of the Players).
Improvise. Able to think on their feet and react as events unfold in real time.
Cargo cult thinking. Revert to standard scripts of behaviour even when the circumstances make these scripts redundant.
Have deep understanding of other’s motives.  Always ask the question: In whose interest?
Project their own motives onto others.
Know how to question the veracity of information.
Accept all information. Take everything on face value. 
Know what they do not know.
Absence of evidence equals evidence of absence.  (The movie Sanjuro provides perhaps the most concise exchange possible to explain this concept – Q. “Are there any hidden bodyguards?”  A. “No. None at all.”)
Act alone or join with the group as appropriate to the circumstances.
Seemingly unable to function on their own. Always part of a group. 
Have deep situational awareness.  Understand the skills, strengths and weaknesses of the other players and can anticipate their next move.
Have no strategy and no situational awareness. Are always reacting to developments haphazardly.
Know how to deceive others by telling them what they want to hear.
Simply don’t deal with people outside their in-group. Group membership trumps all.
Know how to play on the emotional weak points of others to create advantage.
Are easily roused to anger. Any disagreement turns into petty bickering.
Tenacity, stamina and patience in the face of adversity. Never lose their heads.
Allow emotions to cloud judgement.
Not only do the Players deal well with disorder, they actively promote it.  Spreading misinformation, causing violence and breaking rules and norms.  What differentiates them and Sanjuro is not the means they use but the ends they seek.
The bad guys are engaged in a zero sum game.  They aim to profit at the expense of the greater good.  Sanjuro, on the other hand, works for the common good.  He takes significant personal risk with no personal gain in terms of wealth or fame or what have you.
It is this dedication to honour and to taking personal risk for the greater good that links Sanjuro to the ethic underlying Taleb’s work.  This angle has often been lost in much of the discussion of the Antifragile, particularly in the startup/entrepreneur community.  Taleb advocates for entrepreneurship not as some recipe to fame and fortune, but because it benefits the larger community.  Sanjuro represents this ethic perfectly.  His actions literally save the townsfolk from ruin.  Sanjuro serves to help people he will mostly never meet in a town he will never live in.
Kurosawa makes it clear that what is good about Sanjuro is not that he wins, but that he is honourable.  But what good is honour without smarts? There are plenty in the Mob who are also honourable and who quickly blunder their way to their death.  It is not enough to be a Player and it is not enough to be honourable.  One must be both to make a real difference.
At the end of Sanjuro, we see the samurai reject the offer of a comfortable life as bodyguard in the community he has helped.  He takes to the road again seeking disorder and volatility somewhere new.  He pursues honour and the Antifragile at the expense of wealth, comfort and luxury.

The Carnegie Course

Everybody’s either read or heard of the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. But what many people might not know or remember is that Carnegie was teaching those lessons as a course for about 20 years before writing the book. The course is still being taught over a hundred years later.

A few weeks ago I took part in the three day intensive version of the course. I had read the book casually in the past and I knew basically what to expect. Nevertheless, my expectations were far exceeded. It’s one of the best things I’ve done and I highly recommend it to anybody.

It occurred to me afterwards that I had probably learnt more in three days than I had learned in entire semesters, maybe even years of school and university education. So, I sat down and wrote a list of the things that set the course apart and then reflected on how traditional high school and university education differed. Here’s the list I came up with. I’ll expand more on each point below.  (Disclaimer: It’s been over a decade since I was in formal education so my perspective on that could be out of date. From what I have heard, however, probably not).

Carnegie Course Traditional Education
Keep energy up Energy almost always suppressed
Engage the student. Make it personal Keep it objective
Work the body as well as the mind Restrain the body
Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone Standardisation of learning
Focus on building skills Focus on regurgitating content
Teachers model behaviour, class follows Teachers explain, class does
Only give positive reinforcement and guidance Grading relative to fixed standard
Empirical approach Rationalist/Authoritarian approach
Listen and share with fellow students Compete with fellow students

Keep energy up: There are literally no down times in the Carnegie course. No time for the mind to wander or drift off.  While you are in the room, you are doing something. Any pauses that are required for logistical reasons (eg. tallying results) are filled by engaging in a group activity that gets everybody laughing. Then you get straight into the next activity in high spirits. Far from being vacuous or a waste of time, this is a great pedagogical technique.  Management of energy levels is, in my opinion, key to person success but also key in group dynamics.  Carnegie demonstrated for me how to do that flawlessly.

Engage the student: Our education system is based on the idea of objectivity. Reality stays true whether or not you believe in it. That’s probably true of reality but not true of how people’s attention and motivation works. As the saying goes “if you want people to build a boat, tell them a story about the sea”. Engage people first and they will do most of the learning by themselves. A central tenet of the Carnegie style is that you should attempt to frame your communication in terms that other people can intuitively grasp. If you do that, you will win people’s attention. The same goes for students. Get them engaged first and they will learn what you have to teach.

Work the body as well as the mind: One of the memorisation techniques introduce in the Carnegie course involves the use of body movements. This works incredibly well. It’s amazing what unrelated material you can commit to memory using this method. Weeks after the course, I can still bring those mnemonics to mind. That’s a pretty good return on investment. As for traditional education, just ask yourself what information you actually retained from all those textbooks you read in school/university?

Encourage people to go out of their comfort zone: In the Carnegie course you really get to choose your own level of intensity. Different personality types naturally respond to different exercises. People who are slightly uncomfortable with some activities are gently encouraged to push through but never criticised or made to feel they didn’t measure up to some standard. Individual differences are respected. By contrast, the traditional educational model is graded, planned out in advance, evened out so as not to leave behind the stragglers but also not flexible enough to continue to encourage those who have the aptitude to push ahead.  Everybody must conform to the standard measure rather than allow each to find their own breakthroughs and milestones.

Focus on building skills: Of course the Carnegie course has the famous book to use as a textbook. How many times is it referred to in the course? Zero! Powerpoint slides are used to introduce the basic concepts. They are shown for seconds at a time and then switched off. You get to your feet, get the body working, learn the concept and then immediately put it into action.  You spend the majority of the course exercising the skills and watching your fellow students do the same.  At the end you walk out knowing exactly what those skills are, how you can use them and what the results will be.  You have actual techniques you can begin to apply immediately in your life.

Teachers model behaviour, class follows: The teachers in the Carnegie course demonstrate the skills they are teaching and they do so to a very high standard. The students then enact those same skills. This gives you a reference point for excellence. A gauge you can use to compare your performance to.  And that gauge is another human being, not some abstract theory or part of a syllabus.

Only give positive reinforcement and guidance:  In addition to modelling the skill for you, the teachers in the Carnegie course guide you while you are performing a skill. Where the student is not pushing hard enough or not carrying out the skill correctly, they are gently guided in the right direction.  This is the kind of instant feedback that most of us only ever got with sports training but it works just as well with any skill. At the end, everybody applauds your effort. This has the effect of encouraging the student to make mistakes. You realise that holding back is counterproductive.  You want to push on and try your best.  By contrast, the traditional education system encourages a conservative approach by the student.  What you’re after is high grades and you get those by not making mistakes.

Empirical approach: The Carnegie course tells you the theory and then gets you to put it into action in real life. You see, hear and feel the results. Traditional education takes a rationalist and frankly authoritarian approach. Learn the right answers and then regurgitate them at the right time. In that system, it is possible to get good grades without ever learning the first principles. With Carnegie, you learn the first principles and then trial the ways in which you can implement them. Learning becomes a kind of exploration.  You’re exploring the space in which you can effectively implement the principle.  In doing so, you get to develop and express your own style.  Of course, no standardised test ever gives credit for the style in which you carried out a principle.

Listen and share with fellow students: The Carnegie course requires you to put into use the skills you are learning and then report back to the class on how it went. This serves to reinforce the principle because you get to hear the different ways that others put it into action. In addition, many of the exercises allow people to incorporate their personal experiences. In fact, this is encouraged as a way to make an idea more understandable.  The result is to allow individual personalities to shine through which builds group solidarity and creates a sense of trust.  By contrast, students in traditional education don’t get to see each others work for fear of copying.  The system is actually a competitive one in which students are fighting each other over grades. This approach does not encourage the understanding of first principles and obviously doesn’t allow for much individual expression.

Having seen the Carnegie style of pedagogy, I can’t help but reflect on how many of us have been shaped by the alternative style that was dominant in our school education.  For example, I see a lot of people in my line of work who don’t seem to understand the first principles of what they are doing.  Many people don’t spend time developing skills but just learning what is the latest trend (the latest, “correct” answer to a question you might get asked in a job interview).  And there is a distinct lack of true teachers and true leaders.  People who model behaviour and who let the results speak for themselves.

I think the best part about the Carnegie course though is that everybody else in the class will have a different list of things they learned.  That variety of perspective, understanding and trying to appreciate what makes others tick was just another bonus of the course.  You learn to appreciate the things that make us different and unique while also understanding the core things that unite us.  Almost like a yin-yang combination of objectivity and subjectivity in one.

What’s in a sneer? Part 3: The Status Quo

“We live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work [sic] hard, and earned it.”

This quote comes from a well-off person annoyed at the inconvenience of having homeless people show their faces in public. As I read those lines I couldn’t help but notice that the language mirrors the fictional accounts I have described in this mini-series of posts: It is the attitude of the Salary Class towards the Wage Class but in a more advanced state. It’s the natural progression of the mentality which arises when a group finds itself in a position of superiority relative to another.

The quote is taken from the moving story of a member of the Wage Class trying desperately not to slide into outright poverty in the US and is well worth reading in its entirety.

Such stories are not uncommon these days. They describe very accurately the plight of the Wage Class as a group. There is no shortage of statistics to back up these accounts. Even using the official figures, which are systematically distorted to make the results look as good as possible for the government, the middle and lower class has been going backwards for at least two or three decades in the US. The bailout following the GFC further exacerbated this and the failure of the US government to reign in the excesses of the banks has seen income disparity get steadily worse and worse. Couple this with the loss of manufacturing, increasing automation, the increase in part-time work etc. and there is absolutely no doubt that the standard of living of many millions of people has gotten worse. Even life expectancy in certain demographics is falling for the first time in generations.

Given these facts, the rise of a “populist” like Donald Trump doesn’t seem very surprising. In fact, it seems overdue. But it certainly has come as a big surprise to many elites. Jeb Bush’s feeble campaign is one of the great examples of a man who woke up one day in a world that bore no resemblance to the one he knew. I suspect a similar revelation is waiting around the corner for Hillary Clinton. But elites are very far removed from the realities of everyday life and their ignorance is not all that surprising. What is more noteworthy is the reaction of one of the groups relevant to my theme: the Salary Class. Their attitude to Trump could best be described as irrational loathing. Trump has managed to trigger a deep emotional response from the best educated and supposedly most rational group in society. Why is this so?

In previous posts, I have explained how both the economic winners (Salary Class) and losers (Wage Class) make up stories to explain their relative positions. I tried to show how the stories of both groups have their roots in the attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance felt when there is an unanswered question of economic justice. In this post, I will refer to a set of related stories: the stories that make up the wider political discussion in society. I see these stories as a natural extension of the stories told at the individual level.

One of the most important of these is the State of the Union address. I recall one that Obama delivered a few years ago which had as its core message the idea that America was back on track. The GFC was history. Just a little blip on the radar. Everything was returning to “normal”. The middle class was back on its feet. The economic numbers were going in the right direction. A big deal was made about how the US was still making forays into space and was even seeing a resurgence in fossil fuel extraction as the fracking boom kicked into gear. In a strange way, it was a big song and dance trying convince the public that it was the early 80s all over again. This kind of story is the one that has become generally accepted in the public discourse in the years since the GFC.

The Salary Class had no problem with the story. It pretty much described their condition. Maybe a few bankers lost their jobs for a while after the GFC. Maybe there were some layoffs in other professional services, but they quickly bounced back. It was indeed business as usual.

For the Wage Class it was very different. Their jobs did not bounce back. Their conditions did not recover. Reality for them just continued the same downward slide that they had known for decades.

Not only had the economic reality steadily declined for the Wage Class but the offical public discourse had ceased to discuss their problems. It is not hard to see how this state of affairs would exacerbate an already increasingly tense situation. Levels of anxiety, anger and resentment among the Wage Class grew as they not only saw their life prospects get worse but were told by politicians and the media that everything was just as it should be. As more and more people found themselves in precarious economic straits, the number of people disenfranchised by this state of affairs grew.

The same dynamic caused a hardening of attitudes among the Salary Class. As the Salary Class find themselves better off relative to the Wage Class, it’s natural that they explain this in the same way they explained their original ascendance: by reference to intrinsic merit. As income inequality increases, the Salary Class feel themselves more entitled. If the reason they got ahead in the first place was because they were smarter and more hard working, it logically follows that the further ahead they get, the more smarter and hard working they must be. The flip side of the equation is that the Wage Class must be getting stupider and lazier. So stupid and lazy, in fact, that they lost their jobs altogether. The official discourse further reinforces these attitudes. If everything is just as it should be in society, then the people who cannot get by must have something wrong with them.

It is for these reasons that the number one sneer by the Salary Class against Donald Trump and his supporters is that they are stupid. That attitude does not come out of nowhere. It has been around in some form for a long time and a few decades of rising inequality has strengthened it. The relationship between economic reality and the official narrative created a positive feedback loop whereby the latent and not so latent differences between the two classes become further hardened and entrenched.  This is the natural outcome when both the economic reality and the offical discourse are skewed in favour of the Salary Class (or any class for that matter).

It is the self-serving and self-reinforcing nature of this dynamic that led to the inability of both the elites and the Salary Class to see what was coming. Because the official story happened to suit their economic interests, they never questioned it.  It never occurred to them that the same discourse was progressively alienating a large proportion of the voting public. When Trump came along and so expertly manoeuvred into the sweet spot where the beliefs of millions of disenfranchised people lay, they were simply not ready for what happened next.

Of course, it is no coincidence that the stories of the different classes happen to align with their economic interests. These narratives are just post hoc rationalisations of reality and not actual attempts to understand or predict reality. The difference is that the Wage Class has been increasingly disenfranchised while the Salary Class and elites have been happy to sit back and allow that to happen so long as their piece of the pie did not contract. When all’s said and done, it’s still just the economy, stupid.

What we are seeing in this election campaign is exactly what democracy is supposed to achieve. When the direction of the country no longer works in the interests of the majority of the citizens, those citizens should be able to choose a new direction. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.  It’s a feature that Donald Trump is currently exercising to maximal effect. It’s because of this feature that democracies tend to last longer than the alternatives. If democracy were not allowed to right the course of the country, some other release valve would need to be found for these grievances. The most educated members of society appear to be unable to see that. They appear to be unable to see beyond their short-term economic interest. That is the spectacle that Trump has given us and it is a valuable one to understand.

What’s in a sneer? Part 2: The Salary Class

You are hired by a scientific researcher to help out with an experiment. Two people will be brought into a room and will answer a series of pattern recognition problems. The participants will carry out the test on separate computers. They will be asked the same question at the same time and will have a fixed time to answer. They should not collaborate with each other. A light is set up in front of each candidate. It will flash green if they answered correctly and red if they didn’t. Your job is to see who gets more green lights and record the results.

Now, let’s imagine one pair of participants. Candidate 1 gets every question right. Candidate 2 gets every one wrong. Candidate 1 is clearly the better of the two and you record that result. But now something funny happens. Candidate 2 gets upset. She starts calling Candidate 1 an idiot. She calls the questions stupid. She even turns and accuses you of being dumb before storming out of the room. Whatever you think of her and her attitude, you don’t take her outburst seriously. She can’t be so blind not to see that Candidate 1 totally outperformed her. For every question she got wrong, Candidate 1 got it right. Her claims are ridiculous.

This story is analogous to what has occurred on both social and traditional media throughout the current US presidential campaign. As I write this, Donald Trump has just won with a double digit spread in the South Carolina primary after what is now a good 7 or 8 months of consistent performance in full view of the public. Despite Trump’s outstanding results in the polls and at the ballot box, there are still no shortage of people saying how dumb he is. He’s still just one “mistake” away from losing the race. When the Pope comes out with a criticism, even died-in-the-wool atheists implore that THIS time Trump’s done for. These same people have been making these same claims since the beginning of Trump’s campaign. Time after time they have got it wrong while Trump has gone from strength to strength.

The kind of behaviour displayed by both Candidate 2 and the people who are still mocking Trump is symptomatic of cognitive dissonance. When “the real world” contradicts our mental model of it we experience something that is very similar to physical pain. Just like with physical pain, we take action to try and avoid the feeling. As cognitive dissonance is a mental phenomenon, our reaction usually takes the form of thoughts and words. Individual responses to cognitive dissonance vary, but lashing out and blaming others is certainly common. We’ve all met the person who takes out their frustrations on those around them.

In my post prior to this one I outlined what I believe is a case of systemic cognitive dissonance. I made the claim that the sneering of the Wage Class was rooted in a fundamental unanswered question of economic justice that occurs at the heart of modern organisations. A question about “undeserved” rewards flowing to the Salary Class at the expense of the Wage Class. The uncertainty caused by this unanswered question causes cognitive dissonance which in turn finds an outlet in mockery directed at the Salary Class.

Knowing that the sneering of the Wage Class is rooted in cognitive dissonance, we can apply the same method to track down the root cause of the sneering of the Salary Class.

Let’s go back to the example I presented in the last post. Tom has been freshly promoted to the Salary Class. I made the claim that Tom would not be able to explain his promotion in economic terms. He wouldn’t be able to answer the challenges of his old workmates that the Salary Class are “overpaid latte drinking bludgers”. No doubt, as Tom begins his new role he will be very curious to find out whether it is true that his new job is cushier or whether he and his workmates had been wrong in their judgement. Maybe they had missed something. Maybe the Salary Class do in fact work harder.

Tom will almost certainly find that salaried work is indeed easier. He will realise that his new position does in fact require less (real) work for more pay. The unanswered question of economic justice will remain and it will cause cognitive dissonance for Tom just as it had for his workmates. Just like them, we can expect Tom to try to alleviate this cognitive dissonance.

There is, however, a crucial difference between Tom and his old workmates: Tom’s economic interests are now aligned with his new role and new identity. He has already been promoted and can expect further promotions and pay rises if he performs well and pleases his new colleagues and superiors in the Salary Class. Tom is therefore predisposed to find a narrative that puts a positive spin on events. That narrative will need to explain why he “deserves” the rewards that have been bestowed on him. He will tell himself that he is smarter or more skilful or more hard working than the others. It is because of those factors that he got promoted.

[At this point I should note that there is no reason why this story can’t be true. Maybe Tom is smarter and more hardworking. Maybe he isn’t. The point is simply that neither Tom nor his workmates are primarily concerned with the truth. Their stories are designed to alleviate cognitive dissonance. Those stories “work” to the extent that the cognitive dissonance is overcome].

At this point we can see the origins of the Salary Class sneer. Tom’s story is that he is smarter or more capable than the others. It logically follows that they are dumb(er) and less capable. This latent factor will probably remain dormant until such time as Tom is provoked by the others eg. when they mock him for being a bludger. Furthermore, his workmates now have a different explanation of his promotion than he does.  More importantly, it is a story that undermines his position, his identity and his economic interests. It’s a story that Tom cannot agree with. Therefore, they must be dumb. That is what dumb people do: they come up with stories that don’t fit the world. This all follows quite naturally from the situation as described. It is from these origins that the ideological sneer of stupidity arises.

Of course, not every individual case of class distinction is formed in such a “natural” fashion. Over time these distinctions harden into institutions and cultures which perpetuate the story. One of the most important of these is education. An entire system set up to rank people with the “best” jobs as incentives to those who play the game well. However, as G K Chesterton pointed out, the origin of our education system was also economic in nature. In the late 1800s, the number of jobs was shrinking and children and teenagers were increasingly unable to find work. This was causing social unrest and compulsory education was a way to keep kids off the street (and also reduce the influence of the church). Ivan Illich has also pointed out the ideological underpinnings of education. Indeed, it’s probably not too far fetched to say that the education system is the primary ideological battleground of our society.  It also play a key role in perpetuating the economic underpinnings of the class system.

In any case, there is a conclusion: the root cause that gives rise to the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction is economic. Out of the unanswered question of economic justice and the cognitive dissonance that it engenders, two very different stories arise and eventually become entrenched. This state of affairs can continue on for a very long time. In the more fatalistic cultures it can even be reified into religion. But just as these stories began from the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, when those stories are publicly challenged the gates of cognitive dissonance are re-opened. The clue that this is has happened is to be found in outbursts of sneering, mockery and condemnation. Just as Candidate 2 lost the plot in our imaginary story, so the Salary Class has lost it over Donald Trump.

I’ll return to this point in the third (and final) post of this series.