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Challenges in Community Development – The Vision of the Anointed

March 10, 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon working with a group of students on an MA in Social Activism and Change.  I had been invited to speak to the group because of my work on facilitating ‘social change’ using person centred and responsive methodologies.

We contrasted top down, strategic approaches for social change with bottom up, responsive approaches – and explored the detrimental impact on civic participation of relying on the ‘Vision of the Anointed’ to frame our change processes.  A little explanation.  Vision of the Anointed is the title of a book by Thomas Sowell, an American historian, economist and social commentator.   The anointed are usually a small group of ‘professionals’ and ‘political leaders’, or ‘campaigners’ and their work frequently follows a well trodden path:

  1. They identify a crisis – a situation that, if not addressed, will lead to disaster
  2. They propose policies and intervention to ‘solve’ the crisis that they believe will lead to a positive set of results.
  3. The policies are implemented and the results are usually mixed.  There will be both benefits and detriments associated with the implementation of policy
  4. The anointed defend the success of their vision and the policies and impacts that sprung from it.

We can see this dynamic playing out now with climate change, peak oil, low carbon economics, the benefits culture, anti social behaviour, drug misuse and so on.

This archetype for social change is based on an assumption that the problems of society can be identified by the anointed and can be resolved by their vision.  Where does this leave the ‘unanointed’.  Those of us who aren’t involved in the process of identification of problems and development of vision?  Well we can adopt several positions. We can:

  • support the vision and plans of the anointed – become their followers
  • attempt to influence the anointed so that their visions and plans take some account of our vision and values
  • oppose their vision and plans – become their critics – point out their detrimental effects – and seek the anointment of a different group
  • blame the anointed for the ongoing existence and in many cases worsening of problems

In each of these cases we are giving power to the anointed.  Even if we oppose their plans, we will argue for the ‘anointment’ of a different group of leaders with different values and different visions.  Power remains with the anointed – whether they are on our side or not.  Their social policies too will have benefits and detriments.  We are relying on an anointed group to take responsibility for our success as individuals and as a society.  We can then sit back and hurl either brickbats or bouquets – depending on our values and beliefs.  WE are off the hook. We call this politics.

In my work I accept that their will always be an anointed and they will always be developing and implementing policies.   Some of which may work for us.  Some against.  With the dominance of the current economic growth paradigm you are more likely to benefit if you are economically active – especially at higher levels.  If you have money to invest you are likely to benefit even more.  Of course we can vote and we can take part in the processes that shape their visions.  The strategic plans of the anointed may be necessary – but they are not sufficient.

We should not rely on them to make our lives better.  They do not hold the keys to progress for us.  We do, if we have the courage and confidence to recognise it.  Often though we collude with the anointed as they unwittingly ‘put the leash’ on our enterprise, creativity and civic participation as they envelop us in their plans.

An approach to social policy and change that relies on the ‘vision of the anointed’ is like an ‘old school’ business that says to its employees – come to work, do as your told, work hard on implementing our cunning plans and policies and we will see you alright.  Just comply.  Don’t think.  Just do.  We have clever people in the boardroom who will see us right.  Compliance and order are the key organising values.

Many modern organisations have recognised that in fact with ‘every pair of hands a brain comes free’.  The organisation is turned upside down.  It is employees in the frontline who are asked to be enterprising and innovative in making things better.  They brains in the boardroom find ways to keeping this innovation and enterprise ‘on mission’.  Their job is to facilitate the emergence of strategy from a social process involving many brains.  They don’t have an elite planning ‘cathedrals of the future’ developing blueprints for others to implement.   They instead manage a messy bazaar of ideas and innovation helping all the traders to promote their ideas and  form allegiances for progress.  They value a culture of enterprise over compliance.  They are chaordic systems.

Person centred and responsive work helps people to recognise the limitations of the anointed and helps them to recognise that the best hope for making things better, in ways that they value, lies less in engaging with the anointed and more in engaging with their own sense of purpose and practical association, collaboration and organisation with their peers.  It lies in their own enterprise and endeavour.  From a collection of enterprising and creative individuals emerges a diverse and sustainable community.

  1. Fascinating.

    I have long held similar views about what I have called “the High Priest culture”: those who not only hold Knowledge and control access to it but, crucially, define what Knowledge is and therefore on what terms debate is acceptable.

    The High Priests of Education have long since declared that discussion of the education and schooling of children with cerebral palsy is redundant and so those who seek to do so are regarded as “controversial” or “alternative” and other marginalising words.

  2. Not sure on what the best tactic is Norman – other than a) not to play their game and b) not to become an the ‘alternative anointed’ with the ‘alternative vision’.

  3. cyberdoyle permalink

    There are a great many Jedi out there who JFDI. they don’t know about the high priests, quangos, RDAs, support groups et al.
    They Just Do It.
    The grassroots jedi are the future. It is in the interest of policy makers to listen to them and only then will the systems work.
    There are far too many high priests and not enough injuns.
    I agree, chaordic works, and its time for the boardrooms to use the brains that come with the hands.

  4. Very interesting post Mike. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I had not heard of the Visions of the Anointed before. I think there is a lot in it.

    I haven’t read the book, so this might be covered, but the two things I would add would be on;

    1. The process whereby the anointed come up with policies
    2. The result of those policies

    Both of these actually rely a lot on people outside of the small group that are described here.

    People only come up with policies that they think they can sell to at least some people. You only have to look at examples of u-turns or disingenuous politicians putting forward policies that they do not believe in but think will be popular. The anointed cannot just come up with any vision and they know that.

    The impact of these policies is also not in the hands of the anointed. The impact depends on the communities affected and the officials involved. If they are hostile or apathetic towards these imposed solutions then they will be less successful.

    I don’t mean to argue against the idea of the anointed. Rather to say that they have much less power than they realise. They are in a web of power which binds them to us.

    Perhaps part of the way through this is helping them to realise how dependant on us they are?

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