by Ted Whittaker
THE SUBTITLE Of Systems of Survival flags its author`s urgent intent, as does her lucid preface: Jane Jacobs would reform our working lives, whose ethics are too often disastrously confused.
Her literary device, the philosophical dialogue, is simple, its pedigree venerable. A retired publisher convokes a small group of his authors and friends to examine the current condition of honesty in working relationships. Jacobs fleshes out her personae just enough to differentiate them in an interesting way, and not so much as to make us consider her essay mere talky fiction.
Two sets of clustered precepts are defined. Ordered into internally consistent, opposing, yet symbiotic systems, they are seen as governing all human work. These are labelled the "guardian" and "commercial" moral syndromes.
Guardians do not produce anything, but at best their prowess delimits and guarantees the physical and even psychic territory in which (at their best) flourish peaceful, honest, innovative trade and its offspring, science and technics.
With few exceptions our occupations, Jacobs` characters argue, embrace one value system or the other.
"Taken singly," one states, "the precepts are banal. But you can`t reject them singly without devastating the syndrome as a whole." Moreover, and this is perhaps Jacobs` most important point, confusion necessarily corrupts the syndromes and the behaviour they regulate. The syndromes are gossamer skeins. Virtues convert to vices, at first vigorously, until chaos reigns.
Contemporary commercial selfrectifications are easy to spot. A couple of instances of poor
people`s banks are detailed, as is that of a brokerage in Oregon that connects demands to local suppliers, thereby resurrecting a moribund economy. Government can order private industry to right a given wrong -say, to clean up the air - but this can be done ingeniously, thriftily, and effectively only if guardian principles are not adhered to.
A character notes that our society makes it possible for people to choose their workgoveming syndrome flexibly and knowledgeably, avoiding the rigidity of castes, but then adds that neither method indefinitely guarantees the systemic integrity of the syndrome chosen. Further, we often function in, or at least must appreciate the nuances of, both the guardian and commercial modes at almost the same time, even in the same workplace.
Uncorrupted guardians can order the moral functioning of the commercial syndrome and can even punish malfeasance, but who can protect us from corrupt guardians? That old thorn is not pulled out of anyone`s paw in this text. That it remains is not Jacobs` weakness only; it is everyone`s. Nonetheless, her characters agree that all people have the right to be aware of the moral implications of their actions and to exercise the corollary right to moral accountability. Jacobs and her orators display estimable traits that cut across the syndromes: courage, faith, and wisdom.
The dust-jacket claim made for this work is extreme-that it "will forever affect the way we see business, art and politics." Personally, I have found it to be correct.