In Command

Those in command can think top-down or bottom-up, with fundamental implications for the success and morality of policy.

Those in command can, at least in theory, think either top-down or bottom-up – they can start from broad concepts or from the actual circumstances of individuals. Either approach, depending on the situation, can be appropriate. Either approach can, depending on the situation, be effective. Whether those in control will steel their nerve, swallow their hubris, and exert the necessary willpower to distinguish situations appropriate for gloriously forthright top-down commands from situations requiring painstaking bottom-up incrementalism is uncertain.

Solzhenitsyn described a classic top-down situation (i.e., “classic” given that the goal is immediate effectiveness):

“Sit down.” “On your knees!” “Strip!” In these statutory orders of the convoy [WM: of prisoners being transported to the Gulag] lay the basic power one could not argue with. After all, a naked person loses his self-assurance. He cannot straighten up proudly and speak as an equal to people who are still clothed. A search begins. (Kuibyshev, summer of 1949.) Naked prisoners approach, carrying their possessions and the clothes they’ve taken off. A mass of armed soldiers surrounds them. It doesn’t look as though they are going to b e led to a prisoner transport but as though they are going to be shot immediately or put to death in a gas chamber—and in that mood a jumnan being ceases to concertn himself with his possessions. The convoy does everything with intentional brusqueness, rudely, sharply, not speaking one word in an ordinary human voice. After all, the purpose is to terrify and dishearten. [Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1, 570.]

It is hardly useful to comment on the “morality” of the above commands. That word is too vague. From the viewpoint of the state, a waste product (undesired humans) is here seen in the process of very efficient transformation into a useful resource (labor), to the benefit of the state. How could that not be judged moral? Well, there might be a way. The undeniable short-term (e.g., for the lifetime of Stalin or, indeed, the whole period of what he and his successors were pleased to call “communism”) productivity of Soviet slave labor can be contrasted with the slow undermining of the whole Soviet socio-political system resulting from equating humans to resources. If the Gulag both built and destroyed the Soviet system, then a contradiction exists which makes the determination of the morality of the approach difficult even from the perspective of the state! From the perspective of the individual, well, you as an individual can presumably figure that out for yourself, but that verges dangerously on bottom-up territory, of which the examples are legion and obvious…except to those in command.

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