By Steve D’Arcy
“There is first of all the overvaluation of the organisation, which from a means has gradually been changed into an end in itself, a precious thing, to which the interests of the struggles should be subordinated.”
The suggestion that there is a means-end reversal dynamic at work in many institutions is an idea so simple that no one can write a book or dissertation about it, but so powerful as an explanatory framework that no one can afford to ignore it when trying to understanding the world.
Personification of Things, Thingification of Persons
Unless I’m mistaken, it was Karl Marx who introduced the notion of means-end reversal (albeit not the exact phrase). At first, he used it somewhat awkwardly, in 1844, to talk about how human creative doing, which should be an opportunity afforded by life, and our highest end, becomes degraded to a means of survival, which in effect converts the end (creative doing) into a means (making a living), and elevates the means (staying alive) to the sole motive for ‘showing up for work,’ the only operative end for the working person.
But Marx made more vivid and suggestive use of the means-end reversal idea in the 1860s, under the label, “the thingification of persons and the personification of things.” Instead of commodity production being a means to human existence (productive of ‘value in use’ for living persons), human existence becomes re-interpreted in terms of “human resources,” hence as no more than a means to facilitate commodity production itself: people become “the labour supply,” available for “the economy.” Commodity production becomes the end, and people become resources and instruments.
Although Marx may have introduced the idea, the term itself, ‘means-end reversal,’ seems to originate in an article in the British Journal of Aesthetics in 1962, by C.A. Mace, a philosopher and student of G.E. Moore. Among other things, Mace proposes to understand the playing of games in terms of means-end reversal. For instance, playing golf “involves the reversal of the means-end relation. The ‘end’ — getting the ball into the hole — is set up as a means to the new end, the real end, the enjoyment of difficult activity for its own sake.” Later, experimental psychologist, Karl Pribram, seems to have helped popularize the idea in the later 1960s.
The idea of the means-end reversal (as I use it, at least) is that when some practice or institution has a history of functioning, or seeming to function, to promote some important end, that practice or institution generates interests in reproducing it, which may be psychic interests (like enjoyment) or material interests (like people deriving a livelihood from contributing to the practice or institution). As a result, what was at first a means to some end, can become so important in itself to some people that the value they attach to reproducing the practice or institution eclipses the value of the end it is supposed to serve. Ultimately, the original end serves more and more as a reference point for motivating acceptance and accommodation of the practice or institution and the costs or burden of its maintenance. Appeals to care about the supposed end are increasingly a pretext for reproducing the supposed means, so that the ostensible end becomes an actual means to ensure the survival of the ostensible means: the end is a means to preserving the means, which now becomes the de facto end.
In cases where the end is rendered obsolete, like a disease that becomes curable and so renders unnecessary an organization set up to “find a cure,” the typical response is not to dissolve the organization that was supposedly a means, but rather to find a new end for the organization to serve, a redefinition of its mandate. The weightiness of the imperative to find a new end, so that the ‘means’ can retain its claim to importance, serves as proof that the organization has become an end in itself. If, at some point in the future, all cancers are subject to cures, you can rest assured that organizations established to raise money for cancer-cure research will develop a new rationale or pretext for their own reproduction. This tells us something important about what an organization is and how it operates, even now, when its official rationale for existing still remains an important concern.
Party as Means, Party as End
In left-activist politics, we have many examples: a union or NGO or political party is set up as a tactical/strategic convenience, to promote some end. But either because it accumulates a staff that has to be paid, or because it becomes the default way of gaining certain kinds of influence or potency, or because capacities that people had before it was formed go into disuse and cease to be available, the idea of doing without the organization itself (the “means,” at first) seems more threatening to many people than failing to secure the “end” the organization was supposed to promote. So much so, in fact, that in many cases they would prefer to keep the organization going, even if the cost of doing so was to further entrench or perpetuate the very problems that the organization was founded to remedy.
Certainly, the history of socialist (ostensibly anti-capitalist) political parties illustrates the point: if the party can only promote the downfall of capitalism by acting in ways that would jeopardize its continuing role in the ‘political process,’ the end of replacing capitalism with socialism seems always to lose out to the imperatives associated with reproducing the party (or NGO or other organization) itself, and its place in the official political process (or in some social movement, etc.). The erstwhile means has become an end in itself, and talk of socialism (or whatever) now recedes into the realm of rhetoric deployed more or less cynically, as needed, to “fire up” the party members.
SYRIZA, for Example
Increasingly, one sees this dynamic of means-end reversal in the reaction of people to the policy defeats imposed on SYRIZA, the ostensible “anti-austerity” party in Greece. At first, the idea was that we needed SYRIZA to win the recent election in Greece, because once in power, they could accomplish important things, most notably reversing the failed austerity policies imposed by the ‘Troika’ (EU Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF), and addressing the humanitarian crisis in Greece, including mass unemployment and all of its consequences. The idea, in short, was the SYRIZA would be able to “change the world by taking power.” But once “in power” (i.e., forming a government), SYRIZA quickly reversed course, due to the unfavorable balance of power between itself and its adversaries (the employer class and their EU/ECB/IMF representatives), and the ostensibly anti-austerity party now committed itself to implementing the very policies that initially the party was supposed to be a means of combating.
In the face of this incapacity of SYRIZA to function in practice as a means to the end of overturning austerity, the response could have been to dissolve the party and move on. ‘We tried that strategy,’ one could have concluded, ‘and it didn’t work, so now we need to find some other means of attacking austerity.’ (If not now, so soon after its election, then a year or two years from now, when — possibly — it remains committed to embracing the ECB/IMF “austerian” macroeconomic strategy. I’m writing here less about the details of Greek politics, and more about the attitudes of many non-Greeks to SYRIZA, the palpable sense of attachment that leads some overseas leftists to be more wedded to SYRIZA itself than to the struggle against austerity that, in theory, was the basis for their attraction to it in the first place.)
One could have lost interest in SYRIZA, once its policy direction embraced the austerity it was designed to oppose. But many sympathizers of SYRIZA showed no interest in doing so. And this is because, for many people, SYRIZA had in the meantime taken on an independent importance, as (in part, at least) an end itself. It was now valued as a beacon of hope, a boost for morale, a much-desired prospect of a way out, or a confirmation of one’s commitment to a party-building political strategy, even if the party itself had set aside any plans or proposals that would point toward a break with austerity of the sort initially promised. As a result, many of those most enthused about SYRIZA didn’t want to give up on the party, notwithstanding its apparent surrender of any promise of reversing austerity, which was initially the party’s claimed raison d’être. Instead, they were willing to do without a reversal of austerity, as long as they could keep SYRIZA, since that had increasingly become more important to them.
In some cases, the point was taken even further. Now they referred to the need to address the humanitarian crisis (the supposed end of SYRIZA’s project) as a way of deflecting criticisms of SYRIZA and protecting the party from dangers to its hegemony on the Left. “How can you be so detached that you don’t even care about the humanitarian crisis, and you’re willing to give up on SYRIZA?,” they exclaimed. This is a variant of the all-too-familiar NGO fundraising appeal: “We’re completely ineffective at addressing the problem we were set up to address, and so now we need your support more than ever. Please send money to PO Box…..”
It is not a new or unfamiliar dynamic. So much of what happens on the Left, especially in the area of unions, political parties, movement organizations, and NGOs, follows the same pattern of means-end reversal, that we have to be good at spotting it and, where appropriate, resisting its appeal.