Preserving the Mission

By Cyberquill 07/31/201210 Comments

The following passage from a spy novel I am reading right now, I find, warrants contemplation.

Whether the author intended to highlight this manifest contradiction or whether doing so was merely an instance of slipshod composition on his part, I cannot ascertain. But since this particular author always tends to furnish a few explanatory remarks immediately following each issue he raises and failed to do so in this case, I am tentatively inclined to presume the latter; although, granted, I have not yet finished the novel, and the contradiction in question may perchance constitute the punchline of the whole tale, to be revealed in the main villain’s climactic final monologue right before losing his head to a rotating chopper blade, or however else he may ultimately cash in his chips.

Either way, here the head of a fictional U.S. intelligence organization discusses its objectives:

[…] And ultimately to complete the larger mission we were assigned in 1942 — to put an end to any power that is dedicated to our destruction. […] We were born of necessity, we live of necessity, we are immortal. Not in the physical sense, of course, but in the context of the immortal corporation. We may have to reorganize from time to time, take on partners, hire and fire, but we don’t go out of business. Not until we’ve finished what we set out to do.

So the organization is being described as “immortal” until such time as it goes out of business, which will happen as soon as its mission has been accomplished.

By invoking the concept of immortality—which connotes infinity—the speaker effectively admits that his organization is not meant to ever finish what it has set out to do.

And it makes sense, for why would an organization—any organization—desire to put itself out of business by accomplishing what it has set out to accomplish? Individuals have a survival instinct, so why wouldn’t an organism composed of individuals have one as well? Why would it want to commit suicide by removing the reason for its existence?

Instead, from a survival perspective, it would be much wiser for such an organism to periodically make a few inroads and achieve little victories here and there, just enough to validate its existence and guard against charges of inefficacy, but always to stop short of winning the war; and should the war ever teeter dangerously close on the brink of being won, to take concerted action to prevent this, even if it means sabotaging its own mission. For once the war is won, the organism will have been stripped of its purpose.

This is not to say that organizations are founded solely for their own sake and that their respective missions serve as mere pretexts for their existence right out of the gate.

However, once an organization has attained to a certain size and complexity, it invariably takes on a life of its own, whereupon, on some level, it may begin to perceive the potential completion of its stated mission as a threat to itself and, accordingly, its enthusiasm about the prospect of actually achieving said mission may flag in proportion to the organization’s increasing size, complexity, and, yes, power.

And generally, the more entrenched and massive an organization, the more unwieldy and set in its ways; hence a diminished incentive for creating conditions which may necessitate replacing a familiar mission with a new one in order to remain relevant.

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  • Richard

    ” … However, once an organization has attained to a certain size and complexity, it invariably takes on a life of its own … “
    This is a delusion of convenience when the mind is incapable of perceiving an object simultaneously with all its parts.

    A corporation only has continuity in the sense that an axe has continuity though the head has been renewed 27 times and the head 131 times. It most certainly is not the same axe. To say so is merely a description, or delusion, of convenience.

    Thus questions of survival, finite or infinite, are irrelevant. The same applies to the state: the strength of the delusion is such that  individual responsibility may be dismissed or condemned unjustifiably. vide “1984”.

    And remember, it’s good to be alive in 1985. [S. Milligan.]

    • Cyberquill

      Securiformity will be maintained no matter how often an axe’s head and handle are renewed. The axe will remain an axe. Replacing its components won’t turn the axe into a broom, just as most cells in the human body turn themselves over every few years or so without breaking continuity.

      • Richard

        The same delusion occurs at the transition occurs of the quantum world to the macro world.

        Nobody seriously suggests nowadays that the macro world really exists. When did you last hear anyone say she walked into a lamppost and saw stars? She says she has encountered the strong nuclear force and noted the radiation emitted by nuclear fusion.

        Perhaps this delusion is male in origin. He rarely says anything when a securiform has bitten his neck.

        • Cyberquill

          Don’t text and walk. The HuPo just ran a piece on distracted pedestrians.

          • Richard

            What an extraordinary record.

            I simply can’t understand why people have this compulsion to social network.

            • Cyberquill

              It cannot be explained. Only described. Like everything else in life, including life itself, social networking is but a delusion of convenience. 

            • Richard

              It’s all a matter of balance. When Archimedes floated in the bath he displaced his own weight of water. If he had been texting, he would have been like the baby -- out with the bath water.


            • Cyberquill

              Had Archimedes been an avid texter and bather, at some point he would have  discovered the principle of bouyancy just the same, by accidentally dropping his phone in the water.  Keep in mind that as late as the 1980s, cell phones were as massive as a briefcase. In 200 B.C., they would have been the size of the Acropolis. So this sudden and total drought in his tub surely would have alerted Archimedes that some yet undefined forces were in play. 

  • Testazyk

    I vote for slipshod because I don’t think you can call yourself immortal and then define the conditions under which you will cease to exist.

    Your discussion raises a myriad of interesting issues about organizations getting a life of their own.  The Hapsburg Empire, or any other empire, probably considered itself immortal.  And part of the problem is that it ceased to recognize that it had passed its expiry date.  

    It’s intriguing to think that organizations might do seppuku when they had either accomplished their objectives or ceased to add value.

    • Cyberquill

      Most empires, I suppose, start out with immortality in mind, as opposed to organizations with a mission — such as, for instance, the NAACP and its mission to “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination” — who presumably start out with the genuine desire to achieve their stated goals, and to achieve them sooner rather than later, i.e., who start out with the desire to put themselves out of business (= to die) as soon as possible. 

      But at some point down the road, this initial desire of such organizations to go out of business ASAP may be replaced by a desire to survive and a quest for immortality, to which end the completion of their missions would be counterproductive.

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