Book Review: The Ordeal of Change by Eric Hoffer
It has often been said that power corrupts. But it is perhaps equally important to realize that weakness, too, corrupts. Power corrupts the few, while weakness corrupts the many. Hatred, malice, rudeness, intolerance, and suspicion are the fruits of weakness.
When reading Eric Hoffer it is easy to identify his work as that of an intellectual giant. This dock worker and migrant laborer turned social commentator is better read, more informed, a clearer thinker, and more in touch with reality than most college graduates.
One of the striking features of Hoffer’s writing is that it is a virtually endless supply of quotable quotes. It was tempting just to extract some juicy ones and post them. It is very difficult to “summarize” Hoffer because his writing is so concise and compact already that it is difficult to condense further.
Out of all his works, The Ordeal of Change is the third I’ve read, and the most directly relevant to management and industry. The concept of change, and human reactions to it, are of particular importance to those attuned to Market Based Management. Whether the attentive reader agrees with Hoffer or not on all points, he will come away from the book better informed about how to promote change, but more importantly what kind of change should be promoted.
Key concepts are either recurring themes or strong individual points made with a fairly general application. Books with a more theoretical bent will have more “key concepts.”
- When we have no pride in ourselves, pride in one of our associations with a collective or a leader becomes overpowering. The opportunity for meaningful individual action and self-advancement prevents mass fanaticisms. Thus, weakness is as much a corrupting influence as power, and it breeds malice and intolerance.
- [Lesson #1: If you pay people well enough to entice them to stay but give them no support or chance to succeed, you will have the worst possible outcome: you will keep them.]
- [Lesson #2: If you give the worker no voice at all in affairs, they will probably organize in order to be better heard. The result is usually satisfying to no one.]
- The low social status of the intellectual in the western world causes them to promote many of the -isms of the masses. Communists may persecute their intellectuals, but they must take them seriously to do so. America tends to ignore them. In return, the Communist intellectuals have turned a criminal gang of psychopathic murderers into “saviors of the world.”
- [Lesson: Give the men of words a place in the order to win them over. If you don't they will use their powers of persuasion to cause discontent. They are not necessarily wiser than the rest in identifying what is in their best interests.]
- Origination [innovation] requires a loose social order where individuals have the room to tinker and follow hunches.
- [Lesson: A rules-based culture will struggle with innovation.]
- Not having a fixed place in the social order keeps everyone off balance. Without a guaranteed place in society, each man must prove his worth anew each day. This is not the path of fulfillment, but it at least provides men with justification for existence.
- [Lesson: Discretionary effort will be reduced with an increased emphasis on tenure.]
- Management is seen as mostly the same to the worker, be he ideologue, profit-seeker, technician, or bureaucrat: he sees the worker as a means to an end. Complete unity of worker and management means the worker can be taken advantage of just as though management wielded coercive power. His safety, then, lies in a well-defined division of labor separating him from management. One thing is certain: the capitalist profit-seeker is a far easier taskmaster than the ideologue.
- [Lesson: Workers are generally suspicious of philosophical or ideological persuasions for a reason. Ideology is not the sole province of the communist, and is becoming increasingly common in American business. Thus we have a prevalence of slogans.]
- The pioneers were not specifically seeking hardship, but if they had “made good” in the east then they would have had little incentive to leave and start over elsewhere. Hence, our vast western territories were cleared by society’s undesirables. America is the ironic result of what people from the low end of society can build when left alone.
- [Lesson: Innovation will probably not come from well-rounded, socially-adjusted individuals. It will more likely come from wierdos, introverts, obsessives, and people with unconventional tastes. Does your recruiting process screen these people out? Does your culture make them feel unwelcome?]
Eric Hoffer—one of America’s most important thinkers and the author of The True Believer—lived for years as a Depression Era migratory worker. Self-taught, his appetite for knowledge—history, science, mankind—formed the basis of his insight to human nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in Hoffer’s seminal work, The Ordeal of Change, essays on the duality and essentiality of change in man throughout history.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Drastic Change
Chapter 2: The Awakening of Asia
Chapter 3: Deeds and Words
Chapter 4: Imitation and Fanaticism
Chapter 5: The Readiness to Work
Chapter 6: The Intellectual and the Masses
Chapter 7: The Practical Sense
Chapter 8: Jehovah and the Machine Age
Chapter 9: Workingman and Management
Chapter 10: Popular Upheavals in Communist Countries
Chapter 11: Brotherhood
Chapter 12: Concerning Individual Freedom
Chapter 13: Scribe, Writer, and Rebel
Chapter 14: The Playful Mood
Chapter 15: The Unnaturalness of Human Nature
Chapter 16: The Role of the Undesirables