Siege mentalities (and why you need to have one)

Last Sunday I went into central St Petersburg with the aim of going to the Defence of Leningrad Museum. It was the day before the anniversary of the German blockade being lifted, and it seemed like a good time to see the exhibits of life in a modern city under siege conditions.

It turned out that I didn’t need to get to the museum – the exhibits had come to the people! One of the central streets, a couple of blocks away from Nevsky Prospect, had been turned into a siege re-enactment. Tank traps sealed the street off; wooden barn doors were leaned against building walls to protect some windows, while others had sandbags stacked up against them. The barn doors were covered with posters, exhorting the citizens to maintain their defence efforts, as well as with hand-scrawled messages. Trucks, trams, motorcycles, and anti-aircraft guns from the period were parked here and there, monitored by museum staff and volunteers dressed in period Red Army costumes – and who were fighting a losing battle, trying to stop crowds of hyper-excited small children from clambering onto the vehicles!






On almost every one of the exhibits were piles of carnations. I thought at first that this was part of the official tribute, but I soon realised that they were being laid there by members of the crowd. Even as I went home in the evening, old women were still arriving at Gostiny Dvor metro station bearing armfuls of carnations which they would be laying down somewhere in tribute to the defenders of the city, and the million or more who died. As the implications sank in, I found this spontaneous homage very moving.

As I thought things over I realised, as well, that a few pieces had fallen into place, and that I finally had the metaphor I’ve been seeking for several months as I’ve tried to write my articles on networking. So, here’s the second post on the topic; it’s rather long, and will go into areas that many readers may find odd, or threatening – but it’s intended to be helpful advice, for all that, so stick with it!

In my last post, I began to give some historical and cultural background on the use of personal networks in Russia and China, and tried to explain why this kind of mutual aid can’t really be considered to be corruption; I also tried to give a sense of why it is that Brits and Americans (and northern Europeans in general) tend to think that it is corrupt. Essentially, there are some fundamentally different assumptions at play, which derive from the quite different cultural and legal histories of Russia and China on the one hand, and the Anglo-Saxon/European countries on the other. I also gave an example of how the situation even in the latter group isn’t actually as clear-cut as the majority of people might think.

Of course, the art of ‘networking’ is very popular in Western business circles. Using your network is part of standard career advice, which you’ll find in all kinds of books and articles. This is an absolutely typical example, which appeared recently on LinkedIn; it’s the kind of thing that my fellow-lecturers and I built in to our modules at China Agricultural University, and which I advised my tutees at Swansea to follow.

Seek out a support network to help you move on. In academe, it truly takes a village to get anything done, whether it’s finding a job, securing a grant, or getting your teaching in order. I’ve made ample use of my own support network.

In the case of a job hunt, you will find some openings in the job ads, but you can learn a lot more just by contacting people you know who might be in a position to help. Thinking about who might serve in your support network is one of the most valuable things you can do to get back on track; and then contact those people. You may think you can move on by yourself, but you can do so much more effectively if you have other people working with, or even for, you.

The trouble is that’s it’s pretty vapid stuff. Yes, nice to know – but no, not really actually useful.

I found social networks such as LinkedIn to be a very helpful resource for finding contacts when I was working in a sales role; less useful during periods of unemployment when I was desperately seeking work. Many people also only turn to networks when they’re in, or facing, a crisis – and then they find that their networks are made up of weak links which can’t provide the help that’s needed.

I was reminded of the uselessness of “networking events” and “online business networks” by a blog post recently. A friend from Wales, Rob, who’s been trying to set up his own business, was writing about how he’d joined a fee-based business network, and hadn’t really seen any return on his investment. It reminded me of my early days in China, when I was looking for a job that would allow me to stay there once I’d finished my MBA. I attended lots of networking events, and always came away with a pocketful of business cards. I always followed these up with friendly emails and calls, but I actually never got anything useful out of them.

In hindsight, of course, the reason I was disappointed then, and why Rob is disappointed now, is clear. Very many of these networking events, and of the online networks, have no expectation of significant future interactions; people participate in them as a one-off transaction, hoping to get quick results for minimum investment. Since everybody is doing the same, nobody gets anything worthwhile.  Where networks do pay off is where there is genuinely a shared experience ; participants meet and get to know each other in situations where they’re doing something that is a) worth the time investment purely in itself eg sport, voluntary work, genuinely pleasant socialising;  b) where future interactions are expected, so reciprocity is at least potentially possible; and c) where an evaluation of potential and character is possible.

(Note that last sentence: it’s something I’ll return to).

Such networks are information-based. Participants give each other mutual support and a sense of belonging. Participants find out about opportunities that haven’t been widely publicised; pointers to useful people and resources; solutions and know-how for problems. Very useful stuff indeed, without doubt. That’s as far they go, however; unlike Chinese and Russian networking, they don’t provide access to preferential treatment, scarce or controlled resources, back-door access and so on. According to Western views, this kind of activity is corruption and shouldn’t be tolerated. As I noted before: this view is absolutely justified in Western societies, and I support it. It doesn’t make sense, though, where Western assumptions about what’s fair can be shown to rest on faulty assumptions; I’ll discuss this further below.

Still, if you’re in the West, you’re in a tough situation, you need information, or a pointer to job opportunities, and you’re finding that right now you don’t belong to a formal network… what can you do? Of course, you can just go through your Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts, and hope that inspiration strikes you. That may work, and I’ve certainly tried it myself.

It’s possible to take a more formal approach; it’s time-consuming, but it can lead to very useful insights. This approach builds on the academic discipline of network theory, and it led to a number of useful books and tools being published in the late 90s/early noughties as the field of knowledge management developed the concept of social capital.

One of the more accessible books was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. One of the more useful takeaways from this was the concept of people as mavens (who collect and then share knowledge), connectors (who know lots of people in diverse circles, and are able to make introductions), and salesmen (charismatic negotiators). In a typical situation, it’s the first two we turn to – but how do we identify who they are amongst our contacts?

This was addressed by some of the more formal, but still accessible books that were published around a decade ago, particularly Achieving Success Through Social Capital: Tapping Hidden Resources in Your Personal and Business Networks (Wayne E. Baker), and The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations (Robert L Cross & Andrew Parker).

These led me to some free software tools, particularly NetDraw. This enables you to list connections amongst your contacts, identifying who knows who, and then to generate a visual network map.

Green Network

This is a complex example, based on words rather than people, but you get the idea. If the dots represent people, and the lines represent a known link between two people, then we can get an idea of the roles people play. Some people are at the centre of a thick mass of lines; these people are very well-connected, and know a lot of people in the networks that you know about. Other people are on the edge of the diagram, with very few lines connecting them. These people are worth investigating; they may be an untapped resource. Potentially they are mavens – deeply knowledgable, but perhaps not sociable. Alternatively, they may be connectors; they know some people in the networks you know about, but they also know some people in a number of networks where you yourself have no connection at all. If this is the case, they may be able to act as a gatekeeper, giving you access to previously unknown resources.

This is a labour-intensive procedure, especially at first, but may well provide useful insights.

Still, this isn’t intended to be a tutorial in how to manage your business and personal networks; there are many better resources available online for that. What I want to explore in more depth is why blat and guanxi are different to networking as it’s understood in the West – and why we Westerners urgently need to get into the habit of thinking about our networking in these terms. In doing this, I’m going to lean heavily on an academic paper, Personal Networking in Russia and China: BLAT and Guanxi, published in 2002 by Snejina Michailova and Verner Worm (PDF). It’s highly accessible, and worth reading.

Michailova and Worm draw a distinction between structural embeddedness and relational embeddedness.

In the West, we operate in the second of these. Our relationships are person-to-person, and are grounded in the trust and confidence we have in the other person. Any favours exchanged are considered to be between those two people, and the person who receives a favour will usually seek to clear the obligation as soon as possible. (In fact, not doing so may lead to that person being regarded as ‘always taking, not giving’, though the paper itself doesn’t make this point). Our trust in the other person is what the authors term cognitive trust; this is calculated, based on our knowledge of the person concerned, factoring in their competence and/or trustworthiness. This is the normal basis for business in the West.

Russia and China, in contrast operate on the basis of structural embeddedness. Here, accepting favours may incur obligations to people you will never meet or personally know, who are members of the giver’s extended network. The granting or calling in of favours is grounded in a set of shared but unspoken norms, and are dealt with using a specific and well-understood vocabulary. Neither blat nor guanxi expects immediate returns; they assume that reciprocation will come sometime in the future, when needed. Russians and Chinese like to store favours up to be called in in the future. Both cultures base their relationships not on cognitive trust, but on emotional trust, which is based on friendship. Emotional  trust may develop into cognitive trust, or it may not, but it is a pre-requisite.

For the Russians and Chinese, business is not transactional. Russian and Chinese networks are based in both social and business life, and business success is influenced by the quality and cultivation of one’s personal networks. The authors therefore describe both blat and guanxi as “network capitalism”, in which business is contracted through personal links rather than formal, neutral mechanisms.

When do such systems arise? Under what conditions do they make more sense than the Western version of networking? In my last post I generalised this by saying that when the political or economic system is broken, it’s essential to find a way to work around it. Michailova and Worm put the reasons more definitively:

In a weak institutional system and non-existent or poorly-functioning societal framework or mechanism […] personal networking is a highly significant resource. In a climate characterised by high uncertainty, having access to reliable information and other resources becomes vitally important. Where the political authority has been, or is, personal, arbitrary, unchecked, and intrusive, one can naturally find security in close personal ties

Blat and guanxi thus build on a learned distrust of the politico-legal-economic system and therefore of contracts. In short, you build relationships less on the basis of what people have to offer right now, and more on the basis that you can trust them not to swindle you when you do actually need to do business with them.

By being network-based, using friend as “fixers” and using their connections as needed, participants in blat or guanxi are able to cope with shortages through exchanges of favours. In both systems this is simply thought of as “helping people out”, or “mutual support”, to the extent that there is almost an obligation to help other people when needed, if it is in your power to do so. Of course, it is assumed that help will be reciprocated, but this won’t necessarily be for personal benefit; particularly in Russia, being able to help people out by drawing on your contacts was a source of status.

This system of favour-exchange, based on enduring relationships, and an acknowledged understanding that the relationship is based on participation in a network, rather than being person-to-person, makes the system extremely resilient, and able to cope with a rapidly and/or continuously changing environment.

Blat and guanxi serve to protect the individual against an uncaring or antagonistic society, though in so doing they necessarily encourage loyalty to the “group”, and reduce willingness to trust or help those who are not insiders. (This helps to contextualize some of the differences between Russians and Chinese on the one hand, and Brits on the other, which has been identified in Geer Hofstede’s research, and which I referred to in a previous post).

So far, so interesting. Why, though, am I devoting so much time to this?

The reason is that it seems quite clear to me that a) the societies of the West are in transition away from their affluent, transparent, rule-of-law nature of the post-War decades and are becoming more like the arbitrary, unequal, and impoverished nature of Russia and China of the same period, and b) that this change is being driven by irreversible and increasing resource scarcity, as well as the effects of climate change.

In the short term, the critical issue is energy, and specifically oil. Global oil production peaked around 2005, stayed on a plateau for a few years, and has started to decline. The difference has been made up by shale oil production and fracking; you’ve almost certainly seen or heard media pundits claiming that these tools will solve our energy problems. This isn’t true, however; it’s a lie circulated by speculators hoping to make a profit out of government and investor desperation. Oil as we generally understand it is getting harder and harder to obtain; the old, easy-to-access reserves are in decline, and newer sources are incredibly difficult – and incredibly expensive – to exploit. This infographic from the Wall Street Journal shows clearly how the oil companies, despite spending vast sums of money, haven’t managed to produce any more oil. The majority of existing oil fields, by contrast, are now owned by their national governments – who now have a vested interest in keeping prices high. Very soon, the shale oil boom will pass, and worldwide oil production will decline precipitously.

Since oil is necessary for almost everything in our economy, less oil will inevitably lead to shortages and soaring prices – which are only going to get worse. Oil is the single most energy-dense resource available to us, so no other source of energy is going to be able to replace it or substitute for it.

Ordinary people are going to struggle to make ends meet; the economic hardships and growing social inequality that everyone has observed over recent years are simply the early stages of this. As the trend continues, those who already have wealth and privilege will find them increasing; those of us who don’t, will find themselves increasingly shut out. For those who cannot break into the charmed circles that will increasingly monopolize access to resources, there are few options. One will be to enter into servitude: becoming servants of the rich, rather than the independent “service providers” that many of us are trying to become.

The other – you can see where I’m going here – will be to build up networks of trusted people, helping each other out.

As I said, the analogy I need here came to me last week: we are all now under siege.

Because of last week’s anniversary, I’ve been reading Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones (which is an excellent book, by the way), and the experience of the city’s ordinary citizens is a model of what may be coming for many of us.

As the German armies advanced, they cut off many, but not all, supply routes. For Leningraders, as the supply of goods shrank, life became harder and harder; meanwhile, the incompetent and self-serving leaders of the city continued to tell everyone that things were ok and going well. In reality, they had made no plans, and had stockpiled what reserves they had in a single, vulnerable location. When the closing of the siege cut off supplies entirely, the people were forced to survive on what they had available or could forage; lives depended on self-organisation and networks. The Germans bombed the food reserves; putting them all in one place may have seemed efficient – but it wasn’t resilient, and there was no way to restock. Criminal gangs took over entire sectors of the city. The city leaders were helpless and detached from lives of ordinary people: the ordinary people starved in their hundreds of thousands, with only 125g of bread to eat per day. Ordinary people’s apartments were raided by parties of militia searching for, and requisitioning, any hoarded food; the city leaders in contrast reserved food for themselves – Jones notes that at the end of the siege, some of their families claimed to never have gone hungry once during the 900 days of encirclement.

It’s a pattern that we should all remember, so that we can recognise it over the coming years. As oil becomes more and more expensive, so goods, services, and energy will also see prices go sky-high. Eventually, more and more of them will become unavailable at any price; those that are still available will be out of reach for most people. The rich and well-connected will be insulated, while the rules are tightened for everyone else.

Of course, the besieged defenders of Leningrad knew that out there somewhere, beyond the German lines, the Red Army was trying to fight its way through to them. For us, under siege from energy decline, there is no rescue on the way.

We have a few years left, with any luck, before the decline really begins to bite. Use this time to decide who you really trust, and who your network are. You’ll need them in place before things get bad.

I’ll leave the final word to Dmitry Orlov, who points out that our current economic system is set up to strip wealth from the middle class –

You probably fancy yourself as a member of the middle class. Most people prefer to consider themselves middle-class, because upper-class aspirations seem arrogant and overweening while lower-class aspirations don’t exist. On the other hand, it is often said that the middle class is rapidly disappearing. The parents might still fancy themselves middle-class, but their underemployed basement-dwelling adult children have scant hope of keeping up the appearances. Now, let’s follow this trend to its obvious conclusion. The middle class is gone; what are you now? Let’s introduce some categories: we have nobs (filthy rich bastards), proles (who have a job serving the nobs) and bums (who don’t have such a job). Which one are you?






Image credit: Wordchain network for English 3-letter words by Anders Sandberg (Arenamontanus) on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.


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