Thursday, October 11, 2012

Standards as tools for power

Standards are not innocent technical specifications, but tools of power and dominance. Standards and the conformity assessment linked to them are a vital components of the neo-liberal project. Review of Standards: Recipes for Reality by Lawrence Busch, The MIT Press, 408 pages.

We hear the news every day about the price of oil expressed in dollars per barrel. The standard barrel of crude oil is 42 US gallons (34.9723 imp gal; 158.9873 L). This measurement originated in the early Pennsylvania oil fields. Oil has not actually been shipped in barrels since the introduction of oil tankers, but the 42-US-gallon size is still used as a unit for measurement. Interestingly enough, the ”standard oil drum” that you see in use is a 55-US-gallon barrel! The two sizes of oil drums represent some of the millions of standards that shape the society we live in. Almost all products and services we are exposed to are subject to one or, mostly, many standards. A life without standards is almost incomprehensible today. Just think about how to conduct simple trade without standards. There would be no agreed measures (scales), no clear quality standards, no agreed value reference (currency), and there would be no standard terms of trade etc. We would be back to the situation of two unrelated civilizations have their first encounter. Standards, and their cousin norms, give us predictability in an otherwise rather chaotic world.

Within most professions, there are heated debates about the standards to apply, and people spend a lot of time arguing over them, write them and revise them. But very few actually think about standards as a social institution, their governance and how they can be used in the interest of some groups against others. In the excellent book Standards: Recipes for Reality, Lawrence Busch, Professor at Michigan State University, makes us aware of how standards shape our lives every day. More importantly, he puts standards in a wider economic, social and political context.

Busch questions many of the claims normally related to standards. For example, in the language of ISO and others, standards are developed based on consensus. Busch argue that consensus is not at all a salient feature of standards. It is rather that they are taken for granted or forced upon people that ensure that people conform to them. The organic sectors shows ample evidence of this. Even more striking is how certain proprietary technical standards can dominate markets, e.g. Microsoft Windows and its associated programs. Even governments yields to their powers in many cases.

For a frequent traveler like me it is a normal hassle to carry adapters. For some reasons sockets developed differently in different countries, and today we sit with huge assets built with one type of socket in each country. It is an example of “path dependence”, i.e. that we follow a certain path, not because it is the best one, but it is the one we choose in an early stage, and the cost to go back and start all over is simply too big. On the larger scale, the automobile transportation system is a another example of path dependence, where all those within the system have an interest to continue developing it, despite the fact that neither the car itself nor the combustion engines use to propel them, are the best transport solution for cities of today. So while we have thousands of car models to chose from, and each model has hundreds of variations, many people can’t chose whether they want a car or not. This situation is what the priest and sociologist Ivan Illich called “radical monopolies”. Unfortunately, second-best solutions are likely to remain in the future as a result of path dependency, says Mr Busch. 

Busch calls the combination of standards, certification and accreditation for the tripartite standards regime (TSR) and sees the TSR emerging as an alternative mode of governance for most aspects of social life. He is rather critical towards the TSR and claim among others that audits often do violence to the subject of certification. This is particularly the case when the audits are weakly related to the real purpose of the standards; when audits take away attention from other important but difficult to measure aspects, when the audits follow an approach of ”mechanical objectivity” which relieves the certification body from responsibility or when audits intrude into the subjects pursuance of whatever goals they have. It seems to me that all those four points apply to how organic certification is mastered. The problem, and the violence done, is exacerbated when standards are written into law, says Busch. Busch concurs with the Michael Power in his book The Audit Society that one main requirement of the TRS is that organizations subject to certification are forced to reorganize their work to be more easily auditable, but that such a reorganization to satisfy the auditors may backfire, and risk to confuse predictability with trustworthiness.

He sees the standards movement of the last century as part of the industrialisation concept, linked to the division of labour, economies of scale and to the whole organization of the factories. The same standardization enables global markets and unlimited competition. Through standardization in transportation, such as containerization, improved communications etc., the competition is now also truly global in many markets. The container itself, once it was standardised in 1965, determined shapes of the ships but also of pallets, boxes and of goods to fit into the standardized boxes. This competition in turn drives the ”technological treadmill”. I can’t raise the price (as the quality is fixed) which means that I have to lower costs of production, e.g. by using chemical fertilizers or by using more efficient machinery.

As a counter-reaction to this development, there has been a drive last decade to use standards for differentiation. Organic standards and certification is one of the most prominent examples of such differentiation. Classic standardization leads producers down the path of ”commodity hell”. It has cleared the market from unique products, made to order or in a one-by-one production process and transformed it to ”same” products. With the new standards differentiation, we get a market where we can ”chose between hundreds of different, but equally standardized – varieties of ketchup, automobiles or airline tickets”. But Busch also notes that ”their (the differentiating standards) value as such is diminished as their numbers increase”. Busch explores how this contradiction came into being.

He sees the rapid increase in use of standards coinciding with the neo-liberal project, with less central planning and retreating states. He sees an inherent conflict in that managers of companies on the one hand want less regulation on the other hand are afraid of the vacuum created by the retreating state. The total free market situations favoured in most liberal economic theories have been abolished by the companies themselves through the development of closely knitted supply-chains which in turn are a pre-condition for lean management, outsourcing and other modern trends. To make all participants in a supply-chain subject to standards and certification means they are tied together and the market is less free, and therefore predictable. ”No large firm can afford to subject itself to the instabilities and risks associated with the free market”. In this way, the Tripartite Standards Regime becomes a new model for governance. The lead firm or lead firms in the supply-chains or value-chains will mostly impose their standards on others. The standards themselves often also distribute burden and costs unevenly in the value-chain. Busch mentions GlobalGAP as such an example, where small farmers are not able to carry the substantial direct and indirect costs involved . He also discusses how NGOs have turned to certifications and supply chains in attempts to advance their goals, instead of lobbying increasingly powerless governments.

Busch shows how standards are intimately connected to power–that they often serve to empower some and disempower others; ”in our modern world standards are arguably the most important manifestation of power relations”. He points to the dual character of the English word “ruler” as a manifestation of this, on the one hand, it is someone who rules, on the other hand a measuring device. Busch gives examples from colonial times of how schools in the British colonies taught medieval British history, but didn’t include the history of the countries where the books were used. The imposition of Western standards for private property in conflict with customary ownership systems is another example.

Also today, standards are tools of power and domination, but now in the hands of companies. By means of standard, conflicts are seemingly resolved or at least transferred from a political domain into a technical, technocratic domain. The claimed “voluntary” nature of standards also adds to the perception that the use of the standard is just an economic choice which is made in the market place. In this way, standards are stealthily becoming weapons for power and blurs power relationships. Because of the perceived technical nature of the standards, the standards governance model (the TPR) falls short of ethics, justice and democracy. In a recent article, Can Fairy Tales Come True Mr Busch writes: 
The TSR is a new and ubiquitous form of governance that, although supported by the state, is fundamentally responsible only to itself and not to any democratically elected legislative body. Hence, while it can do good, it can just as easily do harm, with little or no democratic oversight.
 That standards are power tools is shown by the many social movement that are formed around standards such as the women’s suffrage movement, anti-apartheid movement, labour movement and lately gay rights movement. Many of these movements want rights to be extended to their constituency, instead of being limited to just some group, e.g. the right of marriage to be limited to heterosexual couples.

The privatization of public services requires further standardization as services that before were just provided (say schools and electric utilities)  now have to be purchased in the market place, and therefore made comparable, i.e. standardized. This development transforms all sorts of habitual action into decisions where we are forced to make rational choices. To this can be added the stress of the market place where we are supposed to decide whether we want, for example, fair trade or organic products. The increase in choices by the differentiation in the market as well as by privatization of former public services may not be very democratic according to Busch, all the choices and decisions to be made are time consuming and require skill-”skills that the middle class might have, the upper class can buy, the lower class is rarely able to pursue and the ”underclass” cannot pursue at all.”
“Standards” is a book to read for those professionally engaged in the tripartite regime of standards, certification and accreditation. It will pose some hard questions, and give some ideas for improvements. While the tone is critical, Busch makes no attempt to trash standards as a whole:  "Thus, the challenge is not to eliminate standards, to return to some mythical past during which standards were of trivial importance, Instead [...] to ensure that seemingly benign standards do not lead to gross injustices." Before embarking on making a standard, we should ask the central question: Is standards the most appropriate form of governance in this particular situation? There are laws, regulations, statutes, customs, norms and habit that could perhaps be a better alternative. He makes a list of qualities –standards for standards if you so wish - that he believe standards should have such as subsidiarity; use of precaution; do minimal violence; make actionable standards; encourage participation in standard setting; and review standards frequently. 

Read and enjoy.  

Other reviews of this book: 
Wall street Journal
Galveston daily news 

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