April 21, 2011

Staff Picks: Opportunism

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 4:09 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Opportunism is a bad word in our culture, and an excellent book released earlier this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

To get a popular definition of the word, let's turn to our society's new reference of choice—Wikipedia. The entry on opportunism begins by describing it as "the conscious policy and practice of taking selfish advantage of circumstances, with little regard for principles." Shraga F. Biran strives to change that perception and definition in Opportunism: How to Change the World—One Idea at a Time.

Biran argues that opportunity should be a right, and that "legal recognition of a new form of property could produce the infrastructure for the creative individual." He therefore stresses "that opportunity is itself a form of property." But lets move back for a second to the concept of opportunism:

Even though over the past two centuries opportunism has been stigmatized, it is essentially a positive concept.

Opportunism is an approach to life that seeks to combine the elements of time, place, and initiative so as to dismantle an already existing set of circumstances and reassemble them in a new way, or to combine them with new and hitherto unknown elements. Opportunism is fatalism's opposite: it can generate unexpected results.

Opportunism is realistic and pragmatic. It assumes that a number of possibilities always exist and that the outcome is not determined by the so-called laws of history. Nor does it claim that history repeats itself or that progress is a permanent phenomenon. Opportunism rejects the doctrine of determinism, which sees events as subject to an inevitable process that makes the future predictable and minimizes the human role in history.

Biran injects heavy doses of philosophy and history to build his case, and he uses both to build a pragmatic framework for "a new economic and social era." He believes, for instance, that as we move from an economy based on tangible material assets to a knowledge-based economy, the laws of the market must change as well—that "new ground rules must also enable those responsible for the creation of wealth to share equitably in the fruits of their own labor." And as property rights have always been a bedrock of capitalism, he suggests the new "ground rules" of a knowledge-based economy will have to deal with intellectual property. It is an issue at the heart of the book.

Unfortunately, the battle over intellectual property rights is taking place on the fringes, with precious little common ground being built on the issue. Biran sums up the debate as follows:

Major players with old and new money are attempting to monopolize intellectual property. In most of the world, with the exception of Japan and Germany, the rights to an invention developed in the workplace do not belong to its creator but to his employer. Blocking individual ownership enables old capital to capture new ideas by using patents to transform them into property rights that block others from elaborating on intellectual discoveries. Opposing this system are movements with the battle cry "information wants to be free!"—contemporary Luddites who refuse to accept that ideas can become individual assets but belong to all. Each camp in its own way would stifle the opportunity for creativity and the profitable spread of innovation. The dilemma is that while ideas need to remain freely accessible to everyone, a system must be developed to guarantee rights to the creators if and when those ideas eventually become the generators of wealth, a process that can take decades.
To give you an idea of the book's scope, the paragraph after the one quoted above goes into the Latin roots of the word "opportunity" in an effort to redeem its reputation so it can be placed back on "society's agenda." But Biran is not just trying to redefine the word, he is trying to reconstruct opportunism "as a theory of opportunities" out of which we "can make a more abundant life available to all by negotiating a more equitable ownership of the new intangible property," property created by what Richard Florida has called the "creative class."

The book covers a lot of ground, and introduces us to new concepts like social privatization—creating new property by freeing up undistributed assets currently in the hands of the state (for example giving those who live on public land, including in public housing, ownership of it). He discusses democracy, education, health care, regulation, property rights, copyright and patent law and more, exploring the ideas and history that shaped the modern world and economy. And he uses that scope to address current topics, like the Google settlement with the Author's Guild over its digitization of books and the difficulty in shifting from old concepts of property to new ones.

It's sometimes counter-intuitive, as in the quote above when he labels those trumpeting new technology and the freedom of information as "contemporary Luddites." It's an odd label that he doesn't come back to until 86 pages later.

At first sight, describing as "Luddites" those who call for all ideas to be free of any restriction may seem confusing. After all, the Luddites if the early nineteenth century violently resisted technological change because they feared unemployment, while those who now support the unrestricted dissemination of ideas are ostensibly supporting the technological breakthroughs that enable people everywhere to access new ideas at the click of a button. However, even though on the face of it the call for ideas to be free appears to be progressive, it is in the final analysis an attempt to destroy. In this case their objective in not the destruction of advancing technology but the intellectual property rights of the creative class whose genius lies behind these very same advances.
I'm actually still trying to wrap my head around that one. Luckily, that argument is not central to Opportunism, but an example of one the many entertaining and informative digressions Biran takes us on.

The original edition of this book was published overseas before the economic crisis, but even in that edition he warned that "the capitalist system [has] developed internal contradictions that fundamentally undermined its stability." But Biran sees a chance to remedy those contradictions, and in Opportunism, he lays out a new framework of property and offers a vision for a new capitalism based on real opportunity. As he writes, "In an age when the role of this new property and creativity has grown, the exploitation of opportunities is gradually supplanting the exploitation of human beings."

Biran's book does not offer any of the nuts and bolts you need to construct and maintain your current business. But, if fully realized, the ideas he presents in the book could become the nuts and bolts we use to build a new knowledge economy with, and could possibly change the way we do business entirely.