The New State

Robert Cunningham (Department of Political Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Cunningham, R. (2000), "The New State", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 13 No. 1, pp. 89-95.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Mary Parker Follett here views the USA and the world during the closing days of World War I. She portrays America and the rest of the world on the verge of being transformed bottom‐up into egalitarian democracies, upon a foundation of neighborhood action groups emanating from the USA. The positive indicators she saw of US political health were industrial democracy (some early enlightened behavior by corporate executives), the women’s movement, direct government, and the presence of social programs in party platforms (although generally she scoffed at party platforms as useless). Her expectations reflect an optimistic attitude: increasing effectiveness of neighborhood groups (which she expected to displace political parties), cooperation between corporations and big labor, and the spread internationally of democracy (a spiritual, creative force; not based on counting or numbers), accompanied by a sense of identification with a global purpose and the decline of nationalism.

As we know, her predictions and prophecies did not materialize. Neighborhood organizations did not replace political parties. Citizens of western democracies rejected Wilson’s world vision and turned to their individualistic, non‐political pursuits, leaving the field of politics to economic interests – big capital and big labor, who edged toward mutual suspicion rather than trust. The communists took over Russia. Most parts of Asia and Africa remained in poverty or under colonial rule. Germans and Italians turned nationalistic and lost their democratic institutions in the 1930s. Despite the unfulfilled predictions, Follett’s theories of creative group activity – celebrating and seeking diversity, encouraging the clash of viewpoints in decision making, and her image of leadership emerging from the situational context – still ring true, and emerge into favor 70 years later, after the OB field has shed its romance with human relations and individualism.

Follett championed the neighborhood as the incubator of democracy, where individuals learn to participate, to appreciate differences, to discuss alternative proposals for policy in the public interest, and, in this process, to share in making public policy. Other loyalties (state, nation, and world) add to, but do not subvert, one’s neighborhood loyalty. Follett worked to mobilize neighborhood groups, socializing participants into participation with and respect for those who were unlike themselves. The excitement of this creative experience brings a joy to participants unmatched by the high moments present in work or play, and Follett’s enthusiasm over this peak group experience is reminiscent of Bill Russell’s description (recounted in Quinn, 1988) of the emotional highs from team experiences of the Boston Celtics, a famous professional basketball team in the USA.

Her thesis matches the predominant contemporary views of organizational behavior practitioners and theorists. A sense of community is important for one’s spirit and, when individuals fail to participate, both individual and group lose. Individuals must not compromise their ideas, but diligently articulate their thoughts, blending them with the challenges of others to create the community good. This creative enterprise of listening and energetically contributing toward a furtherance of the community good is an activity that fulfills the spirit, an accomplishment of which neither work nor play is capable.

Her insight that “war is easy” and “resolving differences through discussion is hard” is an important message that perhaps she herself overlooks in her prediction that the era of nationalism is over, and that we are entering the phase of internationalism, where our larger geographical loyalties are superseded by an acceptance of equality for groups worldwide. Internationalism is an added loyalty, not a change. Her emphasis on groups, and the personal transformation that emerges from participating in a worthwhile group enterprise, is on target. Although she claims to be a pragmatist, her failure to appreciate the indifference to the political enterprise by citizens who do not see a direct personal stake in their commitment of personal resources to politics, is a considerable error. Money speaks more loudly now, in politics at every level, than was the case in 1918. Those who have, get substantive benefits; those who do not have, get only symbolic assurances. Murray Edelman’s (1964) Symbolic Uses of Politics remains the primer on this subject.

Follett sees every topic as a variable‐sum game in which groups, once they wrestle with an issue, will reason with and accommodate the interests of other groups so that all win. This theoretical rationale undergirds Fisher and Ury’s (1968) Getting to Yes, perhaps the all‐time bestseller on bargaining and negotiation. Unfortunately, not all issues are variable sum. In dividing responsibilities, some levels of government will win, and others will lose. As long as resources are fixed, and must be divided, that division is frequently better conceptualized as zero‐sum; and often self‐interest triumphs over the interest of a larger, politically weak, collective. Follett’s psychology regarding individuals in diverse groups seems on target; her understanding of other aspects of individual and group behavior falls short. It is a lofty anticipation, but history has not yet vindicated her interpretation.

Her discussion about how organizations should be structured and operated – the emphasis on goals and means emerging from egalitarian active participation – presages the dominant OB writing of the past 20 years, and shows the inadequacies of the human relations and rational choice assumptions of individual behavior prominent in the 1930s through the 1970s. Follett’s writings appear to have been overlooked by her contemporaries, scholars and activists of the two succeeding generations.

She writes with uncompromising conviction in both her analysis and prescription. Her primary message of policy‐making by neighborhood cell groups, which teach democracy, build citizenship, and create international identification, is reinforced with a “theme and variations” style of writing. The central theme of political salvation via strong, active neighborhood groups is visible in each chapter. Her unqualified statements leave us with no uncertainty as to her views.

By reading Follett with the hindsight of 80 years experience, we can measure our progress, in the case of education; or where we seem to have lost our way, as in criminal justice. Our notions of “cost‐effective” public services may be shortsighted in the definition of “cost”, and today we fail to appreciate the intrinsic value of broad‐band citizen involvement in public policy. As citizens we “do for others” (habitat for humanity, meals on wheels), and participate in herd activities when a developer wants to place a strip mall or communications tower in our neighborhood, but we do not “do with” by risking sharing our policy ideas with neighbors. It is only in the risking, participating personally and fully in a challenging democratic activity, that we fulfill ourselves as persons – and as citizens. Thomas Jefferson saw this from a viewpoint of political stability, Hannah Arendt from the perspective of political philosophy, and Follett from the individual, personal perspective. It is a message which the comfortable do not appreciate.

I would suggest reading the front matter by Barber, Mansbridge and Mattson after completing the book. While these scholars summarize accurately, their reviewing of the cold facts and opinions expressed in the text misses Follett’s passion and intensity. Read her words, for one learns of her through her writing. You will not miss the message. If you wish to taste rather than make a meal of the book, the following chapters convey her flavor as well as the key arguments: Introduction, 1, 2, 11, 13, 22, 23, 34 and 35.


Edelman, M. (1964), The Symbolic Uses of Politics, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL.

Fisher, R. and Ury, W. (1968), Getting to Yes, Penguin, New York, NY.

Quinn, R. (1988), Beyond Rational Management, Jossey‐Bass, San Francisco, CA.

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