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Organisations / Permanently Moved

The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum | 2119

S04E19

This phrase is powerful anti-worker propaganda that has dominated the public imagination for a century. If we are going to get DAOs and more Coops etc we must push past 100 years of metaphor.

Full show notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2021/05/15/301-2119-the-inmates-have-taken-over-the-asylum/

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Permanently moved is a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written and recorded by @thejaymo

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The Inmates Have Taken Over the Asylum

How many times in your life have you heard a variation on the phrase the inmates have taken over the asylum?

The Farlex Dictionary of Idioms defines the phrase as follows:

The people least capable of running a group or organization are now in charge.

Said especially when the result is total chaos or calamity.

It then gives the following two examples: 

With the primary schools giving their young students complete control over the curriculum, it seems as though the inmates have taken over the asylum.

After the recent election, a new wave of political extremists have taken power in Congress. It looks like the inmates have taken over the asylum.

It’s interesting that the phrase is used disparagingly after a change: “The people least capable of running a group or organization are now in charge.” 

The thing is, organisations are controlled by people who are the least capable of running an organisation all the damn time.

We’ve known about The Peter Principle since the publication of the book with the same name in 1969. 

The observation that people in a hierarchy tend to “rise to their level of incompetence”. 

If you have worked in any large organisation …  ever.

You’ll know that there are a lot of formally competent people who have been promoted into roles that they aren’t equipped for. This is a symptom of hierarchical business rules that imply that the only way to get a pay rise is to become a manager. Even if the role doesn’t suit them personally or emotionally.

We should also mention Venkat Rao’s now classic Gervais Principle from 2009. 

It begins with the cartoonist MacLeod’s nature of the firm. Picture a Pyramid that represents a firm’s hierarchy made up of three levels.

‘Sociopaths at the top, the Clueless in middle management and ‘losers’ at the bottom.  

The Gervais Principle is the weaponization of the Peter Principle. Venkat gives the following definition:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

The Gervais Principle – Venkatesh Rao

The idea is that the sociopaths are corporate vampires. They strip an organisation of value and move on. Leaving the clueless to run the whole show until the whole thing collapses under its bureaucratic ineptitude.

Is this an inmates taking over the asylum situation? Maybe it’s just corporate capitalism. 

For me the most interesting part of the phrase is the embedded logic of the intuition. 

We talked about institutions and asylums back in Episode 19-32 on Temporary Total Institutions. 

But as a reminder:

Institutions are made up of rules and social norms which shape the behaviour of the people working on an activity within them.

Temporary Total Institutions

So the phrase the lunatics have taken over the asylum implies that the people who should be subject to institutional rules and social norms are now the ones making and shaping them.

When rephrased this way what’s the first organisational form that comes to mind?
That’s right, worker cooperatives. And is related to the origin of the phrase. 

In 1918 Charlie Chaplin could not get his parent company First National Pictures to increase his production budget. He was being strong-armed by Hollywood’s studio system monopoly. Subject to mafia like tactics attempting to lock him and other stars into unfair five year contracts.

So mega star actress Mary Pickford, Chaplin, actor Douglas Fairbanks, and film director D. W. Griffith incorporated United Artists in 1919.

 UA was a worker owned production company premised on the idea that artists should control their own interests. Rather than being dependent upon commercial studios. United Artists was also the first production house to respect the rights of workers and recognize  industry unions.

Of course the existing Hollywood studio system was very unhappy about this development. The 1986 book ‘A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture by Terry Ramsay tells us what happened next. 

Richard Rowland, then head of Metro Pictures Corporation (…) received the interesting tidings from Arthur James, press and intelligence agent of Metro. Rowland meditated on the significance of the new move for almost a full second.

“So,” he remarked, “the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”

A Million and One Nights: A History of the Motion Picture – Terry Ramsay

It is the creation of this studio that would have J. Edgar Hoover describing Chapin as an “Hollywood parlour Bolshevik” in the 1950’s.

We should then recast the phase the inmates have taken over the asylum in our minds as powerful anti worker propaganda that has come to dominate the public imagination for a century.

Indeed if you can remember the ‘before times’. In 2018 The Labour Party proposed that workers should make up one third of company board members in UK firms.

A quick search reveals comments on articles at the time that all read as a variations of “The inmates taking over the asylum. No thanks”. 

The phrase is so embedded in our culture that it has become an impediment to any form of institutional change – Anywhere in our society.

I am ultimately a prison abolitionist. But in the meantime I support any prison reform that involves prisoner consent that literally puts inmates in control.

Anyways, in this post pandemic moment there is blossoming worker cooperative scene in the uk. People doing the work.

In addition, DAOs built on Web3 are opening up a new and exciting design space. We have an opportunity to reimagine and implement new forms of organisation. Peer-to-peer mutualism is possible as are new innovative forms of networked coordination and cooperation

All of these developments will be pushing against 100 years of anti worker metaphor.

In the spirit of visionary mode, perhaps this is a good time to develop some pithy new lines of our own.


The script above is the original script. It may differ from what ended up in the audio due to time constraints and editing.

About Author

Jay Springett is a Solarpunk, and Strategist for hybrid environments. His concerns are with culture, humans and technology and the environment. He is currently writing his first public book: Land as Platform.

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