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Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics

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The author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities looks at business fraud and criminal enterprise, overextended government farm subsidies and zealous transit police, to show what happens when the moral systems of commerce collide with those of politics.


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The author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities looks at business fraud and criminal enterprise, overextended government farm subsidies and zealous transit police, to show what happens when the moral systems of commerce collide with those of politics.

30 review for Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics

  1. 4 out of 5

    Seth Galbraith

    This book is fantastic but everyone forgets to read the sequel, The Nature of Economies. Don't be like them. Read The Nature of Economies too. This book is fantastic but everyone forgets to read the sequel, The Nature of Economies. Don't be like them. Read The Nature of Economies too.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael Kerr

    In this slim and readable volume, Jacobs articulates the two moral systems humans have evolved over the centuries: that of traders (commerce), and that of guardians (government). Once stated, they seem so obvious, but failure to recognize the differences results in serious chaos. This book was a big help to me when I moved from the private sector to the public; suddenly, the foreign behaviours and attitudes I was encountering made sense. As topical today as it was in the 1990s, this book is a mu In this slim and readable volume, Jacobs articulates the two moral systems humans have evolved over the centuries: that of traders (commerce), and that of guardians (government). Once stated, they seem so obvious, but failure to recognize the differences results in serious chaos. This book was a big help to me when I moved from the private sector to the public; suddenly, the foreign behaviours and attitudes I was encountering made sense. As topical today as it was in the 1990s, this book is a must for anyone curious about the evolution and sustainability of human society.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Guy

    This is a profoundly important book! Jacob's observation that a failure to understand that there is a difference in moral character required between those who are guardians of a society and those who are its entrepreneurs is important and pertinent. She argues that a society will fail if it allows itself to relax the distinction and have the role of the guardians taken over by the entrepreneurs, because their lure for the lucre leads easily to corruption. She suggests that the guardian role tend This is a profoundly important book! Jacob's observation that a failure to understand that there is a difference in moral character required between those who are guardians of a society and those who are its entrepreneurs is important and pertinent. She argues that a society will fail if it allows itself to relax the distinction and have the role of the guardians taken over by the entrepreneurs, because their lure for the lucre leads easily to corruption. She suggests that the guardian role tends to be resistant to change, and if allowed to take over that part of the society that requires creativity and change, the society will stagnate. Each have their place, for stability is required for the society to live, but creativity is required if the society doesn't want to fall into decrepitude. Brilliant book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    laura

    if you're a hard-nosed literary critic it's going to be really hard for you to get past the central conceit of this sociology book-- it's written as a dialogue, with characters and a bare minimum of plot-- and while it's also written by one of the greatest urbanists and essayists to ever walk the planet, it was not written by one of the greatest novelists. i wish that jane jacobs had couched these ideas in a book of essays in her own voice. BUT: the ideas are pretty neat. if you're interested in if you're a hard-nosed literary critic it's going to be really hard for you to get past the central conceit of this sociology book-- it's written as a dialogue, with characters and a bare minimum of plot-- and while it's also written by one of the greatest urbanists and essayists to ever walk the planet, it was not written by one of the greatest novelists. i wish that jane jacobs had couched these ideas in a book of essays in her own voice. BUT: the ideas are pretty neat. if you're interested in some solid and original spectulation on the forces that have shaped the recent (cultural) evolution of our species-- or the forces currently at work in human societies with a nod to their evolutionary history, pick up a copy. it's short and it's useful.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Doug

    Thought provoking insight into the unwritten rules we use (or should use) to do our business and governing.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Jacobs uses character dialogue to outline her belief around two distinct work paths within society; take and trade. Taking is related to guardianship, and trading to commerce and guardianship. She makes clear the characteristics of both sets of interests, explaining why each is valuable and desirable. It is a compelling consideration for how we can relate to the moral 'hazards' loose in the world today, and how we can think about designing systems that will allow us to live as loving, thriving c Jacobs uses character dialogue to outline her belief around two distinct work paths within society; take and trade. Taking is related to guardianship, and trading to commerce and guardianship. She makes clear the characteristics of both sets of interests, explaining why each is valuable and desirable. It is a compelling consideration for how we can relate to the moral 'hazards' loose in the world today, and how we can think about designing systems that will allow us to live as loving, thriving communities of people. Mostly I'm struck by the value of both taking and trading, how each pursuit has its own distinct interests and morals, and that any potential trouble arrises when a guardian takes on commerce, or commerce takes on guardianship. Jacobs makes the case that in the long run, both are likely to happen, and it is either through caste systems (which will ultimately crumble due to changes in environment) or self-observation (subject to shirking) that the distinction in pursuits can be maintained. I found this book to have remarkable insights, using anecdotes both small and large, recent and historical, to support her case. Sighting broad ranging incidents from Moses addressing the Jews freed from Egypt to the savings and loans scandal to feudal lords in Europe, it seems that we are bound to repeat these moral hazards should we lose sight of the nature of our occupation and the behaviours appropriate to our pursuits.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    This book should be required reading in every high school in America. The examples are somewhat dated, but the philosophies and concepts portrayed are timeless. I read the book for a second time, twelve years after it was published, and it all still holds water. Not many books on business have that kind of longevity. The tale is told through the dialog of members of a dinner club. Basically, there are two ways to survive – you either barter or steal. Over time, these two survival strategies evol This book should be required reading in every high school in America. The examples are somewhat dated, but the philosophies and concepts portrayed are timeless. I read the book for a second time, twelve years after it was published, and it all still holds water. Not many books on business have that kind of longevity. The tale is told through the dialog of members of a dinner club. Basically, there are two ways to survive – you either barter or steal. Over time, these two survival strategies evolved into what she calls, “The Commercial Moral Syndrome,” the behaviors necessary to run a commercial enterprise and the “Guardian Moral Syndrome,” the behaviors necessary for a functioning government. She warns of what happens when you cross pollinate the two syndromes and end up with a monstrous hybrid. She also outlines how we, citizens of a free country, must have the flexibility to move from one mind caste to the other to keep the society at large functioning.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Andrea McDowell

    I was really looking forward to this as my first Jane Jacobs book, but I was disappointed. I found the faux-Socratic dialogue jarring and not believable, and the system they put together was at least lacking one element: survival-by-community. Our instincts for fostering social relationships would not have evolved if they did not enhance our survival, and there are too many groups in society who depend utterly on generosity to "make a living" (children, the elderly, some disabled, etc.). Basical I was really looking forward to this as my first Jane Jacobs book, but I was disappointed. I found the faux-Socratic dialogue jarring and not believable, and the system they put together was at least lacking one element: survival-by-community. Our instincts for fostering social relationships would not have evolved if they did not enhance our survival, and there are too many groups in society who depend utterly on generosity to "make a living" (children, the elderly, some disabled, etc.). Basically what they contribute is being loved and loveable, and this isn't accounted for anywhere in her theory.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Nolan Gray

    Another wonderful book from Jane Jacobs. Jacob's returns to philosophy's roots for a dialogue concerning ethics and the relationship between the individual and society. At first, I was worried about this style; I tend to prefer my philosophy straight, no narratives or such. However, I ended up loving this as much as the Platonic dialogues, and I daresay her insights are nearly as profound. Definitely worth the read. Side note: I chose to read this while visiting Prague. Happy to have such a fant Another wonderful book from Jane Jacobs. Jacob's returns to philosophy's roots for a dialogue concerning ethics and the relationship between the individual and society. At first, I was worried about this style; I tend to prefer my philosophy straight, no narratives or such. However, I ended up loving this as much as the Platonic dialogues, and I daresay her insights are nearly as profound. Definitely worth the read. Side note: I chose to read this while visiting Prague. Happy to have such a fantastic book associated with such a beautiful city.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Matthew

    Highly recommended examination of the morality of earning a living. Turns out there are two ways, raiding and trading (to use terms Jacobs explicity rejects), both of which have their place in a balanced society as a check on the cancerous growth of the other. Very insightful. This book can change your take on work and the economy.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alison

    I'll definitely be reading more Jane Jacobs. She was clearly a very insightful cultural critic. This book presents some useful tools for looking at systems of morality, but the discussion loses traction thanks to its format as a fictionalized dialogue. I'll definitely be reading more Jane Jacobs. She was clearly a very insightful cultural critic. This book presents some useful tools for looking at systems of morality, but the discussion loses traction thanks to its format as a fictionalized dialogue.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Erin

    I read this book for am Ethics class on Jane Jacobs and I absolutely loved it. It is completely different from what I have ever read and it was just an amazingly well thought out way of how our society works and how we teach ourselves to ruin it... but yet, how to fix it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    James

    Compares the values of commerce (trade, transparent, open, innovative) with politics (war, secret, closed, loyal). One works in realm of police, the other in trade. Read on Long Wharf.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Ken Deshaies

    Awesome discussion about the need for balance between government (the guardians) and commerce. Well researched and documented, conveyed in conversational style. I loved it.

  15. 5 out of 5

    José Antonio Lopez

    Jane Jacobs is better know by her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities but Systems of Survival is her masterpiece on morality. Different from her previous work Systems of Survival is written as a dialogue which is interesting in itself. Each character represent a different point of view and together they develop, through a series of socratic dialogues and research, a moral system that answers the initial quest of a systemic thinking about morality in practical working life. Jacobs ca Jane Jacobs is better know by her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities but Systems of Survival is her masterpiece on morality. Different from her previous work Systems of Survival is written as a dialogue which is interesting in itself. Each character represent a different point of view and together they develop, through a series of socratic dialogues and research, a moral system that answers the initial quest of a systemic thinking about morality in practical working life. Jacobs calls these frameworks syndrome not as a type of illness but "it comes from the Greek, meaning 'things that run together'. We customarily use it to mean a group of symptoms that characterize a given condition." In other words these systems represent a whole set of precepts to address how people solve their living problems. "My hypothesis is that we have two contradictory ways of getting a living; therefore we have two contradictory moral syndromes, one to suit each way and its derivatives." "I've come to think of the two moral syndromes as survival systems, worked out by long experience of with trading, on the one hand, and taking on the other" These syndromes are the Guardian and the Commercial Moral Precepts of the Guardian Syndrome Shun trading Exert prowess Be obedient and disciplined Adhere to tradition Respect hierarchy Be loyal Take vengeance Deceive for the sake of the task Make rich use of leisure Be ostentatious Dispense largesse Be exclusive Show fortitude Be fatalistic Treasure honor Moral Precepts of the Commercial Syndrome Shun force Compete Be efficient Be open to inventiveness and novelty Use initiative and enterprise Come to voluntary agreements Respect contracts Dissent for the sake of the task Be industrious Be thrifty Invest for productive purposes Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens Promote comfort and convenience Be optimistic Be honest For Jacobs both systems or syndromes are natural and needed. However they can be corrupted by crossing the boundaries that separate them. Through a historic analysis the characters uncover these two syndromes, how the corruption made them fail and how has societies kept them separated. Historically, to keep the two syndromes confined and moral integrity, we either use a cast regime or a rational moral flexibility. The group lean for an imperfect moral flexibility over the cast system. "If it is true we're the only creatures with two fundamentally different ways of getting a living, it follows that to be as fully human as we can be, we should all be capable of using our two syndromes well. They belong to all of us because we are human, no other reason." "Every normal person the world over is inherently capable of both trading and taking..... But knowing when it's appropriate to use the one or the other approach, trading or taking, and how to do it properly - those things are culturally learned, mostly by imitation and practice." Jane Jacobs' conclusions of Systems of Survival is that "the guardian-commercial symbiosis that combats force, fraud, and unconscionable greed in commerce life - and simultaneously impels guardians to respect private plans, private property, and personal rights. ... Perhaps we have a useful definition of civilization: reasonably workable guardian-commercial symbiosis"

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rob Mills

    A short book, written as a dialogue between a group of friends of differing backgrounds. The question finds root in Plato's ideal republic and his division of responsibility. Jane Jacobs appoints a lead character in Kate who proposes that there are two moral syndromes (guardian/government vs commerce) inherent in our society. Each syndrome is made up of various inter related components and the characters debate the origin, intent, and modern representations of said components. The conclusion see A short book, written as a dialogue between a group of friends of differing backgrounds. The question finds root in Plato's ideal republic and his division of responsibility. Jane Jacobs appoints a lead character in Kate who proposes that there are two moral syndromes (guardian/government vs commerce) inherent in our society. Each syndrome is made up of various inter related components and the characters debate the origin, intent, and modern representations of said components. The conclusion seems to be that each syndrome corrupts the other but their comingling is a requirement for society to function, so we better make the best of it! There's a random add in from a character at the end of the book that probably deserves a novel on its own about how society is the bedrock of families vs the other way around. Anyway, very interesting stuff that I never would have thought of but seems quite reasonable as presented in this novel. I remember reading Plato's Republic and thinking his strick seperation of duties seemed like a weird/dumb/over-my-head little segment but Jane's 200 page book explains it all wonderfully

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    [In my ratings 2 means quite OK and 3 means good.] For the sake of both, yes, let us return to separation of commerce and government. Beyond that, this is a book for Libertarians or anyone who thinks that government, however necessary, is evil. I don't. I am proud to have spent a career as a bureaucrat. I find this book offensive and destructive as guidance, at best. It is not mine to judge my own actions, but when I think about coworkers they do NOT tend to meet the book's stereotypes. Deceit in [In my ratings 2 means quite OK and 3 means good.] For the sake of both, yes, let us return to separation of commerce and government. Beyond that, this is a book for Libertarians or anyone who thinks that government, however necessary, is evil. I don't. I am proud to have spent a career as a bureaucrat. I find this book offensive and destructive as guidance, at best. It is not mine to judge my own actions, but when I think about coworkers they do NOT tend to meet the book's stereotypes. Deceit in the course of executing one's duties is consistently condemned, a confidence I lack in many corporations' public interactions. Earning adequate but never grand salaries (I am not including some elected officials), they have chosen a modest income that does not appeal to those who are ostentatious or drawn to largesse. There are a great many laws and regulations aimed at stopping what small degree of vengeance human nature may bring to some situations. Etc.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jore

    I give this book a 2 out of 5, even though its a great book my attention was total of. I did not get the book but the part in which I did read with potential attention I did enjoy, This book is the kind of book where you finish reading and you learned something. This book in my perspective is trying to teach us that our world is filled with lies, diminishing people and etc. It teaches us that government political things or people lie, and we should be careful with what we believe. This book is r I give this book a 2 out of 5, even though its a great book my attention was total of. I did not get the book but the part in which I did read with potential attention I did enjoy, This book is the kind of book where you finish reading and you learned something. This book in my perspective is trying to teach us that our world is filled with lies, diminishing people and etc. It teaches us that government political things or people lie, and we should be careful with what we believe. This book is related to ALL of OUR hero’s journey because basically, a world without lies does not exist. And at one point someone or something is going to lie or be a lie to us. I think that as a reader reading this book changed my perspective of the government, I would recommend this book if you are someone who is interested in political things, etc.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Nick de Vera

    I first heard of this book from Venkatesh Rao, subconsciously I'd been building it up in my head for years. The actual text is a letdown, and the dialog format is a distracting affectation. The Wikipedia page on Systems of Survival gives a perfectly adequate encapsulation of the guardian and commerce syndromes Still fun to think about. Reminded me of Trevanian's Shibumi. The protagonist assassin Nicholai Hel who compares himself to a paladin, over and over we hear about the centuries of breeding I first heard of this book from Venkatesh Rao, subconsciously I'd been building it up in my head for years. The actual text is a letdown, and the dialog format is a distracting affectation. The Wikipedia page on Systems of Survival gives a perfectly adequate encapsulation of the guardian and commerce syndromes Still fun to think about. Reminded me of Trevanian's Shibumi. The protagonist assassin Nicholai Hel who compares himself to a paladin, over and over we hear about the centuries of breeding that went into his noble ancestry, and over and over, his sneering disdain for commerce and traders.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Alex

    I refer to this book constantly. If you ant to understand the difference between private and public sector organizations, who they serve and why, and why they should never try and behave like the other, this is the only book you need. a caveat: This book is written in the construct of Platonic Dialogue, and I HATED it. Once the characters get into their discussions however, it's what they say is that is important and well worth any frustration you may have with the structure. I refer to this book constantly. If you ant to understand the difference between private and public sector organizations, who they serve and why, and why they should never try and behave like the other, this is the only book you need. a caveat: This book is written in the construct of Platonic Dialogue, and I HATED it. Once the characters get into their discussions however, it's what they say is that is important and well worth any frustration you may have with the structure.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Povilas Poderskis

    This is something that should be deeply installed in schools's curriculum. And most probably a little shadowed by JJ other great works. This is something that should be deeply installed in schools's curriculum. And most probably a little shadowed by JJ other great works.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Allisonperkel

    Why did she write this as a series of dialogs?

  23. 5 out of 5

    richard.bjorklundgmail.com

    Insight into two different ethical systems Insight into two different ethical systems and when each is appropriate and inappropriate. Also examines the problem of admixture between them. This explains much of what both sides of the political divide like and dislike about our political leaders, past and present.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Xiao Wen Xu

    Jane Jacobs’ acclaimed book, Systems of Survival, argues that all work fits into two fundamental moral systems that Jacobs identifies as the commercial and guardian syndromes which provide direction for conducting human life. Canadian-American author and activist Jacobs, born in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, moved with her sister to New York City in 1935. There, Jacobs attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies for two years, after which she became a writer for the Office of War Jane Jacobs’ acclaimed book, Systems of Survival, argues that all work fits into two fundamental moral systems that Jacobs identifies as the commercial and guardian syndromes which provide direction for conducting human life. Canadian-American author and activist Jacobs, born in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, moved with her sister to New York City in 1935. There, Jacobs attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies for two years, after which she became a writer for the Office of War Information and then a reporter for Amerika. The book, first published in 1992, provides key insights into the two distinct ethical syndromes through didactic conversations between various characters as they explore these topics. The book begins with Jacobs introducing Armbruster, the host, and his four guests, each with vastly different backgrounds, as they, through alternating and varying perspectives, discuss moral honesty. One of Armbruster’s guests, Ben is an author and an advocate of recycling. Fictional character Ben shares his experience with the real Canadian protest group PPOWW, Preserve and Protect Our Wilderness Watershed, where he faced a moral dilemma and lied to the television people about the degree of harm to the forest in order to receive the media exposure needed to increase awareness of the site (p.12-18). Ben chose to lie to attract attention and achieve a moral result, which was exposure and further support for their cause. He and the other characters discuss the ethics of perception and honesty. Furthermore, Jacobs dictates the two syndromes: commercial and guardian. The commercial moral syndrome, made up of fifteen precepts, principles, supply people’s physical needs through trade and production (p.30). The guardian moral syndrome, also made up of fifteen precepts, manages territories, like “police, soldiers, government policymakers and rulers” (p.30). Ultimately, the commercial syndrome supports the guardian syndrome. Jacobs later outlines each of the total 30 percepts with examples and historic philosophical references, such as Socrates and Lao-Tzu. Jacobs concludes the book by explaining the advantage of living through two fundamentally different ways of work. She indicates that people have the capacity and capability to use the two syndromes to advance the human collective. For example, she writes, “ ‘Mutual support of morally contradictory trading and taking; it tames both activities and their derivatives. So perhaps we have a useful definition of civilization: reasonably workable guardian-commercial symbiosis.’” (p.214) The essence of commercial and guardian syndrome symbiosis—the advantageous close interactions between these activities—is the support between them. I would recommend this book to readers interested in understanding the morality of work. Witty and engaging dialogues set forth between the five characters elucidate the moral underpinnings of the commercial and guardian syndromes. Overall, through these conversations, the characters, along with the reader, discover and explore ways in which the two syndromes can guide human life.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Hannele Kormano

    The dialogue-style of this book comes off a little bit odd at first, but I appreciate it from the perspective of exploring ideas and theories rather than decreeing them from on high. I disagreed with some of the examples used, particularly in a few places where it placed some behaviour in one syndrome or another. But also, I think that's really the point -- this is a book to contemplate, and it's designed to let you build your own thoughts on top of it (in particular, it was really interesting r The dialogue-style of this book comes off a little bit odd at first, but I appreciate it from the perspective of exploring ideas and theories rather than decreeing them from on high. I disagreed with some of the examples used, particularly in a few places where it placed some behaviour in one syndrome or another. But also, I think that's really the point -- this is a book to contemplate, and it's designed to let you build your own thoughts on top of it (in particular, it was really interesting reading Debt: the First 5000 Years at the same time). I've found the framework of the two syndromes really useful to contemplate, honour-bound warrior vs cooperative merchant, particularly when arguing with my hyper libertarian cousin. Whether or not the two syndromes are perfectly consistent with all human behaviour, that's to be debated. But the key conclusion that you do need both syndromes to run a successful society, the corollary that the two syndromes need to be balanced, rings true.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Lance Cahill

    disappointing. A novelization (poor one at that) of Plato's Republic disappointing. A novelization (poor one at that) of Plato's Republic

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jolie Lemoine

    Wow. Moral Obligations are created by whom?

  28. 5 out of 5

    Denise Pinto

  29. 5 out of 5

    Justine Marcus

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jon Hegg

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