Vickers’ The Needs of Men

The first paper in Geoffrey Vickers The Undirected Society University of Toronto Press 1959, after the Introduction.

The Needs of Men, 1957


[T]here is a threshold to the rate of change which can be borne with impunity, however beneficial its direction. We cannot afford to make a world in which everyone over thirty is “clueless”.

[W]e must bear in mind the emotional stress of any uncertainty, due to the failure of expectations or the lack of any basis on which to formulate them.


I see development as a process of interaction. I regard a country as the interaction of a people and a land; a society as the interaction of men with men, mediated by their structure of organization and institutions and by their continuing yet ever changing culture; a single individual as the interaction within the organism itself of new experience with the ever growing structure of past experience.

[T]hey see no alternative to expansion except stagnation and decay.

There are three strands in the idea of progress:

  • betterment, which is its object and its criterion;
  • expansion, which is its servant;
  • and balance which is its condition.

[W]hen technology, power and the division of labour seemed to promise indefinite increase in abundance, the emphasis shifted; protest focused on whatever seemed to hinder free enterprise and the accumulation of capital. [W]hen the gap in this formulation had become manifest in maldistribution of wealth, instability of employment and impotence to meet collective needs, the newly dominant threats evoked new, dominant protests.

Each redefining of the unacceptable represents both the assertion of what matters most at the time and an accretion, not necessarily useful, to the criteria which will be used in the next crisis.

Each passionate protest against the past builds into our criteria exaggerations,  ineptitudes, even plain errors, which must be painfully unlearned later. … [M]any of our dominant valuations today are dangerous relics of responses to situations which have passed away.

[T]he controls of men and societies, like those of machines, are prone to a disorder known as “hunting”.

An earlier industrial age, obsessed by the habits of thinking of men functionally as producers, consumers, voters and what not, often forgot to think of them as human beings. Blinded by the success of the division of labour, they forgot that men and women must at all costs be kept whole.

Again, an earlier … age, by its oversimplified ideas about the harmony of enlightened self-interests, masked what is perhaps the major problem of large-scale industrial democracy: the problem of generating enough mutual sensitivity to achieve those common endeavours for the common good, ever  larger in their scale of space and time, without which such societies cannot survive.

Out task … is to observe and reflect on what is currently happening with eyes as clear and minds as open as we can make them; and thus to realize sooner than we otherwise would the new adaptations and revaluations which the developing situation will next call for, the conditions under which we may hope to control it and the knowledge we shall need to control it aright.


While this is ostensibly about industrialization, it has relevance to a wider range of complex dynamic situations, including other aspects of ‘progress’ such as financialisation and globalisation. The key features are:

  • People can only cope with limited changes.
  • Failure to understand or cope is stressful.
  • Changing situations call for a different focus on betterment, enlargement and balance.
  • People tend to keep on applying old ‘lesson learnt’ even when the situation has changed.
  • Over-reliance on ‘enlightened self-interest tends to yield maldistribution.

One way to avoid psychological stress is to avoid ‘seeing’ the complexities and uncertainties, but this will not be effective unless one is in a dominant position. Vickers does not enlarge on the type of maldistribution, but gives the impression that everyone is worse off, as when the very wealthy worry about their security.


The Criteria of Well-being,

Is Adaptability Enough?,

The Predicament of the Industrial Society,

The Round Table in Retrospect and my overall comments.

Dave Marsay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: