‚Knights or Knaves?‘ – Das Original

‚Knight‘ auf einer Spielkarte, ca. 1450. Gemeinfrei

von Maximiliane Berger.

Der britische Historiker John Sabapathy untersucht Officers and Accountability, ein Thema mit Relevanz für die Gegenwart. Im Interview spricht er über seine Erfahrungen mit dem Gegenstand – und den Zusammenhang mit dem Entscheiden.

Im Zentrum der englischsprachigen Debatte über die Organisation der öffentlichen Dienste stehen zwei Metaphern aus dem Mittelalter. Mit ökonomisch motiviertem Nachdenken über die Größe des Wohlfahrtsstaates und die Effizienz der öffentlichen Dienste rückten seit den 1970er Jahren auch die Amtsträger in den Blick. Sollte man Menschen, die mit hoheitlichen Aufgaben betraut sind, als selbstlose Staatsdiener ansehen – eben als ‚knights‘? Oder handeln sie vielmehr ebenso egoistisch wie alle anderen Individuen in der Ökonomie, sind ‚knaves‘, und folgen einer ‚bureaucrat’s maximand‘, die auf Kosten der Allgemeinheit den Staatsapparat aufbläht?[1]Knights‘ könnte man einfach Vertrauen entgegenbringen. Muss man jedoch auch mit ‚knaves‘ rechnen, stellt sich die Frage nach der Kontrolle der Amtsträger. Accountability heißt das Schlagwort, das einen rasanten und noch immer nicht abflauenden Aufstieg erfuhr.

Der britische Historiker John Sabapathy (UCL) hat in einem Buch über mittelalterliche Amtsträger die ursprünglichen ‚knights‘ und ‚knaves‘ unter die Lupe genommen. Officers and Accountability in Medieval England 1170-1300 wurde 2015 mit dem Whitfield Prize der Royal Historical Society ausgezeichnet. Es untersucht Theorie und Praxis mittelalterlicher Rechenschaftslegung in Gutsverwaltung, Justiz, Kirche und Universität. Auch heute noch wohlbekannte Problem treten dabei zutage: Eine der bleibenden Schwierigkeiten ist der nötige Entscheidungsspielraum der Amtsträger. Rechenschaftslegung ist bei be- und daher nach-rechenbaren Handlungen praktikabel und wahrscheinlich unumstritten. Wie aber verhält es sich mit dem Ermessensspielraum, der – kontingente, i.e. nicht lückenlos begründbare – Entscheidungen erfordert?

Im Interview spricht John Sabapathy darüber, wie sein Werdegang ihn zum Thema Accountability führte, über den (entscheidungs-)theoretischen Hintergrund seiner Forschungen, und über das alltägliche Entscheiden.

How did you come to investigate medieval accountabilities?

I had thought about doing a doctorate immediately after my BA, but didn’t want to be someone who had ‘only’ ever done academic work. So I went and worked briefly for two MPs in parliament, although I had no especial parliamentary ambitions. I then spent much longer working in a series of left/green/alternative ‘think tanks’. This was the decade or so after the 1997 election of a Labour government when there was a lot of energy and thought going into sustainable development and so-called corporate citizenship. The groups I worked for – the New Economics Foundation, and a splinter-organization, the Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility (mercifully shortened to AccountAbility) – were very interesting protagonists in these areas at the time. I worked longest at the latter where we were trying to think about practical ways of getting companies to internalize, monetize, and validate sustainable development and various forms of social responsibility. It was extremely interesting and stimulating work, although – I have come to think – not clear enough about how power actually works in complex organizations and markets today. In any case I increasingly found myself spending all my spare time reading medieval history and wanting to return to history academically. So I read all of Augustine’s City of God and wrote an essay on it to test whether I was kidding myself or not, decided I wasn’t, and applied to do an MA in London, and left my job. I enjoyed that enormously and so carried on. The focus on accountability followed on from thinking about that ‘modern’ phenomena within a medieval context where I found many expressions of it. It started by looking at accountability in medieval colleges and hospitals and then I extended it from there to look at a range of organizational forms and practical techniques. As well as the ‘subject’ of accountability, I think my earlier professional work had given me some – mostly untheorized – understanding of the importance of the practical means through which accountability is implemented within institutions. My concern with thought and practice I think was something that had been stimulated by this non-academic life; I’m not sure I would see quite how important it is without that.

Which terms for and concepts of decision-making did you come across during your research into medieval accountabilities?

I was quite interested in ‘theory’ of various sorts. I remember reading all sorts of things that weren’t especially relevant or helpful ultimately like Olsen’s Logic of Collective Action, and other things that were. Of those perhaps Bernard Williams Shame and Necessity (on ancient Greek thought about shame and responsibility) was most helpful in seeing how one could intelligibly think about medieval ‘accountability’. I might single out Mary Douglas’s How Institutions Think in terms of its help for thinking about accountability and decision-making. She is very helpful in thinking about the ways in which groups enable and prohibit certain forms of thought. One of the most powerful critiques of the entire ‘mentality’ of auditing as a way of making decisions (in modern societies) remains Michael Power’s The Audit Society where he critiques this ostensibly objective, dispassionate way of evaluating organizations as in fact highly subjective and distorting. A central idea for him is that organizations which perform well when audited aren’t necessarily high-performing organizations. Rather, they’re organizations which have made themselves brilliantly auditable. This fits into another helpful way of unlocking what’s going on with such performances – Bourdieu’s idea of officialisation: the way in which institutions formalize their standards into natural and ungainsayable norms of behaviour. The Middle Ages though had its own – very clear – concepts which it used to trigger particular sorts of procedures, actions, or decisions connected with officers’ accountability. Identifying the existence of scandalum or infamia for instance were important ways of making decisions in medieval ecclesiastical legal procedures. Deciding when you can ‘see’ them makes a difference. Agreed institutional practice matters enormously here, because we standardize in order to minimize the points at which we have to think. We consequently rely a lot on agreed methods to make decisions for us. There is a quote by a UCL mathematician Alfred North Whitehead about standardized mathematical notation that I quote to students to try to make clear the importance of routinization here. One can transpose it institutional contexts:

‘It is a profoundly erroneous truism […] that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle – they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments’.

As this stress on routinization implies, Max Weber also matters a great deal to me – a debt I happily owe to my Doktorvater David d’Avray. His reimagining, extending, and application of Weberian ‘rationalities’ seems to me an enormously powerful way of thinking about how humans make decisions. D’Avray’s also been thinking recently a lot about Niklas Luhmann and I came to Luhmann through him and Gert Melville. I was sceptical about the usefulness of Luhmann initially, partly because he is so committed to abstraction. But I think Luhmann’s approach to institutionalization and social systems is very interesting: Luhmann’s ‘social systems’ describe how we reduce the white noise of the outside world to try to make sense of each other more clearly and rapidly.

According to your research, does accountability refer specifically to officers’ discretionary action?

Not really. Or at least, not in the obvious way of understanding that question. One of the things the book is interested in is the back-and-forth between more active ideas of responsibility, and more imposed requirements to be accountable. I was particularly interested in how ways of securing or exacting accountability interacted with more normative ideas and ideals of official behaviour. Beyond that of course ‘discretionary action’ could mean ‘whatever the individual officers wanted or thought they could get away with’. Looked at from that direction I guess you could say that accountability did refer specifically to their discretionary action – i.e. some sense of misconduct. There is an enormously wide range of the best medieval historians working on these issues of offices, accountability, and governmental institutionalization in its widest senses.

Does the emergence of practices of accountability mean medieval officers came to be seen as knaves rather than knights?

It’s certainly true that many of these officers were knights – Italian communal podestà for instance who splice in a very interesting way military retinues, bureaucratic expertise, legal know-how, and are the subjects of a very sophisticated genre of didactic literature about how they should behave. It’s also true that these forms of accountability do in the longer-term change perceptions and expectations of officers ‘misconduct’. To even frame the issue in those terms is already to have ‘officialized’ it. In a way this is what Thomas Bisson was arguing for in his contrast/shift from an ‘accountability of fidelity’ to an ‘accountability of office’ in the Crisis of the Twelfth Century. What was once viewed through expectations of lordship, he argues, came to be viewed through more ‘officialized’ expectations.

In what way do you think present-day practices of accountability are linked to the present-day cult of choice (e.g. in the public services)?

Well, ‘choice’ first became a mantra in Great Britain through the bastard-transposition of a liberalizing market ideology into a range of public services in the ‘90s (from transport, to health, to education). This was a model pushed by the Conservatives and continued by the post-1997 Labour governments, and then by the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition. I think much of it profoundly mistaken in so far as – in reality – one doesn’t really want ‘choice’ as a patient or a parent about where you go after an accident or send your child to school, and you don’t have choice about which train line is nearest your home to get to work. You want the immediately local hospitals/schools/train service etc to be good enough for everyone. But having created these markets, to then rationally ‘ground’ the basis for decisions that ‘consumers’ might want to make governments encourage the production of league tables, rating systems etc, etc. Again this is the absorption of private sector models (often imperfectly understood) into public sector contexts. If you follow Michael Power’s analysis though this is about making these schools/hospitals auditable, not better (we could argue of course about what better means).  There is a very good English expression about ‘the tail wagging the dog’ and many of the consequences of this idolizing of ‘choice’ for this reason seem profoundly unhelpful to me. In the field of education there is a great deal of this, both at schools and at universities where increasing amounts of market liberalization is going on. Universities are increasingly framed by league tables, and schools are rated in ways which produce ultimately negative consequences on curricula and the students’ intellectual independence. The desire for high rankings produces a premium on good results which produces a pressure for teaching to be compartmentalized so that students can be ‘taught to the exam’ which produces less independent and less creative students. This is happening throughout the British educational system. We increasingly have a primary school system (for 5-10 year olds) which is being liberalized. The result is that state schools are underfunded and run-down while indefensible amounts of government money are given to private schools which can be run for profit in areas where there is little need for them to exist – all in the name of choice. The feedback loop is awful. Private schools suck more state money out of the system. This puts more pressure on state schools, who risk then declining because of falling incomes, which creates a knock-on effect when more middle-class parents choose to send their children to private schools because they worry about the state schools’ resources, which means that you get greater and greater invidious social divisions between classes within school types. And so it goes on.

‘Rational choice theories are there to help you avoid the responsibility of having to make decisions.’ Could you comment on that?

Well, more sophisticated rational choice theorists recognize that we do not make decisions based on ‘neutral’ preferences alone, that values have to be factored in to rational choice decisions. Once you start to do that it’s not at all clear to me what the RCT framework is adding. The role of level playing fields is also fundamental within RCT in terms of the information available to those choosing. This seems to acknowledge the realities of imbalances in information available to actors in reality. It can’t cope though, I think, with the cultural distortions inherent within any human information system. RCT can’t cope with Wittgenstein, if you like. You can’t take the distortions out of the wider institutional framework within which you’re making the decisions. No distortions, no framework at all. Applying RCT methods to suicide bombers or stock market traders should demonstrate that in different ways. So as a methodology with a more generalizable set of applications for life in general I’m not persuaded.

An exhibition in Hamburg showed ‘Decision-Making. Life as a Supermarket’. What do you think of that?

I hope at the end of my life I don’t feel as if I’ve been shopping for its duration.

Which everyday decisions do you find hard to make?

In the week I have a pretty definite routine. I do sometimes get addicted to it such that I follow it even if on that particular day it’s not terrible suited to what I need to do. So I have to try quite hard to decide to remember I have a choice about that routine. Likewise I can end up getting stuck in my study at university when actually I’d be much more productive getting up and going out to work on one of the libraries nearby. Those are both really about remembering I have decisions to make at all. I hope as examples they’re sufficiently heroic.

Which historical decision would you like to have witnessed, and why?

A crazy question – and for many of those which spring to mind ‘like’ is not the word at all. Let us say the decisions which led up to the crucifixion of Christ.


[1] William Niskanen: Bureaucracy and Representative Government, New Brunswick/London 1971. Julian Le Grand: The Other Invisible Hand. Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition, Princeton/Oxford 2007.

1 thought on “‚Knights or Knaves?‘ – Das Original

  1. Durchaus bemerkenswert ist es, dass die breite Theorierezeption nicht zu einem typisch ‚deutschen‘ Dissertationvorspann geführt hat: John Sabapathy setzt sein breites konzeptionelles Wissen instrumentell und mit profunder Skepsis ein, ihm geht es bei der Untersuchung um die Sache(n) selbst. Dass Luhmann dann nirgends explizit genannt wird, sollte der Leser verschmerzen.

    War die Kreuzigung Christi eine Entscheidung oder vielmehr heilsgeschichtlich notwendig? Das kann eine Glaubensfrage oder eine Frage der Beobachterperspektive sein…

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