Reading Gambetta and Clausewitz in an emerging low-trust society

So, I’ve been having a war with my exciting privatised energy vendor. Again. We had a chat about this in this post on think-of-a-number prices, but another opportunity came around. The day before the monthly direct debit payment went out, a letter lands saying that they’ve just doubled, yes doubled, the amount. Thanks.

Anyway, of course, I phone them up, hack through the call-centre thickets, hating life and probably humanity. They immediately say that the bill has gone up to £140, not £126 as on the paper bill. I challenge this and it goes away. Just like that. This is a tell – evidently, they’re simply trying it on. The £14/mo is just a return on being an arsehole.

Think-of-a-number pricing is exactly what you’d expect from a low trust society. If you read Diego Gambetta’s Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate, you’ll also recognise an important phenomenon here. In a low-trust society, like the Polish jail he uses as a case study, there are three significant groups, predators, victims, and everyone else. There’s nothing particularly great about being a predator, in fact it comes with an increased chance of getting knifed, and the people in this group are basically self-selected for enjoying violence for its own sake.

You really, really want to be in group three, because the predators preferentially prey on group two. The criteria of membership were not having been a cop, cadre, or informer, not being a nonce, and being willing to get in a fight with another member of group three. That wasn’t as bad as it sounds, as there was also a strong social norm against fights within group three escalating to the point of anyone being seriously hurt. Gambetta’s collaborator, whose fieldwork began while he was himself doing time as a dissident, reasoned that they served the social function of identifying group membership. (If this reminds you of school, don’t be surprised.)

So, Npower (for it is they) wanted to treat me like a member of group two, but I cut up rough early, and they backed down. Eventually, with much persistence, and careful recording of everything said during the calls, it emerged that there was a bad reading, and they agreed to escalate the issue to complaints, and they finally accepted that I was right. However, they did manage to stall long enough that they got at least one increased payment. You can only expect so much justice in a low-trust society.

A question, then. Gambetta or Clausewitz? Well, Clausewitz would have identified that we were in a state of limited conflict, rather than unlimited conflict. Neither party actually wants to overthrow and subjugate the other. Oh. Actually I kind of did, but I didn’t have the means to implement it, so this is beside the point. I had a clear politically-determined purpose (Zweck), to recover the money, and an aim (Ziel) which led to the purpose – to get the bill reissued. And I had to navigate the warlike element, whose friction would condition the relationship between the two, in this case, a call-centre PBX system. But this isn’t actually that interesting. Also, Clausewitz would have expected that the two parties would probably make a minimal effort at conflict in support of negotiating a solution, and not only did I put much more into it than that, Npower stuck to it far longer than was at all sensible.

I found Gambetta’s insights much more useful. That said, Gambetta’s Polish convicts also had a secret organisation that served to mediate conflicts within group three, to provide a degree of deterrence towards group one, and sometimes to represent prisoners towards the screws. What I really needed, it struck me, was the mafia.

7 Comments on "Reading Gambetta and Clausewitz in an emerging low-trust society"

  1. As you say, the backing down straight away is the ‘tell’. We got this with pet insurance once where basically their gambit amounted to ‘we were going to exclude this but forgot to, so we’re going to treat this as though we HAD excluded this and aren’t going to pay’. My response was obviously ‘you’re not allowed to do this’ and then they paid up.
    Somehow the immediate climb-downs are more annoying because they show obvious bad faith.


  2. When exasperation sets in I have found that a polite letter to the Chairman setting out the facts as accurately as possible tends to lead to a rapid and beneficial conclusion. At least it did with B&Q and BA, the two occasions I tried it.

    I use letters because ts too easy for them to filter out emails and just forward them to some minion, letters tend to get read because they are so rare and I know from my work that Chairman/CEOs take leters very seriously.


  3. Mrs Digest once had a set to with NatWest over a foreign exchange conversion (they had posted a wrong rate on a given day, so they were the best bank to change her student grant into francs – oh yes it was ye olden days – so she did). They then came back two weeks later and debited her account for the difference between the rate they had posted and the rate they thought, with hindsight, they might have wanted to post. After giving the money back on first challenge, they apparently actually used the phrase “you can’t blame us for trying”.

    She has stuck with them as a bank ever since, on the basis that a bunch of clowns like that will regularly make mistakes of all sorts, and if she challenges the ones against her and keeps shtum about the ones in her favour, it will be a long term small profit.


  4. As an update on this, I just had a nice letter from HSBC telling me they’d noticed that I’d forgotten to include a small cheque on a paying-in slip, and had credited my account. I guess if you can’t join the Arellano Felix Cartel yourself, you can at least bank with people who deal with them:-)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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