The roots of subservience

Very long, and characteristically thoughtful “piece from Billmon”: on the NSA surveillance state, which contains one fresh point that I think is important, and not widely made. Americans put up with a degree of interference and minute control from their employers which is far greater than anything that governments would try outside of, say, North Korea. This is, by some strange alchemy, taken to be proof that Americans are much more free than those poor miserable Swedes, Germans, French, etc, ground down as they are beneath the socialist jackboot. Similarly, there is far more servility in American public life than in supposedly less independent societies. Both these trends, of course, come together perfectly in the automated voice mail, which lies to you in the most fulsome and grovelling tones while ignoring all of your actual wishes. But one effect of this is to numb them to what governments actually do. Freedom for corporations actually also means greater powers for government, since it accustoms citizens to being treated as disposable playthings. Take it away, mon:

bq. The millions of Americans, like yours truly, who work in the corporate or public sector white collar world have already grown accustomed to a loss of personal privacy and a degree of social control that make Pentagon data mining look like an ACLU fundraising dinner.
We know our phone calls and emails may be and often are monitored, that company net nannies will stop us from visiting certain web sites (and not just porn pages: I’ve been blocked out of labor union sites, progressive political sites – even that notorious left-wing web magazine, Slate.) We know that if we say the wrong thing to a company snitch it could be reported to our supervisors, that those reports could end up in our personnel files, and that really serious thought crimes could cost us our jobs. We know the security cameras may record when we walk in the door and when we leave. We know we can’t make certain jokes or raise certain topics because they might be construed as sexual harassment. We know how to smile and feign enthusiasm when the pointy-haired boss has a really dumb idea. We know what a cult of personality looks like, because it looks like our CEO.
Blue collar workers, of course, have always had their own authoritarian regimes to contend with — tougher in some ways (I’ve worked under both) but easier in others. At least most shops don’t expect the rank and file to act like the smiling idiots in the latest corporate training film (not unless the Total Quality Management gurus have seized power.) But in cubicle world it’s Outer Party rules all the way – even if the cafeteria food and the Victory gin are both better.
It’s true that however bad it may be, the corporate workplace is only an 8-hour police state, one you can tunnel free of every night. But it is a training ground of sorts, a place where habits of thought and social roles are acquired and reinforced – patterns that are then reflected in the popular culture. The lesson learned is submission to authority, or at least the passive acceptance of hierarchical relationships. It teaches people to be good bureaucrats, and good bureaucrats understand that if the organization is tapping phones – or infecting test subjects with syphilis or dumping toxic waste in rivers or shipping undesirable people off to concentration camps – it must have a good reason.
The result is a social contract that owes a lot to Thomas Hobbes. In exchange for the economic security that corporations provide – a degree of shelter from an anarchic global market – we willingly, if grudgingly (at least in my case) give up a hefty share of our freedom and an even bigger chunk of our privacy. Having made that bargain, we’re not really in a good position to object if the company proves more intrusive than we expected, for as Hobbes says, “he that complaineth of injury by his sovereign complaineth of that which he is the author and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself.”

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2 Responses to The roots of subservience

  1. That sounds like what I’ve been saying for ages. I got out of the corporate sector ages ago – although as a contractoir I could often take a dispassionate view of what was happening. But I had an ‘interesting’ three years working for a British Government contractor and being extremely frustrated by the restrictions imposerd on what you could do, and the rigid insistence on procedures for everything. Thinking for yourself is a sackable offence!

    Talking about Nineteen Eighty-Four has become a cliché. Nobody seems to have noticed Brave New World creeping up on the rails. What do we do for Soma? Prozac?

  2. H. E. Baber says:

    This is a consequence of the doctrine that the assembly line model–deskilling, breaking down tasks into small, mindless components, training rather than education, close supervision and constant assessment–is the most efficient way to achieve “productivity” for all jobs. Academics are probably the last professionals to escape this trend so far: we still have offices whereas our mid-level counterparts in the Real World now have carrels, to save space and facilitate supervision. From the social sciences literature I’ve read, there’s no evidence that this actually does improve “productivity” but most have faith in it.

    One interesting thing is that this is in part a consequence of a decision unions in the US made after WWII to ignore ignore working conditions and trade off shorter hours for higher wages. The idea is that it doesn’t matter how miserable your job is, how constrained you are on the job or how closely supervised–freedom consists in the opportunity to make and keep as much money as you can, without being hit with taxes. If you get the chance to work overtime to make more money, you’re all the more free. If you spend all your waking hours doing sweatshop work under close supervision you’ve achieved the epitome of freedom. That’s the work ethic in its peculiarly American form. Elsewhere there’s a stop rule: work your tail off until you achieve a satisfactory level of material comfort; then kick back and buy non-market time to enjoy the finer things in life (or the chance to watch sports on TV). Not here. We’re convinced that those poor miserable Swedes, Germans, French, etc. are less free than we are because they don’t have the opportunity to achieve fabulous wealth and power by working themselves into the ground–which many Americans imagine that they have.

    There’s probably another cultural difference, which I understand from being half of a transatlantic marriage. Americans simply don’t value privacy as highly as Brits do. There’s a high value on “openness”: “my life is an open book, I’m a straight-shooter, I have nothing to hide, decent people have nothing to be afraid of.” There’s little principled interest in privacy as such. That’s bad news for the Right these days though: when Americans suspect that there’s back-room politics going on, that political insiders are doing deals behind our backs, we get very upset.

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