The Oppressed Middle

SCENES FROM CORPORATE LIFE: The Politics of Middle Management by Earl Shorris, 1981, Penguin Books.

During my time as a temp in downtown San Francisco, I worked for many different managers. I never became particularly friendly with them, but I did find ways to "manage'' my managers. Mostly they left me alone as long as they got the work they wanted out of me.

Though I never was close to any managers, it was obvious that most of them suffered the same intimidation and hassles that I faced as their peon. But if bosses were as oppressed as I was, I reasoned, why were they so willing, even eager, to carry out the ridiculous dictates of the company? How had they turned into complacent embodiments of corporate policies? Why were they so ready to enforce completely arbitrary policies which oppressed them as much as me? It couldn't just be the money, or could it?

Scenes From Corporate Life, a detailed exploration of the corporate manager's life, is an attempt to answer these questions. The book, which originally had the same title as this review, depicts the duplicity, shallowness, manipulations, and general stupidity that prevail among managers. The portrait will be familiar to anyone who has labored in the office world. Earl Shorris (who was a long-time middle manager himself) argues convincingly that common business practices produce corporations which are essentially totalitarian institutions.

For Shorris, totalitarianism is the process of destroying autonomy. Corporate totalitarianism idolizes efficiency in its bureaucracies and takes its ideology from industrial psychology, management textbooks and classes. The result is a microworld where the autonomy of human beings is systematically thwarted.

Among his vignettes he describes techniques effective in intimidating and controlling both managers and knowledge workers. For example, the annual bonus system is used almost as a piece- rate kind of motivation for the middle-level employees. And yet, because of the company's need to keep people off guard and unsure of themselves the awarding of bonuses is often arbitrary and out of line with actual events. The ubiquitous "secret'' salary works to keep people separate and to compete more intently with what they think the other is getting, rather than banding together to get the same higher pay. "To make atoms of the mass, corporations have no more obvious device than keeping secret men's earnings.''

But "men do not merely acquiesce, they choose to live under totalitarian conditions. . . out of fear, mistaking its effect upon them because they do not think of the meaning of their actions.'' Managers have accepted an externally- imposed definition of happiness (i.e. material wealth, career advancement) provided by The Organization and its leaders. In so doing they have ceded their autonomy as free human beings to an abstract end and reduced themselves to mere means. In sacrifices "for the company'' Shorris identifies the essential ingredient of a totalitarian society: human beings actively, even willingly, participating in self-delusion and renunciation of their own freedom, in exchange for a false sense of security.

"In the modern world a delusion about work and happiness enables people not only to endure oppression but to seek it and to believe that they are happier because of the very work that oppresses them.''

A rather dry philosophical analysis of totalitarianism and corporate life prefaces the bulk of the book, which features 40- odd vignettes of typical managerial dilemmas, followed by Shorris' observations. Some of the scenes involve very high-level executives, others involve first-line supervisors. Together, they illustrate the pathetic dark side of a manager's worklife: isolation, loneliness, the "need'' to avoid seeing their oppression, the "desire'' to obey corporate mores. The author inadvertently reveals himself in many of his observations as an example of the very dynamics he criticizes.

An executive who's working overtime to redo an error-filled report by a sales analyst, has an hysterical internal monologue of desperation and frustration. Shorris notes that loneliness has less to do with solitude than it does with social atomization. "The loneliness that destroys men by atomizing them comes when they are among the familiar faces of strangers. . . At the heart of the loneliness of business one finds the essence of the notion of property: competition. . . Loneliness, terrible, impenetrable, and as fearsome as death, incites men to cede themselves to some unifying force: the party, the state, the corporation. All lonely creatures are frightened; to be included provides the delusion of safety, to cede oneself masks the terror of loneliness, to abandon autonomy avoids the risk of beginnings.'' Aren't these the same reasons people join cults and various "extremist'' groups?

A middle-class manager who grew up to stories of his mother bringing food to his father at the factory where he was in a sit-down strike. . . has come to blame unions for inflation, and the US's sagging position in the world market. During a strike he crosses a picket line to jeers of "Scab!!'' and has a crisis of will. He nearly becomes catatonic when he gets into his office. The point here is that the manager, unlike the striking workers, has no social support system. This manager knows it since he grew up in a militant union household.

A public relations man and his friend, an engineer, have fights through the years about the way different processes or products are described to the public; the engineer wants more technically precise language, the PR man wants to make an impact by keeping things simple. The author notes the use Nazi Germany made of simplifications (and could also have put in some analysis of how Reagan and Co. do the same). What emerges is an insightful glimpse of language: "Simplifications are perfectly opaque. . . simplifications impose "one-track thinking' upon the listener; they cannot be considered. . . In its use as propaganda, language passes from the human sphere to that of technology. Like technology. . . it does not recognize the right to autonomous existence of any person but the speaker. To disagree with the language of the technological will is to disobey.'' But one can, and Shorris does, disagree with and disobey the language of the technological-propagandistic will.

The power of totalitarian thinking, according to Shorris, is a belief in the ultimate perfectability of the world, a resolution into certainty that will provide happiness for all forever. This pursuit of perfection reminds me of the engineer's pursuit of complete automation, or the biologist's pursuit of "better'' life forms through genetic engineering. The goal is to eliminate contingency, uncertainty, freedom. "Totalitarianism begins with a concept greater than man, and even though this concept is his perfection, the use of man as a means robs him of his dignity. To raise man up to perfection by debasing him is a contradiction: totalitarian goals of perfection are logically impossible.''

Against totalitarianism "stands the beckoning of human autonomy, with its promise of the joy of beginnings and the adventure of contingency. . . All rational men know that no matter how they choose they cannot eliminate unhappiness or achieve perfection in the world.'' One of Shorris' key points is that human society is inevitably imperfect because it is intrinsically complex, unpredictable, full of ambiguities. He rejects all systems or utopias, whether that of Rousseau, Plato, or Marx, on the grounds that such goals reduce human life to a means toward the abstract ends found in the philosophers' minds.

But Shorris, perhaps over-involved, exaggerates the power and control of the "system.'' For example, he thinks the totalitarian system has become so efficient and dominant that it no longer depends on hysteria, war, murder or hate to enforce its power. Yet he realizes that total efficiency is an impossible pursuit doomed to ultimate failure. In fact, totalitarian thinking is hysterical and does depend on hate, war and murder (look at the US campaign against Nicaragua). Totalitarian governments or executives depend on these emotional bulwarks. Without hate, war and fear, their power would erode rapidly.

Because he overestimates its power Shorris is too pessimistic about resistance to the system. His claims that "The sudden and apparently unprovoked dismissal of a few people or even of one person makes the rest docile. . .'' and "Only those who can put aside thought and misconstrue experience survive'' are obviously not always true. Otherwise how did Shorris survive? Many of us with experience in the corporate office world have despaired when co-workers go along with the most absurd demands and expectations with barely a peep, but we have also seen people question and revolt against what enslaves them. Individuals retain their autonomy, in spite of the best efforts of bosses to intimidate it out of existence.

The Manager's Bias

Shorris writes from a distinctly managerial perspective. For example, he thinks we live in a materially-glutted world. Although there is certainly a lot of waste and ostentatious wealth, there are many places in the world where there is "not enough'' for basic, intelligent survival. The real glut in most people's lives is one of twisted images and not goods.

Despite his narrow view of economic reality it leads Shorris to an important perception: ". . .economic necessity. . . demands the creation of Sisyphean tasks: nothing comes to have as much value as something. . .'' In particular, the "nothing' of value is information. Too many people are engaged in the production and circulation of utterly useless information. And from this perception, he draws conclusions about the general uselessness of most office work. The computer also stands naked: "The computer has not led to a revolution in any area but records retention and retrieval in a society that already suffers from the retention and retrieval of too much useless information. . . The major effect of these time-saving devices has been the necessity of finding ways to waste time.''

From within the decision making structures that have produced the rationalization of work processes, Shorris comments on the motivations of efficiency experts. Most workers assume management experts are consciously hostile to the workers' well-being, and there are certainly individuals who have been. But Shorris defends industrial psychologists and management theorists as being honest fellows trying to improve company operations, but inadvertently leading to oppressive conditions for workers. Evil or not, the hostility toward workers is built into their jobs. If you work for them, you realize their honesty or dishonesty isn't the point. It's what they do.

Being distant from the shop-floor realities of the factory, Shorris romanticizes the blue-collar worker's life and the reality of the modern trade union as well. Underlying this romanticization is his notion of "alienation.' Since he rejects materialist philosophy, he also rejects Marxist analysis of alienation. In Capital alienation stems from the division between the individual and the products of his or her labor, and from the chasm between the individual and the system of social reproduction. For Shorris, alienation is a feeling, the essential component of human consciousness: "It is man's capacity to feel alienated that makes him human. . . Alienation as part of man's consciousness always leads him toward freedom and improvement of the material conditions of his life. . . he enjoys the inevitable discontent of consciousness, for he can compare his life to his infinite imagination.''

Shorris contends that this feeling of alienation is precisely the autonomous subjectivity that the totalitarian corporation attacks. Since the 19th century, work has been rationalized repeatedly, but only in the white-collar world has that process been extended to workers themselves. Factory work has involved rationalization of the workers, too, but Shorris' roots in the office prevent his seeing this as clearly.

Shorris believes that, contrasted to office workers, blue collar workers are dignified and relatively free. He claims that trade unions have provided a buffer between factory workers and company goals for rationalizing work and ultimately the workers. For Shorris, unions are basically democratic, flexible institutions which have adapted very successfully to the modern capitalist economy. In so doing, they have insulated the factory worker from fear, which is the crucial element in the rationalization of men.

In his enthusiasm for his analysis of unions and alienation, Shorris goes overboard. For example, "Such business tactics as multinational manufacturing, "Sunbelt strategy,' mergers and acquisitions, or diversification have less and less effect on industrial plants and workers as unions learn to defend their members from the threats to wages and stability arising from new business situations.'' This is patently ridiculous. A brief look at the steel industry and the Rust Bowl of Ohio-Pennsylvania or the copper industry of Arizona belies this silly claim.

These assertions are reminiscent of the wistful longing for something better that is more typically associated with the frustrated low-level employee. In this case, however, it is the voice of an oppressed manager looking back down the social hierarchy for what seems to him to be a relatively idyllic life. It would be bad enough if he stopped at those comments, but he doesn't. Because so many factory workers with whom he has talked define their "real'' lives according to what they do outside the wage-labor arena, Shorris concludes the union worker is "a man very much like the creature dreamed of in Marx's German Ideology: he does one thing today and another tomorrow. . . he is human and free, paying but one fifth of his life to enjoy the rest of his days, and doing so for only twenty-five or thirty years until he retires. . . the life. . . for the worker in communism is beginning to be real for many blue collar workers. Leisure exists, and the blue collar worker enjoys his leisure without real or symbolic constraints.'' Huh?!! Sound like any blue collar workers you know?

Human Thought: Seed of Revolt?

Ultimately, Shorris pinpoints human oppression not in social institutions but in human nature itself, and concludes that ". . .the primary task of freedom is no less than for man to overcome his own nature, to do his business in a way befitting a creature capable of transcending himself.''

His strong point is the analysis of why people go along with the absurdity of modern corporate life. More than most, he has described the mechanisms of domination and control. But in typical liberal and "idealistic'' fashion, he sees the solution in simply thinking:

"Only in thinking can man recognize his own life. In that alienated moment he is the subject who knows his own subjectivity. . . Only the thinking subject, who cannot be a means, can know when he has been made a means in spite of himself. . .''

When it comes to solutions or recommendations, the only specific suggestion he makes is that managers should see their subordinates as equals in order to see themselves as the equals of their superiors. ". . .it requires that a man see himself and all others as subjects, creatures who began the world when they came into it and continue to be potential beginners.''

But no mention is made of the social system, part of which he has so assiduously taken apart during the book. It's as if he himself cannot identify his own oppressor: "Without knowledge of their oppressors, men cannot rebel; they float, unable to find anything against which to rebel, incapable of understanding that they are oppressed by the very organization that keeps them afloat.'' We hear nothing of capitalism, wage-labor, the state, or existing social institutions in general, as being at the root of the problems. Instead, he ultimately seeks to explain totalitarianism and corporate life in terms of individual psychology.

Shorris hopes for a world of subjects freely contesting among themselves. This "human condition'' is one of constant change and interpersonal conflict. While I agree that perfection in human society is an unattainable and oppressive goal, I think he takes far too fatalistic an attitude about human possibilities. Whereas we might be able to create a society of great material abundance and a lot more fun, with far less work and virtually no coercion, if we can get together enough to organize it, Shorris settles for the discontented, alienated thoughts of the lone thinker.

Changing minds is essential, but changing life takes collective action.

--Lucius Cabins