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The Boss’s New Clothes

At the end of 1984, Winston, the protagonist, is threatened with a device strapped on to his face so that rats can eat out his eyes. He collapses, betrays his lover, and gives himself over whole-heartedly to the wishes of the leaders. 1984 then concludes, “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” In Brave New World Aldous Huxley feared the same desperate, infantile, hopeless, and, above all, mute dependence. For both writers, the power of the state had to be reflected in the worship of it, an understandable view for anyone who had lived through the Nazi era.

Yet in the last thirty years, worship of our masters has not come into being. Centralized power grows, both in large corporations and in government, but the loyalty and discipline this power can command from its subjects is uncertain. While control is ever more centralized, it is more and more difficult for the masters to make that control seem legitimate. This problem has appeared most strikingly in work, especially since the 1960s. Laborers now show their dislike for the institutions in which they work in ways that are affecting productivity, discipline in plants and offices, and orderly planning.

There is a difference between extreme disaffection in work and the tolerable, normal frustration of making a living, a difference that Robert S. Gilmour and Robert B. Lamb skillfully analyze in their book Political Alienation in Contemporary America. They find, for instance, that while fewer than a tenth of the craftsmen, professionals, and technical workers they interviewed for their study were highly discontented—strongly suspicious of the powerful and antipathetic to their own work—as many as 40 percent of the service workers and a third of the industrial laborers felt this way.1

The latter two categories make up most of the workers in industrial society. People who deeply dislike the ways they are living and working can express themselves in a number of ways: they can find scapegoats to blame, they can blow up their plants or take to drink. Much depends on whom they hold responsible. Today workers who find the conditions of their work responsible for their discontents, and challenge the legitimacy of the institutions of work, do so in ways which have little to do with organized protest. Unions, now mainly large bureaucracies themselves, are seen increasingly as distant organizations that collaborate with the enemy. Disaffection is expressed in ways that are more spontaneous, isolated, and pathetic.

Voluntary absenteeism has become, for example, a great worry to both public and private bureaucracies. Workers often pretend to be sick so they can take paid sick-leave. White-collar employees simply disappear for the day or lie about things they need to do outside the office. As the scale of the problem has grown, the perception of it has changed. Personnel experts no longer regard it as simple delinquency but rather as a tactic of resistance—to pressure at the office, to tedium on the assembly line. The corollary, however unpalatable to the managers, has also become unavoidable to them: there must be something wrong at work if so many people are trying to get away from it.2

During the last decade, the number of wildcat strikes has risen—strikes as much against the union bureaucracy, for example that of the United Mine Workers, as against the managerial bureaucracy. What is called, politely, “voluntary inefficiency,” or, more ominously, “efficiency resistance,” plagues large organizations not only in the US but in England and France.3 This behavior ranges from sabotaging the schemes of efficiency planners to “working to rule,” in which the worker simply obeys rules of work agreed on between management and union leaders. These rules are usually so far from the realities of work that obeying them scrupulously will drastically slow down the production process.4 In the midst of tight economic periods as well as prosperous ones, what industrial sociologists call “unmotivated resignations” have been steadily on the rise. These occur when workers quit their jobs simply because they are restless or bored—not because they have another job in prospect. 5

Such expressions of dissatisfaction appear in white-collar work as well as in manual labor. In management circles it used to be said that such signs of disaffection as an auto worker gumming up the line or a salesman playing hooky from the office came mainly from people who failed to make something of themselves. Now the rising volume of these practices has made it untenable to view such workers simply as isolated misfits.

A newer explanation of these troubles is that the work ethic is breaking down. And, of course, if people don’t want to work hard, they will treat their employers as having no legitimate authority to make them work. I went to a corporate board meeting a few months ago in which this theory about the reasons for a crisis of legitimacy in late capitalism was advanced with gloomy relish: the system works, it was said, but the workers have lost their will to do the jobs. Ten years ago, there were a good many articles in the Wall Street Journal on the “crisis of legitimacy” in capitalism. But the managers had a different crisis in mind: the challenges came from outside the corporation and were in large part from people—minorities, women—who could not get work. The new crisis comes from within; as managers see it, when they talk frankly, “we gave them the jobs and now they don’t want to do the work.”

Both parts of this statement are untrue. Unemployment of “them”—urban, young, male blacks and hispanics, for instance—remains very high; in New York City, the estimates range from 35 to 55 percent. While some corporations like ATT have made a real effort to employ members of poor minorities, on the whole the economy is failing to absorb them. And for those who wanted work and managed to find it, there is little evidence that their work habits or productivity differ much from those of other workers, except for the lowest paid unskilled laborers.6

A number of recent studies show, moreover, that people of all ages, races, and classes claim to believe in the inherent moral value of hard work. The meaning of this morality, however, is changing. Hard work is coming to be seen by many workers as a means to another end, that of “self-enrichment,” rather than as morally worthwhile in itself. In an interesting article in a new book called Work in America, Daniel Yankelovich observes that this “new breed” of workers,

often start a job willing to work hard and be productive. But if the job fails to meet their expectations—if it doesn’t give them the incentives they are looking for—then they lose interest…. The preoccupation with self that is the hallmark of New Breed values places the burden of providing incentives for hard work more squarely on the employer than under the old value system.7

The demand of employees that work be made worthwhile if they are going to work hard confuses many employers. They ask, aren’t security and money enough? Evidently not, as Work in America makes clear. During the last ten years, many workers have acquired a sharper sense of what Keynes called the aimlessness and futility of much bureaucratic activity. These workers are asking a question which employers do not, and perhaps cannot, answer: is work worth it?

It is important to be clear about what phrases like “disillusion” and a “feeling of illegitimacy” mean when they are applied to voluntary absentees or laborers slowing down the assembly line. Such dissatisfaction with work does not have the consequences socialists used to think it would; it does not become translated into political action. Workers resist the demands of managers, and even union leaders, for discipline and self-sacrifice. But for the most part they have no idea of what authorities they would want instead. When the sense of legitimacy weakens in the peculiar ways now appearing, the established order does not explode; the sources of its human energy simply wind down.

One response modern corporations are making to the problem of motivating their workers and making their authority believable is to meet the psychological problem head-on. Many corporations are attempting to put into practice a new ideology of work, an ideology of “communication,” “cooperation,” and “personal growth” for the employee. Work comes close to being a form of psychotherapy, and bosses become like analysts. This ideology has changed in turn the relation of corporations to universities, and it affects what is taught in the university business schools. Once devoted mainly to accounting, marketing, and finance, business schools now teach group therapy, Gestalt psychology, and Skinnerian conditioning as well. A new branch of knowledge has come into being, “administrative science,” which claims in part to study the human relationships in organizations. Administrative scientists of various kinds—psychological, sociological, and the like—now frequently serve as advisers to business.

The intellectual origins of administrative science can be traced back in the nineteenth century to Jeremy Bentham, who wanted to condition men “to do better and more obligingly what they must do in any case.” The excellent survey of ideas of management in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Reinhard Bendix’s Work and Authority in Industry8 shows how the psychological ideology of managers took form. The academic origins of the ideology lie in work done in the 1940s and 1950s by Herbert Simon, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics; yet Herbert Simon’s views of administrative science are, as we shall see, now much at odds with the management theorists who came after him.

The intellectual style of this new managerial ideology is typified by the work of James J. Cribbin, whose Effective Managerial Leadership is a well-known textbook. About the “collaborative manager,” he writes,

He does not hesitate to be forceful when circumstances require, but he does not resort to directiveness as a matter of course. He prizes self-discipline over imposed discipline and constructive suggestions over submissive conformity. Viewing authority as based on competence rather than position, this leader interacts with his followers in a process of mutual influence. As a team builder, he realizes that his objective is to help employees satisfy some of their needs while achieving the goals of the group and the firm. Communication is free flowing, constructive, and directed to the purposes for which the groups exist. Finally, if possible, conflict is resolved by the synthesis of diverse views.9

This is a fair specimen of the ordinary prose of administrative science; it is by no means the worst. Drawing on the jargon and the simplistic thinking of much American psychology, with its emphasis on smooth adjustment and on resolving conflicts, this literature has no place for the hard truths Freud told about human limitations.

Yet it would be a great mistake to deduce from the language of administrative science that its practical efforts are equally vacuous. These new psychological concepts of management become working formulas for human manipulation—the point is not simply for the employee to develop him or herself, but for the employee to become more loyal and productive in the process. And, in practice, this manipulation can be subtle.

  1. 1

    Robert S. Gilmour and Robert B. Lamb, Political Alienation in Contemporary America (St. Martin’s, 1975).

  2. 2

    For the US, see Absenteeism in Industry by Stanley Yolles, Pasquale Carone, and Leonard Krinsky (C.C. Thomas, 1975); for Britain, see Geoffrey Ingham, Size of Industrial Organization and Worker Behavior (Cambridge University Press, 1970); for Italy, see Giuseppe Bianchi, Assentiesmo orario de lavoro (Angeli, Milan, 1972).

  3. 3

    See Georges Lefranc, Grèves d’hier et d’aujourdhu (Auber, Paris, 1971) and D. Schneider, ed., Zur Theorie und Praxis des Streiks (Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, 1971).

  4. 4

    Working to rule” is what air-controllers do when they are said in the press to be “on strike.” It is also a common form of resistance in the printing trades in newspapers and in other highly skilled and manual labor industries.

  5. 5

    On the psychology of such moves, see D. Tiffany, S. Cowand, and P.H. Tiffany, The Unemployed (Prentice-Hall, 1970). It should be said that the overall resignation rate is falling, due to what is called industrial feudalism. See John H. Pencavel, An Analysis of the Quit-Rate in American Manufacturing Industry (Princeton University, 1970).

  6. 6

    Even for unskilled work, the notion that the system is sacrificing efficiency to accommodate “outsiders” is a dubious one, because there is so much job turnover that the line between insider and outsider is meaningless. For a contrary view, see Arthur Okun, Equality and Efficiency, The Big Trade-Off (Brookings Institute, 1975).

  7. 7

    Daniel Yankelovich, “Work Values and the New Breed,” in Work in America: The Decade Ahead, edited by Clark Kerr and Jerome Rostow (Van Nostrand, 1979).

  8. 8

    University of California Press, 1974.

  9. 9

    James J. Cribbin, Effective Managerial Leadership (American Management Association, 1972), p. 118.

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