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.

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 …

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