We’re all The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Am I the only person who is fascinated by what it is about large organizations that makes them so impervious to the need for change, if and when the need arises? We’ve seen that demands for change, either by demonstrators outside the fence or by significant inside changes in technologies, or new market conditions, sources of raw materials, usually fail to result in positive changes in organizational policies.
Yet paradoxically only organizations that operate on a grand scale can create effective responses to the problems of survival on our planet. Where else can we look – or how else can we devise questions that will open up the possibility of finding useful answers to this paradox?
From Changing my Light Bulbs to Asking the Right Questions
In looking at the great changes in global policies that would be required to end global warming, for example, we individuals are normally urged to change our ways, as if we were engaged in a collection of individual moral struggles. We need to do better than that. As if any of us – or even all of us – could simply translate our moral convictions into global action.
One of the teaching principles of political science is insisting that students ask “How do you get from good wishes – e.g., ‘We ought to pass a law !’ – to political action?” That is perhaps the main question political scientists ask, especially when teaching undergraduates – what are the processes of creating laws out of demands or policies out of changing circumstances.
At this point, if we are to get at new and effective questions, it’s important to establish the difference between individuals on the one hand – the ‘we’ that the popular press calls upon to fight off climate change – and on the other hand corporations and government agencies that create for themselves an existence above and apart from any given human participant.
What’s So Special About Bureaucracies, Government or Corporate?
They live as entities with their own interests, their own structures of memory and information, their own metabolism transforming energy and materials into structure and growth, and their own values that normally no one person can influence fundamentally. They constitute a system with its own processes based on its sources of energy, information, and materials and its own existence apart from any one human. In social science we would say that they are a distinct level of analysis from the individual.
And, as I hope I have convinced you, they exhibit a powerful inertia to maintain the patterns by which they continuously re-create their patterns of action, their structures.
I will present here some of the evidence that in this context individuals are only subsystems of the overarching corporate or bureaucratic systems. We have many examples of descriptions of how people are subservient to their employers, from the evil of the Nazi regime to the satire of Parkinson’s Law.
The Power of Being the Employer
But they all point to the same conclusion: the company or agency that employs the person dictates for the most part what the person does, for better or for worse. Here I begin an inquiry into the effectiveness of the individual in taking responsibility for change. Here are some historical looks. Unfortunately my illustrations are mostly on the worse side.
“Today we ought to add to these terms the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”
― Hannah Arendt1
Hannah Arendt was mesmerized by the bureaucratic nature of human organizations. In particular she returned again and again to the question of the ordinary person, who is fated to hold a job – always either carrying out the purpose of an organization the person works for (the state or the company) or unemployed – lost and powerless, alone and isolated, a rock in the stream of social history.
Obsessed with the Nazi experience, which was her main example, Arendt examined again and again the circumstances in which ordinary Germans, among whom she had grown up as a Jew, were pressed to the extreme of murdering millions of people.
Where Lies Guilt and Responsibility?
What was the responsibility, what was the guilt of the individual who participated in those organizational programs that were devised to kill hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people a year? What were the moral implications for a commandant of a concentration camp for striving merely to fulfill his quota of deaths efficiently and at lowest cost?
Here I am looking at the same issue that the Tank Man confronted only now from the opposite side, this time from the viewpoint of the tank commander himself, inside the lead machine in the column as it advanced irrevocably along the great ChangAn Street that bisects Beijing north from south and leads on into Tian An Men Square, where in front of the Forbidden City, the symbol of Chinese liberation, he followed his orders and fired into the protesters.
The same cliché applies to him as to Adolph Eichmann – “I was only following orders.” And insofar as any of us earn a living in a corporation or government agency, it applies to us all. All of us employees, even in universities, are in the deepest sense only following orders.2
The Fate of Hippies
An analogous, if less dramatic story emerged from the great anti-war and hippie movements in the United States in the 1960’s, as I experienced them – and as Hannah Arendt did as well. Coursing through the campuses of great universities and the streets of San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and other cultural centers, thousands of young and not-so-young people cursed the military-industrial complex (a system of massive systems) that perpetuated war and required devotion of its participants to producing the implements of war – and simultaneously urged individuals into constant, increasing purchases of consumer goods.
But a few years later, with the end of the Vietnam War, a peculiar thing happened – well, maybe not so peculiar: the students disappeared as a political movement, and when in 1980, a recession set in, their next wave of action was more like private panic.
The wild-haired hippies had, in a biological, social sense, done what nature intended: they had mated, married, born children, and turned into families. Like honeybees or ants, they needed nests and permanent colonies – places to live and jobs that would pay for their homes and feed their children.
Some of the people I knew then, having cut their hair, went to work in software development, some in publishing, some as teachers, physicians or attorneys, and some sold real estate or insurance. Many took jobs in construction or on production lines.
I notice that many of their employers were large corporations such as Bechtel, IBM, or Merrill Lynch, or universities, and even the small companies they may have worked for depended on large corporations either to buy their products or to supply them from the world-scale network that brought them in from overseas – or both.
Once employed and engaged in family life, whatever their private beliefs from those days of protesting against the system, they necessarily changed. They grew concerned with getting to work on time, making the car payments, keeping their jobs and even developing careers – and eventually with getting their children into college.
Interest rates on home mortgages became more vital in their lives than an imperialist foreign policy or corporate domination of the political process. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a figure of ridicule during the days of protest when the movement was everything, became the norm as they quietly returned to order their lives and provided incomes, medical insurance, and retirement plans for children they loved. For the most part they were – and are – proud of what they produce, as they should be.
These organizations have a positive side; they do produce appliances, insurance plans, vehicles and equipment, software and innovative knowledge that is of positive value to mankind.
But in some ways they are not so positive. I’ll explore the darker side of the inescapable Faustian story we all create for ourselves in my next entry.
- taken from an Internet site that features quotations from her works, some (including this one) without citation. At the time of writing, this site was found at http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/12806.Hannah_Arendt?page=2
- An artist named Carolyn Wilhelm has fashioned a whole series of paintings that depict American soldiers returning from Vietnam and coming to grips with their own guilt and responsibility – seeking and eventually finding forgiveness for following orders in places like My Lai. See the book of photos of her series, The Soldier Series: the Hero’s Struggle to Find Meaning (2004), Portland (Oregon), Sacred Circle Press (available from Amazon.