6. Climate and the Corporate Man, Part 2

The Nazis in Their Grey Suits were Also Nice Family Men, After All.

To be an adult human and a parent is to be at the mercy of work, family, and home – and therefore at the mercy of one’s job.

The commitment of us ordinary persons to individual concerns such as raising children, securing a dwelling, providing food and clothing to a family is precisely the condition Hannah Arendt found among the Germans who committed such terrible crimes in World War Two.  And by extension we can infer that similar conditions governed the thousands of Cambodians who carried out the will of the Khmer Rouge and more recently the marauding Hutu of Burundi and the Serbs in Croatia and Montenegro.

Similarly in our own country we overlook questions of guilt in service to country or company. For example, we have never, as far as I know, asked about the guilt of the guards around the Japanese internment camps of World War Two. We accept them unthinkingly as mere employees of the US Government who were doing their jobs.

So it is not the individuals we turn to to find why these things happened. Arendt observed how in these extraordinary moral situations, ordinary people whose morals were unquestioned, but who needed to work, turned into monsters, either actual or potential.

Basing my argument on her work and others, I’ll make my case  in this entry for why we can not expect large numbers of individuals to create the changes needed to avoid global warming or the other forms of environmental disaster that loom over our civilization.

In Arendt’s essays we glimpse the power of organizations to determine that people do even the most reprehensible acts. it may seem that the leap between just going to work at your job and turning into a monster is far-fetched. I suspect that it is not so far after all. We all need our jobs to go on living as we expect to live.

The horizon where personal responsibility shades into organizational guilt lies closer than most of us want to think.

People have been convinced to commit atrocities when  their jobs demanded them. They have performed outrageous acts as required to fulfill their roles, to keep their jobs or be promoted, and to go on supporting their families. Arendt uncovered the potential for evil that lurks in every career employee caught up in the workings of a bureaucratic organization – and who of us is not?

If organizations can elicit such obedience, how can we expect ordinary people to overrule their employers or other organizations and set out on their own to change the fate of the world? Abandon their families? Not likely.

Here is how Arendt describes the gradual transformation of the typical German father into an SS man who could commit murder as a routine act. She ascribes this to the dedication of the ‘family man’ to supporting those around him engaged in the same project:

“We had been so accustomed to admire or gently ridicule the family man’s kind concern and earnest concentration on the welfare of his family, his solemn determination to make life easy for his wife and children, that we hardly noticed how the devoted paterfamilias, worried about nothing so much as his security, was transformed under the pressure of the chaotic conditions of our time into an involuntary adventurer who, for all his industry and care could never be certain what the next day would bring. … It became clear that for the sake of his pension, his life insurance, the security of his wife and children, such a man was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honor, and his dignity. It needed only the Satanic genius of Himmler [Commander of the SS in Nazi Germany and later organizer and commander of the death camps] to discover that after such degradation he was entirely prepared to do literally anything when the ante was raised and the bare existence of his family was threatened. The only condition he put was that he should be fully exempted from responsibility for his acts. Thus that very person, the average German, whom the Nazis notwithstanding years of the most furious propaganda could not induce to kill a Jew on his own account (not even when they made it quite clear that such a murder would go unpunished), now serves the machine of destruction without opposition. In contrast to the earlier units of the SS men and Gestapo, Himmler’s over-all organization relies not on fanatics, nor on congenital murderers, nor on sadists; it relies entirely on the normality of jobholders and family men.”1

What were they Thinking? They Were Supporting Their Families.

I used to read aloud to students in my international politics classes a passage from a wonderful essay that Arendt published in PM in 1944 as WWII drew to its close. It illustrated the dilemma shared by every employee, more or less helpless to protest in this world of bureaucratic organizations, which are the living entities that actually determine the patterns of our individual careers.

In the essay, she reproduced an interview with a former guard in a German death camp. This soldier had a wife and children, and if he had not accepted his assignment as paymaster in the camp, he would have been sent to the Russian front, where, he believed, he would likely have died and left his wife penniless, his children orphans. The reporter, an American, asked the questions:

Q: Did you kill people in the camp?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you poison them with gas?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you bury them alive?

A: It sometimes happened.

Q: Were the victims picked from all over Europe?

A: I suppose so.

Q: Did you personally help kill people?

A: Absolutely not. I was only the paymaster in the camp.

Q: What did you think of what was going on?

A: It was bad at first, but we got used to it.

Q: Do you know the Russians will hang you?

(Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?2

Remember the Satire that came next in the 50’s- Unconscious of the Irony?

Arendt wrote this in the 1940s. Whether by coincidence or historical trend, the next decade begat an era when writers in England and the United State were turning to the same dilemmas and foibles of corporate bureaucrats but in a civilian setting. A rush of creativity emerged, also discovering and publicizing the effects of the organization on its employees, but in a satirical vein.

A few years later, this resulted in a series of books and dramas examining life in the American corporate world. Many of them became light-hearted best-sellers or popular plays: for example, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Silent Generation (which was based incidentally on interviews with some of my classmates in college in 1956-57), the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” and G. Northcoat Parkinson’s famous essay, Parkinson’s Law, in which he proposed that every bureaucrat would be promoted one level above his competence. And for all I know, similar literature appeared in several other countries around the world as well.

This theme was not new, of course; the Europeans had worked this vein for decades before World War One with The Good Soldier Schweik, and the many works of Kafka.

But until Arendt, no one had associated that tradition with the relentless killing machine of the Nazi super-organization, which by the end was populated by Serbs, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, and other Europeans, some of whom sympathized with the Nazis’ anti-semitic rationale, and some whom merely needed work in what one might say was an early manifestation of the modern giant multi-national organization.

My point in bringing up Arendt’s work in the same discussion with this larger tradition of concern with bureaucratic demands on the individual – The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit – is to highlight the limited choices available to individual people who need to support families, pay the mortgage or rent, and provide stable lives to those they love. The choices at any one time are to keep one’s job or to face recrimination and dismissal – a dilemma that confronts nearly all of us.

Should Faust be  the Governing Myth for Our Society?

Even when the corporation or agency is engaged in benign activities, one must choose between, on the one hand, carrying out whatever policies the corporation or the state where one works orders one to carry out and, on the other hand, losing a place in the drama of the society’s history. That includes earning a living. The Faustian bargain – trading one’s soul to the devil in return for success – may be the underlying myth of life in 20th century industrialized nations.

There have been Heroes who were Exceptions – and their Fates

There have been exceptions, of course. But not many. Tank Man was one. The Vietnamese monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself in fire in Saigon in 1962 to begin the overthrow of the Ngo Dihn Diem regime was another. Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller in the marketplace in Tunisia who immolated himself to launch the Arab Spring in 2011 was another. And we can count the many Tibetans, monks, nuns and lay people who have lit themselves with the fatal gasoline to protest Chinese mis-administration in Tibet and neighboring Qinghai Province.

Perhaps even more relevant, to Americans at least, are the heroes who have protested against multinational corporations such as Monsanto and Climax Mining – not to mention builders of oil pipelines such as at Standing Rock. The pipeline companies and the state of North Dakota demanded the same unwavering support from their employees as the Nazis and the Cambodians under Pol Pot, even support of policies that resulted in multiple deaths.

Cases such as the famous auto accident that killed Karen Silkwood as she amassed evidence of wrong-doing in plutonium production by Kerr-McGee in 1972 come to mind. So does Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired and sent to jail for union organizing in a J.P. Stevens plant in North Carolina. And in case you haven’t guessed my own point of view, I’ll even include the songs about heroes of the earlier union movement such as Joe Hill, the IWW organizer and song writer who was executed by firing squad on a trumped up murder charge after leading a strike in the copper mines in Utah in 1915.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me.
Says I, but Joe, you’re ten years dead
I never died, says he,
I never died, says he.

And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize,
Went on to organize.3

These exceptions to the rule point up the fate of those who eschew the obedience that is required of the bulk of the employees whose careers would be spoiled by refusing to follow orders or by opposing the decisions of superiors.

The Exceptions Prove the Power of the Faustian Myth

We celebrate these heroes because they are so rare. Most of us live in a sometimes uneasy agreement with our employers: that we will follow company policy, say what is approved by the executives upstairs, defend the company’s interests, and devote most of our waking hours to the advancement of those interests. We keep our bargains with our employers, whether corporate or governmental, for the most part, just hoping that we will never be required to support such blatant evil as that prescribed by Himmler (or Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic) and described by Arendt. And for the most part our employers only demand that we support the latest sales contest or machine parts for a new model of the product.

But the potential never disappears completely. And we employees, even in normal times, are. for example, careful about exercising our freedom of speech. We  are cautious about the letters to the editor we write or where and when we dare to stand up to speak in a meeting. Someone from the office might find out, after all, and take offense.

That brings me to the next stage of inquiry, moving on from this depressing description of our bargains with organizations to the real question I want to investigate: how the typical large organization maintains its existence – what it does to stay alive, we might say. I hope that I have demonstrated that we – you and I – cannot stop the organizations in which we are participants from careening us off the edge of the environmental precipice.

As I promised there, we cannot ask with any assumptions about good or bad [despite having dipped into the moral issues in this entry for illustrative purposes]. Instead, to gain any useful knowledge, we must ask this question keeping an open mind about the answers that we find. Like good biologists, we must seek patterns in the behavior of our subjects and infer from their common behaviors the principles that lie behind their actions.

  1. Arendt, H., (1951) Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, Cleveland: World Publishing, a Meridian Book. p. 152; retrieved from http://home.earthlink.net/~lstenmark/Hum2B/ArendtOrgGuilt.pdf]
  2. Italics Arendt’s emphasis. PM, Sunday, Nov. 12, 1944 reproduced in Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility, p. 151) [Arendt’s source footnote reads as follows: “Raymond A. Davies, a correspondent for the Jewish Telegraph Agency and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, gave the first eyewitness account of the death camp at Maidanek.”
  3. Song by: Alfred Hayes, Music by Earl Robinson©1938 by Bob Miller, Inc. Downloaded from the web November 2015 (almost exactly 100 years after his execution) at <unionsong.com/u017.html>

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