Just before Christmas, Wal-mart workers arrive at their stores to find their boss grinning down at them from a video monitor. Sam Walton, utterly approachable (if only via satellite) in his trademark baseball cap, seems at first to want only to relate a few hunting anecdotes. But then he gets down to business: he’s there to launch his crusade for “aggressive hospitality”—a revolution in customer service that will, he promises, catapult Wal-mart to the pinnacle of discount retail. He gently reassures the faint-of-heart, stressing the internal rewards of the new philosophy: “It would, I’m sure, help you become a leader, it would help your personality develop, you would become more outgoing, and in time you might become manager of the store.” Finally, he leads his troops in a solemn pledge as, all over America, one hundred thousand Walmart “associates” raise their right hands: “From this day forward, I solemnly promise and declare that every customer that comes within ten feet of me, I will smile, look them in the eye, and greet them, so help me Sam.”
The authors of the 1992 management book Workplace 2000 couldn’t resist this vignette, since it enacts virtually every business cliché of the past twenty years. The leader: Informal and down-to-earth, insisting that everyone call him “Sam” as they swear their loyalty oaths. The vision: Personal growth through abject servility. The program: Forget about merchandise—sell them privilege, sell them attention, sell them a coterie of fawning retainers, capering at their every purchase. The workers: They’re not employees, they’re associates, trusted partners in building a fiercely anti-union company.
But damned if it doesn’t work. Consider Wal-mart purchaser John Love, who accidentally ordered five times too many Moon Pies for his Alabama store:
It was a stupid mistake that could have gotten Love fired if he had worked for any of a number of other companies. Not at Wal-mart. Love’s boss just told him: “Use your imagination, be creative and figure out a way to sell it.” Love did. He created the first World Championship Moon Pie Eating Contest and held it in the store’s parking lot. The contest and the promotion were so successful for the company that it is now held on an annual basis and draws thousands of spectators.…
Thus capitalism confronts the specter of post-industrial malaise. As strip-mall revelers fall upon the heaps of faintly toxic snack treats, another tiny crisis of overproduction is transformed into a miracle of overconsumption through the Stakhanovite exertions of a lone hero-salesman. We recognize here a drama of disgrace, forgiveness and ultimate triumph, revolving around a few primordial themes: trust between supervisor and supervised; the redemptive metamorphosis of clerk into salesman and his centrality in creating a community of consumers; and the community’s effort to preserve itself through the yearly reenactment of its foundation epic. And so this spare but exquisite passage from business literature articulates the core motifs of present day corporate ideology, even as it skirts the basic economic issues of efficiency and product quality. It doesn’t question the need to manufacture Moon Pies, nor the wisdom of eating a great quantity of them. Instead, with the ancient sonorities of ritual and myth, it infuses sacred meaning into the making and selling of pure junk.
Business literature has always faced two contradictory tasks. It must instruct and prepare its middle-management audience to play a dominant-submissive role in a corporate autocracy; yet it must also inculcate the legend of the entrepreneur who renews the economy by facing, alone and unguided, the inscrutable judgement of the marketplace. Its readers are both fettered within a highly structured business dictatorship, and at the same time devotees of free-market individualism. Business writers massage this tension with elaborate theories of supervision that reassure managers as a class of their indispensability.
Business books of the 1950s offer untroubled systematizations of the role of management that let the organization man chart his exact position beneath a changeless corporate firmament.
Whether they steal fire from the Harvard Business School or find enlightenment through a long pilgrimage in Oriental lands, all popular business books share certain idiosyncrasies. They euphemise their tautologies as “common sense” and their lists of slogans as “practical guides,” as if management theories are both self-evidently true and arcane enough to require a hands-on primer and costly seminars. Like nursery rhymes, they are fascinated by numerology and alliteration, freeze-drying their “findings” into nuggets of doggerel like “the Three C’s: Customers, Competition and Change” or Tom Peters’ typically long-winded “Seven S© Framework: Structure, Systems, Style, Staff, Skills, Strategy and Shared Values.” And to make reading fun for executives, they eschew logical exposition and an organized search for evidence in favor of brief, happy anecdotes about take-charge department heads, couched always in the cajolling rhetoric of cereal-box propaganda.
Yet these immutable stylistic quirks belie a decades-long upheaval in the literature, from post-war placidity to post-Communist hysteria. Business books of the 1950s, basking in the noontide of suburban sprawl and Marshall Plan hegemony, offer untroubled systematizations of the role of management that let the organization man chart his exact position beneath a changeless corporate firmament, and fortify himself against tyrant bosses, scheming union reps, sullen line-workers and other beasts of the field. Best of all, the whole social order rested squarely and eternally on the shoulders of management. As Peter Drucker, the Aquinas of management theory, put it in 1954, “Management … is the organ of society specifically charged with making resources productive, that is, with the responsibility for organized economic advance.” But in the seventies, strange stars appeared in the sky, heralding unforetold plagues—stagflation, trade deficits and white-collar recession. Suddenly the management gurus’ pious verities of growth and career advancement turned to ashes in their mouths. What if, after all, managers had imbibed the royal jelly of business school training only to preside over economic decline?
Little by little, a chiliastic tone crept into business discourse. The book titles changed: fifties-era sobriety (The Practice of Mangement) gave way in the eighties and nineties to panic-mongering (Out of the Crisis) and nihilism (Thriving on Chaos). A vast literature on Leadership sprouted up to guide boards of directors seeking signs by which they might discern the corporate Messiah. And just when you’d think business writers would be toasting the death of Communism, instead you find them staring into the abyss, vying with each other to evoke images of havoc and doom. In his 1989 book The Age of Unreason, business futurist Charles Handy even compared the traditional business world to the Inca empire in that fearful moment when the Conquistadors’ sails first appeared on the horizon; he warns hidebound corporate bureaucrats that they too face a juggernaut of unimaginable violence. But to explain all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, you have to look beyond the alarms over “international competitiveness” and the fear of Japan, for these anxieties are dwarfed by one apocalyptic change in the relations of production: managers are obsolete.
Rational All Too Rational
The Vietnam War provided the first great shock to management’s ancien regime, with the whole world from the Mekong delta to the Mississippi delta seeming to rise up against the corporate imperium. As military defeat segued into economic decline—wage and price controls, inflation, the New Left’s challenge to business rule, and the occupation of the United States by Japan in the 1980s—the business community’s diagnosis of the Vietnam failure would be repeated almost verbatim in their later critiques of corporate America. Right wing critics linked the disaster in Indochina to the assembly-line techniques used to fight the war, sneering at the emphasis on “body counts” and “kill ratios.” Their complaints about the moral corruption of the army in Vietnam—not the war crimes, of course, but affronts to orderliness like heroin addiction and fragging—prefigured present-day obsessions with random drug testing, disgruntled postal workers and other symptoms of blue-collar degeneracy. The officer corps was branded a group of careerist hacks who focused on accounting targets and failed to imbue their men with an unshakeable will to conquer.
Business critics contrasted the Pentagon’s bean-counter mentality with the supposed zealotry of the Vietcong guerilla and his mystical devotion to Ho Chi Minh. They became convinced that the key to an American economic revival lay in worker fanaticism and the cult of heroic leadership, of a sort they believed lay just behind the Iron Curtain. Leadership manuals, whose far-flung quest for potent anecdotes has always bred a certain degree of doctrinal promiscuity, began to feature stirring accounts of Lenin’s boyhood alongside the usual profiles of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lee Iacocca. Tom Peters even titled one of his books Liberation Management, consciously emulating the rhetoric of left-wing insurgency.
For not even Ho himself could outdo American business writers in their contempt for Robert McNamara, who left the presidency of Ford Motor Company to run the Defense Department and the Vietnam War itself. Granted, McNamara, the epitome of a chief financial officer, was a hard man to warm up to; his favored intellectual pursuit was to spend a quiet evening with his wife and a few friends, taking and re-taking the SAT. It took no great leap of the imagination to blame the bloody debacle in Vietnam on the corporate ethos he embodied. So when today’s fashionable MBAs pour into the streets waving copies of Leadership Secrets of Subcommandante Marcos, they’re really locked in a struggle against Fordism itself—the whole complex of assembly lines, mass production and rationalized bureaucracy that define the American corporation at its apotheosis under McNamara and his ilk. But their insurrection isn’t really aimed at the weaknesses of Fordism (or its philosophical generalization, Scientific Management) as a production system, but rather at its implicit assault on managerial privilege.
The advent of computers completed the debasement of management, automating the executive suite as thoroughly as the assembly line.
Frederick Taylor codified the principle of time-motion studies around the turn of the century, and gave his name to the system of Scientific Management that sprouted from it. His ideas were embellished by disciples like Lillian and Frank Gilbreth, who coined the word therblig to denote the irreducible physical components of a work routine, simple actions like grasping a tool, releasing a tool, or moving it horizontally. Scientific managers tried to excise unnecessary therbligs from a job and streamline the remaining ones through worker training and rational equipment design. Workers hated the efficiency expert sent out to time their jobs and set the piece rate, who would show up at their coal-shoveling yard with white lab coat and stop-watch, like some satanic avatar of punctiliousness. Taylorism radically de-skilled labor, turning it into a series of robotic motions and suppressing workers’ volition and autonomy. Managers loved it, of course—until they realized it was doing the same thing to them.
For supervisors became Taylorized as well, transformed into narrow specialists with no more inherent right to power than the average machinist. The boss’s traditional virtues of pluck, fortitude, charisma and viciousness became entirely irrelevant to the task of organizing production. Any colorless technician with a stop-watch, a movie camera and a time-and-motion study manual could do the job; boosting profits was a simple matter of speeding up the job and lowering the piece-rate. The advent of computers completed the debasement of management, automating the executive suite as thoroughly as the assembly line. As managers found their aura of mystery and prestige dissipating, their psychological dislocation congealed into a sense of political disenfranchisement. Peter Drucker, writing in 1954, compared Scientific Management to Bolshevism, observing that “[Taylorism] is usually considered to have been anti-democratic. It was—in intent and direction—fully as much anti-aristocratic,” with its soulless enjoinder that “power is grounded in technical competence” rather than the “moral responsibility” that underlies aristocracy. His bitterness at the substitution of “technical competence” for noblesse oblige as the legitimating principle behind workplace authority is understandable. It reflects a nervous appreciation that, while powerless workers still have jobs, powerless aristocrats are totally useless and fit only for the guillotine.
Beyond Good and Evil
Taylorism has shattered managers’ sense of identity and purpose. Thus, when one surveys contemporary business literature, it’s hard to avoid the sensation of being caught up in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. Psychoanalysis, mysticism, religious tourism—all the traditional enthusiasms of an unhinged mind are represented here.
Some writers have responded to the dissolution of the corporate psyche with an attempt to rebuild a working managerial personality piece by piece. Howard Fast concentrates on the pre-verbal elements in Body Language in the Workplace, which teaches us to project truthfulness or loyalty by obscure physiological clues like handshake pressure and pupil dilation. Much of this work naggingly recaps pointers on corporate hygiene—don’t slouch, don’t fidget, don’t dress like a slut, don’t rape your underlings—that apparently need to be learned anew by each generation of MBAs. But Fast also reminds us of just how devalued a skill language acquisition really is in the modern corporation, where so much activity seems to be mediated by pheromone signalling, the reptilian fight-or-flight response, and other hind-brain functions.
Others focus on teaching managers to integrate higher-order cognitive capabilities into a process known as Creativity. You can actually take courses in Creativity at many business schools—Stanford’s features exercises in meditation, chanting, dream work, yoga and tarot-card reading. The acknowledged leader in the field of Creativity is Edward de Bono, whose clients include DuPont and Heineken. De Bono understands that Creativity is both the key to business success and the one faculty in shortest supply among managers. He realizes that managers possess neither the scientist’s training nor the worker’s long familiarity with production methods; they can draw on little in the way of knowledge or insight to come up with fruitful new ideas. Creativity is thus one area where Scientific Management might still bolster supervisors’ status, by letting them intervene in a process for which they have no native aptitude.
In its extreme form, managers’ dread of the real world leads them into the embrace of Eastern religions. Zen is the most popular haven for the lost souls of executives; indeed, Zen and the Art of Archery is required reading in a University of Chicago course on Management. This classic New Age text narrates the journey of an Englishman from Western Rationalism to the harmony of Buddhism by way of the bow and arrow. Zen archery is elusive and frustrating, the sort of archery where hitting the target is the surest sign of failure. Initiates must give up all thought of the bullseye and attain a state of utter purposelessness; only then can they be one with the universe of arrows-in-flight. The appeal of this philosophy to business writers is obvious. From a Zen perspective, managers’ sense of their own purposelessness changes from a burden into a transfiguration. To think of management as a task with achievable goals only reveals a certain degree of immaturity and spiritual pollution. Managing is really a state of being, a never-ending trek inwards towards the purification of the manager’s soul; we cannot— must not—scrutinize it by rationalist criteria of quality and efficiency.
But many leading management gurus have worked through their denial, bargaining, and rage to accept the obsolescence of managers. They acknowledge the crippling inefficiencies of competition, and present a far-reaching critique of the fragmented, hierarchical nature of work in a mass-production economy. According to the authors of the 1993 bestseller Reengineering the Corporation, “the old ways of doing business—the division of labor around which companies have been organized since Adam Smith first articulated the principle—simply don’t work anymore.”
The business-lit consensus wants a new paradigm, one that hearkens back to pre-modern artisan traditions—with each worker responsible for producing a meaningful artifact or service in a job that fuses labor with planning. Production should be managed by teams of line workers who organize product design, manufacturing, purchasing, wage levels and hiring. Specialization must be eradicated—each worker should learn to perform many tasks; the few coordinating positions that remain should rotate amongst workers. Companies should integrate vertically with their suppliers and customers, sharing information and technology; contracts should be awarded on the basis of a company’s willingness to work cooperatively, rather than going to the lowest bidder. W. Edwards Deming, the management über-guru who claimed to have invented Japan, even wants companies to team up with their own competitors to jointly develop technology and manufacturing processes. All these writers note impressive gains in productivity and product quality in companies that adopt these principles. Truly rational planning, they say, requires integrated discussion and feedback between everyone from the research scientist to the spotwelder; it can’t be done when workers are blinkered and pigeonholed by Scientific Management.
It may seem a strange and hopeful sign when corporate mouthpieces plagiarize Emma Goldman. But despite the iconoclastic tone of their prescriptions, the fundamental impulse motivating business writers is a reactionary one—an attempt by managerial aristocracy to enlist assembly-line democracy in the war against Taylorism. But how can such a bizarre alliance survive its internal contradictions? For in their panic at creeping proletarianization, supervisors seem to have forgotten that in this case, the enemy of their enemy is also their executioner. In the workplace of tomorrow, all the useful work—innovation, planning and production—will proceed in a cooperative and egalitarian way. But then how can capitalism, based as it is on cruel inequalities of wealth and power, survive? How can the business literature rationalize the privileges of a managerial élite while it prophesies the End of Management?
To begin with, where will all the bosses go? To solve this conundrum, management theorists invoke the Law of Conservation of Supervisors: the abolition of middle management will be cancelled out by an equal and opposite reaction—“corporate downsizing.” Corporations will shrink—shedding divisions, plants and employees—while redundant middle managers emerge from their tombs as hard-driving CEO’s at a swarm of minuscule spin-off and start-up companies that contract for the services the big companies used to perform under one roof. But while middle managers mutate into a class of small-time entrepreneurs, they still must justify their existence in a world where the CEO is even further removed from useful occupation than the foreman. Even in the Fortune 500, upper management has no economic function beyond the traditional boardroom prerogatives of looting the pension fund and relocating to Mexico; in the especially backward, exploitative world of small business, the boss is just the least productive member of the least productive sector in the economy.
The great challenge of business literature is thus to rejuvenate a now superfluous business class by reconstructing the mystique of the entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs must cast off the old husk of managerialism and cultivate their mysterious talents as leaders and visionaries. Part shaman, part huckster, the born-again entrepreneur possesses the gift of oracular communion with the murky forces of market trends, and stands ready to exploit it with the most shameless opportunism. Business missionaries have renounced the old covenant of production quotas and cost-cutting; the central tenets of the entrepreneur’s new catechism are “marketing,” “sales,” “customer service,” and “flexible labor markets.” But this complex of euphemisms is really just a smoke-screen concealing a retreat to capitalism’s most antique and corrosive traditions of thought-control and worker oppression. For while business-lit hails progressive reforms in production, it uses the new creed of entrepreneurialism to shackle these reforms in the service of an age-old regime of futile hierarchy and mindless consumption.
Thus Spake Tom Peters
Like all religions, entrepreneurialism requires more than a mere assertion of faith. It carries with it a comprehensive worldview—its own science, its own history, its own art. At its epistemological core it tries to explain managers’ sense of disorientation by focusing on the new information technology: the growing flood of knowledge and computing power, far from making things more stable and predictable, will make the world profoundly evanescent and unknowable. Around this key non-sequitur business writers intone a litany of chance, uncertainty and upheaval; they decry “planning” as the apostasy of union negotiators and government regulators. Only the gods know what the morrow will bring, and only the entrepreneur can divine their intent.
In this vein, Tom Peters draws an analogy between anti-rational entrepreneurialism’s crusade against Taylorism, and the triumph of quantum mechanics, which “has trumped Newtonian physics.” Newton’s orderly, calculable landscape of billiard balls and tidily orbiting satellites has given way to the misty, flickering world of wave-particle duality, where companies are both solvent and bankrupt until you do an audit. Thus, any attempt to plan and stabilize the corporate world defies the laws of nature at the subatomic level. Peters’s mind is so hugely blown by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that he recklessly links it with literary post-modernism, demonstrating just how dangerous the uncontrolled spread of critical theory can be:
To read Max Frisch, Paul Bowles, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anton Chekhov, Jane Smiley, Malcolm Lowry, or Norman Mailer is to consume a rich diet of relationships, chance, interconnectedness, muons, songlines, things large within small, small within large, things within things that nonetheless encompass things that are beyond them. Perhaps there are Cartesian novels, hierarchical novels, Newtonian novels. If so, one presumes that they have been quickly—and mercifully—consigned to literature’s dustbin.
A bit less hallucinatory, John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene argue in Megatrends 2000 that physics is yesterday’s news compared to the even trendier pop-science imagery of “the Age of Biology,” where the stale old categories of “gender” and “species” are now up for grabs. Business needs “the models and metaphors of biology to help us understand today’s dilemmas and opportunities”—a conceptual shift to buzzwords like “growth,” “evolution,” “feedback,” and “symbiosis” (although they seemed to miss other bio-metaphors like “parasite” and “lemming”). The real payoff from these new ways of thinking is a psychic openness to novel products and services, from Snow-max, a genetically-engineered protein snow for ski-resorts, to avast unmet demand for ethicists to ponder the morality of harvesting organs from the brain-dead.
To the apostles of entrepreneurialism, progress means the constant acceleration of competition as a mystical end in itself.
Business writers have thoroughly ransacked the literature of pseudo-history in their search for entrepreneurialism’s roots. Any historiography maps the preoccupations of the present onto the past; business-lit history does so in a peculiarly charming way, offering guileless anachronisms like “Cortes had a personality that we would describe today as upbeat,” and “Louis XI ruled the Dauphiné like an up-and-coming corporate vice president made general manager of a separate division.” But disturbingly, the historical role-models business writers lionize tend overwhelmingly toward, well, predators—nomadic warriors, to be exact, occasionally sympathetic (as in Emmett Murphy’s The Genius of Sitting Bull), but usually odious (Wess Roberts’s Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, complete with a cover blurb from H. Ross Perot stating that “the principles are timeless.”) Should today’s firms emulate civilizations whose history consists of endless cycles of overgrazing, famine and pillage? Yes (I mean, YES!!!), says Tom Peters, who recommends Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde as a corporate model. The Mongols’ basic unit of organization, the “group of freelance bandits,” admirably adapted itself to conditions of stress and chaos, and fostered a climate of egalitarianism under a heroic leadership. They easily conquered the agrarian civilizations, who foolishly relied on crop-growing to ensure a stable food supply—a mistake that bred timidity, feudalism and slavery.
Peters uses similar terms to celebrate modern-day entrepreneurs, singing arias to their barbarian manliness and camaraderie as they gallop through burning villages, ponies laden with swag, lords of a “chaotic” economy where bandit companies ride down the dispirited weaklings who crave order and security. From this overarching metaphor, business writers’ draw an appalling vision of the future. Once, the word “progress” meant a general advance of civilization, a general accretion of wealth, knowledge, leisure and neighborliness. No more. To the apostles of entrepreneurialism, progress means the constant acceleration of competition as a mystical end in itself, marching towards a zero-sum Valhalla where winners win and losers lose. Humanity’s toil has no other end than the carving of new market niches, fetid hatcheries where a cancerous proliferation of product lines germinate and devour one another.
This premise leads business writers to emphasize rapid product introduction as a key to corporate success. According to Peters, healthy corporations are roiling with hives of gutsy executives called “product champions,” each one enraptured by a delphic vision of superficial novelty—perhaps of a soft drink with an advanced sweetener or unprecedented hue—and willing to go to the wall to bring it to market. But as entrepreneurs offer products increasingly alike and increasingly remote from the satisfaction of human needs, they find it hard to tell if any given product will find a market. Marketing becomes a probabilistic phenomenon, like radioactive decay; all a company can do is accelerate the pace and volume of product introductions and pray that someone, somewhere, will succumb to their advertising and find a use for one of them.
Today’s post-modern entrepreneurs thus exhort their minions to a life of unexamined freneticism. “We eat change for breakfast!” sputters one of Tom Peters’ favorite executives. “Change something, anything, each day. Just start it, do something!” Peters asks Ted Turner to expound on his business philosophy, and is floored by Turner’s guttural response: “Do It!” But doubts sometimes gnaw at executives. Do what? they may wonder. And whatever It is, why should they Do It in the first place? Peters warns executives never to ask such things, never to let their hands fall idle for an instant lest demoralization and obsolescence creep in. For in the split second it takes merely to pose these questions, their companies have already fallen uncounted generations behind in the cycle of new product development. White collar employment is driven by the pulsing engine of product differentiation, so executives should be grateful that free markets demand just this sort of anarchic bustle. After all, asks Peters, “What controller would have foreseen the ‘need’ for 41 varieties of Tylenol?” (with the attendant 41 product champions.) We already know the answer: no one with the rational goal of relieving headaches would countenance this “need”—which is why the economy can’t be left in the irresponsible hands of “controllers.”
Birth of Tragedy
“Half the people, paid double, working twice as hard, with three times the output.” According to Charles Handy in his book The Age of Unreason, that sums up life for the “high wage, high skill” workers at the small, furiously competitive information-age companies of tomorrow. But what’s really in it for the workers?
Small businesses are so precarious that workers put up with low pay and long hours just to stave off bankruptcy.
You might be sorry you asked. Business writers warn that only the most fanatical labor discipline can satisfy today’s imperious consumers; the entrepreneur’s paramount responsibility, indeed his raison d’etre, is to enforce that discipline. Boyett and Conn write that “Workers will be expected to do everything absolutely right, the first time and every time…. Workplace 2000 will tolerate no mistakes, no errors, no waste, anywhere. Zero. None. Period.” Most people will work for small businesses, whose demands for perfection require a complete subordination of the worker’s will to the goals of the company. “[T]hese ‘work hard, play hard’ companies want nothing less than total responsibility and over-the-edge loyalty … the line between work and play, the line between public and private becomes fuzzy.” Writers return again and again to images of “family” to convey the totalizing character of social indoctrination in the new workplace. But does their mealy-mouthed rhetoric of conciliation, closeness and self-fulfillment conceal a sinister new totalitarianism? Will the new “quality circles” and “pride teams” really empower workers, or subject them instead to intense exploitation and collective punishment at the hands of a benevolent “leader”?
Tom Peters showcases the new dispensation in a profile of Johnsonville Foods, a sausage company in Wisconsin. If you guessed that this business has something to do with making meat a little easier to swallow, try again. At Johnsonville, self-actualization is Job One. “We’re here to give [workers] an opportunity to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve in life,” says CEO Ralph Stayer, who adds that “watching people grow is my number one joy.” Employees (excuse me, “members”) are organized into self-managing work teams that control virtually every aspect of the business; the company even helps pay for continuing education. “Look, anything you learn means you’re using your head more,” says one line-worker. “You’re engaged. And if you’re more engaged, then the chances are you’ll make a better sausage.” And make them they do: one worker even cooked up some novel sausages for a new client—in his own basement! Soaring profits, smiling faces, growing workers—and yet, is there darkness at noon? Well, Peters admits, “teammates deal harshly with any who choose to opt out of the ‘personal growth business’”—those who can’t transcend themselves through sausage products. “People who didn’t buy into it, given peer pressure, got out,” says one executive. “Some needed a little help to make the decision,” recalls another. “There were a lot on the fence, there were a lot on the wrong side of the fence. There’s a weeding process. Some drop by the wayside.” Hmm. “Harsh” peer pressure … a big-brotherly CEO … that chilling vagueness as to the fate offence-sitters … what exactly is in room 101, anyway?
And don’t put too much stock in being “paid double.” Handy gives us a pointed reminder that blossoming sectors like professional service firms now sub-contract their work to the Third World, so that data-entry clerks in London must compete with their Taiwanese counterparts working for a small fraction of the wage. High pay is certainly not on their employer’s agendas. On the bright side, kids may enjoy a drop in their unemployment rate, say Naisbitt and Aburdene in Megatrends 2000, who call for “liberalized” child labor laws. “What’s so bad,” they ask, “about a 14-year-old working limited hours after school?” Especially given the high wage, high skill jobs typically offered to 14-year-olds.
Business writers celebrate the small firms that will overrun the economy as “scrappy” and “innovative”—but “desperate” and “archaic” might be better terms. As liberal economist Bennett Harrison notes in his book Lean and Mean, most new small companies fail within a few years, and, unlike the corporate behemoths, few can afford to invest in new technology and research. In the eyes of the business community, their saving grace is labor discipline (“employee commitment”). Small businesses are so precarious that workers put up with low pay and long hours just to stave off bankruptcy. But as corporate downsizing proceeds, job security is a thing of the past. In return for “over-the-edge loyalty,” workers can expect a pink slip out of the blue—such is the imperative of “labor-market flexibility.” Naisbitt and Aburdene regard the very concept of job security as a perverse joke, snickering that “Loyalty is a quaint memory of the industrial past, a bone in the throat of hundreds of thousands of auto and steelworkers who thought it went both ways.” Conn and Boyett explain that employees in Workplace 2000 must prepare for frequent, extended periods of unemployment and expect to “change careers” at least five times before retiring. They suggest that “all Americans will need to keep a close watch on the financial performance of the small company or business unit that employs them,” to avoid being caught by surprise when it abruptly folds.
Even in the high tech sectors, Workplace 2000 looks less like the 21st century than the 19th. As Bennett Harrison points out, the gleaming office parks of Silicon Valley rest on a foundation of Dickensian assembly plants, staffed by poverty-stricken immigrants working under unsafe conditions, for long hours and low pay. And the trendy clothing boutiques that dazzle suburban mall-goers and business writers alike are mainly supplied by Third World sweatshops, where 10-year-olds work 60 hour weeks so that apparel manufacturers can “make their companies fun again.”
But even as business élites hold entire regions of the world hostage under threat of capital strike, their position may be more tenuous than ever before. Most people are inherently conservative, in the best sense of the word. If they’re given a chance they may reject the worship of “unreason,” “change,” and “chaos” they may refuse to be bits of debris swept along by the latest “megatrend” they may decide to defend their farms and villages against the Mongol hordes thundering down on them. For as workers take over the shopfloor, what’s to stop them from taking over the entire company, or from intervening in the management of the economy as a whole?
If that happens, they may embrace an alternative vision of progress. They may want to channel their surpluses into greater job security and shorter hours; into liveable cities instead of shoppable suburbs; into a vibrant natural environment instead of a clear-cut RV park; into a rich, collective public life that all can freely partake of, instead of the pre-processed, rent-by-the-hour lifestyle of the virtual-reality helmet. This is the nightmare that haunts Business: That to the cult of competitiveness, we will oppose the ethic of solidarity; that we will conclude that we can eat enough sausage, and drink enough beer; that we will gaze at that mountain of Moon Pies and, in the end, just walk away.
Thus Spake Leona Helmsley
If managers have been ousted from their exalted position by new relations of production, perhaps they can be restored to it by the relations of consumption. This hope animates one of Business’ most entrancing fetishes, Customer Service. In the entrepreneur’s pantheon, the customers reign supreme. Business writers worship these deities—their exacting standards, their fickle tastes, their ceaseless trawling for new stuff to buy and not buy. Workers might have thought that egalitarian, team-based production would mean a more relaxed and humane workplace. No such luck, apparently, since today’s customers make Leona Helmsley seem lenient, according to the authors of Workplace 2000:
Responsiveness/fast delivery. “I want what I want when I want it,” said our customers. “I don’t want to have to wait. I don’t want to have to stand in lines. I don’t want to have to come back next week or next month because ‘you think it might be in by then.’ Give me what I want now or I’ll go elsewhere.”
Commitment/caring. “Show me you care. Don’t treat me like a number. Don’t treat me like you hate to see me coming. Appreciate me and empathize with my needs, my cares and my concerns,” customers told us. “Accommodate me. Don’t make me feel like a number [sic] or make me adjust my life (or even my mood) to accommodate your company or your employees.”
Satisfying such profoundly self-absorbed, narcissistic customers will require a particularly sweaty, degrading sort of emotional work. According to Tom Peters, employees must ingratiate themselves by “going belly-to-belly with customers,” and “Intertwining with customers in ever more intimate ways.” The metaphor of worker as temple prostitute reflects how crucially marketing and sales depend on a silken mind-fuck. In the retailing demi-monde, everyone will be an emotional worker according to Charles Handy (who extolls “Purpose, Pattern and People—the three P’s at the the heart of life”). The tasks of ordering and distributing retail goods will soon be highly automated; consumers will place orders with their personal computers and pick up the merchandise at central warehouses. But against all odds, retail stores will persist: “Personal shopping on Main Street will become a leisure activity with all the frills and fancies.” Thus shopping, a useless relic in its own right, will take on some of the aura of an S-M psychodrama, with clients mounting bold displays of aristocratic entitlement against a backdrop of deferrential employees.
Business writers pump up the customer service fad as a sort of war between “customers” and their “employee” oppressors. In Workplace 2000, Joseph Boyett and Henry Conn use the word “criminal” to describe customer service in the ’70s and ’80s:
Americans waited hours in check-out lines while other registers were closed and clerks who could have opened those registers talked on the phone to their friends. Our requests for help were met with a blank stare and “It’s not my department” or “I don’t know.…” The attitude of too many employees was, “This would be a great business if it weren’t for all the damned customers.”
But consumer petulance always seems focused on rude waiters, lounging cashiers, ape-like baggage handlers, and other working-class effigies, which suggests that the Customer Service movement is really concerned with a more conventionally Marxist form of class antagonism.
The business literature has sworn a holy war against this epidemic of bad attitude in the workforce. Tom Peters revels in creepy anecdotes about absolutely inescapable customer service, like the Frito-Lays potato-chip salesmen who are required to visit every single one of their clients every single day. Or the Fed-Ex courier who, in the midst of a delivery, “[G]rabbed the coffee cup I’d left perilously on the roof of the car and brought it into the house…. It was a little ‘act’ of caring.” And don’t get Peters going on hotel service. He spends two pages bitching out one resort for slow room service, too-short telephone cords, and dirty ash trays, then goes slack-jawed with admiration at the Disneyland Marriott when he spots workers washing the leaves of the potted plants in the lobby at 4:45am. He even opens his book In Search of Excellence with an ode to Washington’s Four Seasons Hotel simply because the concierge there remembered his name (although we get the feeling that Peters is a difficult guest to forget). In these passages, Peters seems to recoil from every echo of the revolution—the French Revolution, that is. He seems to pine for a simulacrum of the seigneurial economy, structured around extravagant displays of personal obligation and dependency, where liveried menials stand poised to sop up every drop of coffee that dribbles from their masters’ lips.