Sunday, December 03, 2006
Solidarity Vs. Aspiration
The critical barrier to the development of a strong "white collar" trade union has not been erected by either our legislators or our employers. We put it there ourselves, and we call it "personal ambition". Most of us are college educated, and like to see ourselves as professionals of one sort of another. Most of us see ourselves as skilled, intelligent and hard-working, and - no matter how shoddily the corporate world treats us - we stubbornly retain the hope that someday, somewhere, an employer will see in us our potential to rise above the common herd. We will finally get that promotion, that special project, or that corner office with its glorious view. It surely will happen someday - we think. Despite how starry-eyed we might be about our own aspirations, we have - or should have - enough common sense to realize that our colleagues have aspirations of their own, in many cases identical to ours. Common sense also dictates that not all of us can succeed. As a famous writer once put it, "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." Consequently, we keep our distance from our competitors and selfishly close in on our goals. Our competitors may occasionally cooperate with us, but the only entity that can give us what we really want is not a human being, but a thing - The Company. Our bosses encourage us to give our loyalty first and foremost to that thing, and only secondarily to each other. The inscrutable remoteness and abstraction of The Company only make it seem more god-like, all the more worthy of our idolatry.
But The Company is a savage god which rewards us no longer. The Company remains oblivious to our sacrifices, and cruelly arbitrary in its punishments. While we personalize this thing called The Company as though it were a just and caring anthropomorphic god, The Company objectifies the human beings that work for it, turning us instead into things. We are no longer members of a community that our employers wish to preserve. We are at once both capital equipment that depreciates, and interchangeable parts that can be replaced with ease. Our employers have given us the same message for generations - that we, too, have the capacity to rise within The Company, slough off the chrysalis of the white collar drone, and cross over into the world of management, towards glittering wealth and success. This is the myth that has compelled our worship of The Company, and it is now more a myth than ever.
The problem is that, even once we have become disillusioned with The Company, and have become - in effect - corporate atheists, our ambitions remain. We were raised with them and they are hard to get rid off. When we lose our faith in The Company, which we often do collectively, in great numbers all at once, we rarely turn to each other for support. We simply direct our aspirations somewhere else. Whether we choose to start our own little business, or go to law school, or scout around for that B&B in Nova Scotia to invest in, once again we are pursuing our own goals, by ourselves, almost entirely alone. Thousands of our colleagues may be cast out of the corporate Eden forever, mired for the rest of their lives in shame and disappointment. But not us - we won't let that happen to us. Or, rather, I won't let it happen to me, and you won't let it happen to you. Meanwhile, it happens more readily to all of us simply because we don't have to courage to recognize our kinship and help each other.
Labor unions in the past turned the stigma of "class inferiority" into a rock solid sense of comradeship that enabled them to fight their overlords with total unity, while immunizing them from the delusion that they would ever be allowed to join the ranks of their "superiors". We do not yet have that hard-won realism. We, whose mothers so fatally taught us that we could be anything we wanted to be, may never have that central psychological strength.
I myself have no idea how the besieged "white collar" classes can achieve the necessary solidarity. All I know is that we need it. Some movements on the behalf of our kind seem to focus unduly on "support groups", as though a "white collar" union were something like Alcoholic Anonymous or a Cancers Survivors group - an organization for victims rather than victors. I don't think that's quite the right approach. On the same token, forcing college-educated latent idealists like ourselves into the working class sensibility of a traditional labor union isn't the right approach either. For one thing, it is slightly vindictive and farcically inappropriate, a little like drafting frat boys and poets into basic training just to show them how the other half lives. Any organization that intends to exploit the full potential of the white collar mind-set must utilize its particular skills and pretensions. The mode of collective action that would be best for us might be one that allows us to act not so much collectively, but in unison, each pursuing his or her own strategy of resistance independently, but towards the same ends. The idea of resistance is key. We must act to contravene The Company even it endeavors to compel our compliance. The idea of The Company, with its seductive false promise that we might rise up the ladder and become - like the children of Lake Wobegon - all above-average, is a kind of diffused charisma. As the sociologist Max Weber taught us, the charisma of authority is "bureaucratized" into all corners of an organization to compel the obedience of everyone who works for it. It would behoove us to invest the corporate world with our own counter-charisma - the charisma, perhaps, of the outlaw or the rebel - to resist the charisma of The Company. We should become intrapreneurs with a vengeance, exploiting the structure and the resources of The Company as much for ourselves and our comrades as for our employers. We should seize The Company away from our employers, one subtle tactic at a time, and annex it with the pragmatic grandiosity of guerrillas. It is, after all, already territory we occupy.