- Created on 11 March 2004
- 28 October 2010
By David Edwards
The Catastrophe Of Corporate Work
My early sense that people had a tendency to trade their authenticity for a socially approved, false version of happiness was reinforced mightily when I entered the world of business.
Here the uniformity of dress and manner, the subordination of sincerity and authenticity to the requirements of profit, were totally open. In the mid-80s, while working in telesales for a US computer company - my first real corporate job - I wrote a story called 'Hiya!':
"'Hiya!' she beams, all cherry-lipsticked lips and teeth. From her ears, great power-earrings dangle over giant power-necklace. She speaks: 'It's time to start feeling good about next year's sales targets!'
"We see it every day and hear it everywhere, and it makes us feel the way elephants look when they are made to perform tricks in the circus: 'It's time to start feeling good about next year's sales targets!' It's time to start feeling good about the drab, monotonous, trivial, repetitive, meaningless, alienated, inhuman prison of our work that none of us, including her, believes in."
My experience of business was of stress and futility, but above all of boredom: the hamster-wheel commute to work, the suit-uniform I had to wear - with a colourful tie as a fig leaf of 'individualism' - the mindless, repetitive tasks empty of interest; it was all unimaginably boring.
What bothered me most was the extent to which we were deprived of even the most basic freedoms at work. After all, the companies I worked for were relentlessly pursuing maximum revenue at minimum cost in minimum time. It seemed to me that, under pressure of these corporate priorities, we had to forever shape our words and actions - our smiles, handshakes, body language, what we wore, what we said, how we said it - to ensure that we looked professional, energetic, committed. While working as a marketing manager, I wrote a piece called 'Dear Chairman':
"We travelled back from the sales meeting together, the company chairman and I. We had been together all day but we hadn't really talked at all. I had just been acting, trying to look youthful, enthusiastic and competent; amiable but not sycophantic; assertive but not threatening. We talked about how the meeting had gone, and it had gone well, and we discussed our strategy and who would be tasked to fulfil which elements.
"I was pleased it had gone well and we talked more about other business stuff but, as always with me, it was not enough. I am never able to find it enough and the longer I find myself pretending I do, the more I feel a need to go beyond it. Eventually, I find myself urging the conversation in a different direction, either through humour or by way of an interested, passionate question. I try to stimulate a response in the other person, to shift them beyond the grey concerns of everyday business life and talk to them as people, as human beings. And I am not always, if ever, sure what I actually mean by this. I asked him as he drove:
'How long are you going to do this for, Dave?'
'What do you mean?'
'Well, you seem to put a lot into it, you know: hours, effort. What are you hoping it'll lead to?'
"I was on dangerous ground. Beneath the acceptable, career-development sense of the question, I was in fact really asking why the hell he was doing it, what was the bloody point of it, what was his answer to it all, what made it worthwhile for him? Because, as for myself, I did not know.
"He said he hoped, you know, to grow the company, sell it off and get a professorship in a business school. But he answered in the same routine way that he talked about day-to-day things. It seemed an off-pat answer; it didn't seem to concern him deeply, as if he had stopped really thinking about it, or had never started. And, above all, significantly, he did not ask me what I hoped to get out of it. He didn't seem to see me as a human being, as an individual. I felt he didn't know why he was doing what he was doing and that he didn't care either. I felt he didn't care about thinking about +anything+ deeply. It was as if that part of him was sealed off. As if, even if you really tried, you could not communicate with the heart of him, engage his interest in the subject of life beyond the immediate life in front of our noses."
Later, I wrote this in a piece called 'What It Is About Our Work That Drives Us Mad':
"But this is why it drives you mad - every smile, every look, every move of the body, was a tool, a spanner, a screwdriver, a ratchet, fixing-up the sale. This is why it drives you mad, because we are living beings who are alone and desperately need to communicate - really, honestly, truly, authentically, properly - we desperately need our words, smiles and movements to be ends in themselves. And it is like this with everyone we meet, all day, every day. This is why it drives us mad."
Our deepest needs - for truth, sincerity, love - are in fundamental collision with the logic of business. We cannot be genuinely sincere, honest, loving +and+ have maximised profits as our ultimate priority! There's no room for compromise here - profits +must+ come first - as Noam Chomsky points out:
"The chairman of the board may sincerely believe that his every waking moment is dedicated to serving human needs. Were he to act on these delusions instead of pursuing profit and market share, he would no longer be chairman of the board." (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions - Thought Control in Democratic Societies, Pluto Press, 1991, p.19)
It is for precisely this reason that deeper human values have no place at work. It is not just that we need to be indifferent to our humanity - renamed 'sentimentality' - if we are to be successful; we need to be aggressively focused in exactly the opposite cynical, ruthless direction.
For me, this pressure to be what business needed me to be, even down to the fine details of behaviour and thought, was a kind of imprisonment, with the bars experienced as emptiness, futility and boredom.
In October 1997, the Observer reported:
"Researchers at the University of Salford estimate that workers fake or suppress emotions in no fewer than a quarter of their conversations with colleagues and customers. According to psychologist Sandi Mann people who are forced into chronic insincerity can suffer from poor self-esteem, depression and cynicism as well as physical conditions such as headaches, sexual dysfunction and drug dependency. 'Burnout' is another consequence. Its hallmarks are emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (where the sufferer starts to see others as objects rather than people) and a loss of satisfaction in personal achievements." (The Observer, January 19, 1997)
Worse still, because corporate culture dominates the production of most of what we see, hear and read, what +really+ matters in human terms has been largely filtered from mainstream culture because it conflicts with the inherently absurd and superficial values of profitable consumerism. Instead, we are swamped with maddening trivia - sex, soaps, celebrities, sport - better accommodated to the trivial corporate version of reality.
Erich Fromm put it well:
"Modern man exhibits an amazing lack of realism for all that matters. For the meaning of life and death, for happiness and suffering, for feeling and serious thought. He has covered up the whole reality of human existence and replaced it with his artificial, prettified picture of pseudo-reality, not too different from the savages [sic] who lost their land and freedom for glittering glass beads." (Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart and Winston, 1955)
We often imagine that on first encountering European civilisation, the people who exchanged their freedom for "glittering glass beads" must have been, above all, amazed and impressed by our sophistication, our technology. Not so. Kirkpatrick Sale writes of the Tainos' first encounters with Cristobal Colon and his men in 1492:
"What perplexed the Tainos of Espanola most about the strange white people from the large ships was not their violence, not even their greed, nor in fact their peculiar attitudes toward property, but rather their coldness, their hardness, their lack of love." (Sale, The Conquest of Paradise, Papermac, 1992, p.151)
My sense that society somehow manages to subordinate life and truth to some allegedly 'higher' goal - an idea that initially concerned me as a personal problem - was revealed as an overwhelmingly political problem during the 1980s when I began learning about the gathering environmental storm. It was astonishing to me that clear, rational warnings of approaching environmental collapse were not being reflected in the media and wider culture.
Again, just as everyone took it for granted that happiness was rooted in conformist production and consumption - even though almost no-one seemed to achieve happiness that way - so business was presented as a progressive force for good, even though the natural world could clearly not, as a matter of logic, withstand its endless foot-to-the-floor economic growth.
To read of climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, and so on, and then to witness the advertisers' smiling, high-tech promises of 'progress', set up a kind of tectonic collision in my mind. What I had previously assumed was 'normal' now struck me as fundamentally divorced from reality, to the extent that 'normal' might actually be considered insane.
To my mind, the lie of materialist happiness and the lie of corporate rationality were of a piece: they were both giant manufactured illusions - Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky brilliantly explained why and how in their sublime book Manufacturing Consent. I felt deeply what Fromm called the "pathology of normalcy".
On the one hand, after long years of exam-taking at school and college, I was attempting to work my way up a business ladder to achieve conventional 'success'. But now it seemed to me that my entire career was rooted in ideas of happiness and progress that were catastrophically mistaken.
For several years I worked in the West End of London setting up a small business within a large transnational corporation. Although my job was quite entrepreneurial in nature, at lunchtimes I would go to the now defunct Books For A Change on Charing Cross Road and buy books by people like Fromm, Fritjof Capra, E.F. Schumacher and Leopold Khor describing the fundamental clash between corporate capitalism and global environmental limits. I would then return to business meetings and pretend I was passionately committed to growing the business I was setting up. Fortunately, I had always seen business as a sort of comical farce, so it was not particularly stressful for me to continue my pretence of taking it seriously while all these ideas were running around my head.
This schizophrenic life continued for several years until I stumbled across the work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell.
Campbell argued that when individuals subordinate what they truly are to what society says they are +supposed+ to be - in the name of king, country, power, profit, and so on - their world becomes a "wasteland". What was so important about Campbell's argument was that he was referring to both the inner and outer worlds. First, there is the inner wasteland:
"The profession of views that are not one's own and the living of life according to such views - no matter what the resultant sense of social participation, fulfilment, or even euphoria may be - eventuates inevitably in self-loss and falsification... 'Out there' we are not ourselves, but at best what we are expected to be, and at worst what we have got to be." (Campbell, Creative Mythology, Penguin, 1968, p.86)
But mythology also teaches that when enough hearts are reduced to this barren desert of "dry stones" - when enough of us subordinate the life and truth inside us to some purportedly higher goal - the world around us is also reduced to a wasteland. Karl Marx pointed out that capital, ultimately, is a dead thing. And so a society that serves dead capital, rather than life, generates a kind of deadness in both the hearts of its citizens and in the world around it.
To serve greed is to serve the forces that destroy life. To serve the unrestrained, limitless greed of corporate capitalism is to serve limitless death and destruction. The servants of profit commuting to work in their black suits with their dead hearts are creating the conditions for death in the world around us. It is only because we are willing to suffocate the life in ourselves that the great engines of greed can transform the environment around us into a wasteland.
It is only because a million of us have dead hearts that a million Iraqi civilians can be killed by our sanctions in the name of oil. It is why death squads can be returned by US marines to the streets of Haiti without anyone batting an eye. It is why one-quarter of all living animals and plants will be committed to extinction by 2050. It is why corporate journalism pours the death of lies and deception into the world.
Campbell insisted that the antidote to the personal and political wasteland lies in rejecting what we are +supposed+ to do and be, and instead discovering what it is we really love to do and be, because this is where we are truly alive. In conversation with Bill Moyers, Campbell said:
"You may have a success in life, but then just think of it - what kind of life was it? What good was it - you've never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don't let anyone throw you off." (The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, p.118)
"My general formula for my students is 'Follow your bliss.' Find where it is, and don't be afraid to follow it... In doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalises, there's no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, and who's on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it's alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself." (Ibid, p.149)
Making the connection between the wasteland I had always experienced as a corporate cog and the literal wasteland I knew was spreading in the world outside, had an enormous impact. When I realised that the solution to both was to refuse to accept the separation between 'appearance' and 'being', to reject highly-paid conformity and instead "follow my bliss", everything fell into place. It then became easy to do what had previously seemed completely impossible - to abandon everything I had invested in my education and career, and walk away.
The Hidden Heart Of Happiness
I think it is easy to be misled by Campbell's exhortation that we "follow our bliss". Westerners trained to hedonism may well imagine that this involves simply kicking back! Campbell was quite clear that by "bliss", he did not mean merely pleasurable self-indulgence. In fact he was talking about the sense of well-being that arises precisely when we turn away from selfish pursuits.
In our Media Alerts we have shown how facts and opinions threatening powerful interests tend to be filtered from social discourse. As we would expect, this filtering effect tends to increase to the extent that a fact or idea is damaging to a larger number of powerful interests. As a result, an idea that completely flies in the face of the whole basis of profit-maximising and social control will likely be almost completely suppressed. I believe that this explains the absence of perhaps the most fundamental and important debate of all concerning human morality and happiness.
In our society we are presented with essentially two alternatives when it comes to living our lives: we are told we can pursue personal happiness by attempting to satisfy our needs and wants. On the other hand - and this is called the 'moral' alternative - we can, to a greater or lesser extent, sacrifice some of our self-interest in attempting to help other people. The choice, we are told, lies essentially between selfish happiness and moral self-sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, not many people choose the latter.
What is so astonishing to me is that this set of choices excludes a vitally important third possibility. Despite its importance, and despite the fact that it lies at the very heart of some of the most sophisticated systems of thought in all human culture, it is almost completely unknown to our society. This is the argument:
"When your attitude is transformed so that you do everything for others, to pacify their suffering and obtain their happiness, there is real satisfaction and peace in your heart." (Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Door to Satisfaction, Wisdom Books, 1994, p.111)
"There is no doubt that kindness is the key to happiness. In wishing others well and trying to help them we become happy ourselves." (Geshe Sonam Rinchen, The Bodhisattva Vow, Snow Lion, 2000, p.18)
The ancient philosopher Gampopa put it this way:
"If everything you do with your body, speech, and mind is done for the benefit of others, there is no need to do anything more for your own benefit because the one is included in the other." (Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, The Instructions of Gampopa, Snow Lion, 1996, p.143)
This argument turns our common sense thinking on its head. Although we are convinced that vigorous self-concern is the obvious root of happiness, in fact, it is argued here, it is precisely this self-concern that is the root of +unhappiness+.
In reality, and ironically, working for the benefit of others - carrying this kindly and compassionate motivation into whatever work we are doing, and into the decisions we make about which work we are willing to do - generates the psychological conditions conducive to the arising of personal happiness. Our bliss, it turns out, is found in compassion.
Can we imagine an idea +less+ suited to our corporate-capitalist culture rooted in the promotion and exploitation of greed?
But why should focusing on our own happiness serve to make us unhappy?
Seeking happiness through self-concern involves focusing on our own needs and wants which, in essence, are problems. Self-concern therefore effectively places a magnifying glass over these problems. The moment we focus on our need for happiness - 'I need love', 'I'm lonely', 'It's January again and I'm +still+ stuck in this job', 'I've got to move away from here', 'This is all my life will ever be!' - our suffering increases. The moment we switch that focus and think or act out of a motivation to help others, our suffering decreases. Selfishness is like a lens that focuses on, and magnifies, our problems - it magnifies our unhappiness.
If our concern is for the well-being of others, our own problems seem far less significant and painful. Problems are not concrete blocks existing 'out there' in the world; they are ideational constructs. If in my mind I set my problem alongside the worse problems of others, my problem becomes smaller in my mind. Kindness and compassion literally have the effect of diminishing our problems in our mind, and so of increasing our happiness and sense of well-being.
It seems to me that many of our problems, both personal and political, are firmly rooted in an almost religious faith in the power of greedy self-concern to deliver happiness - the harder we try, the more we succeed, the happier we believe we will become. Because this is exactly wrong, and because our corporate system depends on our believing that the fault lies in us and not in the strategy we are pursuing, we respond by pushing ever harder. And so we work longer, consume more, accumulate more, seek out ever more extreme 'highs', with consequences that are devastating to us all.
As a teenager I wondered about basic principles of human happiness. I now believe there is a clear answer to the problem of human happiness and freedom - it lies in exchanging concern for our own happiness with concern for the happiness of others.
This is no simple matter, our selfishness is deeply, stubbornly, spectacularly entrenched. If the attempt begins, it begins in critical thought, in questioning, in tentative experiments. But even in making these flawed, stumbling, all-too-human attempts, I believe we begin to serve life and to rein in the forces of greed, hatred and ignorance that are killing our world.
The problems facing us as individuals and as a society are so complex, so bewildering. But perhaps, finally, the solution to all of them is astonishingly simple:
"On this depends my liberation: to assist others - nothing else." (Path Of Heroes)