A retired family member recently heard from a bunch of her friends at her former employer. There was a huge, sudden culling. Twenty-year employees who had risen through the ranks the right way, from the frontlines of the company’s business with customers, all promoted up to high level positions, were laid off suddenly, in one huge group. It was an unexpected cost-cutting measure indifferent to the needs of the people and families, and indifferent to the years of dedicated work and service these folks had given to the company. All those late nights, all those early mornings, all that creativity and sweat and relationships and institutional knowledge were wiped away to save money on a spreadsheet. Perhaps it was important for the company’s survival and the delivery of services, I don’t know. I know it hurt people. I know it will hurt them a long time. Those who asked for a different position were told they could apply for positions back at the lowest end of the scale, back where their whole careers began, with the kind of dismissiveness that can only be interpreted as a fuck you.
It’s an old and common story. This isn’t even a for-profit company, but I know it’s worse in that world, firsthand. We are asked to work hard and dedicate our waking hours to organizations that eventually only see us as a number on a spreadsheet.
Fast Company recently spoke with Kickstarter’s founders about their decision to change their corporate structure, and the thing that resonated with me was not Kickstarter’s reorganization. The thing was the objections to it. Furious investors see the most social good coming from pure profit motive. If people want to save the world, money will be made doing it, the saying goes. If people want social justice, they’ll vote with their pocketbooks to achieve it, and people will make money providing it, the saying goes. United lost a lot of shareholder value, and probably people are going to think twice about buying tickets, but at the end of the day, discount tickets are enticing, and deeper and deeper discounts will work to bring customers back after the blood has dried where Dr. Dao’s face impacted the ground, after the blood has dried in the memory of the general public, who must somehow navigate a world for the most good to their families and selves against the social conscience they feel towards Dr. Dao’s violent assault by corporate representatives.
We are in an abusive relationship with these paper entities. They ask us to accept their good above our own, and they do not offer the same commitment to us that we are expected to give to them. We work as we are told, grateful for a paycheck, and when the dark times comes, the pain of loss and the ache of slow injuries, we are expected to suck it up and smile and soldier on. Being part of the machinery of industry is more important than being happy. If it was a marriage, and we heard someone say that being in the marriage was more important than being happy, more important than a life without back pain, wrist pain, knee pain, the old wounds that build up as repetition stressed our wearying joints, we would shout and jump and urge the poor wastrel to escape the situation. That the wounds are slow does not change how they are wounds.
These allegiances to paper kings come at great cost to society. The full-throated capitalism tribe will tell you that economics will solve all our problems, even as it creates problems that future balance sheets will have to measure and contain. Corporate structures only see things in a quarter, a fiscal, a five-year plan. If life is to continue for five-hundred years, and mining and construction and agriculture have the potential to deplete all the things that sustain life in a century, who is making that plan? Consumers cannot be expected to make smart decisions that they don’t even understand. Who knows the intricacies of the impact of rare earth metals on the waterways of Siberia, and how that toxicity feeds into the ocean, and how that will swim up into the Mississippi and bleed and bleed for generations? Who can balance the calculus of that against the impact of fossil fuels, the inconvenience of life without batteries? No one is tracking the balance. No one has the power to think so deeply at every purchase. Capitalism demands a consumer be a genius in every moment, with amazing willpower, and a perfect, clean conscience. It blames us for accepting the messes that are made by corporate boards and managers and maximizing value to shareholders. We are responsible because we vote with our dollars to accept their bad behavior. We stay in that abuse. We let them do it.
There is also the full-throated tribe of anti-capitalists, and I am not among them. We have seen what alternative systems of governance and organization do to humans. Liberation from the economic model also means liberation from services that can be better provided by experienced specialists. Economics, after all, is just a way of trading time and skill for money in a community where everyone has the ability to reap the rewards of the value of their work and time and skill. It has a dark side. Wherever people are involved, there is an edge of darkness. But, it used to be that worker unions pushed back against management to prevent the sort of large-scale destruction of lives that has become as commonplace as shareholder quarterly reports. Churn and burn is the standard mode, where employees of large corporations are tasked with maximizing value to shareholders at the expense of fair value for their own time and energy. The shareholders will always get the best deal. That used to be what unions worked to build: A world where the workers had a say against the shareholders and could speak up for their own value. Unions have been destroyed, in this generation, and all the world’s worst impulses of worker treatment creep back in. Companies that would never do evil things to American workers, like child labor and toxic pollution and all sorts of other abuses, are lackadaisical about preventing such things in countries where such activities are not explicitly illegal. The way the law is moving, now, with a right-leaning fascist autocrat businessman in power, and his cronies among the upper echelons of the proverbial vampire squid, itself, Goldman-Sachs, it’s only a matter of time before it comes to us, here. To extend the relationship metaphor: If he abused children before, if he beat his wives and thought nothing of it, enjoyed it, felt a thrill at the power he had, he will eventually do it again. If, in his deep core, he sees this as proper and good thing to do, and only doesn’t because society is watching, the doors to the house will close, and the darkness will come to the home. He will say he is sorry that this happened, but you left him no choice. You voted with your dollar. Your laws said he had to maximize value to shareholders at any cost. Really, it’s all your fault. When, after twenty years of toil, the lay-offs come, for reasons that may have nothing to do with you, it’s just business. It’s nothing personal. The decision was out of their hands. There’s nothing you could have done.
If it isn’t a relationship, why do the exit interviews sound like the half-truth, innocuous conversations we’d have while breaking up with our spouses? It’s not you, it’s me. This isn’t working out for me. I need to go in a different direction.
The thing I think about when I think about corporations is how we let ourselves become company men in all walks of life. We don’t just vote; we vote with party loyalty. We don’t just have hobbies; we identify with our hobby as a marker of who we really are. We don’t just live in a town or come from a town; we are a “placer” who shapes our sense of self around a network of civic relationships that are rooted in an experience we may or may not currently continue as we move around to chase the next job. These paper kings that rule our hearts and minds never give back to us all that they ask of us. We are in unhealthy relationships with these pieces of paper. They abuse us, and we take it and smile, and we blame ourselves for the abuse we experience, for the poor opportunities, for the lost hopes and dreams, for the sense at the end of the night that our lives were lived for nothing but this work, this meaningless work that would be fine without us.
It’s even worse in the meaningful work, where there is more psychological power to abuse the worker.
The new piece of paper, a new contract with communities and workers and shareholders that Kickstarter is trying, looks like a step in the right direction, even if we are still walking towards the cliff where success must be measured in numbers and monies and stats, and we have yet to quantify happiness, and yet to quantify the way to not explode our own world with our own activities as consumer culture expands and expands.