As a respected white man, the schoolteacher is allowed access to the system—until it becomes obvious that he is asking the wrong questions and adopting the wrong attitude. Then he is ostracized. He loses his job. Shots are fired through his windows. His wife is furious that he has betrayed his family by appearing to be a “kaffir lover”. His daughter finds him a disgrace.
— Roger Ebert, review of A Dry White Season
In 2000, physicist Jeff Schmidt wrote Disciplined Minds, an analysis of hierarchical organizations and their effects on society. While its focus is on academia, many insights are universal.
This book is stolen. Written in part on stolen time, that is. I felt I had no choice but to do it that way. Like millions of others who work for a living, I was giving most of my prime time to my employer. My job simply didn’t leave me enough energy for a major project of my own, and no one was about to hire me to pursue my own vision, especially given my irreverent attitude toward employers. I was working in New York City as an editor at a glossy science magazine, but my job, like most professional jobs, was not intellectually challenging and allowed only the most constrained creativity. I knew that if I were not contending with real intellectual challenges and exercising real creativity-and if I were not doing anything to shape the world according to my own ideals-life would be unsatisfying, not to mention stressful and unexciting. The thought of just accepting my situation seemed insane. So I began spending some office time on my own work, dumped my TV to reappropriate some of my time at home, and wrote this book. Not coincidentally, it is about professionals, their role in society, and the hidden battle over personal identity that rages in professional education and employment.
In fact, the ranks of troubled professionals are swelling as members of Generation X finish school and rack up a few years in the workforce. Many Xers, having observed the unfulfilling work ethic of their baby boom predecessors, want their own working lives to be fun and meaningful from the get-go. Starting out with priorities that took boomers a decade to figure out, but in no better position to act on those priorities, Xers are simply having career crises at an earlier age.
I decided to write this book when I was in graduate school myself, getting a PhD in physics, and was upset to see many of the best people dropping out or being kicked out. Simply put, those students most concerned about others were the most likely to disappear, whereas their self-centered, narrowly focused peers were set for success. The most friendly, sympathetic and loyal individuals, also, those who stubbornly continued to value human contact, were handicapped in the competition. They were at a disadvantage not only because their attention was divided, but also because their beliefs about big-picture issues such as justice and social impact caused them to stop, think and question. Their hesitation and contemplation slowed them down, tempered their enthusiasm and drew attention to their deviant priorities, putting them at a disadvantage relative to their unquestioning, gung-ho classmates. Employers, too, I realized, favored people who kept their concerns about the big picture nicely under control, always in a position of secondary importance relative to the assigned work at hand. Thus I saw education and employment as a self-consistent, but deeply flawed, system. I wrote this book in the hope of exposing the problem more completely and thereby forcing change.
A system that turns potentially independent thinkers into politically subordinate clones is as bad for society as it is for the stunted individuals. It bolsters the power of the corporations and other hierarchical organizations, undermining democracy. As I will explain in detail, it does this by producing people who are useful to hierarchies, and only to hierarchies: uncritical employees ready and able to extend the reach of their employers’ will. At the same time, a system in which individuals do not make a significant difference at their point of deepest involvement in society-that is, at work-undermines efforts to build a culture of real democracy. And in a subordinating system, organizations are more likely to shortchange or even abuse clients, because employees who know their place are not effective at challenging their employers’ policies, even when those policies adversely affect the quality of their own work on behalf of clients.
If you are a professional, coming to understand the political nature of what you do, as part of an honest reassessment of what it really means to be a professional, can be liberating. It can help you recover your long-forgotten social goals and begin to pursue them immediately, giving your life greater meaning and eliminating a major source of stress. It can help you become a savvy player in the workplace and reclaim some lost autonomy. And, ironically, it can help you command greater respect from management and receive greater recognition and reward, without necessarily working harder.
Gallup’s survey cut to the bottom line by posing what was always the most incisive question on the war. It asked people whether they would favor or oppose the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. Age didn’t affect the answers much. The ratio of those in favor to those opposed was about the same for young adults as it was for older people. But dramatic differences appeared according to formal education. Those with college educations opposed immediate withdrawal by more than two to one, whereas those not formally schooled beyond the elementary grades were evenly divided on the question. And high school graduates were in between.
Few now seem to remember that throughout most of the war, those who called for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops were seen as radicals-as critics of a lot more than the war. This explains, in part, the disparity between opposition and activism-why many opponents of the war didn’t speak out publicly. More students than workers were antiwar activists, even though workers who had antiwar sentiments far outnumbered students of all persuasions. Workers organizing publicly to get the United States out of Vietnam risked a lot more-namely, their jobs-because their employers were likely to see them as radicals and therefore a threat to the tranquility of the local workforce.
Most importantly, it is at work that the attitude of professionals has its greatest impact, both on you as an individual and on society as a whole. Whether a given professional designs buildings, writes newspaper articles, teaches courses or develops investment strategies, she makes important decisions that affect many people. Outside of work, however, the professional’s attitude has relatively little effect on society (unless the professional makes a deliberate effort to the contrary). If, for example, you were given the power to dictate the outlook that governs the day-in day-out decision-making of a professional at work, and I were given the power to dictate the outlook that governs what that professional does inside the voting booth once every four years, then your power to shape society would be vastly greater than mine.
Indeed, there is an enormous gap between the opinions of professionals and their professional opinions-the opinions that guide their work. When their opinions count, most professionals are conservative. Thus the engineer who believes that corruption is common among politicians in the United States freely offers that opinion. The political scientist, however, fears being quoted as saying any such thing, even though few people would find it shocking. Ask the nuclear engineer whether the nuclear industry influences reactor safety estimates, something that has long been obvious even to non-experts, and you may get a lecture on the objectivity of mathematical calculations. And the liberal doctor who offers a cocktail party opinion against authoritarian police practices? Go to that doctor’s office with a medical problem and see her lean toward the traditional authoritarian doctor-patient relationship. Professionals are liberal on distant social issues, issues over which they have no authority at work and no influence outside of work.
However, contrary to common belief, the number of oppositional professionals has remained relatively small. Consider, for example, college professors, who are among the most left-leaning of all professionals. Today, only about 5% of the 550,000 full-time college faculty members in the United States consider themselves to be to the left of the conservative-to-liberal mainstream. This 1-in-20 proportion of leftists hasn’t fluctuated much in at least 30 years. If the proportion seems higher than this, that may be because people who break away from the mainstream establish a presence way beyond their numbers and because radicals are speaking out more openly inside and outside of the classroom. Also, in a few disciplines in the humanities, leftists really have increased their proportion significantly-a fact that conservatives have misrepresented to make widely publicized claims that leftists have taken over higher education in the United States. The bottom line is that while the vast majority of professionals continue to share the views of corporate business executives on most basic issues, the important minority that dares to disturb the status quo has grown in influence, if not in size.
The traditional image of the professional as an independent practicing doctor, lawyer or clergyman is misleading not only because of the proliferation of other professions, but also because very few professionals are free practitioners. The overwhelming majority are salaried employees. This has been true for many decades and is increasingly the case today as even the traditionally independent doctors and lawyers are swept into the salariat. Of every 9 professionals today, 8 are salaried employees and 1 is a free practitioner.
A system of production that divides its non-management workforce into two distinct components-employees trusted to follow an assigned ideology in their work and employees not trusted to do so-clearly takes ideology very seriously. In fact, this system, now nothing less than a world system, gives questions of ideology highest priority. It must do so because of its increasing vulnerability in the face of a more and more politically sophisticated population, and it does so within each and every corporate or governmental division and at all levels of administration within these units. As a result, you cannot make sense of the system as a whole, the organization that employs you, or even your own job, just from a simple list of the goods and services being produced; understanding, now more than ever, means knowing the very carefully constructed ideologies that are guiding the production and that are being advanced through it.
From employment law to landlord/tenant law to tax law to property law, the spirit of the law is to maintain the privileges of the wealthy. Yet the letter of the law is seemingly neutral on the question. “The law, in its majestic equality,” observed Anatole France, “forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” Nevertheless, those who enforce the law tend to see the wealthy as “good guys” and tend to be suspicious of people without property. This is not because police are inherently biased people but because they have to take up the spirit of the law to do a professional job enforcing it.
Many mental problems originate not in diseases of the brain but in deficiencies of society. The arduousness of living with unfulfilling work, financial insecurity, arbitrary bosses, lack of solidarity and insufficient personal power, together with the anguish caused by racism, sexism, ageism, lookism, ableism and all the other oppressive hierarchies that plague this society, helps explain the fact that more than 10% of the population (and not counting those with substance abuse disorders) suffers from mental or emotional problems.
But attempting to adjust people to the unhealthy society that caused their problems in the first place may not always be the healthiest approach for either the individuals or society. A simple alternative would be to help some troubled individuals bring out, clarify and sharpen their implicit critique-to strengthen them for the struggle in which they are engaged instead of removing them from it, because the struggle can be both therapeutic for the individual and beneficial to society. But the institutions of mental health, such as hospitals that employ psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, are institutions of the status quo. They are not about to turn the troubled into troublemakers, no matter how healthful that might be. The mental health professional is someone that such an employer can trust to move confused people away from struggle with social norms and authority and toward a life in which they are “well adjusted” to their place in the socioeconomic hierarchy.
Professionals, on the other hand, are required to be creative in their work-but within strict political limits. Their creativity must serve their employers’ interests, which often are not the same as their own interests, the interests of clients or customers or the public interest. Thus the corporate PR specialist assigned to field questions about pollution, defective products, the treatment of employees and other sensitive issues creatively uses the truth to paint a pro-company picture. And managed care doctors never forget for whom they are working either. One such doctor, for example, saves his employer $200 by withholding the antiviral drug acyclovir from adult chicken pox patients; without the drug, the severity of the disease and the amount of permanent scarring are greater, but the chance of secondary pneumonia or death increases only slightly. Complications would be costly to the medical care corporation, but the savvy MD intuits correctly that it doesn’t make economic sense for the firm to spend so much to insure against them. Employers don’t have time to decide every minor issue that affects their political or economic interests, and so they seek to hire others who will do things as if they had done them themselves. Thus, professionals control the technical means but not the social goals of their creative work. The professional’s lack of control over the political content of his or her creative work is the hidden root of much career dissatisfaction.
All professional work is in part creative. However, individuals are selected to do professional work not because they are more creative than others, but because they can be trusted to make sure every detail of what they create is politically correct from their employers’ points of view. As human beings, professionals are not more creative than nonprofessionals. In fact, professional training tends to kill off natural creativity. In the corporate headquarters building you can often find more creativity down in the mail room than upstairs in the office of a lawyer, systems engineer or financial analyst, but it is untamed. Employers will hire dull but politically disciplined individuals over those displaying any amount of politically undisciplined creativity.
Many people naively think of professionals as nonprofessionals who possess additional technical knowledge or technical skills. Professionals do exercise technical skills, of course, but it is their use of political skills that distinguishes them from nonprofessionals. The product of professional labor is political. It takes sides. The accountant’s bookkeeping decision, the journalist’s angle on a story, the lawyer’s choice of contract language, the historian’s depiction of events, the scientist’s narrow focus, the minister’s sermon, the teacher’s lesson, the welfare worker’s determination, the comedian’s joke-routine professional work tilts one way or the other, and the way it tilts is never an accident.
Let’s look at another example of writing between the lines, again from the front page of the New York Times. This is the lead sentence of a news report on a 4 July 1992 parade of tall ships: “Majestic in a gray morning mist, the world’s largest gathering of tall ships in this century sailed out of the past and up the great amphitheater of New York Harbor yesterday in a stately salute to Independence Day and the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the New World. The reporter’s attempt here to write between the lines is rather transparent, despite his flowery language. The phrase that stands out a bit more than it’s supposed to is, of course, “voyage of discovery.” This clever formulation is modest enough to pass political scrutiny yet still manages to conjure up the old elementary-school-textbook image of Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America-a European rather than a Native American image. Having planted this point of view in the mind of the reader, the Times story then seems perfectly reasonable as it goes ahead and celebrates Columbus in the old-fashioned way, without reservation. It is hard to imagine a nonprofessional coming up with a devious phrase like this-or even wanting to.
It was 1984, and journalist Bernard Kalb had been on the State Department beat for eight years. As a veteran of the New York Times, CBS News and NBC News, Kalb knew the frustrations of trying to squeeze information out of tight-lipped government officials like State Department spokesman John Hughes, whom Kalb faced almost daily. In his 38 years of reporting. Kalb had dealt with countless government spokespeople, and so when Hughes decided to leave the department and move back home to Cape Cod, Kalb at first anticipated just another routine change of faces. But the change was to be unlike any in Kalb’s experience. On 28 November 1984 Secretary of State George Shultz announced that he had recruited someone to replace Hughes as his assistant secretary of state for public affairs. State’s new mouthpiece would be—that’s right— Bernard Kalb. And so for the next two years Kalb’s former colleagues struggled to squeeze information out of him—with no greater success, of course, even though they addressed him at press conferences as “Bernie.”
How did the Reagan administration know that Kalb, seemingly a longtime adversary as a journalist, could be trusted to speak for its side and routinely tell journalists less than he knew? The answer, put simply, is that Kalb was a professional. At one level, journalism and public relations are conflicting professions, yet the hack and the flack have the same essential qualifying attribute. The administration expects its spokespeople to answer questions at contentious press conferences without making even the slightest ideological slip. Kalb, with his decades of experience maintaining the very strict ideological discipline that is required of New York Times and network television news reporters, had the essential skill for the new job. The administration knew that his transition would be an easy one and that they could train him to be a public relations professional in a matter of days; to train a nonprofessional for such a job would take years. Politically, professionals are interchangeable parts.
Ideological discipline is the master key to the professions. Whatever the field, the willingness and ability to maintain “correct” priorities makes the professional. And no matter what the field, the professional’s attitudes and values are such that maintaining discipline to an assigned ideology is unproblematic. As a result, in terms of attitudes and values, professionals in very different fields have more in common with one another than with nonprofessionals in their own fields. (The way they relate to the nonprofessionals they work with generally supports this view and shows the attitudes and values in question to be far from democratic.) To the extent that professionals share a common outlook, employers treat them like insiders in society, as if each professional has mastered a crucial part of every profession. Thus it is often easier for a professional to move into an entirely new field than for a nonprofessional to become a professional in that field, even if the nonprofessional already works in the field or is a hobbyist with vast knowledge in the field.
Instead of going to high school and college, Daniel Morgan simply hung a Phi Beta Kappa key from his watch chain. Rather than take the bar exam, he sprung for subdued, English-cut suits. The black Alabaman, who had studied law in prison, used these props and the name of a legitimate lawyer to operate for seven years as a high-powered trial lawyer in Chicago. As “Edward A. Simmons, counsellor at law,” Morgan argued hundreds of cases in court and won acquittals for many people, including some facing serious charges such as murder. He built a thriving law practice and established a law firm with fancy offices in the prestigious downtown area, taking on a legitimate lawyer as an associate and renting desk space to young lawyers. With his impressive record of victories in complicated cases in city, state and federal courts, Morgan was known and respected within his adopted profession. Neither the other lawyers nor the judges had any idea that the high-fee lawyer they were working with was actually a career criminal who had served time in San Quentin, Folsom, Jackson and Marquette prisons.
Yet the simple fact is that the students the university trains and certifies as professionals do go out and function for the system and uphold the status quo. For example, at least 90% of Harvard Law School graduates join corporate law firms. As Calvin Trillin noted in an article in the New Yorker about the ongoing struggle between leftist and conservative professors at that school: Why, it might be argued, should anyone think it is anything but inevitable that the preeminent law schools of ‘a capitalist society produce lawyers to serve the society’s preeminent capitalists? … I suppose its possible to see Harvard Law School as an institution willing to harbor left-wing professors who are trying to subvert the young, but another way to look at it is as an institution that each fall takes five hundred of our brightest, most idealistic young people and in three years transforms then into Wall Street moneygrubbers.
The more one looks into it, the clearer it becomes that the scientist best suited for harmony in an industrial or governmental position is the one willing to accept direction uncritically in all but the narrow technical aspects of her research work. As a good professional, such a scientist accepts a research problem, tries to see it as an intriguing puzzle of captivating interest, and carries out the research with dedication.
The federal government sponsors the bulk of the basic science research that goes on in U.S. universities. Most basic physics research at universities, for example, is sponsored by just four government agencies-the Department of Energy (successor of the Atomic Energy Commission), the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense (through the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and so on) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Ninety-nine percent of the federal funding for basic physics research at universities comes through these four agencies. In 1995 the federal government spent about $590 million on university physics research; about $455 million of that expenditure paid for research characterized as basic. At the University of California, Irvine, my old school, physics professors in 1996 got $8.7 million of their $10.2 million in R&D money from the federal government.
If, for example, a government agency makes $43.9 million available to universities for basic research in nuclear physics, then university physicists will do $43.9 million worth of basic research in nuclear physics. The government agency, for all practical purposes, will have ordered university physicists to do $43.9 million worth of basic research in nuclear physics. Although this is not the kind of order that names specific researchers, it is an order that individual university professors do end up carrying out.
University professors build their careers on research, not teaching. Many professors get the money that they need to do research by writing an outline of the work they propose to do and submitting it to a federal agency that funds research. This is the unsolicited proposal, and using it as a mechanism for funding would seem to give control of research topics to individual scientists, not to sponsors. However, even though writing such a proposal requires a huge amount of time and effort, funding is by no means assured-the National Science Foundation rejects 2 out of 3 proposals, as does the National Institutes of Health-and so professors who want money to do research inevitably have funding agencies’ interests in mind as they plan their work and write their proposals. Consciously or unconsciously, they tailor their own interests to match those of the sponsors.
Like ONR, other major research-funding agencies, such as the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, fulfill a lot of their research needs simply by making their interests known and hacking unsolicited proposals. Thus the Army Research Office gives professors hints as to where the money is-and thereby allows them to modify their interests accordingly-by publishing its research interests in great detail and quietly mentioning that “ARO receives approximately 700 proposals each year and historically funds approximately 200 new awards.” Agencies are often quite specific about their interests: “In Optical Physics, a rapidly growing part of the program, specific current interests include the nonlinear response of isolated atoms to intense, ultrashort electromagnetic fields….” That example is from the National Science Foundation’s Guide to Programs, which NSF describes as “a compilation of funding opportunities.” The guide notes that NSF receives approximately 30,000 proposals each year and makes about 9,000 awards. Thus, funders find they can arouse the proper research interests in scientists without saying very much. Their money talks-and is brilliantly articulate.
However, if one wants to figure out the government goals that motivate an agency to sponsor a particular research project, it is often very misleading to look to the name of the agency for a hint. For example, the name “Department of Energy” on a research project suggests work motivated by the quest for new or cleaner sources of energy. In fact, much of the research sponsored by the Department of Energy concerns weapons and elementary particles.
Although the freedom of scientists to set their own work agendas is severely limited, professionals in many other fields enjoy even less freedom. For example, those in the so-called subprofessions-teachers, social workers, nurses and librarians-have their work prescribed almost completely. Employers trust them less. By contrast, the freedom of salaried professionals in a number of fields is comparable to that of scientists. Examples range from columnists and staff writers at newspapers and magazines to producers and entertainers employed by television networks, and include other salaried professionals, such as architects, museum curators, faculty members in all subjects at universities, commentators and critics, designers and so on. Professionals who are often thought of as completely self-directed, such as some filmmakers and artists, are not typical professionals in that they are generally independent, unlike the great majority of professionals, who are salaried staff members.
The three physics subfields that receive the heaviest research funding at UCI-condensed matter physics, plasma physics and particle physics-are subfields that receive heavy funding nationally. The federal government channels much of its basic physics research money into these subfields. Thus, in the UCI physics department these three subfields account for the work of 30 of the 39 professors, all 17 of the nonfaculty PhD research physicists, 18 of the 20 postdoctoral researchers and (therefore) 33 of the 39 graduate students who have chosen a research specialty. (The department has 74 graduate students in all.) Of the 77 doctorates granted by the department in the five-year period 1993 to 1998, 74 were in the three subfields. A similar narrowing of research focus is found in departments nationwide. Even though condensed matter physics, for example, is just one of more than two dozen physics subfields, it alone accounts for the work of more than one-fifth of the physics graduate students in the United States.
The way research is described, funded and carried out conceals its social origins. The titles that scientists give their research projects (and publications) usually make their work look very abstract and esoteric. These titles, and the technical descriptions that accompany them, make no mention of underlying technological goals. This practice lends prestige to the work by making it look more basic and more like a pursuit of truth for its own sake. Someone who takes a look at the titles and abstracts of research projects and sees no hint of the work’s social origins usually comes away marveling about how far from practicality scientists’ free-running curiosities have led them. Outside observers aren’t the only ones to make this mistake. It is sad but common for a graduate student to work her dissertation problem through to completion while never knowing its social origin. (Later I will show how the qualifying examination selects people who are comfortable working with this kind of ignorance.)
A look at the Air Force’s description of professors Maradudin and Mills’s $578,000 project is most revealing: Aerospace communications surveillance and detection systems require electro-optical devices which exploit the special properties and interactions of infrared radiation with solid state materials. Infrared materials research has high potential for airborne and satellite applications. This is a theoretical research effort to investigate the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with solid materials, to investigate fundamental processes and elemental excitations that occur mainly in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, and to study hulk and surface optical properties as well as nonlinear optical phenomena in solids. The infrared optical properties of these materials are important to the development of infrared detectors and coherent sources, integrated optics and electro-optical techniques, and high energy infrared laser windows and mirrors as well as interactions of materials subjected to laser beams. Here the nature of the social foundation of this fundamental theoretical physics research becomes clear: “surveillance and detection,” “infrared [heat] detectors,” “windows and mirrors” for high-energy lasers, “materials subjected to laser beams”-in a word, weapons.
In light of the intimate intellectual relationship between many university faculty members and the military, and the large sums of money involved, one could argue that these professors are in essence part of the military, despite the fact that at university ceremonies they wear academic robes rather than Army, Navy or Air Force uniforms. Indeed, many of the professors I have mentioned could leave the university and take jobs at military laboratories, such as the Army Research Laboratory or the Naval Research Laboratory, without affecting the social or scientific significance of their work. Moving to a military laboratory would, however, take a big toll on any university professor’s public image. The public image of researchers at military laboratories is poor compared to that of university professors, who are generally seen as intelligent, open-minded, objective intellectuals-even when their research work is exactly the same as that of researchers at military laboratories. This positive image is part of the mystique that university academic employees exploit and propagate.
This division of labor is inherently hierarchical and makes possible a hierarchical system of production in which nonlaborers control the products of the work of laborers. (I use the term “nonlaborers” here in a very narrow sense, to refer specifically to those at the top of the hierarchy of production, in any of the world’s hierarchical economic systems: Nonlaborers are those who control the employing institutions, whether through the party, as in Communist countries; through the government, as in Socialist countries; or through ownership, as in capitalist countries.) The hierarchical system of production looms large in the lives of people throughout society, and every individual is keenly aware of where he or she stands in it. Those who control the employing institutions and who enjoy the right to treat the products of labor as their own have great power both in the workplace and in the larger society, and have higher social status than laborers. This basic arrangement sets the tone for the culture, which mediates the assignment of status to people throughout the society. In the culture, work gains social status if it resembles in form the activity of those at the top, and loses status if it resembles the work of laborers. Thus the manipulation of symbols has a higher social status than the manipulation of things. The culture makes a fetish of this hierarchy of mental over manual work, carrying it way beyond the immediate needs of the system of production. So if your job requires “getting your hands dirty” you automatically have one strike against you as far as social status goes, whereas if your job is extremely intellectual, your work is seen as semidivine, glowing with the radiance of disembodied thought.
The division of labor within research projects is often so hierarchical that the distribution of authority is more like that of the military than that of a democracy. Professors are at the top, and are themselves organized in a strict hierarchy. (You can usually tell who’s at the apex by looking at who is getting publicity, because the professors who have the most power within a physics project usually designate themselves “spokesmen” and forbid the other professors to speak to the press.) Next in line are “research physicists,” who are PhDs whom professors hire with their federal contract or grant money; research physicists get professorial wages but do not get tenure or a vote at meetings of their university physics department. Postdocs follow, and graduate students are at the bottom. There is not even it pretense of democracy among these scientists. The professors at the top of the hierarchy have total creative control over the experiment. If a physicist below the top has it real say in what is done, that is not because it democratic structure ensures it, but because an individual at the top happens to be a “good boss”- and allows it.
More important to employers than the economic benefits, however, are the political benefits of the division of labor-benefits that help management maintain its authority in the workplace. Confined to a range of activity- that is limited both horizontally and vertically, employees do not gain firsthand knowledge of the overall organization, strategy or goals of the institution that employs them. Those who work within this division of labor see the consequent ignorance in themselves and in their coworkers and feel it needs to be directed by people who comprehend the whole operation. Management has the broadest view of what is going on, and this helps make its supreme authority in the workplace seem natural and justified.
The historical trend is toward an increasingly fine division of labor and an increasingly strict confinement of individual employees to their assigned areas of work. This trend affects professionals and nonprofessionals alike, distancing all employees from decision-making on the overarching moral and political issues. Professionals are forced into increasingly narrow specialization during training, and more than ever must specialize even further once on the job, especially when they are employed in large organizations, as is increasingly the case. So even the employees whom management trusts politically to use relatively broad technical and organizational knowledge of the production process find management confining them to work on smaller and smaller pieces of the big picture. No professionals are immune. Even philosophers, who at one time struggled to develop thought that encompassed all human endeavors, are now hired on the basis of their willingness and ability to carry out the minutely specialized work of analytical philosophy. Consequently, they increasingly identify themselves as masters of the associated specialized tools and methods, rather than as independent moral and political thinkers.
An unsatisfying work life is much more than a 40-hour-per-week problem, because of its profound effect on your morale while you are off the job. You may be pained to think of it as such, but your job is probably the biggest project of your life. It is probably the only activity to which you will ever devote the most alert of your waking hours with such disciplined regularity, day after day after day. During no other period of comparable length in your life will you make an effort of this magnitude on any project of your own. Thus, for all practical purposes, your life’s work is at stake, and so it is understandable that your most serious struggles are to control it, not to sell it at a higher price.
Various “career training institutes” and “academies” also take advantage of the dissatisfaction of nonprofessionals. Although these businesses don’t train people for real professional jobs any more than the job agencies place people in such jobs, their advertisements on daytime TV, buses and matchbook covers also make heavy use of the word career as a code for professional work. These rip-off schools often aim their advertisements explicitly at those “stuck in dead-end jobs,” knowing that this will not significantly limit their audience.
Becoming a professional has not always figured so prominently as an answer to the frustrations of the worker. More typical has been the strategy touted by 19th-century writer Horatio Alger, whose rags-to-riches stories hyped the notion of the “self-made man.” Seeking to realize the dreams made to look more feasible by such tales, countless workers saved their hard-earned wages toward the day when they would start their own businesses, become their own bosses and make their escape from working-class life. Even today, many base their hope on this classic version of the American Dream. While the dream does come true for a very few, most who try to make it work lose their life’s savings in the attempt. Nevertheless, as in a lottery the mere existence of success stories, few as they may be, is enough to attract keen interest in playing the generally tragic game. The odds don’t matter much when it is your only perceived chance of escape.
Widespread belief in individual opportunity protects the system from potentially devastating attack-it protects a backward setup in which a minute number of people exercise control over the nation’s huge amount of capital in industry, agriculture and transportation, while vast numbers of people work that capital and get nothing more than monetary compensation for their time. Individual opportunity is a powerful component of American ideology, powerful enough to elicit support for the system from all quarters, even from many exploited and unorganized workers who are at their bosses’ mercy. If workers destined to be used up and discarded by employers cling nevertheless to “the American Way,” it is not because they are ignorant of their destiny, but because they sense it. They feel that their only ray of hope for a satisfying life emanates from the “opportunity” the American system offers. Ironically, the more agonizing the position of such individuals in the hierarchy, and the more desperate their craving for a way out, the more emotional may be their defense of the system.
Today’s emphasis on finding your opportunity within the corporations keeps alive the ideology of opportunity-an ideology that serves the corporations indirectly by generating support for the hierarchical setup as a whole, as mentioned above. But the shift in the location of opportunity does something extra for the employers. It channels your efforts to escape into the direct service of the corporations: To become eligible for the better jobs within the corporations, you work to develop the skills that the corporations value. Thus the name of the biggest game in the land of opportunity today is making yourself more valuable to the bosses. And because the employers assess your value mainly by examining your credentials, the paper chase is on. A few generations ago, what worker would have sought college credit for work experience, an advertising point for colleges today? Who would have cared much about mail-order term papers and degrees? Today, more than ever, workers see their great opportunity for escape from unsatisfying working lives in terms of further schooling, professional training, degrees, credentials, licenses and certificates. Local college parking lots fill up after 5 p.m. Employers eagerly pay the tuition, even though worker turnover is high and few of the workers who do stick around will be reassigned to more productive jobs based on their evening studies. The company springs for the course fees less to upgrade its workforce than to sustain the ideology of opportunity and keep employees oriented toward individual rather than collective solutions.
As C. Wright Mills notes in White Collar, his classic study of the new “little man”: “Rather than carry on his father’s business, many a boy has been trained, at his parents’ sacrifice, to help man some unit of the big-business system that has destroyed his father’s business.”
The fact that so many workers are actively pursuing at least some long-term program of officially recognized “self-improvement”-almost to the point that it is a national mania-does not mean that a large number of higher-level positions are waiting for people to fill them. It simply means a large number of people are not satisfied with their positions, and a rather narrow path to better ones has been laid out. Each step along the path has been specified in detail, effectively standardizing and circumscribing workers’ efforts toward advancement. The pursuit of opportunity has been rationalized and institutionalized.
The people who have the best jobs enjoy lower death rates across a wide spectrum of diseases and other threats to life. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company documented this by releasing mortality statistics on male employees of two large companies. Employees with low-paying positions were over 30% more likely to die during any given year than were their better-paid coworkers. Those with the better jobs were less likely to suffer fatal cancer, diabetes, cerebrovascular disease, heart disease, influenza, pneumonia, accidents or suicide-every cause of death studied. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, professionals are more likely to be in excellent health than are workers in any other major occupational group, whether white-collar or blue-collar. And they are only half as likely as other employees to be in fair or poor health. They experience fewer hospitalizations and shorter hospital stays than do their nonprofessional coworkers, such as clerical and other administrative support employees.
The professional’s higher income is not the underlying factor. The CDC found that even when professionals and nonprofessionals have the same incomes, the professionals enjoy markedly better health. Thus the individual who fails to become a professional, but nevertheless manages to achieve a professional-level income, will be significantly less well off. The stress caused by social hierarchy is what produces the excess sickness and death, studies find. People in higher social classes experience less stress, and therefore live healthier and longer lives-but so do people in less hierarchical environments. Thus, the less income inequality there is within a country, state or community, the better the health and the greater the longevity of middle-income individuals.
Perhaps the most publicized example was a claim in 1974 that affirmative action programs discriminate against whites. In that year Allan Bakke sued the University of California for admission to its Davis medical school after he failed to secure one of the 100 annual openings there. At the time of the Bakke case, the UC Davis medical school was rejecting about 2,000 applicants annually, the large majority of them white (the number has since risen above 4,000). The school had changed its admission system so that 16 of each year’s 100 students would be admitted according to criteria that took into account certain background factors. In effect, this program admitted 16 students-almost always minorities-with lower grades and test scores than were otherwise required. Even though some minorities met and were admitted by the “normal” criteria-that is, as part of the 84-the use of “changed” criteria was the only way to get the desired minority student population. Because his grades and test scores were higher than those of the 16 minorities, Bakke claimed he was more qualified to become a doctor and should be admitted. The media play given this case was intense enough to legitimize and popularize a notion that was new to most Americans, “reverse discrimination.” Within the explosive climate described above, focusing national attention on a claim of “reverse discrimination” could send only one message to the opportunity-starved worker: The minorities are taking your opportunity, and that is one big reason why you are still where you are. Such racism takes the anger that springs from the frustrations of a life of limited opportunity and aims it at other victims-the minorities-thus taking the heat off the hierarchical system that by its very nature restricts the number of openings. And so we have ludicrous situations like the one at UC Davis, where almost 2,000 rejected whites could think of 16 minorities as stealing their opportunity to become doctors.
Ironically, supposedly universal definitions of merit or excellence have historically represented the interests of only a small segment of the population. Working people, minorities and women, who together make up the large majority of the population, have had a difficult time becoming professionals, except when they have been the children of professionals or, in times of economic expansion, the children of upper-strata workers.
If students are overly upbeat about what becoming a professional can do for the individual and for society, that is not because they are naive, although naivete makes this possible. Rather, they are searching with some urgency to find a way to achieve their personal and social goals. Students are well aware that in a hierarchical society one does not automatically get to live a life with any significant independence from management and its monitoring and control of the details of work and even of some leisure activity. Students beginning professional training are not properly aware, however, that there is a price to pay for any independence gained by becoming a professional.
The willingness shown by the new graduate to function harmoniously with the system is usually not the disingenuous kind shown by people who have fundamental reservations but who are reluctantly going along with the only choice available. The new graduate often feigns reluctance so as to maintain appearances, but it is usually painfully obvious that deep down something has changed. The individual has taken a step toward adopting the worldview of the system and goals compatible with the system. Students who once spoke critically of the system are now either silent or fearfully “fair and responsible” in their criticism. They are careful not to be provocative-not to do or say anything that might displease individuals in authority. Any opposition is now sufficiently abstract and theoretical to not be provocative. (Don’t assume that behavior motivated by fear is disingenuous. It usually isn’t, because the safest way to behave in a way that will please the powerful is to do so genuinely. The most blatant examples are cases of the “Stockholm Syndrome,” named for a 1973 incident in which hostages taken during a bank robbery in Sweden grew to identify with their captors.)
None of this is to imply that new professionals are left without goals. Ironically, however, the primary goal for many becomes, in essence, getting compensated sufficiently for sidelining their original goals. Robert H. Frank, a Cornell University professor of economics, tried to find out exactly how much compensation people deem sufficient for making this sacrifice. He surveyed graduating seniors at his university and found, for example, that the typical student would rather work as an advertising copywriter for the American Cancer Society than as an advertising copywriter for Camel cigarettes, and would want a salary 50% higher to do it for the cigarette company. The typical student would want conscience money amounting to a 17% salary boost to work as an accountant for a large petrochemical company instead of doing the same job for a large art museum. Indeed, employers that are seen as less socially responsible do have to pay a “moral reservation premium” to get the workers they want. Frank found that men are more likely than women to sell out, and this accounts for at least part of the gap in average salaries between equal men and women.
In physics, about half of the students who enter PhD programs leave without the degree, many due to outright expulsion. This massive elimination allows the political biases in the weeding out process to have a strong effect on the overall political nature of the graduating class. Adjustment works hand in glove with this elimination in forming the class politically: Many of those who survive the weeding do so by “shaping up” under the threat of being culled, and in the process undergo attitudinal transformations that make them politically compatible with the others who are not weeded out.
A year-long graduate physics course typically uses a single textbook, and so the student’s entire collection of graduate-level textbooks may take up only a couple of feet of shelf space. As familiar as the faculty and students are with these books, they might not be able to tell you their titles, because they almost always refer to the books by the authors’ last names: “That’s in Jackson,” “Let’s look in Sakurai,” “Does anybody here have Goldstein?” Here physicists are referring to the texts Classical Electrodynamics, Modern Quantum Mechanics and Classical Mechanics, respectively.
The prospect of failing the qualifying test frightens the student, even the student who is the best at answering the kind of questions used on the test. The student is frightened because his desired future as a professional in his field of interest is at stake. But he is also frightened because society does not guarantee his material security (except at a life-shortening subsistence level). It seems possible for the individual, if suddenly of no value to employers, to go overnight from a job to walking the streets, from being somebody to being nobody, from living in the suburbs to living on skid row, left to suffer and struggle for survival among the desperate at the bottom of society. It doesn’t matter that such individual downfall is very unlikely; by simply featuring the possibility, the system announces the fundamental insecurity of the individual. This insecurity unrelentingly haunts the student studying for the qualifying test. The student sees professional training as his chance for a secure future, with status and nonalienating work, his chance for a life free from the threat of a nightmarish trip to the bottom of the heap. An important chunk of his past is also riding on the qualifying test, because no matter how many years he has invested in preparation, coming close to passing is worth nothing in terms of attaining professional status. The years of preparation go down the drain along with the hoped-for career.
One consistently finds the most terrorized students doing the most work in research lab jobs, working the longest hours. What others consider shitwork, they have to see as great opportunity, and so they are the ones who end up doing it. This is another example of the university’s tendency to transmute social hierarchies into academic hierarchies.
The graduate student who isn’t passed on the qualifying test is barred from registering for classes and is fired from his job as a teaching assistant, regardless of his job performance. His office and desk are quickly assigned to someone else. Overnight, he has become a mere visitor in the place where he had been spending most of his waking hours working and studying. His presence is suddenly very awkward, a downbeat reminder of what can be done to anyone. He gets the same kind of overly nice and overly cold treatment that people give to cancer victims. Very soon he goes away. His name itself strikes an unhappy note and so isn’t mentioned much by those with whom he spent so much time. He is a nonperson.
At the end of the week the entire physics faculty gathers in a closed meeting to decide the fate of the students. Strange as it may seem, in most physics departments a student’s score on the test is only one factor in the faculty’s decision as to whether or not that student has passed the test. Students are not usually told their scores; this gives faculty members the option of deciding that a student has failed the test even if that student has outscored someone they are going to pass. In arriving at their personal opinions on whether to pass or fail a student, individual faculty members consider anything and everything they know or think they know about that student, including impressions carried away from informal discussions with the student and with others around the department. A faculty member who talks informally with a student in the hallway or at the weekly after-colloquium reception inevitably comes away with a feeling about whether or not that student “thinks like a physicist.” The student’s political outlook can easily make a difference in the faculty member’s assessment. For example, in the usual informal discussion of an issue in the news, the student who rails against technical incompetence and confines his thoughts to the search for technical solutions within the given political framework builds a much more credible image as a professional physicist than does the student who emphasizes the need to alter the political framework as part of the solution. Indeed, the latter approach falls outside the work assignments given to professional physicists in industry and academe and so represents thinking unlike a physicist’s.
The qualification system clearly has a permanent effect on the lives of those it weeds out. But does the process of qualification have a permanent effect on students who qualify? The answer to this question is no for some students and yes for others. The student who is detached from the subject in which he is majoring-for example, the student who has chosen his major mainly because it is the subject offering the highest income and status potential of all the subjects in which he thinks he could succeed-sees qualification as just another hurdle to be vaulted, just some more prescribed alienated labor, and is little affected by doing this work. (By “alienated labor” I mean work that the individual wouldn’t do if he didn’t have to. Such work is not intrinsically satisfying but serves the interests of someone else-today the educator, who is producing trained people, and tomorrow the employer, who owns the product of the laborer’s work. The sign of non-alienated labor is the disappearance of the distinction between work and play for the individual doing it. Non-alienated labor is usually more intense than alienated labor.)
The exam ends not only hundreds of hours of explicit preparation, but also thousands of hours of indirect preparation-courses taken, work done and problems discussed with the test in the back of the student’s mind. Students should not cavalierly label their alienated labor as merely temporary, as instrumental to get the degree but easily reversed afterwards. Performing intense alienated labor for an extended period of time changes the student. It dampens his creativity and curiosity, clouds his memory of his original interests and ideas and weakens his resolve to pursue them, while getting him used to doing protracted, disciplined labor on assigned problems. It is empty rhetoric to tell the student who has gone through the qualification process that he is free now to pursue in his career his original goals, for he is now a different person. What the student thought was a temporary concession to the system-“I’ll play along just enough so that I can get what I want from the system”-turns out to be the beginning of a forced, permanent adjustment to the system. The alienated work that the student did to prepare for the qualifying exam, work that was merely to assure his future, is his future.
Students know that job prospects vary greatly by subfield and are well aware of which subfields the marketplace has deemed “hot.” Thus 27 physics graduate students take an interest in condensed matter physics (the basis of electronic devices) for every one who takes an interest in acoustics, and 30 take an interest in nuclear physics for every one who takes an interest in geophysics.
By now, your irrelevant research project, the ego-based seminars and conferences, the race to publish, the social hypocrisy of your professors, all these are bringing you to unexpected conclusions about the world of physics. It is a world full of corrupting contradictions, just like any other big business: mutual cooperation is only a route to personal advancement; communication is meant to confuse; progress is measured in published papers per year, quantitatively, just like the GNP; and just like the economy, Big Physics thrives via hypocrisy, competition, deception, waste and irrelevancy. The startling similarity between Big Physics and private big business is no accident, either. Consultantships, research for industry, and technological aids to imperialist wars, all put physics in the service of big business, sometimes directly but often indirectly through the government. Both physics and business are based on the “every man for himself” principle. Although there are a few “winners”-the Seaborgs and Tellers in physics and the DuPonts and Rockefellers in business-most everyone else loses through disillusionment, mental anguish and the threat, now real, of imminent unemployment.
Indeed, the most difficult part about becoming a professional is adopting the professional attitude and learning to be comfortable adhering to the given ideological framework, which some students find quite alien. When students fail to complete professional training programs, they almost always do so because they have problems adjusting their attitude, not because they are unable to learn the technical tricks of the trade. That is, people who drop out of school usually do so not because they lack the ability to go farther, but because they are consciously or unconsciously unwilling to become the type of person the system demands. The greater the adjustment an individual has to make to behave in the expected way, the less likely it is that that individual will do so.
Long before they give the qualifying examination, faculty members develop strong private opinions about which of their students have the attributes of a professional and which do not. They give the qualifying examination less to discover which of their students are qualified to receive professional credentials than to enforce the judgments they have already made. The results of the technical examination usually parallel the faculty’s judgments but are much less obviously connected to values and attitudes, allowing individual faculty members to describe the decisions on qualification as purely technical and to hide their personal thinking and their personal role in the career screening. A professor can put on a “test-grader” hat and act like a reluctant agent of the exam. Instead of having to say, “I’m sorry, you don’t fit our image of a professional in this field, so we didn’t pass you,” the professor can simply say, “I’m sorry, you didn’t do well on the test; you didn’t pass.” We are expected to believe that the exam bosses the faculty, dictating its decision on each student-that the dummy decides what the ventriloquist says.
Even something as simple as a weight hanging on a string illustrates the point. Why does the weight swing back and forth after you give it a push? What can you say about its motion in terms of forces, velocities and accelerations? Is the acceleration ever horizontal? Where is it zero? Most physicists would have trouble answering these questions, yet they can perform a mathematical derivation routine that yields, for example, an approximate formula for the time that the pendulum takes to swing back and forth.
Without developing an intuitive feeling for the subject, the scientist cannot critically examine the paradigms that he or she uses, does not have a sense of what the field can and cannot do and is less able than the hobbyist to use the field independently, outside of workplace assignments. Hence the qualifying examination’s priority on recipes over understanding (or, equivalently, its use of recipes as the measure of understanding) produces scientists whose only real ability is to serve the system. The system protects itself by producing people with “know-how” rather than people with “know-why.”
The main educational mission of the colleges in any country is to produce people to staff and perpetuate that country’s social and economic system, and so it is no accident that the same attitude and values that are the key to success in college are the key to success in jobs that require a college degree. The student whose middle-class values make college something of a party is likely to advance faster on the job after graduation than the student whose working-class values make college an arduous experience in an alien world, even though the latter student works harder than the former. The favored outlook, which best serves the interests of the establishment, is by no means universal or easy to teach. Colleges can fine-tune the values and attitudes of students, but as large, impersonal institutions with thousands or tens of thousands of students, they cannot give enough individual attention to carry out major transformations. They fulfill their mission mainly by admitting those with the right attitude and values and by rejecting those who would require a major reorientation to become good servants of the system. The colleges deal with “incorrect admissions” less through the difficult and costly process of transforming attitudes and values than through simple disposal-the college dropout rate is about 50%.
The U.S. socioeconomic system, like the hustler, makes false promises, the principal one being that social mobility is available to all who work hard. By its very nature, a hierarchical system cannot possibly keep such a promise. The number of positions at successively higher levels decreases very quickly and is always less than the number of hardworking people who want the positions. This structure sets many ambitious workers on a collision course with the reality of limited opportunity. When they are finally hit with the tragic disappointment, they may become angry or resentful, and so the hierarchical system must engage in widespread cooling out. It does this not only to protect its agents who stand at the gate and do the dirty work of exclusion, but also to make sure that those who have been disappointed do not become opponents of the hierarchical system itself and enemies of its power elite. It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect. Cooling out is therefore an integral part of the socioeconomic system. Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.
In fact, cooling out competes with remedial instruction to be the raison d’etre of the community or junior college. These two-year institutions, which take in two-thirds of a million graduating high school seniors every year, allow large numbers of people to “go to college”-and and to get it over with posthaste. Today “we’re playing more of that winnowing function,” says George Prather, an official in the 100,000-student Los Angeles Community College District. Nationwide, most students going from high school into two-year colleges plan to transfer to four-year colleges or universities, where they can earn bachelor’s degrees. In the end, however, a large majority of “transfer program” students either switch to a terminal program or leave college altogether. Each year, only about 5% of those enrolled in two-year colleges transfer to bachelor’s-granting institutions, an astoundingly small fraction.’ For example, Los Angeles City College in the 1997-98 school year managed to transfer only 481 of its 15,000 students to the California State University system, and just 73 students to the more-prestigious University of California system. Statewide, California’s 106 community colleges, which constitute the largest system of higher education in the world, opened the year with 1,143,000 students. By year’s end 56,000 (4.9%) had transferred to the California State University or University of California systems-and 1,087,000 had not.”
Pick up a card lengthwise between your thumb and fingers. With the same hand, pick up a second card in the same way, so that you are now holding two cards, one atop the other. Move your hand as if you are gently throwing the second card back onto the table, but let the first card slide off instead. Shaving the first card makes it easier. The illusion is almost powerful enough to fool the person performing it. The mark’s consolation prize-a free chance to win-is worth only a few dollars because of the power of the sleight of hand.
Thus, for example, it was sad but not surprising when the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association decided not to participate in the massive 25 April 1993 gay rights march on Washington, an event that drew several hundred thousand people, making it one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history. Leroy Aarons, the group’s president, explained that members didn’t want to endanger their “credibility in the industry.” As good little professionals they adjust their very identity for their employers: Both on and off the job they act like journalists who happen to be gay, not like gays who happen to work as journalists.
As we know, not all students become clones of the prototypical professional. But those who are headed in that direction are easy to spot, because their subordinate attitude is conspicuous early on at the training institution. These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason, they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short, this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.
These days one finds students and professionals who have some awareness of the big picture but who cynically adjust their behavior for the system. This is quite acceptable to the hierarchy because these individuals, even as they blast distant power figures such as the president, carefully avoid any confrontation with those who hold immediate power over them. As Max Horkheimer said in 1946, in what may be taken as one of the most succinct criticisms of many professionals on today’s postmodern scene, “Well-informed cynicism is only another mode of conformity.”
The professional, like any employee, does have conflicts with his employer, but because he is an intellectual employee, he is not free to arrive at just any understanding of the root cause of these on-the-job disputes. Specifically, under normal circumstances he cannot allow himself to view his problems with his employer as an outgrowth of a fundamental conflict of interest, for to do so would sabotage the ideological discipline that allows him to serve his employer’s interest in his work and keep his job as a professional. Thus, the professional sees his clashes as originating in conflicting technical judgments over how best to pursue universal interests. He sees conflicting strategies or personalities but doesn’t see himself as having a fundamental conflict of interest with his employer-or with the powerful in society in general. That is, he doesn’t see his own conflict with his employer as part of a larger conflict between labor and capital. When those who wield power act against his and his fellow employees’ interests, the professional does not see them as opponents acting against employee interests, but as incompetents acting against universal interests. Thus, he calls not for breaking down the hierarchy and distributing the power democratically to those who do the work, but for more “intelligence” at the top-an elitist approach, which weakens alliances with nonprofessionals. He challenges the staffing, not the structure. He fumes, “Incompetents! Stupid bureaucrats! Those idiots don’t know what they’re doing!” In the eyes of the professional, those with authority at worst lack intelligence or information; he dare not admit to himself that those he serves may be smart and well-informed but simply have different class interests-that is, he cannot risk admitting to himself that he has been hired to serve interests that conflict with his own.
Employers reward mediocrity and punish excellence-at least that’s what many disillusioned professionals have concluded. In reality, of course, management has no such operating principle. Yet countless professionals have found that when they take initiative on the job and work with dedication to further the ends they thought they were hired to further, they get criticism from the boss, or they are treated as some sort of threat. Meanwhile, they see that coworkers with take-the-money-and-run attitudes are hassled less. When devoted professionals complain that they are given grief for doing outstanding work, you usually find that they have decided for themselves which aspects of their jobs deserve the highest priority and the most attention. This assertion of their own agenda, not the excellence with which they pursue it, is what gets them into trouble. The chance to work toward their own goals renews their enthusiasm and inspires them to do what they feel is unusually excellent work. Coworkers typically agree, as do clients, but management is unhappy. Professionals bewildered by their bosses’ negative reaction to their special efforts, but unable to recognize the difference between their agenda and their employer’s, conclude that the problem is that management is too stupid to recognize quality work. What is really a conflict over goals appears to these professionals to be a dispute over excellence. Other professionals escape such disputes; these are the individuals whose goals match those of the institutions that employ them or who are willing and able to subordinate their own goals.
Thus my purpose in describing the features common to all brainwashing schemes is to help immunize students against them. Simple awareness of how indoctrination systems work is a big step toward undermining their effectiveness. As psychiatry professor Louis Jolyon West noted in a report about training Air Force flight crews to resist brainwashing as prisoners of war, “A realistic, undistorted, truthful account of what a man can expect constitutes a major protection for him.” Familiarity with the subordinating measures reduces unreasonable fears, opening the door to resistance.
Only individuals-working together-can stand up to the forces of the status quo and make the world a better place. Any social movement populated by brainwashed followers is inherently weak and will eventually fail, for two reasons. First, the movement’s leaders aren’t always around, and dependent thinkers have difficulty taking initiative on their own. They can’t seize opportunity, because they don’t have the creativity to even recognize it. And even when their leaders show it to them, they can’t do the creative thinking, innovation and on-the-spot decision-making necessary to make the most of it. Second, a movement of dependent thinkers is easily disabled; one need only take out the leaders, or, more typically, co-opt them, and the faithful will be neutralized en masse.
Rod’s fellow student knew the difference between sharing personal information with her friends, which can lead to support and bonding, and revealing personal information to people who want to keep her in a subordinate position, which can give those people added power to do just that. Those who are more naive expect that sharing personal information with someone in charge will prompt that person to think on a “one-human-being-to-another” basis, putting aside his or her usual priority on furthering the organizations goals. That seldom happens.
In a professional training program, for example, time pressure, insecurity, stress and an overly demanding schedule can lead to lack of sleep, junk-food diets and social isolation. In a POW camp, by contrast, an indoctrinator might simply arrange for sleep deprivation, poor nutrition and isolation. The mechanism is different, but the result is similar.
All prisoners are bound to feel some degree of humiliation at some time or other. A prisoner may feel humiliated because he was captured. The stripping and processing procedures can be humiliating. Your captor does all he can to make you feel humble and unworthy, and to make you lose face. An excellent defense is: Don’t take it personally! Don’t let it fret to you! Keep your pride! Know that they, your captors, are beneath you! Ridicule them in private; Assign ludicrous nicknames. But don’t be contemptuous. You may begin to believe that you are smarter than they are and open yourself to exploitation. Don’t get cocky or careless.
The collaborator really does not do himself much good, if any. He doesn’t live much better. Whatever rewards the enemy gives him do not pay for the harm he has done to his country, the other prisoners, and his own self-respect. And even while he is collaborating, the enemy despises him.
Yes, people who favor the status quo tend to get treated better than their less conservative colleagues. However, at the same time, people willing to take a stand often get treated better than people with a butt-kissing attitude, who often get taken advantage of. Hence, for example, despite my radical views, as a student and then as a working professional, I have found myself harassed and exploited less than other students and coworkers. The faculty and bosses have treated me with greater respect, gotten on my case much less frequently, given me greater autonomy and accepted less work from me, making my daily life much less stressful. They tend to do the most to those who will take the most.
In the end, the jury was unable to see Streleski as an inherently bad person, and so convicted him of second-degree, rather than first-degree, murder. Although the prosecutor was outraged, calling the verdict “almost illegal,” Streleski got a short sentence, which prison officials made even shorter by awarding him time off for good behavior. Ironically, it was only in prison that Streleski was finally able to devote all of his attention to mathematics, just as his wealthy or financially supported fellow students had been able to do at Stanford. Thus he described prison as “utopia with constraints” and joked that he had a “tenured” position with a “state institution.” To the distress of many, Streleski achieved his goal of criticizing Stanford “with some impact.” He got wide media coverage, including a sympathetic profile in People magazine and a guest appearance on the Phil Donahue Show’s “Imprisoned”. For seven years and twenty days, Streleski has been a free man since 8 September 1985.
From a global point of view, what matters is not who does work that changes society for the better, but how much of such work is done. Nevertheless, it is understandable that newly graduated professionals who identify not with the system but with the opposition want to be the ones who do this work. However, some feel that they must be the ones to do this work; they feel that unless they get a job with a reform-oriented organization such as a human-rights group, public-interest law project, union, alternative media outlet or political group they are not really genuine members of the opposition. Such an assessment is doubly wrong. First, if one has to get hired by the opposition to be a full-fledged member of it, then the opposition is doomed to weakness, because it does not and never will employ more than a minute fraction of the workforce. It does not need to, of course: Oppositional organizations get their strength from their active members, not from their office staff. A union with many truly active members is very strong even if it employs only a relatively small number of people. Second, many reform-oriented organizations are hierarchically organized, and staff members are basically expected to follow the policy set by those at the top. If, for example, those at the top of a union decide that cooperation with management is the union’s new strategy, as happened with the United Auto Workers’ “jointness” program, then the union’s organizers and other staff members are not free to take a different approach. The problems faced by radical professionals working in such reform-oriented organizations are in essence the same as those faced by radical professionals working for mainstream organizations.
When managers are not around and coworkers get together and talk informally, the most common topics are office politics, rumors, gossip and personalities, all of which tend to focus on power in the workplace: Office politics addresses the subject directly; rumors often concern what those in power are planning to do; gossip many times has to do with the things coworkers may be doing to escape their “place”; and when personalities are the topic, the bosses get much more than their fair share of attention as their personalities are analyzed and reanalyzed ad infinitum.
First, hierarchical organizations take the fun out of work. They centralize decision-making, so that most people involved in an activity or project are deprived of creative control, alienating them from their own work and killing their enthusiasm.
More importantly, on a daily basis, hierarchies subordinate and humiliate and, as mentioned, make people’s working lives a grind, warp their personalities, perpetuate their ignorance, repress their spontaneity and stunt their personal development, amounting to a kind of violence against the individual. Some individuals respond with actual violence; those pushed over the edge tend to “go crazy” in a particular way, aiming their guns up the hierarchy more often than down. But more commonly, people respond with many nonviolent forms of resistance-or with redirected violence such as alcohol and drug abuse and domestic brutality.
Secrecy allows management to avoid the pressure of precedents, so that it can give each employee the cheapest deal it can get away with. With openness, all employees would have the precedent of the best deal. Hence, you encourage coworkers to reveal the details of their deals with management. And yes, you advocate making lists of salaries public. The bosses strongly discourage such openness and are often extremely angry when it occurs, not because they are out to “protect your privacy,” but because they are out to protect themselves-from the cost of satisfying employees who have discovered the details of how they are being taken advantage of.
In the typical one-on-one meeting in the manager’s office, the boss pretends to treat the employee as an equal, and the employee either plays along with the pretense to avoid humiliation or is disarmed by it out of desperation for an ego boost. In either case the indignity is there. In a collective meeting, power is more equal.
A person’s flashy diploma or job title, for example, brings to your mind the degree to which the person has been processed by the system, is trusted by the system or is concerned about keeping the system’s trust.