The Bureaucracy Curse

Office work brings out the complainer in me. The pointless meetings, the unrealistic deadlines, the team-bonding horseshit, the long hours and lack of time off – all fuel for my endless carping and growing resentment. Most company managers, unfortunately, are prejudiced against complainers – they think we should be more grateful. Their prejudice is due to a fear of what we represent: the inevitable collapse of the corporate management worldview. The complainers, you see, represent the future, whereas those favoured by management – the grateful and obedient – belong to a sinking past. Company executives are fond of talk about “vision”, but the real vision is in employee disgruntlement. Deep down, the managers know this – that’s why they’re afraid.

Complaining is taboo in backward societies, authoritarian regimes and modern corporations. Most well-informed people understand that complaints have a positive social function, and that dissent should not be buried. Employee discontent should be treated as a valuable resource. Instead, it’s automatically dismissed or frowned upon. The reflex management response to staff disgruntlement is: “you should be glad you have a job”. This is the medieval logic of lower expectations: no complaint is valid, since things can always be worse than they are, and we should always be grateful.

The “lower expectations” culture – working longer, for less pay, and being grateful – though encouraged in every corporate slave galley, is conspicuously absent from corporate PR. The PR imagery, in fact, communicates utopian “higher expectations”, as expressed in slogans such as “we’re aiming higher”, “now even better”, “the future is bright”, etc. The Company directors believe their own PR, and ignore rumours of discontent. Their board rooms are cheerful places – full of optimistic talk, high-tech perspectives and futuristic management buzzwords.

But behind the executive vanity and PR cosmetics, industrial-age hierarchical bureaucracies and Fordist production-line methods continue to operate. Desks are still lined up in rows. Workplaces are still bleak, centralised production hives, and workers are still treated as insectoid units of productivity. The high-pressure, traffic-jam work culture looks more like hell than utopia, but “business leaders” and politicians have no plans for change.

One of the software packages commonly used by call centre managers is marketed as “Total Control Made Easy”

In November 1999, UK call centre workers held a nationwide strike in protest against “a 19th century management style, impossible targets, stress and overwork”. Protesters were particularly unhappy with the threat of disciplinary action against workers failing to complete calls within 285 seconds. The Guardian quoted a London School of Economics researcher as saying, “the possibilities for monitoring behaviour and measuring output in call centres is amazing to behold – the tyranny of the assembly line is but a Sunday school picnic compared with the control that management can exercise in computer telephony”.

TV commercials give a false picture of call centres – they show relaxed employees taking customer calls in pleasant surroundings. The reality is thousands of workers packed together in giant sheds, relentlessly answering telephone calls to predetermined scripts. The term “sweatshop” comes to mind. Visits to the lavatory are rationed and monitored. One of the software packages commonly used by call centre managers is marketed as “Total Control Made Easy”.

Business people think they have the “bottom line” in hard-nosed realism: it’s a brutal world and we must all compete for survival by pecking each other to death like ducks.

As we zoom into a bright new future, traffic congestion and parking space are becoming difficult problems. One far-sighted solution, devised by leading government thinkers, is to advise employees to give each other lifts to work. This lets the government off the hook, and dodges important questions such as: “must we always travel to work?”, and: “must we always work?” A nationwide survey revealed that 60 percent of workers see their work as being of no use to society – so why not pay people to stay at home enjoying themselves? Think of all the public benefits – less traffic, less stress, less pollution, lower medical costs and more people enjoying life.

The usual argument against utopian social policy is economic rectitude – that, as a society, we can’t afford it. Buckminster Fuller, the famous utopian polymath, claimed that this economic argument is just a convenient excuse for government and corporate apathy. Fuller argued that the dominant economic worldview – that of “not enough to go around for everyone” – is seriously flawed, due to being based on outdated inventories of world resources. In 1798, Thomas Malthus predicted that since world population was growing faster than known resources, poverty was inevitable for the majority of humanity. Malthus’s forecast of ongoing scarcity, hardship and starvation had an enormous impact on economists and politicians. For many years, his prediction was cited as a reason not to give welfare to the poor – all attempts to remove poverty were seen as futile. Malthus was later discredited – his forecast was incorrect – but his gloomy influence left economics with a nickname: “the dismal science”.

Fuller claimed that the Malthusian ideology of “lower expectations” still pervades mainstream politics and economics. Politicians continue to remind us that we must “make sacrifices”, “cut back”, “tighten our belts”, etc. Of course, it’s always the poor people who make the sacrifices, not politicians or the well-off. Malthusianism shames the poor into accepting their situation with stoic resignation, rather than raising their expectations. If there isn’t enough to go around, then you should be grateful for what you already have. Understandably, Malthus was very popular with the ruling classes.

Politicians continue to remind us that we must “make sacrifices”, “cut back”, “tighten our belts”. Of course, it’s always the poor people who make the sacrifices, not politicians or the well-off

Fuller spent much of his life challenging the Malthusian notion of “not enough to go around”. He documented the technological trend of extracting more and more life-supporting wealth from less and less raw material. For example, he compared a modern communications satellite, weighing a fraction of a ton, with the 75,000 tons of transatlantic cable that it replaces and outperforms. This process of “more from less”, he said, is accelerating faster than population growth and is removing scarcity from the planet.

Over the last few decades, Fuller’s claims have been scientifically vindicated. Current inventories of world resources show overwhelming abundance of sustainable life-enhancing wealth – enough to maintain a high living standard for every person on the planet. Scarcity now has to be artificially induced to preserve an obsolete system of “haves” and “have-nots”. Most people suspect as much when they hear that, for decades, governments have been paying farmers not to grow food. Fuller regarded the “us versus them” paranoid-competitive business world as a highly destructive combination of Malthus and Social Darwinism. Humanity’s real mission, as he saw it, was not to fight competitors, but, “to make the world work for 100 percent of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”

In 1980, Fuller asserted his confidence in the practical realisation of this utopian vision: “For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the more-with-less technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”

Meanwhile, back in bureaucratsville, Fuller’s message is yet to be heard. Our reflexes have been conditioned to dismiss utopia as synonymous with the unrealistic or impossible. Corporations see technology as just another way to gain competitive advantage. Business people think they have the “bottom line” in hard-nosed realism: it’s a brutal world and we must all compete for survival by pecking each other to death like ducks. And the function of advertising and PR is to put a warm, friendly gloss on all this, so the consumers don’t die of fright before they get a chance to buy the products.

Fortunately, a minority of economic commentators are starting to echo Fuller’s arguments. Charles Hampden-Turner, in The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, notes that “we, in the English-speaking economies, are still at war with each other, fighting for scraps of wealth in a scarcity contrived by our own beliefs.” Hampden-Turner then suggests that we redefine capitalism as “a function of evolving co-operation, which spreads outward, pushing competition to its own boundaries” – a notion very much in tune with what Fuller was saying half a century ago.

Perhaps, as Fuller claimed, humans have a habit of trying all the stupid approaches before hitting on the intelligent ones. Unfortunately, this is a slow process, with a time-lag of decades or centuries before stupidity is acknowledged. Those who plan to accelerate this process – the complainers, the dissenters – should be honoured, as they may be our best hope.