I have said elsewhere that, though it is too vague as it stands, the following slogan seems to me to express an important truth: Things should be themselves. I've even gone so far as to imply that this slogan applies to such mundane enterprices as widget factories and hot dog companies. Such factories should be what they are, and they should be the best they can be, in their circumstances, of their kind.
Human activities that are worth doing have their several excellences, and it's important to pursue and maintain the standards of those several excellences. Put more fuzzily, things should be themselves. An activist should be an activist. A soldier should be a soldier, a doctor, a doctor, a judge, a judge. A teacher of literature should be a teacher of literature. And, even, a widget-maker should be a widget-maker.
If it is worthwhile having widgets and hot dogs in the world, then it is worth having good ones, and it is worth having competition to offer the best ones at the best prices. And we are incredibly fortunate and should be incredibly grateful for all the wonderful stuff that human action and the free market have given us by means of people's doing things they want to do, doing them well, and profiting from the labor of doing them well. I, for one, am intensely grateful for all of this.
It's for that very reason that I am distressed by a conversation I had recently with a corporate employee of a to-remain-unnamed large company that gave me a window into a corporate world that seems to me far removed from this set of capitalist ideals--doing what one does well and what one wants to do, offering something worth having to the customer at a competitive price, and keeping on doing so as well as one can, and perhaps even better as time goes on, for as long as possible.
He told a story of corporate employment that at first didn't surprise me, though it saddened me to hear it straight from the horse's mouth--political correctness forced upon employees at every level in the name of "values." Things like tolerance, diversity, eco-friendliness, and so forth, all offered in the smarmy form that many of us are familiar with--such pablum-like slogans that one can't quite get a grip on them to disagree, but they feel vaguely wrong, and saying shibboleth to them feels like being turned into a zombie, and forcing other people to say shibboleth to them feels like playing Secret Police. And behind them, of course, concrete propositions that one knows one disagrees with, like "Homosexuality is just an alternative lifestyle," "Man-caused global warming is an undeniable scientific fact," "It is objectively morally important for a company to have a racially diverse employee group," "Women are no different than men." But none of this, of course, stated outright. Just those ubiquitous "values" slogans. The religious creedal statements of a secular world. Yuck.
That part, I already knew something about. But the next part was new to me (with my sheltered life, knowing about my own home, about home schooling, and about philosophy departments, but almost nothing direct about the corporate world). He explained that in his area there is intense pressure constantly to be changing one's role in the company. This is billed as "developing," "advancing." "Move up or move out," is the basic message. Even if, as does sometimes happen, you do well at your job and would prefer to keep doing it, and even if your immediate superior likes you and would like to keep you in your present position, the superior himself comes under pressure for not "developing his people." Ambition is treated as worthwhile in itself, and its absence as a sign that there is something wrong with you as an employee. Not even a sign, really--as definitionally something wrong with you as an employee. Finding something you like and trying to keep doing it well, perhaps even learning to do it better and better? How passe! How quaint! How regressive!
I kept mentioning, in a puzzled way, the idea that surely the employer should want his employees to learn their job well, to become experienced at it, and then to go on working at something they enjoy and do well. Why mess with success? But he kept shaking his head. That notion might apply at the purely technical level, he explained, but not beyond that. Everyone must keep moving.
I was thus confronted with an image of some previously unknown circle in Dante's Inferno, a place of ceaseless, meaningless motion for the sake of motion. For this motion does not enable the hot dog company to make better hot dogs, nor to make them more efficiently, nor to serve their customers better. It doesn't enable the computer company to make a more user-friendly product or a product that makes its customers' lives better. Such motion from role to role in a company, even if labeled "upward," does not or certainly need not mean that the employee is really growing, is really becoming better at what he does, is really helping his company to do what it does better. It need not even mean that he is doing better at some intangible work such as helping the company to advertise or market its product. On the contrary, he has to keep learning to do something new every few years, just when he was getting wise and experienced in his old role. And yet it is labeled "development" and its absence treated as an objective defect. So it seems to me that it is just a lie imposed upon employees and giving their lives an edge of anxiety for the security of their jobs and their families, which anxiety is utterly unnecessary and unhelpful from the perspective of efficiently making and selling good widgets, hot dogs, or anything else useful even to the purely material life of mankind.
In fact, this "move up or move out" imperative makes the old idea of being a cog in a machine look rather pleasant by comparison. Do you want the cogs in your car to keep randomly evolving into something different? Not at all. You might end up with a car that didn't run at all, or that ran much worse than before. If the employees were cogs in a machine, their employers would be grateful that they keep on playing their coggish roles efficiently and well and that they do so indefinitely, making the company like a machine that just keeps on forever running sweetly on well-oiled wheels. If the model of employees as cogs in a machine is modern, it seems to me that the corporate world of "move up or move out" is post-modern, a world where everything must morph for the sake of morphing and where this grotesque and pointless movement is called "growth."
Humbug should be anathema to all good conservatives. For that matter, humbug should be anathema to all good capitalists. And even to all good people. And this notion of hollow ambition as employee development is humbug. It is irrational, and it is anti-capitalist, in the sense that I have tried to give to the ideals of capitalism above. I wish that it were possible to get rid of it entirely from our system.
And meanwhile, my heart goes out to everyone upon whom such humbug is being imposed. May you have many areas of your life, even if not the job that brings your daily bread, in which things are themselves.