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Monday, April 05, 2010

My Corporation. Your Big Brother.

We are continuing on in this month of BIGNESS. This, of course, in honor of Big Brother, George Orwell’s symbol of totalitarian domination in his novel 1984. In my review, I made a few societal comparisons between the world of Big Brother and our own, contemporary Western culture.

In the recent March-April issue of Orion, Christopher Ketcham writes about the “Bigness worship” in our culture. Here is his take:

“We prefer our Big Macs and our Whoppers, our food portions supersized, our big cars and sprawling cities, our enormous football players (growing bigger every year, the average offensive lineman now topping three hundred pounds), our big breasts and big penises and big houses (up from an average of 1,200 square feet in 1950 to 2,216 square feet today), our big armies with big reach, and, though we complain about it incessantly, big government that spends big money running up big debt (more now than at any other period in our history). That we allow corporations to grow to outrageous size is just another symptom of the disease. Bigness worship permeates every layer of the culture; it is racked into our brains with every turn of the advertising screw; it is a totalizing force.” (17, “The Curse of Bigness”)

I was intrigued to see that he uses the word “totalizing force” to describe our situation. Ketcham’s idea here is that worship of all things big, itself, turns into a totalizing force, one which does not seem dissimilar to Orwell’s Big Brother.

In 1984, those with creativity are continually suppressed by torture and execution. Even those who are loyal to the Party will disappear if they show too much of a creative impulse. The modern big corporation of the West operates on the same model, says Ketcham. It looks for an “Organization Man”:

“Creativity, in any case—the radical’s creativity, which is the only kind—is not what the corporation looks for. Rather, it pursues what William Whyte called ‘the fight against genius.’ It looks for Whyte’s ‘Organization Man,’ who seeks protection, safety, succor in bigness, who can be relied on to conform and submit. What it lacks in creativity, of course, the big corporation makes up for in coercion.” (19)

In point of fact, Ketcham says, small is better. Small is more efficient. Smaller groups are “more cohesive, effective, creative in getting things done.” He continues, “Hundreds of studies in factories and workplaces confirm that workers divided into small groups enjoy lower absenteeism, less sickness, higher productivity, greater social interaction, higher morale—most likely because the conditions allow them to engage what is best in being human, to share the meaning and fruits of their labor.” (22)

There seems to be a psychology of meaningfulness at work. When workers integrate themselves with their workers and their works in a way that does not reduce them to a number or to a title, then they have a healthier psyche, and this results in better results…..which everyone kind of already knows. It is also why every contemporary big corporation will make it their top HR priority to create a “meaningful” environment. While this is the stated purpose, it cannot ever truly be achieved, or at least it is rare. In the end, more human workers are still only a means to an end, with profitability and growth being the ultimate objectives.

In the old days, at least the corporations were a bit more straight-forward in their goals and objectives: you are a cog in the machine. Like it or get out. Today’s corporation undergoes a form of what Orwell calls “doublethink.” Doublethink is “to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them.” It is not only to say one thing and do another, but to psychologically learn to immediately forget that one is engaging in doublethink: “to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink.” So, the HR person at a big corporation truly believes they are working for the good of the worker, while simultaneously working for the good (and drawing their paycheck from) the corporation.

Ketcham says that the result is “one of alienation, powerlessness, meaninglessness.”

“Large groups develop quickly into a committee structure, with an executive or leadership that directs and often dominates the decision-making process. Power, in other words, is centralized, hierarchies are built, authority is increasingly top-down, consent is gently coerced or it arrives by default, as members of the group simply stop participating—not speaking, or initiating, or deciding, or acting, their invisibility growing in proportion as the group grows in size. In short, the experience of most members of the big group could accurately be described as one of alienation, powerlessness, meaninglessness.” (22)

For the subjects of Big Brother, powerlessness is of course the primary reason for being. Big Brother exists solely and only for power. The subtle but serious point that needs to be made here, however, is that Big Brother is the only one with power. In reading 1984 it is clear that even those who are higher up in the Party must somehow shut down their humanness. There is madness in their eyes, even if they are far and away more intelligent than anyone else in the society. As such, there is the same alienation, powerlessness, and meaninglessness even among the most powerful. Those who abuse power, who impose de-humanization on the masses, cannot escape the same fate themselves.

The result of any Big Brother approach to society, culture, religion, family, or any other institution is that the power resides in the symbol. All others become de-humanized in various ways. This, I think, is part of the genius of Orwell’s 1984. He never really rests power in the hands of any one person or in any group of people. The power resides in the Party, or in the abstract Big Brother. The Party is immortal, because it is a symbol and an institution.

In our contemporary society, technology is crucial to the process of dehumanization. Ketcham cites Ghandi: “Every machine that helps every individual has a place, but there should be no place for machines [that] turn the masses into mere machine minders.” (23)

It is beyond dispute, of course, that our modern 20th century obsession with all things big has been aided by the machine. It is also beyond dispute that globally we divide ourselves, roughly, into two processes: slave labor from poor and banking and paper-pushing done in other nations. The white-skinned people, mostly, are the bankers and paper-pushers, those of brown skin from poor countries are the cheap labor force. The other important ingredient in this equation, of course, is the technology to pump cheap oil out of the ground.

Regardless of one’s place, we all are mostly expected to fill roles that contribute directly or indirectly to the growth of big institutions, which themselves fit into this new, global economy.

But there is hope. Orwell’s dystopian is bleak. In the end, the hero breaks down, the last man falls. Big Brother is immortal. But Ketcham’s point is that bigger is not better, by definition. Smaller is more efficient. There is creativity and imagination in smaller groups, something that is suppressed in Big Brother corporations. The use of power to trample creativity ultimately backfires; it exposes the weakness and vulnerability of Big Brother.

“The bigger and more complex our institutions become, the weaker and more vulnerable they really are.” (22)

Rebellion, then, must come through creativity. Apathy only contributes to Big Brother’s domination. This is what I always enjoy when I read or watch the novel/film Fight Club. The creativity of the displaced and malcontents ultimately can work underground to destroy the system.

What kind of creativity is necessary to bring human-ness back to Western society? What kind of imagination is needed to break the cycle?

How can we create a world that is decisively smaller? Less reliant on people feeling like cogs in the machine?

Does creativity become a spiritual force? Is creativity one of the most fundamental spiritual virtues? Is this spiritual creativity, in itself, a form of anarchy?


john doyle said...

Big companies have long recognized that innovation typically comes from smaller companies and individual inventors. However, most innovative efforts either don't work or aren't likely to become big money-makers. So rather than hiring huge numbers of high-risk inventors, big companies continually scan the horizon for potentially marketable innovations created elsewhere. Then they buy these little guys out and turn their inventions into mass-produced, mass-marketed products. Even if the big company has to split some of the profits with the inventor, it doesn't have to throw money at a lot of projects that never amount to anything. The individual inventors are the ones who take all that risk, in the hope of being among the very few who make it rich by getting bought out.

john doyle said...

As the average US house size has doubled, so too has overall consumption doubled. US worker productivity has also doubled. However, real inflation-adjusted wages have stayed stagnant. Which means that increases in worker productivity have turned not into worker compensation but into profits for the investors. The rich have gotten proportionately richer, so that now the richest 1% of the population control more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. The big keep getting bigger, at the expense of the small.

Meanwhile, workers have financed their increased spending by increasing their debt, the interest payments also turning into ivestor profits. Wasn't it inevitable that the bubble would burst, that price inflation for houses would stop, that the mortgage borrowers could no longer cover their debts from their meager paychecks? And what's the response? Bush and then Obama bail out the mortgage lenders, employers downsize, freeze wages, squeeze even more productivity from their remaining workers, bolstering corporate profits, increasing stock prices, and making the investors well again.

Jonathan Erdman said...

It really is a raw deal. And after reading your comments, one gets the sense that the system is rigged, that the power structures really are too big to fail.

Does real resistance and change only come, then, when the innovators and small-scale creative types refuse to sell out?

Are you, John, looking to bring down this system?

aeyn said...

ugh! my comments from the FB posting of this aren't on here. rats! i'll have to repost 'em here, too. and join this discussion. -smile-

Jonathan Erdman said...


Yes, please do!

john doyle said...

Here are the three heroes of individualistic Western mythology: (1) the artist/inventor who refuses to sell out, stuggling in obscurity to produce works of staggering genius; (2) the innovator who spots an unfilled niche in the market, fills it, and gets rich and famous; (3) the genius who refuses to sell out but who eventually captures the public eye and gets rich and famous anyway. Don't many of us who see ourselves as creative, innovative, etc. fantasize about becoming genius number 3? I know I do.

While I have very strong anarchistic leanings, I'm afraid that without coming together as some sort of unified force it will be impossible to bring down the system. And part of the system's defense mechanism is the promulgation of the individual hero myth. It keeps the best and brightest from ever allying with one another -- except, of course, in profit-making ventures. And it reinforces the idea of the herd as intrinsically dull followers, rather than as being continually exploited by the so-called supermen who control the lawyers, guns and money.

Asheya said...

I found what you said here relevant to most church structures. It seems to me that most churches believe in the premise that bigger is better, while for myself I agree that engaging on a small scale with other human beings allows the creation of true community. I think you also hit on a key point here about creativity and spirituality. I read on Tamie's friend's blog about this group of people who are getting together to pursue connection with God and their time together centers around a meal and the presentation/discussion/contemplation (I'm not totally sure what the format is) of a work of art. Which I think is exactly right on.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I resonate with your concern. I think that one does need a collaborative effort to bring down the system.

I also think you make a great point about how the individual hero motif can be used by the system in order to maintain the system. It's one of those subtle ways (and yet perhaps the most manipulative of them all) in which the system can feign as though she is being overturned or changed, while maintaining its power. That seems to be the real force behind capitalism. It rewards the individual genius, while subsuming any anarchistic creative (and collaborative) ventures. We have discussed this in relation to a number of movements. There's the grunge movement of the 90's, the recent Emergent church movement, and one might even say that the counter-cultural 60's movements also fit into this category (though I am not familiar enough to comment).

It's like through all of these the system gets reoriented but the power structure remains the same. The same guys get rich, they just use different ideas. Maybe it's just Hegelian. =)

Jonathan Erdman said...


Yeah. For sure. I dig that idea too.

The sky is the limit in terms of what we can do when we combine spirituality and a creative imagination.

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Did the Fight Club folks really come up with something new? What they came up with violence, and since when was violence new? They had some really justified critiques of the system, but in what way is beating each other up, or burning people's flesh, or etc., really using creativity to think of something new (ie. actually life-affirming)? Destroying what's harming us, like some of the characters were maybe trying to do, is perhaps part of it. But what did they really have to put in its place?

Maybe the most insightful part of the movie is when Ty (that's his name, right?) goes to all those self-help groups. They were onto something there.

I, too, thought of churches when I read your post, although I thought of small groups in huge churches. YOu know, the small group movement, especially within mega-churches. I don't know.

I feel like I have something to be proud of, in Integration, when I read your post. Maybe! More later.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think the creativity in Fight Club was more in the fact that they had small groups (especially in the beginning) and they used violence in a creative way. Sometimes it wasn't violence. Sometimes it was just satire and pranks, like when they changed a billboard one night to say, "Did you know that you can use motor oil to fertilize your lawn?"

Over time, the small groups spread all over the States. I don't think that violence in and of itself is creative, but in the case of Fight Clubs, they used violence as a reaction against a system that encouraged them (and still does encourage all of us in the West) to be apathetic, docile, and spiritually sleepy, finding comfort in products rather than in community. Violence was a way for them to wake up and tap into something deeper within themselves.

Is it the way that I would go? Probably not. However, even Gandhi said that a violent resistance is better than no resistance. So, that's where I see Fight Club. What inspires me is not the method or the means, per se, it's the fact that people found a way to act in a way that woke them up and also challenged the system.

Oh, and in the end they destroy Western civilization, so.....you know....that took some creative thinking!

I do think that small groups like Integration have an incredible power and potential to bring down the system, without spinning off into the bizarre personality cult of Fight Club.

john doyle said...

Fight Club is a guy story for sure. The support groups are portrayed as feminizing, personified especially in the de-balled and be-moobed Bob Paulson. But leaving aside the misogyny, the support groups constitute passivity. Got angst? Look for the sickness not in society but in yourself. Angry? Get depressed instead. Feel the urge to destroy what's destroying you? Hug and comfort one another instead.

Jonathan Erdman said...

The support groups are such an interesting part of the story. Interesting because they represent something very positive, but they also become a turning point for the narrative. At first, the support groups work like magic to cure Jack's insomnia. He experiences something like grace. He connects with human beings. His life consists of an impersonal, white collar job with lots of travel. He compares his relationships on the road with little "travel size" soaps and toothpastes. When he goes to the support groups, he gets to let go, he gets to cry, and he sleeps like a baby.

Then Marla comes in. She's a faker, so her presence destroys the support group for Jack. It makes him realize that he's a faker, that he's just using the support group like a sleeping aid. Shortly thereafter, he has a personality split, and that's when Tyler comes onto the scene.

Marla is an important character that I often overlook. But there's this from the book: "I know all of this: the gun, the anarchy, the explosion is really about Marla Singer....We have sort of a triangle thing going here. I want Tyler. Tyler wants Marla. Marla wants me.
"I don't want Marla, and Tyler doesn't want me around, not anymore. This isn't about love as in caring. This is about property as in ownership. Without Marla, Tyler would have nothing....Where would Jesus be if no one had written the gospels?"

I find this reference to the gospels intriguing. It's like he's saying that Tyler is the result of the linguistic interpretation (represented by Marla). If Jack is the historical Jesus, and Marla is the written word, then Tyler is the Christian religion that bases itself upon the interpretation. Sound a bit Lacanian to you? "The unconscious is structured like a language." Or in this case, the unconscious (Tyler) breaks out though the language of Marla, someone who exposes Jack's inability to love and create an authentic life of his own.

Tyler is a violent rupture that's intent on bringing down the whole consumeristic system that keeps people "working jobs we hate to buy shit we don't need." Tyler has no time for intimacy or love; he just wants to create chaos, rally those who have been screwed by society, and usher in a new world.

john doyle said...

You should get Dejan over here, Erdman: he's far more masterful on the Lacanian discourses than I.

Clearly the main character is split a la Lacan. In Lacanian terms I see Jack as the symbolic: after all, he's the narrator, the one whose words tell the story, already castrated by language and incorporated into the normative social order. Tyler is the symbolic: it's who Jack wants; i.e., who Jack wants to be, the image that Jack would like to have of himself and that others would have of him. I'd say that Tyler is the idealized Jesus-image action hero and Jack is the gospel-writer.

But back to sexuality. Jack is castrated, passive, feminized -- Anne pointed out that he wears the womanish bathrobe and slippers around. Marla is a kind of masculinized woman: aggressive, competitive, smoking the phallic cigarettes. Jack says he doesn't want Marla: is it part of his idealized masculine self-image -- his Tyler identity -- to see himself as wanting Marla? And when Jack beats up the pretty boy (played by Jared Leto in the movie) isn't it a homoerotic act? Isn't the whole Fight Club sort of a homoerotic performance art?

It's about property, says Jack; if Tyler didn't have Marla he wouldn't have anything. That means Tyler has to destroy Marla to be free. Maybe by the end Jack has overcome this sense of owning Marla, and has moved on to non-possessive love? It's a beautiful story really.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I don't know that I see the homoerotic motif. When Jack beats up the beautiful blond kid, he says, "I just wanted to destroy something beautiful."

Ah, now I remember. Jack is jealous of the attention that Tyler is giving to the blond boy. Jack is getting pushed aside by Tyler (his own emerging subconscious...his "id" force?). He doesn't like that he's on the outside now.

Then there is the bathtub scene. Tyler and Jack talk about their absent fathers. Tyler says that he's starting to wonder if "another woman" (i.e. getting married) is the solution.

john doyle said...

The book begins with Tyler pushing a gun into the narrator's mouth -- prototypical homoerotic imagery, no? Twice he tongues the barrel, adjusts it in his cheek. "I want Tyler," he says during all this.

"Another woman" means someone to take his mother's place, right? So there's an Oedipal thing going on too.

Anyhow, Tamie introduced Fight Club into this thread by suggesting that the support groups were a better idea than the fighting as a response to corporate Big Brother. As you say, Jack decides that the support groups are a phony escape for him. It's feminized, passive -- the homoerotic image during that phase is Bob hugging Jack between his breasts. But in an earlier discussion we tentatively concluded that the Fight Club morphs into nascent totalitarianism: a masculine cult of militarized violence, total subjection to the Alpha leader, total loss of individuality.

At the end we presume that the narrator has somehow achieved some sort of integration of his passive but self-aware Jack self and his active but nihilistic Tyler self. What is the integration at the collective level between passive group hugs and aggressive ultraviolence? The story never gets that far.

Jonathan Erdman said...

John: What is the integration at the collective level between passive group hugs and aggressive ultraviolence?

A Gandhian nonviolent revolution? An MLK civil rights march?

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

alas, i feel unable to continue on with this fight club line of thought, unless i watch the movie again. see, i've seen the movie once, right about the time it was released, which was like 79 years ago, approximately. i also re-saw a few scenes of it at some twisted church thing. and i debated the movie with my friend russ for about 4 years. the thing is, however, that i don't have all that much interest in seeing it again! maybe it's all the violence and misogyny, i don't know. anyway....

Jonathan Erdman said...

You should do some deconstructive feminist blogging on Fight Club. The movie needs to be approached from that perspective. I feel like it brings out many important points about modern industrialized U.S. life. The problem is that the solution is an anarchist movement that becomes a "boys only" club....and a white boys only club at that....

tamie said...

Okay! Let's watch it again together soon and I'll take notes for a feminist take. :)