Corporatism, Efficiency, and the Work of Imagination
Larry Allums, Ph.D.
Dr. Virginia Arbery began this lecture series on “Work and Play in the City” by focusing largely on the meaning and importance of play in the human realm. She pointed out the kinship between the two Greek words paideia, culture and education, and paidia, play. The root word for school, she said, following Josef Pieper’s famous treatise Leisure the Basis of Culture, is skole, which means leisure, as opposed to “work” or “business.” “Life must be lived as play,” Dr. Arbery suggested, and this is most possible under the auspices of poetry and philosophy, the prize of both of which is wonder. Out of wonder, then, comes joy. Last Wednesday night, Dr. Louise Cowan spoke about the festive spirit as a necessity for culture. Festivity is at the heart of the comic rhythms of life, from which is born a comic sense of the world—the sense that life and nature are essentially redeemable in terms not of morality but of spirituality. The comic spirit engenders life, or brings us back to life, in a movement that outrages the desire of morality to control and order the fallen world. The comic urge is messy, irreverent, sexual, and appetitive, and it seeks to remake the world in its own image, in the image of human community.
Neither Dr. Arbery nor Dr. Cowan talked at length about “work,” the other term in our lecture series title this Fall, but they implied at best a tension and at worst an opposition between work and play in the world, an absence of continuity, the existence of the two things as separate spheres of human activity. Indeed, Pieper begins his treatise with two quotes, one from Plato’s Laws which indicates that wine and festival are given by the gods to relieve mankind of work’s curse, and the other from Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom personified speaks in the first person thusly: At creation “I was at [God’s] side each day, his darling and delight, playing in his presence continually, playing on the earth, when he had finished it, while my delight was in mankind” (New English Bible).
Tonight, I, with my heavier Protestant heart, full of a sense of obligation and duty, will force our attention to the phenomenon of “work”: what is it? In what sense is it opposed to play and festivity? What is its shape in America, especially in terms of the corporation, which has formed our modern understanding of work and is its present-day abode? How are we to regard “corporatism,” the spawn of the corporate model that has become by now a largely unconscious force of enormous power in our lives, beguiling us with a summons to Efficiency as the necessary “tool” in coping with a world expanding exponentially in terms of both potential and peril? What becomes of imagination–the progenitor of creativity and culture–in the persuasive presence of its antagonist Efficiency? If these are unanswerable questions that I can do no more than play around with tonight, I want to raise a further one pointing to the drama that is being played out—as on a stage—in the world today: during what seems to be an historical period of transition from one thing to another, from one way of seeing and being to another, most likely from one paradigm to another—the end of our unbounded confidence in the supremacy of Reason, the end of the Enlightenment, that is, and the beginning of an era in which imagination is restored as a way of knowing, a legitimate mode of knowledge—during this period of transition, can the corporation as we know it today, the workplace of the modern era, perform an action aimed at anything other than its own interest, its own wellbeing, its own increased success, growth, and profit?
The idea of work is born in Western culture as a curse. Among the ancient Greeks, Hesiod speaks of work in his story of the ages or races in Works and Days. First, he says, the gods “fashioned a golden race of mortal men”:
These lived in the reign of Kronos, king of heaven,
And like the gods they lived with happy hearts
Untouched by work or sorrow.
Vile old age Never appeared, but always lively-limbed,
Far from all ills, they feasted happily.
Death came to them as sleep, and all good things
Were theirs; ungrudgingly, the fertile land
Gave up her fruits unasked. Happy to be
At peace, they lived with every want supplied.
After this race was “hidden in the ground,” according to Hesiod, there began a deterioration in the state of the human, a devolution through the races of silver, then bronze, then heroes, all becoming worse and worse, until Zeus made a fifth and final race, the race we recognize as our own. Hesiod laments:
I wish I were not of this race, that I
Had died before, or had not yet been born.
This is the race of iron. Now, by day,
Men work and grieve unceasingly; by night,
They waste away and die. The gods will give
Harsh burdens, but will mingle in some good.
Hesiod’s understanding of the doubtful origins of work—as the sign of degenerate times—seems to accord with the Judeo-Christian understanding of work as the consequence of disobedience and the loss of the garden. The Lord God’s curse—his pronouncement in Genesis 3—alike to the man and the woman involves the advent of work—labor—as a way of life after their being driven from the garden of Eden: “To the woman he said: ‘I will increase your labour and your groaning, and in labour you shall bear children . . . .’ And to the man he said, ‘ . . . accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labour you shall win your food from it all the days of your life. It will grow thorns and thistles for you, none but wild plants for you to eat. You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground; for from it you were taken. Dust you are, to dust you shall return.’” (3.16-19; New English Bible)
This is the curse that defines life beyond the garden: burden, travail, suffering. And it is from this mythic image that we arrive at our psychic division between work and play: work is an enforced activity that is alien to and separate from the carefreeness and joy with which we associate play. Play as a release from or absence of care is more like what life in the garden was like, and the image of the garden is still very much with us as representing the place to which we wish to return. Andrew Marvell’s wonderful lyric “The Garden” captures this deep human desire. The poem begins:
How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their incessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb, or tree.
To retreat to the garden, however, is to recover that which man has lost due to his disobedience: “Fair Quiet, Innocence, and Repose.” In the presence of “incessant labors,” “society is all but rude / To this delicious solitude.” In his imagination, Marvell re-enters the garden and finds there a happiness unknown to man because it is removed from work:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Marvell’s retreat from the world of work in this poem turns out to be a withdrawal into the contemplative space of the mind, yet in the end he sees it as, at best, an ambiguous removal from the world of men and labor, since it removes him from the human community, from the city of men. Thus he ends his poem with the image of the “industrious bee”—a standard Renaissance metaphor for work as an agent of order and community—which “computes its time as well as we!”
According to the Judao-Christian myth, the “curse” of work has finally to be qualified. God does not pronounce a curse that is not redemptive, and to say that work is redemptive is not to say that it is merely survivable, that it represents a curse with which we can cope. Rather, there is something in work itself that yields meaning and significance. It is with work as it is with the felix culpa: as Milton’s Adam exclaims in Book 12 of Paradise Lost after hearing Michael rehearse the history of salvation that is about to begin unfolding out of his transgression,
Full of doubt I stand,
Whether I should repent me now of sin
By me done and occasioned, or rejoice
Much more, that much more good thereof shall spring,
To God more glory, more good will to men
From God, and over wrath grace shall abound. (473-8)
This is the Christian affirmation of the world and nature, fallen though it is: just as something of immense value and goodness is born out of terrible transgression, so the notion of work or labor as travail, burden, suffering implies the issuing of something of great value from it—not in spite of it or apart from it, separate from it—but continuous with it and dependent on it. Thus the activity of work itself is redemptive in its nature, denying both aspects of the common dichotomy: we work to live, or we live to work. Life and work are coincident: although the “nectarine and curious peach” may not drop into our outstretched hands as we yawn ourselves awake from an untroubled sleep, neither would such an effortless yield necessarily yield a meaning to our lives. Work itself, in terms of God’s curse, entails a travail in its enactment that possesses significance and meaning—work is at the same time evidence of a falling away and of a good for the soul.
The same is true in the Roman understanding of work—at least in the understanding of republican Rome, which is in Virgil’s imagination as he depicts the almost unbearable labor of Aeneas: condere Romanam gentem erat tantae molis: “to found the Roman nation was a work of so great magnitude” (I.32). Out of Aeneas’ great labor, and his piety to that labor, is born Western civilization itself. To be sure, many a time Aeneas expresses the anguished desire to be rid of his divinely appointed burden—his journey to establish the foundations of Rome—but what he himself becomes, as well as what he makes possible in the future, comes from that labor. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m suggesting an understanding of work not as something “for the sake of” but as something of great value in and of itself, and I stress it because in these terms we can begin to see just how far we have strayed—for whatever reasons—from original understandings of work in our tradition. Last week Dr. Louise quoted the passage from Dante’s Purgatorio27, wherein Virgil says to Dante atop the mountain, at the threshold to the Terrestrial Paradise, that he should seek his pleasure, since his soul is now pure: “No longer expect word or sign from me. Free, upright, and whole is your will, and it would be wrong not to act according to its pleasure; wherefore I crown and miter you over yourself” (140-2). Dante the pilgrim has returned to the state of the essentially original man, but it is important to remember that he has not been whisked there as if by magic, just as Aeneas earns his vision in the underworld through the labor of his travels—his travails—and just as Paul was given his vision of the third heaven after the anguished journey of his own soul (2 Cor.12.1-4). Dante has worked his way up Mt. Purgatory, and the issue of his work—what it has given birth to—Is the freedom, uprightness, and wholeness of his will. Once he accepts the gesture of God’s grace and follows Virgil into Hell, he has entered the travail that is necessary to his losing his condition of lostness and becoming found. The “suffering” of work is the sign of its efficacy.
Dante’s Purgatory is, in fact, a model for the world of work as it can exist within and be generative of community. The whole of the Comedy can be viewed as the full spectrum of man’s relation to work in the city: the city of Hell depicts work at its worst: the sinners, perfected in their sin, as Erich Auerbach has suggested in Mimesis, live circular lives of absolute repetition, a labor that is totally meaningless, like going to the worst job imaginable, the job from hell, one might say. Labor on Mt. Purgatory is toward an end which is achieved through the means of a work that produces its own fruit: compassion, forgiveness, the sense of bearing burdens in common, the awareness at once of difference and identity among the laborers, and communal joy in the midst of—nay, concomitant with—the sweat of the physical and spiritual brow. The commonness of this joy is seen at its height and in its fullness upon the release of an individual soul to the upper realm of heaven, which, as Statius tells us on the mountain, occurs precisely when the soul forgets the end of this journey—the release from care and toil—and indeed focuses so completely on the task at hand, the work itself, that he becomes essentially selfless and wholly communal (Purgatorio 21.58-66).
This mythic image of work may seem completely remote from our, but merely to consider the curse of work analogically in terms of husbandry is to re-invest with possibilities this activity that takes up most of our time on earth: to have to work the soil, as Adam is commanded to do, is to cultivate nature and impose an order on it, to bring culture out of nature, and so to deliver a harvest that is more than literal. This understanding of work—as both containing and yielding a harvest—was actually current up until fairly recently and met its demise (if demise can be attributed to something in nature) only with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the corporation in the modern sense of the word.
James Hillman has said that the soul turns the routine-ness of work into experience (in Whyte 22). This idea is majestically illustrated in Thoreau’s chapter in Walden entitled “The Bean-Field,” in which he records the work of his hands as a coming to know something that mere contemplation could not yield. “What shall I learn of beans or beans of me?” he asks. “I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus” (140). “Making the earth says beans instead of grass–this was my daily work,” he says (141). “I was determined to know beans” (145): to know the nature of something—not only beans but the weeds attacking the beans—when one works it in a leisurely way, that is, in accord with the rhythms of nature rather than complying with a schedule and simply wishing to fill one’s barn. The cultivation of beans, in fact, became for Thoreau an heroic enterprise because it was filtered through a mythic, imaginative tradition: “A long war, not with cranes, but with weeds, those Trojans who had sun and rain and dews on their side. Daily the beans saw me coming to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crest-waving Hektor, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust” (146).
We may justly remember that Thoreau’s stay in the woods was temporary, and therefore we may accuse him of a certain whimsicality regarding the seriousness of work, especially in the Biblically idealistic conclusion of his rhapsody on beans: “The true husbandman will cease from anxiety, as the squirrels manifest no concern whether the woods will bear chestnuts this year or not, and finish his labor with every day, relinquishing all claim to the produce of his fields, and sacrificing in his mind not only his first but his last fruits also” (150).
The same sense of the significance and value of work is present, however, among those for whom such hard labor is not romantic. For instance, in I’ll Take my Stand, the Agrarian manifesto published in 1930 by a group of twelve Southerners in reaction to what they regarded as the depredations of the Industrial Revolution which the New South was being encouraged to embrace belatedly, Andrew Lytle has an essay entitled “The Hind Tit,” in which he recreates something like “A Day in the Life of the Southern Farmer.” Lytle describes the farmer’s land and house—modest holdings, not at all those of the Southern planter—and the typical activities of the farmer, his wife, and his children. He dwells on the activity of cooking, which he calls “a complicated art, requiring mastery over all its parts to burden the table with victuals that can be relished” (219-20). All aspects of the necessary feeding of the family are considered, including all the processes that come from the milk cow with the full udder, not only the milking but the churning: “After breakfast the farmer’s wife, or one of the girls, does the churning. This process takes a variable length of time. If the milk is kept a long time before it is poured up, the butter is long in coming. Sometimes witches get in the churn and throw a spell over it. In that case a nickel is dropped in to break the charm. The butter, when it does come, collects in small, yellow clods on top. These clods are separated from the butter-milk and put in a bowl where the rest of the water is worked out. It is then salted, molded, and stamped with some pretty little design. After this is done, it is set in the well or the spring to cool for the table. The process has been long, to some extent tedious, but profitable, because insomuch as it has taken time and care and intelligence, by that much does it have a meaning” (222-3).
Even when the Agrarians wrote in 1930, they were accused of nostalgia, of desiring an impossible return, but they nonetheless noted accurately the impact of machines and mass production. A butter-producing machine makes the process less uncertain, more rational—eliminating, for example, the presence of witches—and more efficient, more uniform of result; it can even provide the “pretty little design,” not only on the butter itself but on the packaging that attracts the eye in the supermarket. So what is lost? The significance of the labor itself on the laborer, and the significance of that labor to those who benefit from it, that is, the rest of the family or the guests who come to Sunday dinner. Mass production and the machine, then, are in one sense destructive of community itself.
Along with Thoreau, other New England writers responded to the threat of the machine and the peculiar division of labor it induces in the middle of the preceding century. Emerson’s famous “American Scholar” address makes the distinction in terms of a fable, according to which
. . . the gods, in the beginning, divided Man into men, that he might be more helpful to himself; just as the hand was divided into fingers, the better to answer its end.
The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man—present to all particular men only partially or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state the functions are parceled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. (45-6)
Thus, says Emerson, we have “the farmer, instead of Man on the farm,” not “Man Thinking,” but the mere thinker (46). In 1837, Emerson was getting at the sinister aspect of corporatism, one hundred years before the Agrarian protest in the South.
Thoreau, too, at the conclusion of his chapter on beans, intuits the spirit of corporatism and brings us back to a consideration of Dr. Cowan’s claims for the vitality of the festive spirit when he says that “ancient poetry and mythology suggest, at least, that husbandry was once a sacred art; but it is pursued with irreverent haste and heedlessness by us, our object being to have large farms and large crops merely. We have no festival, nor procession, nor ceremony, not excepting our cattle-shows and so-called Thanksgivings, by which the farmer expresses a sense of the sacredness of his calling, or is reminded of its sacred origin. It is the premium and the feast which tempt him. He sacrifices not to Ceres and the Terrestrial Jove, but to the infernal Plutus rather. By avarice and selfishness, and a groveling habit, from which none of us is free, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives” (149-50).
The objection to being reduced to the “meanest of lives” is at the heart of the Agrarian argument, and it was the last philosophical defense of work as an inherent good in our tradition. As the introduction to I’ll Take My Stand states:
The first principle of a good labor is that it must be effective, but the second principle is that it must be enjoyed. Labor is one of the largest items in the human career; it is a modest demand to ask that it may partake of happiness.
The regular act of applied science is to introduce into labor a labor-saving device or a machine. Whether this is a benefit depends on how far it is advisable to save the labor. The philosophy of applied science is generally quite sure that the saving of labor is a pure gain, and that the more of it the better. This is to assume that labor is an evil, that only the end of labor or the material product is good. On this assumption labor becomes mercenary and servile, and it is no wonder if many forms of modern labor are accepted without resentment though they are evidently brutalizing. The act of labor as one of the happy functions of human life has been in effect abandoned, and is practiced solely for its reward. (xxii-xxiii)
It is at this point that we must mark an explicit connection between our conception of work and the corporation, for it is a short distance from this apologia for labor to the terrible images of work that have become so common to us and so identified with the city and modern corporate life: Blake’s “marks of weakness, marks of woe” on the faces of city-dwellers in his poem “London”; scenes out of Dickens and Dreiser; Kafka in The Metamorphosis; Auden’s “Unknown Citizen,” who “worked in a factory and never got fired, but satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.”; films such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, David Mamet’sGlengarry Glen Ross, Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men. In what way do such images represent the nature of the corporation? Do they reveal a degeneration of an original, happier idea, or a natural and necessary culmination?
The loss of the individualized aspect of labor obviously implicates the corporation and, thus, corporatism as a way of life in the West. To single out the making of butter, for example, and to focus on it is to make a corporation of it in the fundamental sense of that word as we have come to understand it. The word “corporation,” according to the OED, has as its primary root the Latin corpus, “body,” and means “a number of persons united, or regarded as united, in one body.” The earliest uses of the word were in political or religious connections, such as, in 1439, “the corporation of the town of Plymouth,” or Sir Thomas More’s sermon in 1534 on passion week, in which he says, “Christ doth incorporate all Christian folk and his own body together into one corporation mystical.” Here the word “corporation” is not at all divorced from the word “community,” or even the word “soul”; indeed, it signifies something like thekoinonia of the early church. At the same time, however, the word began to take on the legal and economic meanings with which we associate it today: “a body corporate legally authorized to act as a single individual; an artificial person created by charter, prescription, or an act of the legislature”; “an incorporated body of traders having control and monopoly of their particular trade.”
Though the legal and economic meanings of the word “corporation” are clearly aimed at the protection during the early Renaissance of emerging bodies of people—traders of all sorts, for example—who were vulnerable to the power of the already wealthy, we can glimpse the more sinister evolution of the word toward its present-day connotations. Notice this interesting addendum to this most recent meaning of the word according to The American Heritage Dictionary: “A body of persons granted a charter legally recognizing them as a separate entity having its own rights, privileges, and liabilities, distinct from those of its members.” Here the divergence of the corpus from the body of its members is clearly evident. The modern corporation is not a body in the communal or even human sense at all; in fact, it is typically “owned” by a group of people—the shareholders—who have nothing to do with the production of the butter; it is “financed,” and those who produce the butter mechanically are functionaries, mere workers; in this sense, the corporation seems to have a being and a nature all its own that overrides all human considerations and is interested only in its own survival, which is reckoned in terms of “profit,” accrued chiefly for the benefit of its owners. Thus the corporation today exists not for the producers but for the product, not for the labor or the laborers but for the end result of that labor. All considerations other than the end are unimportant, because of the rules of the marketplace: whatever is necessary to maintain a profit—downsizing, layoffs, relocations—are not only allowable but expected, since the corporation is accountable to its shareholders alone, those who have invested their actual wealth, none of their labor directly—in the corporation. As Lewis Mumford wrote in 1938 in The Culture of Cities, the rise of capitalism and its agent, the modern corporation, marked the point at which “buying and selling ceased to be agents of consumption: they were important as the mechanisms of profit” (256). The work itself is often of little consequence to the corporation. It is difficult to entertain the notion that the owners of Nike are owners because they love the production of athletic shoes. Bill Gates may be nuts about computers, but Microsoft stockholders are probably not, and there is plenty of evidence that Gates’ colossal success has overwhelmed that love of computing that got him where he is today.
Thus the modern corporation is amoral, rendered by its own logic exempt from the “rules” of human community. To own a corporation is a perilous undertaking but protected by this grand device of amoral disinterest in anything but the “bottom line.” The logic is seemingly unassailable: the corporation provides jobs—livelihoods—for its workers, all of whom will be out of work if the corporation does not attend to the bottom line. Better to have cutbacks and downsizings than to have to eliminate the corporation itself.
This logic prevails because all corporations have “agreed” to observe the same piety toward the bottom line—toward not only profit but growth, an ever increasing profit, toward outperforming and, by logic again, vanquishing the opposition, although the infiniteness of the open or free market system proclaims that vanquishment is a task never completed. The complaint of the old-timer today, the assembly-line worker, is that back in the old days, you could devote yourself to the company and be taken care of: the devotion was mutual. But that was true only insofar as industrial modes of production were stable in terms of production and location. Detroit was located “back then” in a way that Microsoft has never been and never has to be. The modern corporation—that is, since the beginning of the industrial revolution—was as a rule never any more devoted to its laborers than it is today in our newly established global economy, whosemantra is even more nonresponsible and amoral than ever: market forces on a global scale are simply irresistible. All one can do is “go with them.”
All of this has a terrible implication: that labor today is truly cursed, as if the Biblical pronouncement is just now being exacted upon the human race for its original sin. Every aspect of human life is “incorporated,” and the best one can do is to find a job.
According to this way of thinking, corporatism is nothing less than an ideology, which is the subject of John Ralston Saul’s valuable book entitled The Unconscious Civilization, in which he maintains that the basis of this ideology is that economics is the “heart and soul” of the West, that “democracy was born of economics, in particular of an economic phenomenon known as the Industrial Revolution” (3). We have come to accept this ideology and even to take it collectively below consciousness, to be beguiled by it. Thus we believe that we are at the mercy of economic movements in the world, and that we “must therefore fling down and fling up the structures of our society as the marketplace orders. If we don’t, the marketplace will do it anyway” (3). The most sinister aspect of corporatism, according to Saul, is that its acceptance “causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy. The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good. Corporatism is an ideology which claims rationality as its central quality. The overall effects on the individual are passivity and conformity in those areas which matter and non-conformism in those which don’t” (2).
Saul relates the rise of corporatism out of the industrial revolution in this way: by making labor intensive and efficient, the industrial revolution allowed mass production and an incredible increase in the volume and quantity of “useful labour,” that is, the labor that produces what the whole of society consumes. Over against the industrious are the idle, to use Adam Smith’s categories, whom we normally think of as the unemployed, whether willingly or unwillingly. But in the early stages the “idle” also included “the aristocracy, the courtiers, the professionals, the land and property owners (who live off rent income), the bankers and so on.” In our age, that large class of people has become what Saul calls “our technocratic managerial elite” (8), which comprises 30-50% of our “workforce.” Saul remarks upon the amazing expansion of this “managerial elite” in western society, especially since “the effect they have on real policy is negligible”: “A managerial elite manages. A crisis, unfortunately, requires thought. Thought is not a management function. Because the managerial elite are now so large and have such a dominant effect on our education system, we are actually teaching most people to manage not to think. Not only do we not reward thought, we punish it as unprofessional. This primary approach to utility—a very limited form of utility—is creeping now into general pre-university education. The teaching of transient managerial and technological skills is edging out the basics of learning” (14-15). According to the corporatist ideology, the aims of the corporation and the assumed rewards of labor are forever divergent and irreconcilable. There is occurring now on a global scale—the ultimate scale—the inevitable and grand “sifting down” of work and labor—a settling into the most efficient means of production to ensure the maximum profit. Corporatism seemingly has prevailed, by its own internal, and infernal logic.
When Saul says that “thought is not a management function,” he means not so much rational thought as the working of the imagination, of creativity, which requires a certain looseness, disorganization, and free-wheeling and is therefore the sworn enemy of Efficiency, corporatism’s prime agent—the characteristic and preservative mode of the corporation. In his book Kinds of Power, James Hillman addresses what he calls “the psychology of business,” which is important because “business, as defined by the ideas of Western capitalism, has become the fundamental force in human society and, in the manner of any monotheism, promulgates a fundamentalist faith in its basic tenets. Business,” he says, “has defeated everything in its path” (3). At the heart of business is the idea of power, and “strong power, power at its starkest, can be defined by two obvious traits: absolute subjugation of conditions and maximum efficiency of operations” (33). Hillman cites as the most extreme instance of efficiency the operation of the German death camps, in which a system was devised that accommodated the overwhelming “task” of extermination and, because it worked, was not questioned by those in charge of its execution. In Hillman’s account, when Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka camp in Poland, was asked after the war about the inhumanity of the operation—”the nakedness, the whips, the horror of the cattle pens.” Could they have been changed, prevented?—he replied, “No, no, no. This was the system. Wirth had invented it. It worked. And because it worked it was irreversible” (36). Hillman concludes that in all instances where efficiency is so regarded, it is because one of Aristotle’s four causes, the efficient, is detached from the other three—the formal, the final, the material—and raised to the level of autonomous principle. According to Hillman, “Two insanely dangerous consequences result from raising efficiency to the level of an independent principle. First, it favors short-term thinking—no looking ahead, down the line; and it produces insensitive feeling—no looking around at the life values being lived so efficiently. Second, means become ends; that is, doing something becomes the full justification of doing regardless of what you do” (39). Ultimately, Hillman insists, “the idea of efficiency per se does not provide sufficient reason for human action” (40). One could cite also in this regard the destruction of Mexico in The Conquest of New Spain, in which Bernal Diaz records the systematic razing of what he calls the most beautiful city in the world because that was what was ultimately required to overwhelm its defenders.
One does not have to go to the purity of the German example of efficiency to perceive its connection to corporatism and the corporation’s bottom line, which up until now has been profit. In the 1920’s, Faulkner named this phenomenon, prophetically, Snopesism, which regards neither family nor community as holding any aspect of sacredness or piety in the face of the profit motive. In the Snopes trilogy, the instigator and propagator of Snopesism is Flem Snopes, the son of a rather abject poor white farmer and would-be horse-trader Ab Snopes, who during the Civil War stole and sold horses to both South and North. Thus Ab is the precursor, indifferent to political or traditional allegiances, of his son Flem, who takes his father’s craft to a new level in the sleepy, inefficient hamlet of Frenchman’s Bend, Mississippi, whose inhabitants live according to the contingencies of nature and who regard commerce as a necessary though not serious part of their lives. Flem demonstrates an amazing talent for seizing advantage of the inherent “weaknesses” of Frenchman’s Bend from an economic angle: not caring about profit, the villagers hardly notice or cannot fathom the strategy by which he appears at the opportune moment—at any instance a nickel or a dime or a dollar can be acquired. He perverts Blake’s notion of “the winged moment as it flies”—which Blake meant as the spontaneous moment of the soul’s joyous insight—to his own uses. He is attuned exclusively to the ideology of profit, and he brings in his kin—swarms of cousins—not as recipients of his own cunningly secured bounty but as his managers. Through that ideology he alters the landscape—both literally and figuratively—of his community. Most maddening is Faulkner’s narrative strategy in depicting Snopesism: never do we descend into the consciousness of Flem Snopes; never do we observe the machinations of his mind, and in this we are one with V.K. Ratliff, the sewing machine agent—and the moral voice of the novel—whose devotion to business never overwhelms or even threatens the equilibrium he has established between making a living and living among his fellows—until he, too, is infected by Snopesism near the end of the book and goes digging for buried treasure. Perplexed by the phenomenon of Flem Snopes, at one point Ratliff fantasizes that Snopesism is up to the task of even taking over Hell—for some profit, one must assume, though a profit known only to Flem himself. Ratliff’s vision occurs just after Flem has managed to “take possession” of Eula Varner—beautiful, pregnant, and husbandless—by offering the use of his name to avoid a scandal, and it ends this way, at the conclusion of a confrontation between Flem and Satan, whose infernal regality and privilege are no match for this new force in the universe: “. . . and now the Prince is leaning forward, and now he feels that ere hot floor under his knees and he can feel his-self grabbing and hauling at his throat to get the words out like he was digging potatoes outen hard ground. ‘Who are you?’ he says, choking and gasping and his eyes a-popping up at him setting there with that straw suitcase on the Throne among the bright, crown-shaped flames. ‘Take Paradise!’ the Prince screams. ‘Take it! Take it!’ And the wind roars up and the dark roars down and the Prince scrabbling across the floor, clawing and scrabbling at that locked door, screaming. . .” (170). Snopesism is imagined by Faulkner to be eager to possess anything, bend it to its own purposes, the beautiful or the demonic.
Faulkner’s comic vision in the Snopes trilogy takes Flem to apparent triumph—he becomes the president of the bank—but then he is ultimately destroyed by one of his would-be managers—cousin Mink Snopes—whose dignity and nobility, though he’s a poor and ragged, even dogged, little man, will not suffer the betrayal of kin and community for the sake of profit and efficiency. Similarly, I will attempt to ascend in my conclusion to a consideration of the possible shift away from corporatism that I mentioned at the beginning. There is increasing evidence that corporate leaders, many of whom have been aware of and concerned about the seemingly brutal demands of the corporate structure in a global economy for the past two decades, are earnestly attempting to respond to the moral and even spiritual imperatives of human life that corporatism so easily treads underfoot. Hillman says that “there are businesses today, for example, dedicated to the double bottom line—profit and social responsibility” (43). Troubled by his rather ruthless success at EDS in the early and mid 80’s, Mort Meyerson has written that “There’s a much larger calling in business today than was allowed by the old definitions of winning and losing. One hundred years from now, we’ll know we were on the right track if there are more organizations where people are doing great work for their customers and creating value for their shareholders. And raising their children, nurturing their families, and taking an interest in their communities. And feeling proud of the contribution they make. These are things you can’t measure when winning and losing are only financial metrics.”
There is much talk among corporate leaders—books written, conferences conducted, and classes directed—about such things as the elimination of hierarchical structures, collaboration, innovation, risk, even stewardship and business according to the model of chaos theory. All of this seems to point to the corporate world’s returning to a view of work that acknowledges the totality and complexity of the human being—work as both curse and blessing—including especially the darker, more mysterious, less efficient domain of the imagination. Imagination and creativity are beginning to be scrutinized, at least, as not only legitimate but crucial aspects of both the corporation and the individuals—the laborers as well as the shareholders—who make up the body of the company. Perhaps we are seeing also a return to the original meaning of the word corporation: a body of people the work of whose lives is held in common, in terms of the doing of the work and of the regarding of the result of the work.
This is the focus of a hopeful book by poet David Whyte, The Heart Aroused, written, he says, “for those who have chosen to live out their lives as managers and employees of a postmodern Corporate America, and who struggle to keep their humanity in the process” (4). Until now, Whyte says, the world of commerce has insisted that it has nothing to do with the hidden world of the psyche, with its subterranean landscape that has been the dwelling place of artists and poets. “This is now changing,” he says. “Continually calling on its managers and line workers for more creativity, dedication, and adaptability, the American corporate world is tiptoeing for the first time . . . into the very place from whence that dedication, creativity, and adaptability must come: the turbulent place where the soul of an individual is formed and finds expression” (6). Whyte asserts that in the future, corporations “must honor the souls of the individuals who work for them and the great soul of the natural world from which they take their resources” (11).
Whyte’s book is remarkable in its hopefulness, which I want to embrace. But finally, I think, it begs even as it puts before us the corporate question of the future: can the corporation disavow its innocence and optimism, renounce its own ideology of ever-increasing profit, and incorporate within itself a way of life that is not dedicated wholly to efficiency—that honors instead imagination and creativity? Is the corporation a part of nature that one might consider under the Christian category of redemption? That is the key, for to recognize the possibility of redemption in the nature of things is to exercise imagination. Imagination is itself redemptive.
I will close with a few lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “God’s Grandeur”:
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
One of the great challenges of the next age is work, labor—to restore it to its condition as the curse, the travail that always gives birth to something that nourishes and enlarges the soul.
Dante. Purgatorio. Trans. Charles S. Singleton. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973.
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Faulkner, William. The Hamlet. New York: Vintage International, 1991.
Hesiod. Theogony and Works and Days. Trans. Dorothea Wender. New York: Penguin, 1973.
Hillman, James. Kinds of Power: A Guide to its Intelligent Uses. New York: Currency
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur.” In The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed.
Alexander W. Allison. et. al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970: 899-900.
Marvell, Andrew. “The Garden.” In The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed.
Alexander W. Allison. et. al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970: 374-5.
Mumford, Lewis. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1938.
Saul, John Ralston. The Unconscious Civilization. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Brooks Atkinson. New York: The Modern Library, 1937.
Twelve Southerners. I’ll Take my Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. New York: Harper Torchbook, 1962.
Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Currency Doubleday, 1994.
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