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December 1991 Wisdom of the West

Hierarchies and Human Misery, or Why You Don't Want to Go to Work

by Travis Hardin

Hubris - "Insolence or wanton violence stemming from excessive pride." A.C.D.

LIBERTY, EQUALITY, and fraternity--ideas heretical toward the established divine rights of kings--swept into prominence two hundred years ago with the American and French revolutions, and the high tide of democracy now engulfs even the former Soviet Union. Any talk of superiority of one person or group over another is now heretical. In governments, democracy is established.

I don't like it. Democracy is maddeningly tedious and inefficient. It stifles and levels the best along with the worst. Nevertheless, democratic ideals provide something exhilarating to the heretics: (1) Political freedom of expression, and (2) the freedom of self-determination. I could make do under that system, if it worked, but it doesn't. What's wrong?

Well, usually accompanying democracy is an economic ideal called a "modified free-market economy", "capitalism", or the like--an anxiety-producing idea under which each person must compete to find his own food, shelter, and possessions. Because survival takes precedence over exhilarating ideas, we discover our practical freedoms: (1) To work night and day at one's own business; (2) to starve under a bridge; (3) to steal or acquire money by outstanding avarice; or (4) to hire one's services to another. (The categories may overlap, or course. Politics combines 3 and 4.)

Most people choose to hire their services. There they find themselves employed in a hierarchy, a power structure not unknown in the animal kingdom in which one beast attempts to exercise total control over the mind, body, and emotions of several others, who in turn...until all are under the control of another. That's not democratic, you say. Ah, you are perceptive.

What's happening? Hubris. We start hierarchies for a good reason. We organize to do a complex task logically and economically. We turn around once, and all our managers and supervisors are concerned not at all with accomplishing the goals and tasks of the enterprise in a reasonable, thoughtful way, but are concerned solely with keeping and demonstrating their personal power over others. I have been a supervisor, and I have felt hubris. That scares me.

The collective hubris is a major component in the practice of authoritarianism. When authoritarianism meets democracy (the idea of equality in decision-making) in the work place, the opposite fronts cause violent storms. When democracy prevails, and the personhood of employees is recognized, a clearing occurs, and there is innovation and productivity. So I believe, though I have glimpsed only holes in the cloud cover myself.

When authoritarianism prevails, a uniform joyless greyness settles in. Employment under authoritarian conditions is the rule here in the USA. Schools, courts, the military, and government service are totally infected. Employees and students differ from prisoners only in degree: In neither case is there, in theory, starvation, brutalization, or physical harm. But in both cases, we know who's the guard, though he may smile, and we know who's the prisoner. An employee's burden, like the prisoner's, is the emotional pain of being treated with contempt by the beast in others.

Individuals in organizations that employ other individuals practice a divine right of employers. In an actual democratic society, workaday relationships are as undemocratic as in feudal times. Underlings and midlings still serve at the pleasure of their lords. Democratic ideas are heresy.

Can't be helped. Human nature. A word pair used as an excuse for cruelty. Well, we can modify "human nature" with a feedback process. I'm thinking of a concept I call Guides: For every person in a hierarchy, there must be a Guide employed whose power is equal and whose purpose is to veto anything that is inhumane; to shame, cajole, kid, shoot a water pistol filled with cat pee, throw Nerf balls at, or stand on her head to keep the powerful HUBRIS weakened. The Guide is trained as a psychologist or by psychologists. Her mission will be to alleviate misery and help the business by freeing her charge, and the people under him, to be free, innovative, and productive human beings.

A less radical and so a more possible solution is that any individual manager and supervisor wanting to be effective should ask some honest and untouchable person in his organization to tell him the truth about himself, and about the effects of his decisions, actions, and inactions. And spread the gospel of honesty to those under him.

Mensans, will you share your solution to this problem for publication? Address your responses to letters to the editor or to me. We accept modemed text files.

Further reading on authoritarianism:

Adorno, et. al., The Authoritarian Personality, 1950

Bonaro Overstreet, Understanding Fear, 1951

William F. Stone, The Psychology of Politics, 1974