woensdag 2 februari 2011

Nice work

For an explanation of the Holocaust and its streamlined industrial execution some philosophers point to the high flight of rational thinking in our Western culture. Zygmunt Bauman for example, argues that Western rationality may not have caused the Holocaust, but made it possible and in any event did not help prevent it from happening. The historian Philipp Blom follows him when he says that rationalization in our society is potentially problematic.

Other philosophers, such as Hannah Arendt, offer an entirely different, almost opposite explanation for the functioning of Hitler's extermination machine. They point to the thoughtlessness, the very refusal to use one’s own brainpower on the part of planners like Eichmann and other bureaucrats of the destruction. Such careless stupidity is in the eyes of Arendt the outcome of the banality of evil, or perhaps that banality itself.

I for myself arrive at a position right in the middle between the two mentioned explanations. This can best be formulated as follows: people just want to enjoy working. I mean to say that a person, especially if he also is diligent and wants to do his best, will enjoy having a job, coming up with a strategy, preparing plans and executing them orderly. Banal on the one hand, but with the satisfaction of a certain ordering thought on the other hand.

There is nothing wrong with that, you might say. We use to associate agreeable work quite naturally with working out undisturbed what we have in mind. Without children around, without too many insoluble dilemmas, preferably in an orderly environment, supported by clear goals and adequate resources. That has its own satisfaction.

However innocent that job satisfaction may seem, on closer inspection there are snags to it. Look for instance at what is being done by many executive boards of educational and health organizations and at their inclination to grow and merge, the consequences of which we in some cases very much regret. And by that I do not even refer to those executives who consider those mergers as opportunities for manipulation and personal enrichment, although there certainly are. No, I refer primarily to the bona fide executives among them.

These top executives just enjoy themselves. They come up with one plan after another, dropping them to the level below with the instruction to further roll it out to the underlying levels in order to implement them there. The designers at the top have their fling, but below, and certainly on the work floors, things get clogged up. Or a shadowy maze arises in which people keep each other imprisoned in a web of often conflicting directives and orders. The top prefers not to know too much about those effects because that only would disturb the flow of their zest for work. Viewed from this perspective the objective to ‘just enjoy work’ looks a lot more problematic.

Something similar, but much more horrible and catastrophic, may have played a role in the case of Eichmann and his associates. Besides blinding obedience as a motive for Schreibtischmörder (on which subject Stanley Milgram has written a lot), the simple satisfaction of an orderly performance of duties could have yielded an additional kind of blindness.

’Nice work’ as a blinding motive is perhaps even more banal than is the obedience to - whatever the consequences - just continue the proper performance of an assigned task. What plays a role both in nice work and in obedience, is the influence of the distance between the actor and the person(s) to whom he interacts: the greater the distance, the less you will be distracted from your task by the consequences of your actions. That’s what they have well understood, those executive boards on their upper floors.

The two situations - the one of blind modern management and the one of the blind Nazi extermination bureaucracy – cannot in earnest be compared. But in terms of an underlying pattern they might be comparable. It may be that they both go back to the same source: our desire to come up with plans and our pleasure in working them out straightly and unimpeded. Just being busy nicely and not looking too much at the consequences.

The question is whether the high-minded planners among us could perhaps restrain themselves a bit more and better realize what the actual impact is in reality of their cheerful zeal. And whether street sweepers, youth workers or homeless helpers might perhaps offer us a different model of nice work can offer. In any case, those seem to me to be jobs in which the euphoria of one’s own organizing activity is quickly called to order and in which reality remains soberingly close.