woensdag 29 mei 2013

Totalitarianism is with us

Hannah Arendt showed in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem that totalitarian Germany partly relied on organizational skills and an oiled bureaucracy. Could this statement possibly be reversed by saying that organizations have a totalitarian character? This suggestion is frequently aroused indeed, even by myself. But how exact is that statement?

To begin with one must conclude that a number of parallels is absent. And fortunately so, because I’m talking about the physical violence, the murderousness and the racial discrimination which made Hitler’s Germany the criminal state it was.

But there is also a number of parallels which dó exist, too obvious so to declare the association of organization with totalitarianism as nonsense. And in many cases those parallels refer to aspects which Arendt mentions as characteristic of totalitarian Germany.

A key aspect which she points at is ‘thoughtlessness’. Frankly, I encounter that in organizations with frightening frequency. Too often I hear - otherwise sane-thinking - people say that they get rather unsympathetic or nonsensical things assigned from within the organization. And that they have unlearned to ask critical questions thereabout because they were punished for that already too often.

Thus, on a daily basis many people practice what according to Arendt provides the foundation for any totalitarian regime: thoughtlessness. They practice ignoring their own or other people’s critical voice.

And that happens in an environment which simultaneously is full of rhetoric. It’s all about transparency, making the most of yourself, following your passion, empowerment and other pep talk. Also in this respect a parallel may be discovered with a totalitarian regime: the ubiquitous presence of sweetly colored or inciting propaganda that in the last resort mainly serves to strengthen the grip of the bosses – serving the common good, of course. This rhetoric is an essential part of the control system.

A third parallel is located in the dire situation in which people may find themselves. “Resistance was impossible for the Jews”, Hannah Arendt says in the film about her that recently appeared, “but there is something between resistance and cooperation”. Though in organizations one’s life is not at stake, one’s mortgage, income, or pension may be. So a feeling of being clamped-in may definitely be there, and the job is to seek the vital room for maneuver. Perhaps we have too much to lose, especially in terms of rights and expensive houses. Maybe we are therefore more blackmailable than necessary, and we therewith unintentionally strengthen the totalitarian grip organizations have on us.

Possibly other parallels can be found in the ways in which unwanted persons are systematically blackened, isolated and ostracized. All these parallels together make the question of the relationship between totalitarianism and modern organizational life certainly relevant. Especially since they come together in a frequently encountered cynical view of organizations: these are simply inhuman machines and you better adapt to them. A daily training in this cynicism does not seem to be harmless to me.

Also see Levinas, Bauman and Business Ethics