Shop Class as Soulcraft
Managers are placed in the middle of an enduring social conflict that once gave rise to street riots but is mostly silent in our times: the antagonism between labor and capital. In this position they are subject to unique hazards. The sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting their world, conducting interviews, and describes its 'peculiarly chancy and fluid' character. He shows the vulnerability of managers in their careers, and how it gives rise to a certain kind of language that they use, a highly provisional way of speaking and feeling. I believe some of the contradictions of 'knowledge work' such as I experienced at Information Access Company can be traced to an imperative of abstraction, and that this imperative in turn may be understood as a device that upper-level managers use, quite understandably, to cope with the psychic demands of their own jobs.
To begin with, Jackall finds that though the modern work-place is in many respects a bureaucracy, managers do not experience authority in an impersonal way. Rather, authority is embodied in the persons with whom one has working relationships up and down the hierarchy. One's career depends entirely on these personal relationships, in part because the criteria of evaluation are ambiguous. As a result, managers have to spend a good part of the day 'managing what other people think of them.' With a sense of being on probation that never ends, managers feel 'constantly vulnerable and anxious, acutely aware of the likelihood at any time of an organizational upheaval which could overturn their plans and possibly damage their careers fatally,' as Craig Calhoun writes in his review of Jackall's book. It is a 'prospect of more or less arbitrary disaster.'
A good part of the job, then, consists of 'a constant interpretation and reinterpretation of events that constructs a reality in which it is difficult to pin blame on anyone, especidly one-self,' according to Calhoun. This gives rise to the art of talking in circles. Mutually contradictory statements are made to cohere by sheer forcefulness of presentation, allowing a manager to 'stake out a position on every side of an issue. Or one buries what one wants done in a string of vaguely related descriptive sentences that demand textual exegesis.' The intent of this kind of language is not to deceive, it is to preserve one's interpretive latitude so that if the context changes, 'a new, more appropriate meaning can be attached to the language already used. In this sense the corporation is a place where people are not held to what they say because it is generally understood that their word is always provisional.' Nothing is set in concrete the way it typically is when one is, for example, pouring concrete.
Managers may speak very colorfully with one another, for example, when describing their weekends, or even in reference to some situation at work, but such earthy talk takes place in a parallel universe of the private. In any group setting, they have to protect their bosses' 'deniability' by using empty or abstract language to cover over problems, thereby keeping the field of subsequent interpretations as wide open as possible. '[T]he more troublesome a problem, the more desiccated and vague the public language describing it should be.'
It is in this two-tiered system of language—direct in private, empty in public—that the world of managers resembles that of Soviet bureaucrats, who had to negotiate reality without public recourse to language that could capture it, obliged to use instead language the whole point of which was to cover over reality.
When a manager's success is predicated on the manipulation of language, for the sake of avoiding responsibility, reward and blame come untethered from good faith effort. He may then come to think that those beneath him in the food chain also can't be held responsible in any but arbitrary ways. One of the features commonly observed in ancient Near Eastern courts was that eunuchs were most capricious toward other eunuchs, those further from the center of power. The prerogative of doing so was part of the compensation package, so to speak.
One might be tempted to think this is demoralizing for all involved. But we are highly adaptive creatures, and these circumstances generate their own sort of morality, one in which the fixed points of an internal moral compass must give way to a certain sensitivity and nimbleness. Managers may continue to have strong convictions, but they are obliged to check them at the door, and expect others to do the same. '[M]oral view-points threaten others within an organization by making claims on them that might impede their ability to read the drift of social situations.' As a result there is social pressure (one might say a moral demand) not to be too 'moralistic.' This pressure is rooted in the insecurity of managerial careers.
My supervisor, Carol, was herself a writer of abstracts, which made her situation as enforcer of the quota poignant. As an abstractor, she doubtless felt trapped in the same contradiction as I. She was a bookish person, so I imagine she had some love for intellectual precision. But this was likely an 'inappropriate' moral value to bring to the table when pleading the case of abstractors before her bosses (which I like to imagine she did). Such concerns can be rendered appropriate, and higher-level management support secured, only by demonstrating how they contribute to profits. Not because the higher-level managers are heartless, but because such a demonstration provides everyone needed cover. In fact, a lower-level manager may need only to put on a performance of hardheadedness before her superiors, and produce the stage props of a profit-maximizing calculation (graphs, charts, and so on). Unless she has these skills of the corporate dramatist, she is unlikely to get the official cover she needs to do the right thing by her workers.
Given the moral maze inhabited by managers, we can understand why those higher in the hierarchy must absent themselves from the details of the production process: such abstraction facilitates nonaccountability. Lower level managers can't help but think concretely, and their proximity ro the work process makes them aware also of its human character, including the damage it does.