Saturday, July 25, 2015

Beasts in Suits: The Regressive Impact of Scientific Management Theory

You wouldn’t know it from the appalling technocratic style of business speak, but business management theory has existential consequences, meaning that how we choose to organize labour affects the primary struggle we’re all engaged in as lone persons in the wilderness of nature. The scientistic flavour of modern business discourse conceals the fact that modern business doesn't advance a radically creative, progressive agenda, but models our social structures on the primitive pecking order. Humanists are incapable of stemming the tide of this antihuman conservatism, because they're not awed by their struggle's existential stakes.

Scientific Management Theory

Work was transformed from the medieval period to the modern one, as the guild’s form of craftsmanship was replaced by the scientific management of workforces. Some centuries ago in Europe and elsewhere, master craftsmen would practice and protect the secrets of their trade, whether it was carpentry, masonry, textiles or the like, hiring apprentices to keep those secrets alive in the next generation. These closely-guarded techniques were considered arts or mysteries, and so this division between insiders and outsiders took on religious significance. The insiders had esoteric knowledge of how to improve God’s earth, and in Europe, at least, craftsmanship was tolerated as something other than a blasphemous attempt to compete with God’s running of the natural order. The Church could tolerate the crafts, because of the ambiguity of the Christian myth of redemption after the Fall. We’re meant to be godlike, if not fully divine, and although the heavens were made perfect by God, freewheeling humans and the fallen angels ruined this particular planet, and so terrestrial conditions can be either further degraded or improved. Although Christian commonsense would dictate that craftsmanship (the attempt to excel at projects of intelligent design) is implicitly satanic in establishing so-called masters as rival creators and in challenging the natural order—even without any devilry inherited from the fallen angels themselves—the Church’s unmatched talent for compromise enabled the craftsmen to rationalize their business with a narrative of Christian enlightenment. According to this narrative, the kingdom of heaven won’t descend from above, but will be constructed from below by the faithful. Craftsmen restore a piece of Eden when they excel at their work, as long as they appreciate that their techniques must remain secret not only for the profane reason that workers inevitably compete to stay in business, but in view of their conviction that all human labour occurs in this mythical context of a spiritual war between good and evil.

Associations of craftsmen evolved into guilds which formalized the advancement from apprentice to journeyman to master and grandmaster, and which jealously guarded not only their trade secrets but the rights of their artisans, functioning thus as proto-unions in the absence of an all-powerful nation state. Eventually, medieval guilds suffered the fate of all large organizations, becoming corrupt in their rent-seeking, that is, in their unproductive extraction of wealth. Again, the rationale for the rigid and secretive standardization of techniques was that they were generally considered tactics in a spiritual war. Deviating from tradition could mean succumbing to demonic temptation and arrogance, in which case the cosmic scale would tip and instead of working on God’s behalf to restore the divine order, a craftsman would be undermining that order in service to the insane and evil forces of chaos. But the unearthing of ancient Greek works in the Renaissance led Europeans to recognize the depths of ignorance into which they’d fallen. The little bird of Renaissance scholarship of Greek literary texts had whispered into the ear of the Christian world that its myths were so many distractions from the horrific reality of its situation: there wasn’t progress towards a heavenly kingdom but a slump, from the collapse of the Roman Empire, which had carried on the excellence of Classical Greece, to the subsequent Christian theocracies. Humiliated by this discovery, the early modern power elites took up the challenge of rebuilding secular society, which required boundless skepticism about the Christian nursery rhymes that had allowed Europeans to slumber through what they came to call the Dark Age before the age of true enlightenment by Reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Secular enlightenment encompassed not just the familiar scientific process of understanding nature, but the quasi-prescriptive business of regulating social relations. Thus was born scientific management, the theory credited to Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late nineteenth century, whose mission is still pursued by the theorists that adapted his principles to the automated industries which made strict Taylorism obsolete. Taylor’s mission was to make business more efficient by maximizing workers’ productivity. This was achieved by a managerial class that functioned like a bureaucracy of social engineers whose expertise was in improving their business’s workflows. Instead of the craftsman’s secret tradition, there was an open, scientific sharing of universal (empirical, mathematical) knowledge among experts; instead of a religious context of work, there was a narrow, secular one of happiness through economic success; but most importantly, in place of an advancement of rank from apprentice to master, there was a reduction of all labourers to cogs in what Lewis Mumford called the megamachine. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Opposing Nature: Life's Meaning in the Monstrous Universe

While most people are blissfully ignorant of academic discussions of philosophy, at least one quintessential philosophical question has long been mainstream: Does life have a meaning, a point, a purpose? Because this question is philosophical, it’s obscure, which is what lends the question its mystique. Thus, there’s the preliminary matter of the meaning of the question of the meaning of life. Douglas Adams satirizes the need for such prior analysis in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, telling of a supercomputer that discovers that the answer to the question of “life, the universe, and everything” is 42, which bafflers the questioners because they haven’t figured out the true, ultimate question. What kind of answer, then, do we want and what exactly is at stake? Could life be the sort of thing that has a purpose or a goal such that it might have a specific, knowable one? And whose purpose would it be? Could life be meaningful without a personal creator of living things?

Biofunctions and Absurdity

The prescientific approach is to interpret the problem as teleological and thus to compare organisms to artifacts, which entails that organisms are intelligently created. By comparison, a shovel has meaning because we assign it a standard which determines when the shovel performs well or poorly. A broken shovel fails to work as planned so that it no longer approximates the ideal for shovels. For a person or even an animal to have meaning in this teleological sense would seem to require that we be artifacts designed by some foreign intelligence whose plan for us includes the ideal we’re meant to fulfill. (A natural, as opposed to supernatural, creator of terrestrial species would need a comparable creator in turn and that creator would likewise need one, in which case either the series of creations would be infinite, like a baton race that has no beginning, or else there would be an ultimate Creator who would be a deity, a miraculously self-creating or eternal person.)

The mystery of life’s meaning would amount to the mystery of the content of our creator’s mind: the answer would consist of a revelation of what that creator intended to do by creating us or of what the creator hoped to achieve. The movie Prometheus explores this scenario, depicting protagonists who discover both that powerful aliens created life on our planet and that the aliens might have had dubious rather than noble, let alone divine motives for doing so. Were our creator flawed or inhuman, our ultimate function might be horrific rather than anything we’d want to enshrine. We might have been created on a whim so that we’d be akin to an absentminded doodle, in which case our life would be fundamentally absurd. Alternatively, we might have been spawned by a malevolent or arrogant deity so that our highest purpose might be the moral one of opposing our original function, of malfunctioning, in our deity’s judgment.

The conventional secular wisdom is that this teleological interpretation of the ultimate question has been superseded by Darwinism, according to which life forms evolve from each other: each is created by an impersonal process of natural selection. This scientific explanation will be completed as soon as we come to understand how the simplest living things developed from nonliving things. Assuming that sort of final understanding is on the way and life does evolve to that extent, from nonlife, life’s origin isn’t planned. Thus the analogy between species and artifacts breaks down, and we have no nonhuman, pre-assigned purpose. (Even if there were intermediary intelligent designers, such as extraterrestrial but carbon-based seeders of our planet, the mechanistic, Darwinian view would be that the first organisms emerged from nonliving matter.) The process by which we deliberately devise technologies differs greatly from that by which natural forces, initial conditions and elements come together to produce organisms. In particular, personal traits like reason and desire have nothing to do with life’s origin, according to the Darwinian perspective. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Donald Trump vs The Comedians: The Farce's Existential Import

In the flood of images and stories purveyed by mass media, the spectacle of Donald Trump’s political campaign is trivialized just by being part of that flood, since each narrative is invariably replaced by another and soon forgotten. Comedians like Jon Stewart make a show of longing to keep the Trump spectacle alive forever, but along with most popular comedians, he serves the institutions that churn out infotainments so that he’s obliged to pounce on each new spectacle that captivates mass attention, without pausing to reflect much on the deeper meaning of any of these news items that he ridicules.

For just a moment, let’s think about what’s really happening in the confrontation between Trump and the comedians. First of all, who are these people? More specifically, what are their social functions? On paper, Trump is a wealthy and famous businessman, but as far as his character can be discerned from his public image in his television shows, interviews, and political speeches, Trump is also a buffoon and a troglodyte. The mystery is how someone whose many privileges afford him every opportunity to refine himself could exhibit such gross character flaws in public. How could anyone with his stratospheric wealth and fame appear to be so uncivilized?

That mystery is solved as soon as we consider two dynamics that are at play. First, power acquired through affluence and stardom tends to corrupt the character. In this respect, Trump indeed serves as the GOP’s id, as observed by comedian Bill Maher. Those drawn to business dealings that have notoriously outsized payoffs are already more likely to suffer from sociopathic tendencies, which the payoffs only exacerbate. Younger, idealistic people who wear their heart on their sleeve are thus more liberal than older individuals who have more to lose and are tempted to rationalize their possessions with conservative ideologies that warp their mindset. The deranged conservatism of a plutocrat like Trump is only a limit case that reflects this commonplace transition from youthful idealism to jaded, old-age realism. 

Mind you, the natural reality in question isn’t necessarily seen more clearly by older people so much as it captures them in the forms of their accumulated fears and hatreds which sustain their social and political prejudices. For example, political and economic power is reserved for adults who are afflicted with bodies that gradually fail them as they enter old age. As we approach death, our control over ourselves and our work and leisure activities is offset by nature’s grip on every cell of our body, and we mitigate that maddening tragedy in turn with self-serving delusions. If you invite any older person to attempt to express his or her innermost thoughts in a monologue, chances are what you hear will appall you.

Second, Trump likely plays a role or at least exaggerates his churlishness for the sake of certain business transactions. He only seems to be carefree and clueless, whereas he’s calculated that even if he can’t be president, he can appeal to aging, white, blue-collar Americans who, as Thomas Frank explains, resent being abused by the globalized free market and are primed to lash out. Trump can profit from being a right-wing demagogue in the infotainment sector. In this respect, Trump himself plays a role much like the average comedian, except that he laughs his way to the bank.     

Who, then, is the comedian? The comedian is a truth-teller but also a janitor. She sweeps horrors under the rug, calling attention to unpleasant facts with oblique references, only to comfort the audience with the opiate of laughter. Most comedians are able to uncover a subversive truth because they’re social outsiders and the silver lining of their alienation is heightened objectivity. In King Lear, this social role is famously formalized by the court jester whose silly hat and speech distance him from the audience members as well as encouraging them to laugh at his mock madness. The modern standup comedian is likewise distanced by the stage and the spotlight, but again those are formalizations of her underlying alienation. The comedian is typically bitter from being at least initially victimized and marginalized in life, and her isolation affords her the chance to scrutinize society and thus inadvertently to be sickened by what she finds. She then consoles herself with comedy.