Sunday, February 3, 2019

Why Bosses become Loathsome

There are many reasons to admire the upper class. The rich are successful, sometimes famous, and they live in enviable luxury. The well-off often acquire their credentials from an Ivy League education to become the employers around the world who manage positions of authority and responsibility in a business empire, navigating the tumultuous waters of capitalist competition and governmental hounding. These business elites have the best medical care, vacations, clothing, houses, and legal defenses. They beautify themselves and live in what might as well be heaven on earth.

All of which is undermined by the unsettling axiom that, contrary to the Spider Man fantasy, with power comes not responsibility but what John Stewart used to call dickishness. It’s no accident that bosses are generally known to be assholes, so that Hollywood could make two comedies on the subject, called Horrible Bosses. Everyone’s had their run-ins with the ugly effects of privilege and social control on the fragile animal psyches of their bosses, and even if you’re a boss yourself, chances are you too have a higher-up whom you privately revile.

Fear, Envy, and Objectification: Mechanisms of Corruption

The reasons why power corrupts are not hard to understand. To occupy a higher position in a chain of command means you have the right to exert your will against the interests of your subordinates. In a free society, the workers choose to serve under the boss’s command and are entitled to leave if they wish, but if they value their jobs they must submit to their “superiors.” The executives have higher-level goals that are “above the pay grade” of most of the workers, and so there’s often conflict between those wearing the boots on the ground and the elites who make the big decisions. This conflict was highlighted in the movie Working Girl, but more serious and paradigmatic cases are found in WWI and the Vietnam War. The elites pursue their rarified objectives while the subordinates are paid relatively paltry sums to serve at the pleasure of their bosses. The workers quickly learn, then, to fear their bosses who not only have the ability to terminate their employment, but to inflict what soldiers and the police call a “shit detail” on them, to use the workers as a means of achieving some menial task.

When the bosses discover that their subordinates fear—or to use the euphemism, “respect”—them, the fear triggers the animal response in the bosses, of feeling proud of their higher status. A subordinate’s fear signals the difference in status in the dominance hierarchy. For example, the subordinates show “signs of respect” when their superiors are present. They’ll rush out to get coffee or donuts, they’ll avoid making eye contact or they’ll be sure to laugh at all of the boss’s jokes. Perhaps the female workers will submit to their boss’s sexual advances or at least be sure to pay the boss regular compliments to keep him in good spirits. At a minimum, the subordinates will avoid upsetting their managers, for fear of losing their job, especially in a “free market” in which private profits matter more than social welfare.

Just as the masochist’s show of submission excites the sadist’s lust to dominate, the fear displayed by the subordinate in business invites the superior to prove why he or she deserves to be feared—not to mention why the superior ought to be the one driving the Porsche or flying off to vacation in a private jet. The superior does this not so much by making sound business decisions which benefit the company and the world at large, since such socialist logic pertains only to the theory of capitalism (in which social welfare is ironically secured in the midst of maximum individual selfishness, by “an invisible hand”), not to the reality. In reality, a weakly-regulated market empowers managers to think much more narrowly as parasites that hoodwink sheepish consumers and conned shareholders, before resorting to their golden parachutes. No, the managers and executives, the bosses and leaders of all stripes demonstrate their “superiority” by participating in the vicious circle of the master-slave dynamic. The slave demonstrates his or her comparative meekness, causing the master to complete the circle with the complementary display of domination. That way, the hierarchy as a whole is reaffirmed, since the difference between its levels of authority is clarified by the asymmetric behaviours. Everyone knows their place and can feel at ease in the unified group, even if the subordinates know only that their function is to submit.

Contrary to the pseudoscientists known as economists, though, that vicious circle isn’t conducive to any “equilibrium,” since the circle is rather a spiral that increases in severity until the subordinate “burns out” or fails to knuckle under and summons the courage to fight for his or her self-respect by defying the superior’s whim. In the meantime, the superior has become addicted to the rush from his or her freedom to use people as pawns, and so becomes increasingly tyrannical, leading not just to a higher turn-over of employees, but to the company’s self-destruction. A seldom-discussed cost of doing business is the boss’s tendency to exhibit increasing signs of megalomania.

But fear and the master-slave dynamic is only one way in which social power corrupts. Another begins with envy. The subordinates want what their boss has, which is why they put up for so long with the latter’s obnoxious vanities. As functional slaves, the subordinates learn that they can usurp the boss’s control over them by acting as sycophants, that is, by manipulating the boss whose addiction to power increasingly disconnects him or her from reality. The courtiers become the real powers behind the throne, as the king or queen is a mere figurehead. Along this path of corruption you’ll find not the boss’s tyranny but his or her incompetence. Aided by the Peter principle, according to which workers rise to their level of incompetence because promotions based on past performance reoccur until the worker’s skills are no longer transferable, this means that far from deserving their fortunes, the so-called power elites are likely to resemble the pitiful man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. A fine example is the dentist who swoops in for a twenty-second “exam” after the dental hygienist has done all the hard work of scrubbing the teeth, taking photographs, measuring the gum line and so on, while nevertheless charging an extra tidy sum for the honour of being in the dentist’s company—if only for a short while. Likewise, employers generally are driven to be the worst kind of bullies or tyrants, since eventually they no longer deserve their authority or privileges, they’ll only pretend to work hard and to know what they’re doing (as in the movie American Psycho, in which the murderous executive doodles and listens to his Walkman all day), and they can’t even tell whether their jokes are truly funny because their subordinates will laugh at them anyway. 

(Note that this tendency is accelerated also by the fact that management isn't often regarded in business as a separate skill, so that specialists are often promoted as managers even if they have no aptitude for project management or executive decision-making. Far from admitting to any such weakness, however, the first dynamicthe need to prove that the superior is master and not slavekicks in so that the “manager” must pretend that others are to blame for his or her ineptitude.) 

Sycophancy, then, may be the proletarian’s revenge, as depicted in a Monty Python’s skit from The Meaning of Life in which the waiter feeds the fat cat until he literally explodes from gluttony. Real-world cases here are plentiful. Saddam Hussein tyrannized his country until his sycophants in the security apparatus were driven to pretend to the weapons inspectors that they still had WMD, to shore up Saddam’s pride, which provided George W. Bush the excuse to reinvade Iraq, leading to Saddam’s capture and horrific execution. The second Bush himself was only a figurehead who failed upward, with his vice president Dick Cheney controlling American foreign policy. But the new paradigm is set, of course, by “President” Donald Trump whose unfitness for high office is even now legendary. Exacerbated by the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people of low ability overestimate their prowess precisely because they’re not smart enough to understand the reality, President Trump and George W. Bush before him demonstrate both paths to corruption: the master-slave dynamic, resulting in the leader’s sadism and addiction to tyranny, and sycophancy or the tendency to erect a bubble of convenient disinformation around the leader, resulting in the latter’s narcissism, incompetence, and psychosis. Both pathways are captured by the psychological term, “malignant narcissism.”

Yet a third source of corruption is the executive’s instrumental way of thinking. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the meta-invention is overall instrumentalism, the resort to amoral, antisocial calculations of means and ends to get out of a tight spot. The business world is brutal because that world reflects nature, which is indifferent to any creature’s survival. Thus, to manage a company’s affairs, executives have to objectify the factors that determine their success or failure. Again, the Vietnam War makes for an apt analogy, since Robert McNamara and the other masterminds in charge were obsessed with phony statistics and lost sight of the forest for the trees. The elites depersonalized the soldiers on the battlefield, reducing them to fodder for the military megamachine so the elites could pretend they weren’t mass murderers. (Decades later, McNamara disassociated himself from the instrumentalist way of thinking. See his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam and the documentary Fog of War. And for a comprehensive critique of hyperrationality, see Voltaire’s Bastards.) Likewise, executives objectify their subordinates, treating them as appendages or as slaves to be exploited, but the executives do this because their company struggles to survive in a hostile, Machiavellian marketplace that doesn’t reward empathy or altruism, and the executives justify their abuses of power by dehumanizing their victims.    

Put all of that together and you have a peculiar phenomenon. We’re supposed to revere our leaders, since they have power over us and they’re presumed to have earned what is manifestly their higher quality of life. That’s why we fear and envy them, why we knuckle under and suck up to them, why we put up with their pettiness and humiliating power plays. But because they have power over us, they tend not to deserve it; more precisely, their ability to serve well in a leadership role is unsustainable, so that eventually, given enough time in a dominant position, all leaders become more or less unfit to lead. Power over others makes us monstrous and decadent, arrogant and foolish. This is why King Lear had to lose the trappings of power to discover the sad reality of his true nature, because while he occupied the role of king he couldn’t see the world clearly. In Plato’s ring of Gyges parable, power is like a ring that makes the wearer invisible, presenting a temptation to commit crimes that no one could resist. But perhaps power is more likely to render the rest of the world invisible, since the dominator sees the world only as a reflection of him as he’s held hostage by his animal impulses and by dubious, self-serving quantifications, and as he’s surrounded by yes men.

Yet another analogy presents itself: that of the beautiful woman who’s condemned to a life of superficial pleasures without ever being able to verify whether anyone’s interest in her is more than skin deep. At first glance, the beautiful woman has everything a woman could want, since men clamor to be around her and employers line up to hire her, and so she, too, is bound to fail upward until she lands a “job” that no longer necessitates her having really to work. But precisely because she’s beautiful, she’ll intimidate all but the most overconfident or misogynistic suitors, and the employers will want primarily to use her beauty for cynical purposes. People want to be around beautiful women—but only because of their appearance, not because of their ideas or the allure of their inner self. So this superficially attractive woman has little incentive to develop such a self in the first place. Instead of individuating her mind and character, she’ll be infantilized in a society that prizes superficial spectacles or illusions of substance. This plight of the beautiful woman is well-presented in the film Requiem for a Dream and in the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits.”

What seems worth envying, namely beauty or power, is rather a trap. The hottie is condemned to being hit on by arrogant and selfish alpha males, and as society trains her to be infantile, she grows to prefer that sort of male, so she commits herself to a master-slave relationship. Similarly, the power elites eventually become only nominally elite: their tyrannies are based on impulses shared by beasts throughout the animal kingdom and they rig the system, preferring monarchies, dictatorships, or dominance hierarchies to avoid competition, so they need suffer little from their tendency to make fiascos out of their opportunities.

The Fantasies of Superheroes and Gods

Perhaps this paradox of power explains, in part, the fascination with superheroes. Computer graphics technology had to improve before Hollywood could capitalize on the potential, since Americans, at least, are eager to believe that power needn’t corrupt, after all. How else could they endure their nation’s title as the world’s lone superpower for so many years after the collapse of the Soviet Union? If power inevitably corrupts, and Americans are collectively the most powerful people on the planet, Americans must simultaneously be the worst human specimens. On the contrary, runs the fairytale, people can rise to the occasion and not succumb to temptation. Witness the superheroes such as Superman, Spider Man, or Wonder Woman! See how they deal honourably with their capacity to dominate! Americans, too, fight only to liberate the world, to ensure peace and prosperity for all. This is why the cartoonish superhero is an American invention. Americans above all need to view themselves in the best light, because their military and economic supremacy throws them furthest into shadow.

But the urgency to whitewash the corrosive effects of social power is universal. Witness not just the infantilizing fictions of the superhero, but the much older fictions of the world’s gods and goddesses! Locked as we are in the scientism of our age, we usually assume the faithful could be speaking only literally in their myths, whereas a religious myth should be read as exhibiting a people’s ultimate values and pride in their collective identity. The gods and goddesses are so many abstracted human power elites disguised as supernatural beings— because that’s how kings and emperors seem to peons who invest their hopes for the future in their ruler’s merits. Religious myth has always been akin to roman à clef. As such, myths combine reverence for the power elites’ mastery, with satirical skewering of their attendant monstrosity.

The gods or demigods are the superheroes of the ancient world, as in Greek myths or the epic of Gilgamesh. The gods squabbled like Machiavellian aristocrats, but they also performed mighty deeds for the greater good, such as preventing chaos from overtaking the majestic order of the cosmos. Jews wrestled with the implications of monotheism; for example, even as the prophets praise almighty Yahweh, Job and Ecclesiastes implicitly condemn any deity that could be responsible for all the unfairness “under the sun.” Christianity plays a game of bait-and-switch, by incorporating Judaism’s portrayal of the tyrannical ruler, while introducing the superheroic (messianic) character of saintly Jesus. Like the fantastic Marvel superhero who supernaturally overcomes the temptation to use his or her powers for evil, Jesus declines Satan’s offers and sacrifices himself to provide everyone a way out of death and everlasting punishment. Islam reverts to Jewish realism but without the Jews’ sense of humour or practicality. So Allah reifies the human ruler’s machismo and psychopathy, and the Muslim’s task is only to complete the vicious circle of the master-slave relationship, by submitting to the arbitrary will of a “great” deity.  

In any case, some such tall tales are needed to provide relief from the burden of having to serve under our horrible bosses. Contrary to communists and progressives, though, there’s no justice in the proletarian’s demonization of the upper class. The power elites, too, are only pawns of natural power dynamics. As the French Revolution as well as Russian and Chinese communism showed, the ranks of the proletariat proved themselves capable of even worse tyranny than that inflicted by the French and Russian aristocrats. True, our bosses tend to be insufferable, but we also become insufferable the more we succeed and surpass the abilities of our rivals. Even if we have little power to dominate others, compared to the top one percent, as long as anyone is duty-bound to submit to our will (including children, pets, or servers in the service industry), we’ll be tempted to abuse that position, and the only way to guarantee freedom from dickishness is to repudiate the system as a whole and to step beyond it as an outsider. Then, instead of being warped by the social systems we erect, the outsider will have to brave the misery of loneliness and the maddening impersonality of the wilderness…  


  1. I am in a terrible situation right now with a really hierarchical workplace with us vs. them management, and so every word of this seemed to confirm what I've been thinking. But I'm biased at the moment. I'll read it again when I'm not looking for confirmation of my feelings about my "superiors" and capitalism generally.

    1. Almost every office has it. It becomes incredibly tangible when you become a manager/superior of other people and despite having thought of these dynamics, you feel the biological rot trying to pull the puppet strings. No one in an office should ever say, "I'll never be that guy." Not until they've resisted it at least.

    2. This reminds me of Google's old motto, going back to 2000 or 2001, "Don't be evil." But expecting a company that has a monopoly not to be "dickish" is as preposterous as expecting billionaires to be real superheroes. That's why the Marvel/Disney comicbook movies are fantasies rather than science fictions. However the superpowers are explained, the stories gloss over the psychology and the sociology. Why would someone with superpowers use them for good rather than evil? The superpowerful are supposed to line up as villains or heroes, but why would any of them be heroic?

      To be sure, the rich and powerful often fancy themselves heroes, as in the cases of Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Tom Steyer, and now perhaps Jeff Bezos. And lots of wealthy people are philanthropic. But throwing their weight around inevitably has unintended consequences. Also, keeping their billions and their luxuries when lots of people are effectively impoverished takes at least some degree of dickishness.

      At any rate, on the smaller scale I doubt that many newly-created managers are troubled by the imperative to follow their conscience. Most of those who go into business and especially those who succeed and climb the ranks will have minimal to no capacity for empathy. That's how capitalism works, according to the founding myth: be selfish and the invisible hand will allegedly take care of the rest. If you find yourself to be one of the good guys in a powerful position in business, you're likely one of the exceptions. In that case, I'd expect the conscientious manager to have to live a double life (like Batman?).