2.26.2011

Individuals, Systems, Principles, Work, Life

Is there any difference between these corporations? Is one cool and the other not? Really?


Let's imagine, for a moment, that I work for some egregiously morally corrupt corporation — Philip Morris or Halliburton or some such entity that the liberal community agrees is repulsive. (More on this in a moment.) Buy my job, day to day, is amazing: I only have to work 25 hours a week; I can usually work from home; my duties entail imagining anything that the future might bring and then writing it up in fanciful prose; and there's no asshole manager leaning over my shoulder.

(Personally, I'd take that job in a flash.)

Now imagine that I work for some non-profit that builds schools for the poor in developing countries. But my day to day job involves cleaning the toilets, getting coffee for the boss, and writing extensive PowerPoint presentations that sum up someone else's work.

Which job is better?

Principles are great but they have a tendency to coerce, to dictate, to imprison the believer — not to mention making one a sanctimonious prick. On the other hand, aren't we all actors in a collective system, cogs in an engine that does all sorts of things but, mostly, pillages the planet and subjugates the individual in a number of painful, cruel ways.

What do we do? What does one do? What do you do?

Now let's complicate things. The liberal community — which, frankly, is anything but liberal in its beliefs as it adheres to a party line, an ideology, and what's less liberal than an ideology? — condemns certain corporations, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and the like. But while those corporations are no doubt morally bankrupt, the fact is all corporations — by definition — are morally bankrupt. All corporations, by the mere fact of being corporations, contribute to the pillaging of the planet and the relentless subjugation of the individual. After all, a corporation — by definition — subjugates the individual to the corporate demands: you work for the good of the company in order to drive its bottom line — increased profits.

So does it really matter, from the perspective of principle, if you work for Halliburton or Whole Foods?

Now add this creepy dimension: corporations are so good at branding — who does all this branding, anyway? — that we actually think it's cool to work at Google, at Apple, at Whole Foods but not cool to work for Halliburton, Costco, Walmart.

But the question, for me, remains the same: What is your day to day life like?

3 comments:

Chad Lott said...

I'm not really sure it's only branding or principles that makes people think one job is cooler than another. I know someone that works for each company you've mentioned in this post (including Haliburton, one friend drove trucks in Irag and another drills oil in the Gulf) and the two biggest factors are take home pay and personal enjoyment.

The highest paid of my friends was the one that drove fuel trucks in Iraq. He made somewhere north of 200k tax free. His vehicle was struck with RPGs twice. That job sucked.

Another pal who works at Whole Foods gets to go around Northern California meeting food growers and cooks and helping them build their businesses. It probably isn't that great of a paycheck, but he is completely stoked.

If you believe a company is always only capable of always only sucking the life out of people and planet, then what is a viable option? Without one we're fucked.

It seems like some companies are generating cultures that are attracting progressive sorts and in some cases that seems to be creating a different sort of animal.

These companies with progressive culture are attracting better workers at a faster rate than "evil" companies and non-profits.

Better, well oiled cogs, make better machines. Isn't a better set of machines demonstrably better than a set of shitty machines?

I don't think it's impossible to imagine something different emerging from this set unless you're all Fukuyama style.

Trying to go against capitalism reminds me of all the kooks out there that build weird cars that use totally different drivetrains and wheel design. You can do it, but it will be unique and atvthe end of the day no one will want it.

However, people are slowly moving off of gas only cars. That seems like evolution to me and it seems like a certain sector of business is doing something similar.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@Chad: Well, our conversation was clearly my inspiration for this post. And I see it more as a feeling out than a declaration.

But I have to say: the notion of a progressive corporate culture sends chills down my spine. As long as a corporation is dedicated to maximizing profit — as distinct from, say, maximizing its employees welfare — then I'm not sure what can be progressive. The fact that the corp enjoys a massive tax break from donating to Greenpeace? That you can wear sneakers to work? That you're paid $12/hr instead of the unlivable minimum wage?

This progressive spin is the latest branding success of corporate America. You can have it all! Foosball! Lattes! Free lunches! We'll even bus you to work!

But are you sharing in the profits of your labor? Is the money trickling down? Are you working a reasonable number of hours/week — say, 25-30? Or, as is the trend, are you working upwards of 50 hours a week, often doing things on weekends, and traveling for your job so you surrender every moment?

Now: is it silly to oppose this because this is just how it is? Perhaps. But I still flail and fight, perhaps like a moron, because it astounds me at every moment in every way. What world is this we've birthed?

Is it foolish of me to try and explain to people that the world we live in in which very, very few are happy day to day need not be like this? Probably.

But it brings me joy so I'll keep doing it.

Chad Lott said...

Daniel, please flail, dance, bounce and rage. It's what makes life worth living.

I certainly see your point about where the money ultimately goes and share your concern about progressive workers becoming house cats.

I do in fact have a sweet gig: I work reasonable hours, get to do rad shit, work for cool people, share in profits and best of all, sneakers at work.

I believe that the best case scenario for conscious capitalism (I really want to start calling this groovy capitalism) is that it incubates cooperative models. The worst case is you declaw a bunch of people who should be tearing shit up.

Within one of these companies I think the duty of a true progressive should be to push for decentralization and build insurances against possible shareholder driven assaults on the culture of the company.

The corporate overlords I serve have their faults, but money that could easily have ended up as a gold toilet got filtered into quite a few worker owned cooperatives that have ended up being very successful.

This is the point of departure from Capitalism I'm most interested in. Virtuous action and self sacrifice to build a secondary economy that is also profitable.

I guess what I'm hoping for is that conscious cap types think about a possible next step as a destination, not just the creation of feel good businesses.

You made a great point about the triple bottom line earlier, you can't regulate all that shit, but you might be be able to convince the best and brightest to gravitate towards the best case scenario corporations and then make a jump to cooperatives.