The Great Transition/3 Young executives sacrificed, just like in the armies and pagan cults
by Luigino Bruni
published inAvvenire on 18/01/2015
One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.
Walter Benjamin, Capitalism as Religion, 1921 (translated by Chad Kautzer)
At this stage in our – sometimes in-depth – thinking about the non-sustainability of economic and financial models that we have set up in recent decades, there is one aspect that seems to be rather overlooked if we put it in relation with the weight it has in our political life, in democracy, in our well-being and ill state. It is the management culture of the organizations, which is becoming a true global ideology, developed and taught at major universities and widely implemented by multinational corporations and in global consulting associations. It is an ideology that is entering in many areas of social life, because it appears as a value-free technique, which has been able to recycle many of the symbolic codes that Western civilization has associated with good life and wealth for millennia.
And so, without batting an eye, we accept that our relations are increasingly surrounded and controlled by these new global players. Social media and networks in which “live” and where a good part of our relational life now takes place, are governed by profit seeking companies of this new culture.
But there are some cracks appearing in the walls of these companies now that should be taken very seriously if we are to avoid the implosion of the edifice. We are seeing a growing relational and emotional fragility of the employees and managers of companies, especially large and global ones. There is a strong growth in the use of psychotropic medications among managers, which is growing together with their anxiety, depression, stress and insomnia. Brilliant and successful executives wake up one morning you and find themselves with no more energy to get out of bed. It is the syndrome that is known worldwide by the English term burn-out, which has a very literal meaning. Many multinational companies now insert a burn-out phase into the normal development of a manager's career, because it is a stage that is becoming very frequent for the way this type of work is conceived, planned and promoted. And at the first burn-out is followed by another, and then more, because after a successful treatment one has to return to the same relationships, the same culture that produces pathological malaise. The preferred victims of this new epidemic of the rich are the consultants in multinational companies, the financial analysts, accountants and lawyers of the large and professional law firms and above all a great number of managers and executives of large companies, banks, funds, insurance; but there are also worrying signs in public administration, in NGOs, in the social economy, and in some works created by religious charismas because of the pervasiveness of this managerial ideology that is now taught at all universities and business schools and in the MBA courses of all the world.
At the root of this new working malaise there is a real paradox. A golden rule of this organizational and managerial culture is the prohibition to mix languages and emotions of private life with those that belong to business life. Words such as gift, gratitude, friendship, forgiveness and gratuitousness that we all recognize to be fundamental in family, social and community relationships must be kept absolutely outside the workplace, because they are deemed as improper, inefficient, and above all, dangerous. If we go beyond the rhetoric of the teams and team work and take a look inside the real dynamics of these new capitalist enterprises, we will find that managers are increasingly lonely, interacting with other individuals alone, they have functional and fragmented relationships with many partners and supervisors that vary depending on the task (the task assigned) and the contract. In these organizations there is more hierarchy than in traditional ones, even if they have a participatory look.
But while these new businesses on the one hand cultivate behaviours of separation (such as managers who do not "mingle" with their subordinates in canteens or recreational and sports clubs), on the other hand when they have to select and then motivate executives they use the typical words taken from the contexts of family, friends, ideals, ethics and spirituality. There is talk of esteem, merit, respect, passion, loyalty, faithfulness, recognition, community – words and codes that activate the same dynamics inside the person that he or she has learned and practiced in private and family life. The same commitment is required and the same passions are in play.
If we take a small step back in history, we find that the relational metaphor that inspired the first companies in modernity has been that of the community. The first workshops and then the family businesses of the century were organizations built on the relational paradigm of families and communities, also because of the great social and economic weight of the monastic communities and convents in the Middle Ages. Although these were hierarchical (and paternalistic) communities, they were still communities. Then, still in Europe, in the second half of the twentieth century there appeared their “political” metaphors: companies, especially large ones, that were reproducing the class struggle typical of that time, and the factory was an image of political society, of its conflicts and cooperation.
In the large companies of the Third Millennium something unprecedented is happening that closely resembles religious culture, and, in some other respects, military culture, too. In the traditional companies of the first and second capitalism, they asked a lot from both workers and managers, but never too much and, above all, not everything. That left other areas (family, community, religion, party ...) in which the other, no less important chapters of life could take place. A lot – and in some cases everything – was asked of people, however, in the religious sphere (convents, abbeys and monasteries) and, to varying and usually lesser degrees, in the military (the nation and the land). There you could give everything because the promise was worth it (God, Heaven, the Fatherland).
The great and dangerous bluff of the modern organizations of capitalism is hidden in their use of the symbolic and motivational registers of the same type as they were used in the past by the faiths but – and here's the point – distorting and resizing them radically.
The new capitalism has noticed that without activating their most profound human motivations and symbols, people do not do their best. So they ask for much, (almost) everything from their new employees, they ask for a commitment of time, priorities, passions, emotions, which cannot be justified by resorting only to their contracts and pay (even if it is a lot). Only the gift of self can explain what is being asked and given up in these work relationships. But if the company would really recognize all of the “gift” that it asks of its employees then it would create community bonds (cum-munus), which is something the company doesn't really want because those relationships wouldn't be as manageable and controllable anymore. So it stops at the recognition of the less deep or true dimensions than the gift of self, and it does everything to channel back any form of behaviour within the realm of duty and contract.
In the early years, while the executive-workers are still young, the game of promises, expectations and refunds of mutual recognition and attention between the enterprise and the worker works well and produces a spiral of increasing engagement, results and rewards. But as time passes, these unrecognized affective and relational investments accumulate and become emotional credits, until one day you realize that they will never be paid in full. At this point the original “narcissistic contract” enters into crisis, and the rewards of the early days turn into disappointment and frustration. The phase of insecurity, unworthiness, of feeling a “loser” begins, and soon the image of the "ideal worker" that has been built over time collapses, too. We understand that the game was not worth the candle of our life that in the meantime has been consumed, sometimes exhausted and even put out. And the game continues with other young people, who will soon be replaced by others – the “consumption” (or “sacrifice”) of the youth in these organizations is impressive, just as it is in armies and some pagan cults.
The great words of life bear fruit only if they are not manipulated. They need large spaces, to be accepted in their complexity and, above all, in their ambivalence that makes them generative, alive, and true. And – because of their own intrinsic nature – they do not let themselves be used for profit, certainly not for a long time. Human history offers us an immense collection of attempts to use the great words of humanity for private benefits. Magic and idolatry are nothing but this. But every ideology is essentially an attempt to manipulate one or more great words of humanity (liberty, fraternity, equality), reducing their complexity and ambivalence to be able to control them, thereby controlling persons and consciences, too. Managerial ideology is manipulating esteem, recognition and community, because it uses them without gratuitousness, and therefore no liability for costs and emotional wounds that the relational ambivalence of these great words inevitably produce.
We all want Heaven, we all would like to live our lives in a heroic way, but businesses and their objectives cannot be the places where these promises can be kept and realised. The sky above their land is too low, their horizon is too narrow to be really that of the promised land.
Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial