It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the hierarchical power structure embodied in our rigidly regulated and controlled schools and jobs closely resembles the relationship between a master and a slave. But there is a difference: slaves are under no obligation to pretend that they are free and can be as sullen and apathetic as they wish. They know that they are property, they do the bare minimum to avoid punishment, and they cannot be shamed for such behavior any more than a lawn mower or a toaster oven. We, on the other hand, require both students and employees to cheerfully and meekly deny their slave-like status, and to perpetuate the fiction that they are not compelled to conform but are acting of their own free will. They are gradually driven insane by the chronic cognitive dissonance caused by the mismatch between their pretend-freedom and their all-too-real slavery. In the following excerpt from his new book, Bureaucratic Insanity: The American Bureaucrat’s Descent into Madness, Sean Kerrigan delves into the nature of this effect.
When discussing bureaucracy generally, the term “crazy” is often thrown around, and I would argue that this characterization is accurate. We must consider that these widespread outbursts and acts of aggression are linked to a mass delusion, a culturally, socially and technologically induced psychosis. People are losing their grip on a part of their humanity. This causes them to act aggressively or to oppress others to a point where they act violently in return.
We often find ourselves at the mercy of overzealous rule-enforcers who act as if they are our masters. The relationship between a master and a slave creates silent hostility that cannot be penetrated until the slave is freed. There is no human interaction possible between a master and a slave because their relationship is always overshadowed by the inequality of their relative status. The same is often true of the relationships among the slaves, if they are in competition for status, or if they are trying to become masters themselves—by insisting on observing the rules.
Within the contemporary American workplace, this master-slave dynamic is dominant and nearly inescapable. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the school system, where dozens of students are subjected to a single teacher’s will. If that teacher has been bureaucratized and has surrendered her sense of sympathy and compassion, the results will likely be disastrous for the students. They become co-opted into the hierarchy as obedient servants, or, if they rebel or are unable to comply adequately, they are labeled defective and discarded.
In 1832, US Congressman James H. Gholson said: “Our slave population is not only a happy one, but it is a contented, peaceful, and harmless one.” At the time, this line of reasoning was widely accepted in large part because slave rebellions in the United States were rare. While this view may have seemed obvious to some in the ruling class, it was ultimately a shallow observation that failed to recognize the complexities of slave psychology. The submissive attitude of most slaves was achieved through repeated use of violence, and the promise of more violence against them if they resisted. In some cases, slaves felt responsible to their masters, identifying with their goals and believing that their position was inferior. The now well understood spiritual deprivation that accompanied slavery in America was only rarely interrupted by explicit slave revolts.
Kenneth Stampp, a professor of history at the UC Berkeley, described in his book The Peculiar Institution several methods of psychological manipulation necessary to guarantee the compliance of a slave:
1. The slave must be placed upon a footing of “unconditional submission... The slave must know that his master is to govern absolutely and he is to obey implicitly.”
2. The slave must feel a sense of personal inferiority.
3. Make the slaves “stand in fear” of the master’s power and in his propensity for violence.
4. Get the slave to “take an interest in the master’s enterprise and to accept his standards of good conduct.” In general, the slave should equate the goals of his master with his own.
5. Create in the slave “a habit of perfect dependence upon their masters.”
Of these methods of control, number four is particularly relevant for the bureaucratic mindset. In order for bureaucrats to unquestioningly follow a precise and often inhumane set of instructions, it is enormously helpful if they believe in the broader corporate or governmental goal. But all of these methods can be observed in a contemporary work environment. As economic pressures continue to rise, the worker-employer relationship continues to worsen.
If I could add one additional item to Stampp’s list, I would note that the modern slave-master often tries to limit the level of discourse, by making certain subjects taboo and by isolating his slaves from each other, ensuring corrosive ideas do not gain traction among them.
Every day in the US, millions of people get up, shower, get dressed and drive to work. They eat at particular times of the day, lest they miss the opportunity. They follow their boss’s instructions, which are sometimes in direct violation of their personal moral code. They pay taxes, even if the money goes toward causes they find morally objectionable. Rebellious people who attempt to escape these restrictions by starting their own business, or by joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed, face hardships and hurdles which make these paths less than desirable.
The requirement that they must conform to the rules is made clear to them early in life. Contrary to the abiding myth that childhood is a happy, free, idyllic time, young people are subject to constant supervision. Work is valued over play. What children want to do is immaterial. Their parents—who are normally the most important individuals in their lives—only see them for an hour or two a day and sometimes on weekends. They take on the role of bossy taskmasters. Over time, children quickly learn to take orders from anyone who acts like an authority figure. For those who naturally resist being bossed around by strangers, the cost of resisting is often harsh. It’s expected of them that they learn to accept the path of least resistance, believing in lies, both large and small, that enable them to do so without experiencing major psychological discomfort.
Naturally, when they grow up, they imagine that they really want to get up to go to work, to follow the instructions of authority figures, and to prove themselves within predefined social contexts over which they have no control. Those who adapt well are able conform, appear normal, and indeed be normal—or what passes for normal in a society that demands conformity. The most serious and committed conformists appear to enjoy and find comfort in their ability to fit in, happily avoiding the moral complexities that often come with the exercise of free will.
Early in Aldous Huxley’s seminal 1931 novel, Brave New World, he argues that in order for a future society to be functional, it would need to make people love their servitude:
Later on their minds would be made to endorse the judgment of their bodies. “We condition them to thrive on heat... Our colleagues upstairs will teach them to love it. And that... that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their inescapable social destiny.”Of course, this is all quite arrogant; such rigid control may be possible when dealing with mechanical devices, but in the domain of human psychology unintended consequences are the norm, not the exception. In the end, the social engineers inevitably turn out to be sorcerer's apprentices, setting in motion processes they can neither understand nor control.
Sean Kerrigan is the author of Bureaucratic Insanity: The American Bureaucrat’s Descent into Madness. He has been a writer and public social critic for the last 15 years, concentrating on issues of economic, political and social decay in the United States. Educated at Temple University in Philadelphia, he worked for several years as a journalist focusing on hard news coverage. Disillusioned by the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, he refocused his attention on political and spiritual matters, with most of his subsequent writing challenging the accepted mythology of American society. His work has been featured on the BBC World Service Radio, popular blogs such as Zero Hedge, and several daily newspapers including the Bucks County Courier Times. He maintains a regularly updated website at www.SeanKerrigan.com and tweets as @SeanJKerrigan.