Thursday, September 29, 2005

Partisan Loyalties

David Brooks today explains the pitfalls of loyalty: "Politics is a team sport. Nobody can get anything done alone. But in today's Washington, loyalty to the team displaces loyalty to the truth. Loyalty to the team explains why President Bush doesn't fire people who serve him poorly, and why, as a result, his policies are often not well executed. Loyalty to the team is why I often leave meals with politicians thinking ‘reasonable in private,’ but then I see them ranting like cartoon characters on TV."

Edward Abbey of course put it more elegantly and accurately in The Monkey Wrench Gang in 1975: "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity there ain't nothing can beat teamwork." So it’s been in this era of militaristic infatuation with the mere idea of teamwork: Teamwork as ideology, as an end in itself, as a cult. Which is what makes partisan loyalty a social and cultural phenomenon as much as a political phenomenon. It's not restricted to "today’s Washington." It’s lived and breathed every day in the corporate workplace, where presumptions of teamwork and loyalty don’t even have the advantages of political partisanship. In politics partisanship for the team is something of an investment in self-promotion. Corporate loyalty is one-sided. It is assumed and demanded of workers at the expense of personal freedoms on every bill of rights extant, but without guarantees of job security, promotional or intellectual rewards in return (some of us being luckier than others: the luxury of being immune from Wall Street expectations and shareholders’ grasp). The demand for loyalty to the corporation is an implied threat: Absent loyalty to the corporate mission statement’s warm and fuzzy team-workish terms (and any amendments managerial neuroses improvises along the way), you’re as good as a past tense file folder in "human resources"’ morgue. An Aug. 4, 2003 headline in the Wall Street Journal: "Six Degrees of Exploitation? New Programs Help Companies ‘Mine’ Workers’ Relationships For Key Business Prospects." Sounds like the Pentagon’s supposedly defunct Total Information Awareness project. "The goal," the article explains, "is to identify people within the company who have potentially useful contacts elsewhere and could make a personal introduction, say, linking a salesperson with a potential customer, an attorney with a prospective client or a fund-raiser with a likely donor." But make sure your company has in place what Circuit City, Waffle House and Labor Ready, among others, do with, or to, their employees: they force them to sign away their right to go to court. From Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism: "The prevalent mode of social interaction today is antagonistic cooperation (as David Riesman called it in The Lonely Crowd), in which a cult of teamwork conceals the struggle for survival within bureaucratic organizations." Or as Lewis Lapham writes in this month's Harper's, "Who doesn't know that the corporation is immortal, that it is the corporation that grants the privilege of an identity, confers meaning on one's life, gives the pension, a decent credit rating, and the priority standing in the community? Of course the corporation reserves the right to open one's email, test one's blood, listen to the phone calls, examine one's urine, hold the patent on the copyright to any idea generated on its premises. Why ever should it not? As surely as the loyal fascist knew that it was his duty to serve the state, the true American knes that it is his duty to protect the brand."

The difference between politics and the workplace? Politics is at least played out as a cartoon on the evening news. The workplace is off-limits. No First Amendment saps, and not too many other rights, need apply. Washington looks so much more transparent in comparison.