Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Plato in the Totalitarian Corporate Boardroom


How the Business World is following the
ideas of Plato
Simon van der Wiel

(This article is also available from the Scroll website)

The face looms out of the decorated poster in a glorious celebration of importance. The eyes look with dream filled zealousness into the distant future, a patchwork of pixels proclaiming the visionary. Below, etched in professionally artistic fonts, are some of his sterling quotes, proudly propagated yet magnificently mundane. Side by side, his dreams and life story are strategically dispersed through meticulously compiled internal articles.
Simon van der Wiel is a fictonal character from Arunabha Sengupta's novel The Best Seller.

Half Dutch, half Irish and brought up in the West Coast, he works for an Indian firm and interacts with Dutch clients.

His blogs dealing with Corporate Circus, some from the novel and some extrapolated from the storyline, can be found at Blog of Simple Simon

Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution?

Not quite. We are referring to the modern day corporate leader. The organisation designated visionary entrepreneur.

One whose mug shots, borne by a barrage of company mailers, newsletters and affiliated business news publications, violate the more refined of our senses. Whose inane utterances are developed from
scratch through the magic of delegation, jotted down in tearing deadline-defying hurry, typeset in relentless review cycles and dished out in thousands of electronic mails which pop up in the innumerable inboxes till the discerning 
 employee develops distressed digits from continual clicks of shift-delete.

"Customer focus is the key for business in the next decade."... "Innovation and thought-leadership will define the new leaders of the industry."

Harping on unremarkable, universally acknowledged postulates, packaged as visionary proclamations of the all powerful and immensely knowledgeable Philosopher King. In that context, are these too different from "Classes struggle, some classes triumph, others are eliminated " of Mao’s Little Red Book?

The striking similarities do not end with the image of an overhyped worshipped leader, zealously protected by internal police from criticism, with embargo on expression of honest thought. The likeness
stretches even beyond the inequality, injustice and deception of the policies that irk all rank and file behind the facade. It goes even beyond the axiomatic assumption of the state – in this case the organisation – being perpetually more important than the individual. Nor is the resemblance restricted to the most scarlet pigment of Red China. Today's large corporate organisations are more like any Totalitarian regime than can be contemplated without a shudder. 

The Philosopher King:  The marauding magic word of modern times is Innovation. Technology continues to evolve at the rate of mega-knots. Trillionaire tycoons –therefore accepted present day philosophers – vouch for business at the rate speed of thought. The focus is therefore on Innovation and Thought-Leadership. Hence, the different corporate organisations that conduct business in the time tested way of hiring out resources at lowest of low rates have to project themselves as factories doling out trendsetting ideas, packaging out of box thoughts in a moronic oxymoron.

As a corollary, people who have, often unthinkingly, climbed to their pinnacles of these organisations have the mantle of remarkable thinkers and visionaries thrust upon them. And through the propaganda machinery of newsletters, blogs, websites, information sharing portals, knowledge management
systems, podcasts, in house tweets, domestic electronic walls and external pandering to news agencies, the hastily donned manufactured greatness wraps itself tightly around them in the short term memory that rules the times.

 In a tailor made way, this fits the goal of the grand Corpocratic illusion. These companies essentially run on hordes who have to be fuelled by a vision of something more – or radically different – than the harsh
ground truth of being sold cheap. So, it is apt for the leaders to be projected as beings with knowledge and understanding that elude the common. The normal employee can only hope to gauge an imperfect approximation of their superior intelligence through the flickering shadows of reality and the reverberations of propaganda as they remain chained to their confining cubicles in the eerie
corporate equivalent of Plato's Cave.

The wisdom of the Philosopher King cannot be doubted, his words the unquestionable truth. Anything to the contrary can lead to public rebuke or banishment.

The maximisation of authority is linked to a great extent to supernatural mystical capacity to convert the massaged and mundane data from the floor, using the alchemy of positional power, into the gold dust that adorns the landscape of projected future.

The Tribal Society The world becomes flatter, contracted through the process of tying the ends together with fibre optic cables. Even as globalisation makes itself more and more apparent, the corporate organisations romping about in this world-wide arena remain undeniably tribal.

Anyone who has jumped through the hoops of corporate circus will identify with the last paragraph of the last section. In complete indifference to the stark actuality that is painted in unmistakable patterns by the ebbs and eddies of regular work, when facts bubble up to the stratospheric abode of the organisational demi gods, they are washed clean of the ugly smudges of reality.
They undergo a metamorphosis in keeping with the wishful thinking of privileged minds. There are certain norms that go with the dictates of the top management, certain elaborate vision and mission rolled out with singular purpose. Little things like truth cannot tamper with their unwavering, unquestionable vision. In fact, as we shall see later, the reality is not true. 

Chairman Mao could never admit the atrocious failure of the steel industry during the Great Leap Forward. Idi Amin pampered his guests with Scottish accordion music while dressed in a kilt himself even as people
died in hordes across the Ugandan nation. In the more antiseptic air-conditioned corridors of a corporate organisation, the same delusion plays on the leaders when their grandiose plans show unmistakable signs of being derailed into the realms of the Quixotic.

This inability to understand the differences between normative and actual laws of the world uniquely characterises tribalism. The refined fanaticism that manifests itself in the corporate police in defending the
proclaimed norms against criticism shows glimpses of semi-religious fervour of demon worship.

Parallels with tribalism do not end with this. Ritualistic chants and dances exist in the form of regular meetings, status reports, dashboards, circulated metrics, process verification checks and power lunches.
All these are activities that hardly ever lead to any tangible benefit but create an esoteric tribal bonding in the name of company culture.

As in any tribal system, there is an inherent compulsion to invest heavily in forming a closed society. Corporations carelessly cross frontiers of professionalism and tolerance levels in the attempt to create mutual family feeling. Thus, company family is a much harped and hated concept, a continual effort to make the boundaries between the office and family life and feelings as fuzzy as possible.

We increasingly find attempts to create an enclosed microcosm which tries to replicate the attractive aspects of the external world within the organisational boundary. Musical events, sporting fests, internal
newsletters featuring interviews of bigwigs, mutual back scratching in blogs and other social networking platforms... It is an effort at creating self sufficient small world which breeds its own tribal allegiance.

It is a common enough trend to be unable to contemplate a change of workplace after organisational bonding creeps into the psyche of individuals for a considerable period. With time, there is an increased reluctance to accept the possibility of an external world beyond the boundaries of an organisation from professional as also social aspects. For people accustomed to this environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to break away from the ancient lures of comfort feel and mutual support. All these initiatives of
extending the family feeling in corporate organisations are but veiled attempts at promoting tribal affiliation. 

None of the corporations that become huge are quite planned that way. Companies more or less always rise by chance, retrofitting the happy turns of probabilistic coincidences into successful vision and strategy. The bigger they get, more is the risk of exposure of employees to open communities, the greater
the danger of esoteric policies being put under the scanner of an extended worldview and, hence, more is the resistance to change. So, the bigger they grow, we find increasing number of initiatives that try to lower the opaque canopy of tribalism around their widening walls.

A year or so earlier, I informed my boss about bagging another opportunity in Europe after being particularly pissed with the uncertainty that surrounded my job in Amsterdam. I could see the tribal king unravel in front of me, peeling off one layer of superficial sophistication after another, till the primordial headiness of unquestioned authority lay bare on his face. I had committed the unpardonable crime of deserting the clan and moving elsewhere. I was told that had I proved unwavering in my allegiance, I could
have been the Last Man Standing in Amsterdam.

 Be it mirroring the Wild West or the ethnic inhabitants of the Polynesian Islands, rule of the tribal lord is very rampant. 

Totalitarianism and tribalism indeed go hand in hand.

Plato's Idea of a Corporation?  I would go further and state that many of the Corporate policies, sometimes documented and more often unwritten, are strikingly similar to Plato's idea of a Republic. 

It is a good place to pause and dampen the jubilant exclamations that may emanate from the corpo-philic at the invocation of the name of an intellectual giant and his seminal work. In lines of the pop-management-philosophical lines of Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Confucian Analects, Plato's Republic should
in no way be mistaken as a guideline for ideal management. Compiled largely as a reaction to the major democratic changes of his times, it is, in more ways than one, a colossal propaganda for totalitarianism. Plato, according to respected schools of thought, was plagued by the strain of democracy and hankered after the bygone days of tribal certainty and steadiness of life.

Photo: Chiranthan

One of the many recommendations of the great Greek thinker that has become unmistakably mirrored in the industry is to destroy family values, lest it interfere with the duties to the state.

How many times have we come across neglected spouses and children, and sacrificed social occasions at the altar of deadlines and escalations? And how often have we witnessed the employees honoured as the
model worker – another term shockingly lifted from Maoist China – for carrying out such sacrifices, thus creating a company culture and competition in familial negligence? Family is a threat which has to be innovatively converted into opportunity. And one way out is for the word to be identified with the greater
company circle, as discussed in the earlier section.

One of the favoured reuses of a Plato masterpiece of manipulation in the corporate world is in the distinction between the individual and the team player. This is where we witness the great mind indulging in subtle artifice with words.

Plato defined the totalitarian morality by linking good with whatever is good for the state. Translated into the jargon of modern day corporations it is equivalent to value-adds or best practices which benefit the

 While this itself is not remotely as axiomatic as he made it sound, his genius was evident when he delicately denounced individualistic advancements by equating them with egoism while glorifying collaborative thought as altruism.  Thus to him, whatever is carried out for the benefit of the whole is by definition good, whereas individual goal is selfish and therefore harmful. Whoever cannot sacrifice himself and his desires for the benefit of the bigger picture is undesirable.

Even in an era that supposedly thrives on innovation, this particular concept is almost axiomatic to the archetypical organisation. Radical thinking almost never makes it through the layers and layers of
bureaucratic approvals. There is an inherent compulsion to rein in individualistic thought, and if that is not possible, to obtain Intellectual Property Rights for the same. More often than not, free thinking individuals are branded with attitude problem, while the herd that follows the narrow path
of convention are hailed as team players. Thought-leadership, save a few exceptions, constitutes canned stale ideas packaged in new, glossy containers. 

All this makes sense to the Platonic ideal, where the yielding masses, lubricated by totalitarian morality, can act as the best cogs in the corporate machinery. To promote smooth operation, it is desirable for the nuts and bolts to change positions as rarely as possible. Hence it is made difficult for a normal employee to reach the level of the Philosopher King and his consorts.

Plato also engineered the prototype of the boorish manager – the watchdog defending corporate morality. According to his celebrated discussions, dogs can be ideally bred to keep sheep in order, snarl and attack strangers while being the soul of deference to the master. The people in Plato's ideal state – and therefore in the derived corporate world – are cattle who need skilled herdsman-ship.

Not too long ago did a modern day managerial guru of a major Indian corporation go on record bettering the Platonic benchmark, "Engineers are like vegetables. We can buy and sell them any time we want to." Plato at least dreamt of happy citizens, an unnecessary overhead that corporations can do without. Hence, we find preference for more subdued and stationary plant life.

What Plato’s laws presuppose is what the managements swear by – the organisation can judge the individual, but judgement cannot flow the other way without tipping the hierarchical balance. A fool-proof formula for the higher management to be elevated into god-players. 

The corporation is, therefore, always placed higher than the individual – something which is taken for granted by corporate drones and managers alike, without really waking up to the underlying naked fascism

indicated by the statement. However, such a conclusion is hardly earth shattering. Fascism in its turn is defined as the ideology to organise a nation according to corporatist values.

To drive home the totalitarian authority of the corporation, another Plato tenet becomes a favourite mission statement of corpocracy. Fitting the Republic-an directives into the corpocratic form, it can be
rephrased as: whether they manage by or without law, over willing or unwilling employees, whether they purge the company by laying off or transferring, as long as they proceed according to justice and preserve the organisation and make it better, this form of management must be declared the only one that is

Corporate Totalitarian Justice based on Plato's framework If we are buoyed by the reference to justice, let us take a closer look at the concept according to Plato's ideas. Doing so, we unearth untold wealth of wisdom which in fact powers the corporate value system.

Justice, as outlined in the Republic, is a surprisingly blatant argument against equality and freedom. And if we pause to consider the same concepts in the light of the current day, we find them taken for granted in the social fabric, yet ridiculously defiled under the juggernaut of corporations.

Republic works on the assumption that different individuals are by nature unequal. By corollary, equality for all begets inequality. Hence it makes sense for different privileges, including authority and education, for different classes. And in flourishing rhetoric, this was presented as the just course, because according to the Platonic theory of justice, the sole purpose of citizens is to maintain the stability of the state.

Again, transforming the argument into the totalitarian tenets of the corporation, we discover amazing congruence. Till around the turn of the century, when the obvious benefits of the internet made it absolutely ridiculous, in a lot of organisations web browsing had been the privilege of a chosen few. Till today, performance appraisals are carried out with preference for those who indulge in just that amount of self development that is optimal for the role he plays in the organisation. The desire to cut and trim individuals down to the size of the cogs which facilitate operations is evident in every policy and  procedure.

Additionally, there is the almost esoteric, mythical knowledge that remains in the highest echelons of the organisation, passed down to the favourites of the demi-gods on a strictly need to know basis. The tree of knowledge has always brought about the downfall of the mortal man who has not known better than to step into the territory of the God.

Transforming Plato’s Republic into the organisation, rules are designed to bring about welfare of the company, fitting the employees into one unit, by persuasion or force. Plato’s idea of justice was synonymous to whatever was best for the state – which in corporate terms can be rephrased as,
whatever suits the purpose of the organisation.

Finally, we need to focus on how the life-blood, the prana, the sustaining chi of corporations owe its origin to the genius of Plato. We are referring to the global phenomenon of celebrated corporate bullshit.

If one is unfortunate enough to delve deep into colossal crap that passes for senior management propaganda, it becomes obvious that following the footsteps of the great Greek authoritarian, organisations too use the technique of dramatic devices, lulling the critical faculties of the employees
into stupor, even as they propagate their selfish agenda while ostensibly promoting justice for all. It is the ancient use of oratory to divert attention from the intellectual poverty of propagated piece of fluff.

Deception Plato promotes deception as a favoured tool of the leader. In his vision, the philosopher king is a healer of the society – in our case the organisation. Just like the medical man, he is armed with the license to lie. At the same time, similar ruse, if detected in people not in the position of leaders, is a punishable offence. 

The corporate equivalents of totalitarian deception principles must be self evident. When it comes to fabrication on the part of senior management, the binding thread dangles clearly.

To cap it all, Plato pronounces three laws of deception that redefine the concept of truth – the echo of which reverberate till this day inside meeting rooms and corporate cubicles.

 One – Installation of rites and gods is the privilege of the great thinker. Down the ages, the adjective has frayed and decayed to fit the implied grandeur into the crammed corporate quarters. But when applied to
designation rather than faculties of reason, the manifesto rings as true as ever.

Two – Authority must suppress all doubts about any part of the politico-religious dogma. He advocates severest punishment for even honest, honourable people if their opinions concerning the (demi)gods vary from that of the state. Not recanting or repeating the offense is death – which can be translated variously into the termination, sack or the pink slip.

And finally the pivotal third – Anything that serves the interest of the authority is the truth. There is no other criterion. A remarkable sentence that strips truth of the virtue of universal unconditionality. It is in this defining clause that we find corporate organisations to be eerily similar to totalitarian regimes.

Lies, said the great philosopher, are necessary to carry the herd to its perfection. Plato may have been misguided in his pronouncements, but he did retain a modicum of Socratic ethics. Hence, he openly admitted that he was lying. Corporate leaders, sadly, remain blissfully ignorant of such and
other principles. Not too many of them are aware of the teachings of either Plato or Socrates anyway. These lessons have lived on, in the tribal tradition of comfort feel, as defence mechanism in the face of growing openness.

Why do Leaders Suck How is it that we always find ourselves in this kind of an unavoidable rut when we work for a big organisation? Why do corporations unwaveringly and systematically suck?

One of the reasons is the close circle of leadership and succession. The authoritarian will generally select those who obey, who believe in his lies or pretend to do so, and who respond favourably to his influence.
And, in doing so, he is almost bound to select mediocrities. He invariably excludes those who revolt, resist or doubt his influence. Never can totalitarian authority admit the intellectually courageous.

Authorities will claim to, and remain convinced of their ability to, detect initiative, proactiveness and innovation in people, but what they are quick to notice is the tendency of questioning authority and nothing more. 

Demands of corporate hierarchy enhance this vice. Those who dare to think for themselves are generally court-martialled and eliminated through charges of attitude problem and insubordination. Those who are good in following are seldom ones to be the harbingers of positive reform. The Man Friday of a party leader is seldom a capable successor. Institutional identification of leaders and emerging superstars are actually excellent for the purpose of arresting change and increasing the rule of the incompetent. An excellent process of filtering out actual innovation and ability to think for oneself.

Additionally there is the perennial problem of utopian engineering – that of the dictator’s successor. Even a true visionary cannot ensure that all his visions are implemented by his circle of command and his
successor. This is inevitable, since large numbers by definition imply mediocrity.

What lies ahead?  In the guise of consulting companies, we find the modern day equivalents of Plato’s political artist. Those jargon-chanting tribal priests who study the organisation and trim it down through rationalising recommendations in the alleged quest of guiding the company to its ideal performing form. Which is one more way of selling crap, selling short term benefits and ROIs packaged in sparkling jargon.
However, the livelihoods of human beings cannot be tampered with for the sake of artistically beautiful bullshit. One cannot clamour like Archimedes for a place to stand outside the world in order to lever it away to a better position. The organisational engineer has to do his bit by standing shoulder to
shoulder with the people who are the cogs that run the profit making machinery. 

Plato demanded rule of the wise or sophocracy. With the passage of time, it has degenerated into idiocracy or corpocracy. According to Immanuel Kant the king becoming philosopher or the philosopher king is not likely to happen, nor would it be desirable, since the possession of power invariably debases the free judgement of reason.

Karl Popper, the most brutal of all critics of Plato’s totalitarian arguments, goes a step further. He is candid in his statement that behind the sovereignty of the philosopher king lies naked quest for power, Plato’s own personal ambitions. The age old sham of professing love for freedom while nursing own dreams of power plays on in the so called visionary leadership of today’s corporate world.. .

 At the end of the day, corpocracy is nothing but totalitarian power. All power corrupts and absolute power is devastating in its corruption. This is a natural law that outlasts the make believe normative laws preached by the high priests of totalitarian propaganda. And, somehow, the insignificant cogs need to roll on without being crushed beyond recognition by the ever expanding corporate vehicle. How then does one survive? 

Not all can afford to get off the moving machinery without leaving means of livelihood in the sinister yet sustaining system. And one cannot change the machinery without getting sucked into the corrupting power - thus ending up resisting change, or arranging a corporate coup - which takes enormous amount of organisation time and energy, most of which can be better used if one does not lack a life.

The only way out of this problem, unfortunate as it is, seems to be to adjust expectations from corpocracy, preparing oneself to withstand the shocks and stutters of the worst possible leadership.

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

About Simon

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Amsterdam, Netherlands