identifying with the enemy

kelley kelley at
Fri May 18 23:37:48 PDT 2001

>I think both Joanna and Gordon, each in their own ways, are on to something
>here. Despite the tenacity of the myth of the self-made man (sic) in the
>U.S., on a sub-concious level most ordinary slobs (sic) sense that they'll
>be stuck in the same lot, slightly better- or slightly worse-off, for the
>rest of their lives. Moreover, in a barely perceptible way, most folks
>recognize that the prospects for radical social change are dim as well
>(perhaps for some of the reasons Gordon specifies). By defending Bill
>Gates' entitlement to fabulous wealth they defend not an "ideal self" they
>realistically _expect_ to become, nor even so much an "ideal self" they
>unrealistically _hope_ to become.

sort of. it is true that there are no alternatives, no consciousness raising in a social movement, etc. but, more importantly, people enjoy the ethos of meritocratic individualism because it provides them with a notion that they control their fate. to acknowledge social structural factors in our lives is very difficult-- we, on this list, frequently fail to sustain such an analysis. condemnation of yoshie's progress was, essentially, very a-structural and blaming.

I believe it's an ethnography about a downsizing midwestern community, _Magic City_ where the author reveals why it is that the unemployed portray themselves as ripping off the welfare/unemployment system. over and over again he comes across people who like to tell everyone that they made most of the decisions that landed them where they are. The author, name escapes, concludes that much of it is a way of portraying themselves as responsible for even the worst situations they find them in. It is, actually, much easier to believe that you are responsible even for a bad fate, than to think that it is something amorphously, opaquely "structural".

the gist of the larger body of research is this: people 'have to'believe in merit--that Bill Gates deserves his fortune--because, if they don't, this dashes every hope they have. While they may recognize that it's not what you know, but who you know, and while they are fully capable of acknowledging that plenty of people make it without much talent, skill, etc., they ultimately cannot accept it. this is true even among people who are quite capable of providing what we would call structural explanations as to why some succeed and some don't. that is, even when people are, for example, laid off and recognize it is the result of factors beyond their control, they tend to gravitate toward individualistic explanations no matter how capable they are of understanding otherwise, to wit:

"Clients, experience a contradiction: They are simultaneously confronted with structural explanations for their fate, explanations that offer absolution, yes they are also offered individualistic explanations that reinscribe self-blame. On the one hand, they learn that the "new rules of work" are the result of structural changes in the economy: advances in technology, new management paradigms, heightened global competition. They are continually exposed to this message at the agency and, more generally,through the business press and popular media. It is also clear that they understand these structural explanations. They are quite capable of articulating them in both private interviews and in group discussions with other clients.

On the other hand, the agency also advocates strategies which encourage managers to view their plight as something which can only be addressed through personal, individual-level transformation. They learn that job security is an attribute of the individual, a property which emerges from relentless self- development. They learn that they must suppress dissatisfaction with the new rules of work if they wish to successfully land a job. Also, they learn that success in their future careers requires that they relinquish their belief in any reciprocity between loyalty and job security.

Every client struggled with these competing messages. Ultimately, they resolved the tension in favor of individualistic explanations and placed the blame for their plight squarely on themselves. Katherine Newman (1989: 75-80) has argued that this propensity to gravitate toward individualistic explanations can be attributed to the ethos of meritocratic individualism. According to this ethos, success does not derive from luck or even education; rather, success is the result of hard work and well-honed talent. The business world is driven by this ethos for it is a world in which one maxim reigns: the individual is entirely responsible for success and, likewise, for his or her failure. Meritorious individuals work hard, invest in education, develop skills, and defer gratification in order to reap greater financial rewards in the long-term. Likewise, successful corporations relentlessly pursue profit through efficiency, investment in technology, and prudent capital investment.

The experience of downsizing challenges meritocratic individualism. As Newman's study shows, managers experience 'a fall from grace,' but they are acutely aware that it is not one of their own making. Hence, they are forced to accept an alternative explanation for their plight which Newman (pp. 64-65) calls "categorical fate." Unemployed managers and professionals must accept a structural explanation which attributes their plight to larger socio-economic forces that are beyond their control: They must learn to see themselves as members of a category that is subject to "victimization." (p. 65).

Clients accept their categorical fate when they concede that middle managers and professional staff have been identified as dysfunctional for corporate competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy. They learn that the high salaries they command as experienced managers and career professionals make them vulnerable to the current vogue of 'slash and burn' lay offs of well-paid managers who are subsequently replaced by lower paid, newly-minted MBAs. And, they are increasingly aware that middle managers and professional staff are being rendered obsolete by a computer revolution that makes it possible to transmit information from Milan to Manhattan with the click of a mouse.

Given their ability to locate their own experiences in terms of larger structural explanations for their fate, one would think that managers and professionals would more easily reject the idea that downsizing is the result of personal failure. However, clients in the transition program were unable to sustain these structural explanations. For instance, when they appealed to explanations of categorical fate they maintained that changes in the workplace could not be identified as good or bad; they just were. Instead of elaborating on the structural explanations for their fate, instead of seeing these as public rather than private problems, clients often blamed themselves. On their view, they had become parasites clinging to an older managerial and professional ethos that rewarded loyalty and protected seniority. This is not particularly surprising, as Newman (p 75) has suggested, for these men and women had become successful managers and to do so required that they vigorously uphold meritocratic individualism:

"(D)isplaced managers oscillate back and forth between seeing themselves as victims of forces larger than themselves and blaming themselves for expulsion from the world of the successful. They are not in rebellion against the business culture in which they have been nurtured. On the contrary, they are its true believers.... Because they have been steeped in the tenets of the managerial world view, they cannot avoid its condemnation of their character or conduct. They prosecute themselves on its behalf, turning criticism against themselves and against one another: victims blaming victims." <...>

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list