Workplace Brutality Unmasked

(Review of: Nothing Personal, Just Business: A Guided Journey into Organizational Darkness, by Howard F. Stein, Ph.D., Quorum Books)

In a series of books, psychoanalytic anthropologist Howard F. Stein intensively studied the psychodynamics of the modern workplace, primarily huge corporate organizations.  He began this in-depth, on-the-site research back in the Nineties, when big corporations, as a profit-enhancing strategy in itself, began to impose massive “downsizing” and “RIFs” (reduction in force) on hundreds of thousands of Americans.  At first controversial, this frequent practice soon became “normalized” —  an accompaniment to the epidemic of mergers-and-acquisitions (with entire dismantling and selling off of company divisions).  Then came “offshoring” of tens-of-thousands of jobs, and–perhaps even worse–the massive de-skilling (obsolescence) still ongoing via rapid automation.

Stein had earlier written about how dehumanizing disposability in the workplace was pervasively hidden by euphemisms such as “redundancy.”  Of course, we are by now habituated to such air-brushing of very ugly assaults on human dignity (“collateral damage,” the “complications” that led to a surgical patient’s death, “enhanced interrogation,” and on and on).  A long time ago, Orwell warned that truth could be effaced by cosmetic euphemism–or worse, by the brazen “Big Lie” (successfully practiced by such malefactors as Hitler, Bush, and Trump).  After all, the Gestapo, in rounding up Jews and others, was merely placing them in “protective custody”!

Stein questions the very sanity of such corporate decisions, based in a rationalist-utilitarian ideology which is in itself a kind of obsessional “religion” (“the Sacred Shrine of the Bottom Line”).  The cultish atmosphere of the organization is not an exaggeration: employees are relentlessly indoctrinated, through fear and subtle intimidation (“no one is indispensable”), into total identification with, and loyalty to, the company.  Such loyalty is, of course, not reciprocated; in a single day, a longtime, hardworking “team member” can be disappeared,  a horrifying experience which Stein metaphorically likens to the Holocaust.  “I have come to the conclusion,” he writes, “that the ultimate promise of this new wage-serfdom is the freedom to disappear after being worked to the hilt” (p. 155).  Here is one such episode, as recounted by one of Stein’s interviewees:

At 9:00 A.M., Friday, security guards showed up all over the plant at the offices and workstations of people who were going to be fired.  They escorted them to the big auditorium… They didn’t even tell them why they had to go… After they walked them in, they left and locked the doors behind them.  [The CEO] told them not to take it personally, and thanked them for their service to the company.  The security police escorted them down…to receive their last paycheck [and then] walked them to their cars (p. 55).

The “disappeared” were immediately “forgotten”; it was certainly unwise to ask too many questions about what happened to them.  The survivors, chastened by this sudden, disturbing event, were fear-driven to work even harder.  To “normalize” such brutality, the discharged were gradually disparaged, scapegoated by subtle insinuations.  The massive firing came to be rationalized, via psychological projection of negative qualities onto the now-disappeared victims, as a kind of ritual sacrifice, a “cleansing” and purifying for a newer start.  The discarded quickly became forgotten “non-persons.”

Stein makes reference to Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil” — in this case, how those who, under the CEO’s orders, merely carry out such draconian measures as part of their job description.  But what of the evil–and Stein, as moral-humanist, substitutes no euphemism–that continues in the hierarchical relations in the organization?

Many managers become managers, not only for the increased salary and challenge, but also to act-out their unresolved aggressions on the subordinates now firmly under their control.  Some, humiliated or demeaned as children, now find an inverted role, which psychoanalysts term the “identification-with-the-aggressor.”  Power vs. humiliating submission:

It finds expression in humiliation, goading, bullying, condescension, euphemism, double-talk, mystification, set-ups to fail, the piling on of demands and expectations, the insistence that the other person is never quite good enough (p. xxi).

I can’t help being reminded of the “psychoanalyst” [sic] Bruno Bettelheim, who, having arranged removal from a brief detention in a concentration camp, came to the U.S. and, marketing exaggerated Freudian credentials (he was really an art historian), was appointed director of the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School for disturbed children (autistic? delinquent? merely rebels?).  For decades, while writing bestselling books, this famed “child psychologist” terrorized, mocked, and sometimes beat the children under his domination (see Richard Pollak’s book The Creation of Dr. B).

That power-over-others, if unchecked, can often lead to sadism is exhaustively documented by the historical record of authoritarian regimes and organizations.  (See, as a notable source, The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus.)

Stein, in his series of books on this subject, brilliantly unmasks the brutality and cruelty exhibited in modern corporations, but denied and rationalized by observers on the scene as merely “business as usual.”

Intellectual historian and psychoanalytic anthropologist, William Manson (Ph.D., Columbia) has published numerous scholarly books and papers, and is a longtime contributor to Dissident Voice. Read other articles by William.