Friday, February 11, 2011

On being a force for goods

Wall Street Journal:

Companies may not want to be lapdogs to dictators. But they also don't want to tick off their chief customer. It's a balancing act, one that inevitably leads to a policy of corporate discretion: Best to stay off the radar screen.

Reflecting on Mr. Ghonim's extracurricular activities, an executive at one big U.S. manufacturer operating abroad was adamant: "Anything that affects the brand -- we hate that," he said. "It wouldn't be allowed." Mr. Ghonim can be admired for his considerable contribution to civil liberties in Egypt, but also shunned as too great a liability to business.

Let's put it this way: You might not believe in dictatorship, but if your employer is "cool" with it because they perceive some benefit, and you spend most of your waking hours doing what they say; then for all practical purposes you are "cool" with it too, at least most of the time.

What I would ask you to do at this point is to substitute for "dictatorship" any other social malady of your choosing -- pollution, poverty, war, animal suffering -- and see whether you are any better positioned to respond as you might like; taking into account this prior obligation that forms the basis of your daily life!

So it is said that all that evil needs to thrive is for good people to do nothing. I say: All that is required for good people to do nothing is to spend their lives working for people whose fortune is made by doing the same!


Charles F. Oxtrot said...

I say, I agree with what you say.

Jen Daisybee said...

I also agree with what you say. I am not cool with many things that my country's government is cool with. I just don't have the resources to go live somewhere else.
By the way, I really like your blog!

Richard said...

Hello. I also appreciate the idea that people should be conscious of how and when they are supporting social ills via their economic role in society. But the problem should not be oversimplified. Some people's choices are much more limited than others', and if, say, you've been poor and unemployed for a while, then you are in a very different situation from a more affluent/class-privileged person who can see getting a wage job as a high-minded "career choice" rather than as something/anything that you just have to take (after looking for a long time) in order to keep a roof over your head.

And I feel that you are just not as much of a participant in the company's bad deeds if you are not [as] actively involved in designing or executing those deeds. So, if you are typing or proofreading (which I have done) or cleaning the company bathroom, it is just not the same as if you are a lawyer helping to make the company's bad deals or you're doing active money-making consulting on Wall St or if, say, you have a high creative role in advertising, actually helping to make up all the lies that are told.

We all have to contribute to the system anyway, if we are to earn wages. Looking at this issue historically, what about workers on the old industrial assembly lines? What about, say, people who worked on the assembly line at Chrysler while the company heads were supporting Nazis? Do you blame the assembly line workers? Actually, you should support them in their class struggle vs. the company heads who are the ones supporting the Nazis...

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

With all due respect to Richard, I tire of people telling others about the vague, unidentified people who "have no other choice."

Everyone has choices, everywhere, every waking moment.

If someone says her only choice is to write Ad Copy for a Mad Ave ad firm, she's obviously lying.

If someone says his only choice is to work at a sawmill, he's obviously lying.

I've heard people say, "well people who choose to spend $50 at McDonalds instead of $10 on groceries and 2 hours cooking, they don't have any other choice, their lives are too hectic."

Such bullshit.

Empathizing with the oppressed and downtrodden should NEVER include making excuses which are plainly illogical, counterfactual, or just a result of misplaced empathies (which usually are feigned, by someone who is comfortably middle-class or higher).

Richard S. said...


I'm sorry if I seem to have left you with the wrong image of myself. I wouldn't call myself middle class or higher. I have had a somewhat more privileged education than many (at least there was college - though that doesn't seem to count for much these days), but life's been quite a struggle for me economically, and I never was able to draw upon some family wealth.

I myself have been unemployed for quite a while, and when I wrote my prior comment, I was thinking a lot about myself. I have had a bunch of problems dealing with health because of lack of coverage (since I live in the great U.S.), housing has been a big problem on and off for a while, and the UE just ran out. And I didn't grow up in some affluent suburb; I'm a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in The Bronx.

I left a job some years ago in part because I didn't like what the company was doing. But I realized that was a big mistake. I'm not going to go into what happened afterwards, but I've realized the role that you play in the company, or what the job demands of you, makes a big difference in terms of your participation in that company's deeds, and that you should consider that before making decisions that might have unnecessary consequences for you.

When I speak of lack of choice, I speak about my own condition. If you think I'm making excuses for myself, OK, though I admit I'm not really interested in arguing about that. But don't say I'm making misguided excuses for others. My politics come from a reflection of my own condition as much as anyone else's, and I believe that any kind of real change or revolution must come mostly from people reflecting and acting upon their own condition.

What I was ultimately trying to get at (which I perhaps should have gotten at faster) is that one's economic role - that is, one's class (in the true economic or political-economic sense, not the misguided cultural notions of "class" that have been exploited so much in U.S. politics) - should be considered at least as much as one's more abstract (so I feel) position as an employee (among many different kinds of employees) or a citizen of a country (among many different kinds of "citizens"). This is a notion that was once more clear to more people (or at least it seems that way to me, looking at history), and it's something that I feel we need to get back to.

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

We may be talking about two different things, then. I was talking about a general theme of "no choice."

I don't want to take you to task personally, but I would suggest this: as long as you breathe, you have a choice.

At what level do you examine choice, though?

I live in the USA, a fascist and authoritarian society. I would prefer to live in a stateless nation, anarchic, free-for-all. That I would indeed -- as I am relatively young, fit, able to defend myself, know how to live off the land, do not fear wildlife no matter how ferocious, and generally know how to live in the most dire and bare circumstances. Frankly, I'd like to be top of the food chain, adaptation-wise, among my fellow humans in America. There aren't many of us who have this ability, most are too connected to the industrial umbilicus.

Nonetheless I can't choose to have an anarchic society.

But I can choose how I operate within the authoritarian fascist American society.

I can use barter instead of coin.

I can sell something to someone this year and next year (next tax year) receive something in exchange, and not declare any of it because I consider it own business, my own interests, nothing to do with Mother's Brother Samuel, who did nothing to enable the exchange and has no interest in forcing me to decide among gift, barter or sale for value.

I can refuse to join a party.

I can refuse to work for people whose ethics I despise, whose workplace is too "professional."

I can refuse to earn enough income for Uncle Sam to tax.

I can ignore Corporate American "news" etc.

I can conduct my life essentially without any interaction with Uncle Sam.

But I'll still be unable to choose to live in an Anarchist system, because the existing system already has declared its methods and shown its practice.