Burden of Command

I once came across an old article printed in a business theory journal form 1965 while gathering materials for a presentation on some hollow, insipid topic like “teambuilding” or whatever. It was for a Management class I was taking as a core requirement for my librarians’ degree. The article was remarkably insightful and charged with Marxist thinking. I doubt people who are employed by business schools still write those sorts of things. The article was written by a man named Fred Katz. It is entitled “Explaining Informal Work Groups in Complex Organizations: The Case for Autonomy in Structure.” Its central thesis is that workers who occupy more subordinate roles within an organization will often have a very narrowly defined set of tasks and responsibilities but that because of their limited affiliation those workers are able to enjoy a greater degree autonomy outside of the work setting. More senior workers, on the other hand, and those who carry out administrative functions continue performing their work roles outside of the work setting due to the difficulty of escaping their relatively high level of affiliation to the organization. The trade off is that senior workers are given power and autonomy within the confines of the organization.

I think Katz was forming his conclusions about cultural autonomy of workers by observing power dynamics that take place in manufacturing. He draws distinctions between “blue-collar” and “white-collar” that labor theorists no longer make. He sees blue-collar employees as being slaves to the machinery of industry only while on the job. Outside of work, they pursue lives that are markedly separate and in many ways antithetical to their responsibilities in the workplace. The white-collar worker, then, is basically always his working self whether at work or at home, pursuing work-like pastimes in his leisure hours. For a management theorist I think he is presuming a lot about what people do outside of work. It is probably inaccurate to equate class behavior with one’s professional role. The two don’t always correlate. Nonetheless, one can admit that as the primary arena of our lives wherein we are exposed to naked expressions of power and subjected to the pressures of obedience, the workplace and our status within it has direct consequence on our behavior and feelings about ourselves.

Theodor Adorno confirms with his examination of the “Not half hungry” aphorism in Minima Moralia:

“Leisure, even pride and arrogance, have given the language of the upper classes a certain independence and self-discipline. It is thus brought into opposition to its own social sphere. It turns against the masters, who misuse it to command, by seeking to command them, and refuses to serve their interests.” (65)

I interpret this to mean that the performance of authority subordinates one to the role of figure of authority, and thus to the very same system of authority one employs against others. Possession and application of power does not make one free. Rather, he who is furnished power becomes a slave of that power. Autonomy is only attained by those who successfully evade power, whether it mean eluding those who wield it or refusing it when it is conferred to you.

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