‘The world of play is necessarily one of uncertainty and discovery whereas the ambition of the bureaucrat and the systems-builder is to deal only with foregone conclusions.”
WAR AND PEACE IN THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
I have recently been thinking about the “Great Resignation” or “Big Quit” of 2021-22. Younger workers are being picky about the jobs they take, as the economy rebounds from the COVID-19 shutdown. The news reminded me of the 1960’s and 1970’s, another time when the prevailing economic, social, and political system had been found wanting. We entered the workforce seeking work that paid psychic, as well as monetary, rewards. In those heady times, arts, media, and everyday people began to rethink humanity’s overall standing, achievements, goals, and methods. Many of us sought to change all human activities, including the workplace—looking toward what benefitted people over profits. Public opinion condemned us, too, for being unrealistic, lazy and spoiled. In the long run, we were left with the same top-down, corporate, production-distribution structure our forbears started building when the Industrial Revolution took off, two centuries ago. And since doing the same things yields the same results, we have circled back to questioning everything, again.
A quest for more fulfilling work always conflicts with the drive to exploit labor to the fullest, to increase profits by getting fewer workers to do more work for less. This conflict is probably unresolvable, at least to universal satisfaction. From the corporate standpoint, the boss is always right, and all challenges to that rule have historically been ruthlessly opposed. After WWII, hoping to make capitalism more attractive in the world marketplace, some owners, managers, and lower-level supervisors began to experiment, treating employees with respect, dignity, and equality, with significant economic and psychic success. But overall the practice has yet to catch on, in boardrooms, government suites, and palaces worldwide. Bosses are never satisfied with simply having more money than their employees. Wealth must come with power, in order to justify the spirit-crushing hard work and obsessive dedication necessary for getting ahead (they cannot possibly work hard enough to earn their obscene pay, but reaching the top does take everything they have). Most bosses at all levels still run their operations using the same fear-based methods which were devised in the nineteenth century, when serfdom and chattel slavery were still practiced. Under industrial capitalism, workers actually get paid, and can quit. Why, bosses wonder, would they resist? Still, workers resist, when quitting means starvation. Now they are resisting, in large numbers, again, because the prevailing system has stopped working.
In one small example, the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly revealed the top-down management system’s inadequacy for dealing with global emergencies. The President of the United States got on his bully pulpit and told the fearful nation things about the disease that were laughably false, while medical professionals stood behind him, biting their tongues rather than contradict the man in charge. And three-hundred millions allowed that farce to play, having been taught that “this is the way it is.” Throughout history, many more examples can be cited, of rulers getting away with being completely dishonest and insanely wrong—leading to war, inequality, oppression, and impoverishing incompetence—logical conclusions to the orthodoxy that the person on top must be obeyed. Today’s young people, recognizing the growing complexity of society, the need for more input from more people if humanity is to address and solve the complex problems that threaten humanity’s survival, have started to question that dogma.
Since any challenge to the ruling class runs into the unspoken conviction that “God is power,” we can expect sharp disagreements before this workplace conflict is resolved, one way or the other. But in 2022 it has become obvious that ruling plutocrats have been wrong on a scale that threatens the planet. So small has the world grown that we need input from everybody now, to give our society a chance to meet the perils we face collectively. Returning to Donald Trump’s flagrantly incompetent handling of the pandemic, we will never know how many had to sicken and die because people had been trained not to question the Emperor’s sartorial style. Small wonder that young people have had enough of the messes made by people in charge. They have recognized the fallibility of us oldsters, and are demanding a say about how to rescue the imperiled world they will inherit. Who can blame them? In the sixties and seventies, we did the same.
Challenging capitalism seems to challenge our commitment to rugged individualism, which gets credit for America’s famous success. We have always cherished the belief that individuals, left alone to be themselves, allowed to explore, experiment and learn—then to express their discoveries—can build a successful culture. The top-down, corporate structure that pervades our modern society is the exact opposite—a perversion of the ideal we still hold to be truly American. Our present system allows only a few individuals to reign supreme, burying all others, to the detriment of everyone. Young people are trying to reclaim our longstanding reverence for the value of every individual. Shall we stand in their way only to protect a shaky status quo? It seems the time has come when we must choose.
We old, hardened cynics could imitate the elders from bygone days, and laugh derisively at the unrealistic “dreams” of youth, but the fact remains that despite our boasted reverence for the individual, we are currently allowing a few individuals to tyrannize everybody else. Whether or not the rulers actually are the best among us, they make us say they are, and some people believe it. Additionally, throughout our history, America has denied entire populations of individuals the right to participate in society’s affairs, for no better reason than their ancestry. Though millions of Americans remain locked in denial of these facts, the country has in the long run followed a winding course toward more inclusion for more individuals. Due to the liberated intermix of ideas, we have achieved a level of widespread prosperity, influence, and freedom that the world admires, envies, and often tries to imitate. But we have lost our sense of inclusive cooperation, exactly when we need more of it. The need for everyone’s input has changed the nature of work.
The tradition whereby the boss tells workers “Jump,” and they ask “How high?” no longer leads to prosperity, if it ever did. Young people, their instincts not yet buried by life’s struggles, instinctively know better, know that if civilization is to survive, all workers must now practice jumping, to come up with better ways to jump. Because all participants in the modern workplace are valuable contributors, we must play together so that we can work together. Those on top can no longer claim that being responsible for the whole enterprise gives them the prerogative of absolute command. In these times we are all responsible. No superheroes are waiting out there to save mankind from what we have done. I believe we can save the world only by changing it, and we can make the changes only by working together. While campaigning for president, Donald Trump told workers he knew their plight, and promised to be their voice. He probably knew he was lying, but even if he believed his own lies, the fact is that nobody can speak for workers, because now, workers need to speak for themselves. Young workers are doing just that.