My musings on different political topics relevant to America today.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Iron Cage

Recently President Obama proposed a "grand bargain" to Republicans.  He proposed a corporate tax in return for infrastructure and education spending.   In the hyperpartisan atmosphere in congress of course it fell through.  However what struck me most was how Republicans opposed it because it would "hurt small businesses."  I will not go into the details of the argument, but what it pointed out to me most was the disconnected most Americans feel.  We are long past the age of small businesses, now large corporations rule supreme.  Americans long for the age when everything was smaller scale, from businesses, to community, to agriculture, to industry, to politics.  Yet why do Americans long for this?  Why are Americans so opposed to the giganticism that seems to be taking over every area of life? 

I believe the reason why lies behind Sociologist's Max Weber's "Iron Cage" theory.  Basically the theory proposes that in large bureaucratic organizations where tasks are more or less automated and systematized, the workers will feel estranged from their tasks and will be powerless to improve them.  In Weber's words:

"Rational calculation . . . reduces every worker to a cog in this bureaucratic machine and, seeing himself in this light, he will merely ask how to transform himself… to a bigger cog… The passion for bureaucratization at this meeting drives us to despair."

The increasing scope of various enterprises from churches to companies inevitably means that more people will have less of a say in their organizations, and that more power will be concentrated in the hands of a few.  I have made a simple illustration below to explain my point.

Small businesses:              Manager Owner 
                                 employee            employee

Larger business:                    Owner
                           manager                    manager
             employee    employee     employee    employee

The point of the pyramid scheme above is to show the degree of separation between those who make the decisions and those who work underneath.  In the hypothetical small business above, the employees can directly communicate to the owner, who calls all the shots.  Meanwhile there is a degree of separation in the larger business.  The employees have to go through the managers first.  

Now imagine this magnified a thousand fold and you will have what many large businesses are like.  The "cogs" at the bottom, have almost no say.  Meanwhile, power is more concentrated and less dispersed than it used to be.  While in the past when most businesses were smaller scale operations, there were more people making the decisions, dispersing power.  As companies continue to consolidate and increase in scope, a smaller and smaller segment of the population will hold a larger and larger proportion of power.

Its a hard theory to grasp but it explains a lot of the animosity and frustration we have in popular culture towards big business and the federal government.  A society where local politics and small businesses rule the land will inevitably be a more democratic society because power is more dispersed.  More people are making the decisions, and the people making the decisions are more intimately connected towards the people their decisions affect.  If the CEO of a fortune 500 company lays off thousands of his workers, most likely he knows none of them.  Meanwhile, the owner a small restaurant likely knows everyone who works under him on a personal level.  The more intimate connection will make him more likely to think twice before laying someone off.    

The unfortunate thing is that the inevitably result of our socio/economic/political system has been the increasing scale and giganticism of everything.  Instead of going to Joe's diner, we go to Mcdonalds.  While explaining exactly why this has been the result is difficult and beyond the scope of this article, its clearly happening nonetheless.  

I have talked about this in a very academic fashion so far, so to better relate it to everyone out there I will give an example.  Joe is a worker at a company with a net worth in the billions.  He is a tiny "cog" in the behemoth, but he values his work and wishes to do well, thinking maybe he can move up in the company.  However he notices that a certain process is inefficient and needs to be streamlined.  He mentions it to his manager and goes back to his work.  He continues to make a fuss, but ultimately his idea goes nowhere.  He never hears back about it, and eventually he settles into defeatism and just does his job.  Instead of suggesting improvements that will actually make a difference, now he settles for doing things that will create the impression he is a hard worker, like staying late, working through lunch, and being a yes-man for his boss.  

While some organizations are better than others, its inevitable that systemization and specialization of tasks that accompany bureaucratization create an entangled web of functionality.  Changing your tasks affect several around you, meaning that changing one simple process could mean that the whole system would have to be overhauled to implement it.  Say you file application forms, and you notice the applications are unnecessarily long.  You suggest cutting out some parts and simplifying the language.  However since the form goes to several different departments, such a simple improvement would require the approval and coordination of several departments to implement.  The seeming low scale importance of the reform, along with the scale of the task, would probably result in this proposal being ignored, not to mention office politics.  

In essence our collective voices feel weaker and weaker.  The smaller organizations that provided channels for involvement and decision making are disappearing, resulting in the estrangement of Americans nationwide from the power wielding institutions.  Americans long for the day of small businesses because unconsciously they are demanding more power over their own lives.  Americans are sick of feeling helpless, and cry out for empowerment.  Both parties manipulate this longing for votes, without almost ever delivering on the promise.  The reforms that government has passed have either empowered big business or big government, while largely doing almost nothing to empower the individual.  Americans are foregoing involvement in the decision making process, whether of their employer, or of their government, or of their church, because they feel like their voice has no say.  Implicitly we are saying that trying to change the world, yet alone our cubicle, is pointless.  We have no say anyway, the elites now decide for us.  Welcome to the Iron Cage.  

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