Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Little Study in Anarchy

A short but violent storm hit here yesterday, and while I was largely unaware of it in my dark little cubicle, it wreaked a bit of carnage outside. On the way home from work, I came to a very busy intersection of two major roads where the traffic lights had very recently gone out and there was not yet an officer on the scene to impose order. Behind my anxiety and eager desire to get home, I found the situation interesting on a conceptual level. What would happen, I was curious to know, in the absence of some kind of arbitration of order, without the presence of law? Last year an acquaintance of mine tried at great lengths to convince me that any kind of prescriptive law or governing body was by its very nature repressive and restrictive and that the only truly free and happy society would be found through anarchy. In the absence of these repressive orders, he argued, there would not be violent chaos but some kind of spontaneous and natural order that needed no enforcement by some kind of higher power. I disagreed with him completely, much to his frustration and mine.

I know my traffic light situation was a weak comparison to an entire society bereft of laws, but it was a chance to see how people would behave in a suddenly chaotic situation. There had already been a minor accident, which I assume happened before anybody even noticed the lights had gone out, but it had been moved out of the way. Long lines of cars streamed out of all four exits of the intersection, and for a moment there was brief confusion. Then, I am pretty surprised to say, a kind of spontaneous order did indeed develop. There was some kind of mass agreement between most of the cars to behave as if the light was still working. One direction went and, after a while, came to a gradual stop and then the other direction was allowed to go. It was a little bumpy, and people were obviously nervous, but the system seemed to be working. I was impressed.

But then there was the jerk in the SUV. You know this guy. He’s the one with the worldview so narrow that he can’t see past his own interests and desires, and has no concept of the greater good. He’s the one who sees other people only as obstacles, and every situation only as a competition. This philosophy is rampant in our country. I myself know whole families raised in this belief. Though clearly some kind of tentative order had been established and it was not his turn to cross, SUV guy decided that all that really mattered was that he had the bigger vehicle and the guts to really press the gas, and that all of us timid cooperators would have no choice but to give way. This would be bad enough except that a large number of other cars, inspired by the SUV’s bold action, decided to throw out all caution and fight for themselves. The system pretty much broke down completely leaving one car, which had pulled into the intersection during the appropriate time to turn left, stranded in the middle. And since you’re going to ask – yes, that car was mine.

This was a good example of why I don’t think a lawless anarchist paradise is actually possible, as nice as it may sound sometimes. Sure, MOST people would, left to their own devices, probably be more or less decent and rational, and treat each other more or less with respect and courtesy. But the problem is, and always has been, the SUV guys among us who see in the absence of law only opportunity for them to “win” and to dominate. It's generalizing and an oversimplification, but its these guys, and those who follow them, who make all the complicated, detailed, circuitous, and unorganized laws our Congress has passed in the last couple hundreds years necessary. I know it kind of ruins my cool intellectual anti-government Marxist image, but I am not, nor have I ever been, an anarchist. The rule of law, in my book, is the lesser of two evils.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Matt Gets a Job (with a wry and extremely critical attitude)

One grows accustomed to all surroundings, of course, but on the first day my fresh eye was drawn to the foreign, the strange, the slightly off – so that by lunchtime on Monday I felt unsettled by the nagging feeling that something was decidedly odd about my new place of temporary employment. It looked nice at first - high ceilings, marble floor in the lobby, ultramodern flourescent lighting, but upon closer inspection there were cracks in the fa├žade. Many of the lights were broken or barely working, and a crack in one wall let in a stream of curious local bugs. Immediately on entry I noticed a sign: “No Smoking – No Weapons.” I was delighted by the implicit assumption behind the sign that these two rules were of equal importance and severity, and then immediately horrified by mental images of a cigarette-smoking gunman running rampant through the building.

Then there were the doors, which are somewhat narrower than average yet very tall, reaching right up to the ceiling. Each one is identical, without any markings or indication of what lies behind them. In the main lobby where we waited for twenty minutes or so on Monday morning I could see three identical doors on the main floor, and looking up the stairway onto the landing of the second floor there were three more. People filed in to work and each entered a separate identical door – it seemed no two people entered the same one. It was totally bizarre. Even more bizarre was that each and every arriving employee had the same reaction once they saw the group of us temps waiting in the lobby. One by one they would enter, stop abruptly as if in surprise, taking us in, and then all at once there would be a flash of recognition and then a brief dismissive laugh. Then they would carry on their way towards one of the creepy doors.

Once in the actual work areas, I faced the usual array of cubicles and desks and bustling employees, as well as motivational posters and billboards on the walls. All corporate offices use their share of slogans and catchphrases, of course, but something felt wrong about this one setting as its goal service that was “beyond tremendous.” It seemed absurd – just the sound of the words coming off the mouth makes me think of something a badly-costumed alien would say in a 1940’s sci-fi movie. (Universal Pictures is proud to present “THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND TREMENDOUS!!!”) And where many companies may recognize employees on a weekly or monthly or even yearly basis, here they had decided to be more efficient and had a single billboard recognizing “The Employee of the Moment.” No picture, just a stapled piece of paper with a name on it in small print.

We were subjected to a morning’s worth of online orientation and instruction. Our instructions about workplace rules were accompanied by pictures of smartly dressed men and women of business illustrating each point. My favorite came along with guidelines on how to deal with spam e-mails. A young woman in an attractive and powerful outfit sat on the granite steps of some imposing institution with her laptop in front of her. She gazed at the screen with disbelief and disgust, her hands thrown into the air in shock and annoyance. “More spam e-mail?” she seemed to be thinking, “It just keeps coming! It’s unjust and wrong and somebody should do something about it!” Her facial features were so exaggerated that she had to be either a model or a musical theater actor. ((NOTE: This underhanded attack at musical theater people is done in lieu of an angry and bitter blog entry I recently wrote and then, upon returning to a normal state of mind, decided not to post.))

I found favor with the powers that be, I guess, for not long after finishing our training another new worker and I were separated from the main group of new employees and taken upstairs. I knew immediately that this was a step up. Not only was I working on the second floor, but the cubicles there had higher walls. As any good American can tell you, the degree of personal privacy and amount of elevation from ground level is directly proportional to the level of importance on the corporate ladder. There we were trained on our primary objective which, I am glad to say, at the end of an entire weeks work at the office I have yet to actually perform due to the IT department taking their sweet time. The woman who trained us had a strong attitude towards the company that could only be described as conspiratorially passive aggressive.

“THEY don’t know that I know how to do this,” she would say, showing us some back door through the bureaucratic red tape, “but we won’t tell THEM, will we?” She looked around, expecting the corporate powers to jump out and catch her in the act.

“Ah-ha!!!” They might say, “We knew somebody was trying to be efficient rather than follow complicated regulation procedures!”

Like most good American corporate workers, she had no clue and didn’t care about the big picture.

“Where do all these things we are typing come from?” you might ask.

“I don’t know,” she’d reply, “They scan them in some where, I think. Maybe a different branch. Maybe upstairs. Wait, do we have an upstairs? Well, they scan them in scanner thingys.”

“And what happens to these forms after we type them?”

“You put them in this box over here and eventually they disappear. As long as you do more each day than you did the day before, you’re set. Nobody will bother you.”

And that is the plight of the worker in corporate culture. You are a piece of the larger machinery, a cog in the works that cannot possibly understand the many complicated parts that make up the whole contraption. So you come in each day, give your eight hours, have endlessly repetitive conversations with your co-workers (“How was your weekend? Where are you going to lunch? Same place as yesterday? That sounds great!”) and generally try to maintain your dignity and humanity in a situation that makes that very difficult. It’s only my first week, but every day around 3:30 in the afternoon or so there comes a moment when I stop my work, turn and look around the room at all the people in their little cubby holes typing furiously. The hair on the back of my neck raises and I get an unfamiliar queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach.

“WHO AM I?” I shout inside my head, “WHAT AM I DOING HERE? AND WHY THE HELL ARE ALL YOU PEOPLE HERE TOO?? WHAT ON EARTH ARE WE DOING???”

But my wallet is a starving and famished lump against my buttock, and in the distance I can hear the sound of my bank account letting out of the screams of its dying agony, so I turn and start to type.