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Anyone Remember the Organization Man?
February 4, 2014 - 3:48am

“What is college after capitalism kills the Organization Man?” -- Tressie McMillan Cottom

Does anyone remember The Organization Man?

The name is the title of a book by William Whyte.  It was a bestseller in 1950’s America, based on a sociological gloss of 1950’s America.  Whyte was a reporter for Fortune magazine who did an extensive profile on the type of man -- and in context, the gendered pronoun is appropriate -- who thrived in the massive corporations of the postwar U.S.  It’s very much of a piece with The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and The Lonely Crowd. 

Although remembered -- if at all -- as sort of blinkered, there’s a dry wit in Whyte’s piece. (The appendix, “How to Cheat at Personality Tests,” is a minor classic.) In retrospect, it captured a brief moment in the American economy in which growth was so fast that major corporations gained some relative autonomy from the previously harsh winds of the marketplace. As anyone who went to a college full of rich kids can tell you, combine insularity, entitlement, and economic impunity, and you get a setting in which weird cultural obsessions are given free rein.  If a particular company decides that all sales reps’ ties shall be blue, then blue they shall be.  The company would be profitable either way, and stockholders hadn’t yet concentrated their power in mutual funds, so the “separation of ownership from control” that Berle and Means first diagnosed in the 1930’s led to a separation of the market from the corporation during the postwar boom.  Corporations could become “total institutions,” enforcing arbitrary conformity.  The threat of abundance -- seriously, I am not making this up -- was that it would unhinge culture from necessity, and thereby from limits.  (David Riesman, one of the most astute observers of his time, entitled his mid-1960’s collection of essays Abundance for What? Hard to imagine now, but very smart people saw that as the major cultural issue of the time.)

It’s a tough mindset to reconstruct, from this vantage point, but it reflected something real. The postwar economic boom was mighty, and if you were in the right place at the right time, you had a tailwind of historic proportions.  Consumer spending was rising quickly enough that producers didn’t worry much about competition, and stockholders were scattered enough that they didn’t matter much.  By default, power fell to managers.  (J.K. Galbraith assured us that unions would emerge as “countervailing forces,” so it would all be okay.)  “Managerialism” was premised on the idea that abundance was the new normal, and that well-run companies were so far beyond economic desperation that they could, and would, engage in weird bonding exercises in which promotions would be based on who drank with whom.  Among white male social thinkers of the time, “conformism” was the great fear. 

To be fair, the obsession with “conformism” or “massification” was, in part, a response to the previous few decades, which had featured the rapid development of Soviet communism, German fascism, and the unprecedented expansion of the military.  All of those featured command-and-control brutality at previously unimaginable scale.  The anxiety about the individual getting squashed by Big Brother came from somewhere.

Looking back, it’s easy to spot the racial and sexual privilege from which those analyses were written. The Organization Man wasn’t black, or female, or discernibly gay.  In other words, the domestic competition he faced was severely limited.   And the market in which Whyte’s book made sense was made possible by the sheer lack of competitors internationally.  Europe and Japan were recovering from war damage; the Soviets had that and the shackles of a planned economy; China was agrarian and going communist.  Those conditions lasted long enough that some people came to think of them as normal and natural, though they were neither.

Seen from a distance, the companies that hired Organization Men resembled the military. They were top-down, command-and-control, and powerful. They had clear ranks, and the route to success involved competing for and winning promotions. 

The halcyon days of American higher education were in the later years of the Organization Man.  Young men of ambition needed degrees, and the G.I. Bill paid for them. Degrees offered legible rank, along with assurance of both skill and some level of cultural fit. 

In 2014, the world looks vastly different.  In many ways, it’s better.  Racism and sexism aren’t gone, by any stretch, but they’ve subsided in concrete ways: for example, now it’s not weird for men to have female bosses.  The globalization that threatens certain kinds of mid-century middle-class jobs also reflects the basic fact that billions of people aren’t sentenced to labor camps for bad-mouthing the Chairman anymore.  The kind of confident sexism for which the CU-Boulder philosophy department has been nationally shamed was once -- and not all that long ago -- utterly normal.  It still exists, but now it’s considered aberrant.  That’s a form of progress, however imperfect. 

Higher education has adapted well to some of those changes. The revolt against “conformism” in the late 60’s was strong on college campuses, and most campuses still have some who fondly recall those days (and others who keep trying to recreate them). Controversies around “coeducation” look quaint at this point; for some time now, more women have been enrolled in college than men. 

But other changes have been tougher. The economic tailwinds of the postwar era have subsided enough that companies can’t hold themselves above the marketplace anymore.  (Private-sector unions have largely withered because the managers from whom they used to wrest concessions no longer have the discretion to concede.)  Power has shifted from the Organization Men to the marketplace.  (There are actually two marketplaces: consumers and stockholders.  Stockholders wield much greater power through aggregation in mutual funds, and consumers wield greater power, too.  Workers wield much less.) The marketplace doesn’t always care about rank or credentials the way that military-style organizations did.  It wants what it wants, when it wants it, at the price it wants it.  It’s possible to read “disintermediation” as the devaluing of proxy measures, whether those proxy measures are belonging to the right church, driving the right car, or having the right degree.  At this point, we value the “entrepreneur” more than the Organization Man.  Entrepreneurs have their own cultural codes -- extreme confidence, wireless microphones, a certain jumpiness -- but they don’t look at rank or degrees the same way.  And whatever else they represent, they are not about “massification” at all.  They are about the exceptional.  The masses are left to their own devices.

It’s telling, I think, that the fields in which community college still have the most success tend to be the fields with the most military-style organization: nursing, criminal justice, public education.  Those fields are all explicit in their ranking schemes, and degrees still carry the old weight.  But in the private economy, it’s harder for new grads to get footholds.  I don’t think it’s because the grads are worse, though some like to make that argument.  I think it’s because the economy has changed.  Much of that is beyond our control as educators, but it’s reasonable to take a fresh look at whether a system built to fill the needs of stable, insulated corporations still makes sense in an era of much faster change.

What is college after capitalism killed the Organization Man? I don’t know entirely, but it’s absolutely the right question.

 

 

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