The relationships between organizations and individuals are always interesting. The balance of power between an employee and the corporation. Or the duty of a citizen to her country. Where do the responsibilities of the individual end – or do they – and where do they conflict or mesh with the larger entities they belong to.
And then there is the question of loyalty, in both directions, and whether it can be counted on. Will the company stand up for you? Will the employee defect to the competition?
Wikileaks, Bell Pottinger, Wells Fargo, Uber, Facebook, The Justice Department – surely there are many principled individuals who wonder daily whether they should be acting independently or speaking out, or whether they should be supporting the actions, right or wrong, of their corporate employer. And surely there are those everywhere who think that if they have been told to do something, then that is what they should do. Tough choices abound – some creative, many of them moral.
I have no prescription here – you have to manage your own good decisions. We all should be educated and smart enough to figure these things out for ourselves. But are we?
I’ve been reading a book that have made me think on all this. Arthur Koestler’s gripping 1940 novel Darkness at Noon tells of a Russian man – a Party operative – in the time of Stalin. The book dives deep into one man’s firm conviction – held onto even under extreme mental torture by his own comrades – that the individual is not in the least important, but exists merely to serve the plans, arbitrary and misguided as they may be, of the Party.
One of the alternatives he considers is “the denial and suppression of one’s own conviction when there is no prospect of materializing it. As the only moral criterion which we recognize is that of social utility, the public disavowal of one’s conviction in order to remain in the Party’s ranks is obviously more honourable than the quixotism of carrying on a hopeless struggle.
Questions of personal pride; prejudices such as exist elsewhere against certain forms of self-abasement; personal feelings of tiredness, disgust and shame – are to be cut off root and branch…”
But is there return loyalty from the Party? And when the Party needs him to be humiliated and shot for what it sees as its greater good, how will that affect his own attitudes?
Koestler also addresses head on the turmoil that has resulted from major technological innovations: printing, the loom, the steam engine. No internet yet of course – but we can see that disruption first hand. He is clear that it takes not just a few years, but generations, for the effect of these to be assimilated and understood.
“A people’s capacity to govern itself democratically is thus proportionate to the degree of its understanding of the structure and functioning of the whole social body.Now every technical improvement creates a new complication to the economic apparatus, causes the appearance of new factors and combinations, which the masses cannot penetrate for a time. …..until then a democratic form of government is impossible, and the amount of individual freedom which may be accorded is even less….In (these) periods of mental immaturity, only demagogues invoke “the higher judgement of the people.” In such situations the opposition has two alternatives: to seize power by a coup d’etat without being able to count on the support of the masses, or in mute despair …”to die in silence.”
This book is powerful food for thought whether your interest is in your working situation or the larger political situation. It is not prescriptive unless of course you are a Machiavelli disciple and there’s no doubt that his thinking does have important lessons for the unscrupulous.
Quotes above are from Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.