Friday, April 09, 2021

Have Elites Acquired The Technology To Rule Without The Gentry?

michaelochurch  |   In a society like ours, the upper and lower classes have more in common with each other than either has with the middle class. The upper and lower classes “live like animals”, but for very different reasons. The upper classes are empowered to engage their primal, base urges; the lower classes are pummeled with fear on a daily basis and regress to animalism not out of moral paucity but in order to survive. People in the lower class live lives that are consumed entirely by money, because they lack the means of a dignified life. Those in the upper class, likewise, experience a life dominated by money, because maintaining injustices favorable to oneself is hard work. So, even though the motivations are different (fear at the bottom, greed at the top) the lower and upper classes are united in what the middle class perceives as “crass materialism” and, therefore, have strikingly similar cultures. Their lives are run by that thing called “money” toward which the middle classes pretend– and it is very much pretend– to be ambivalent about. The middle classes are sheltered, until the cultural protection, on which their semi-privileged status depends, runs out.

The “middle-est” of the middle class is the Gentry. Here we’re talking about people who dislike pawnbrokers and stock traders alike, who appear to lead a society from the front while its real owners lead it from the shadows. This said, I have my doubts on the matter of there being one, singular Gentry. I would argue that corporate middle management, the clergy, the political establishments of both major U.S. political parties, TED-talk onanist “thought leaders” and media personalities, and even Instagram “influencers” could all be called Gentries; in no obvious or formal way do these groups have much to do with one another. Only in one thing are they united: by the middle 2010s it became clear that both the Elite (bourgeoisie) and Labor (self-aaware proletariat) were fed up with all these Gentries. Starting around 2013, an anti-Gentry hategasm consumed the United States, and as a member of said (former) Gentry I can’t say we didn’t deserve it.

Technology, I believe, is a major cause of this. Silicon Valley began as a 1970s Gentry paradise; by 2010, it had become a monument to Elite excess, arrogance, and malefaction. Modern technology has given today’s employers an oppressive power the Stasi and KGB only dreamt of. The American Gentry was a PR wing for capitalism when it needed to win hearts and minds; but with today’s technological weaponry, the rich no longer see a need to be well-liked by those they rule.

For a concrete example, compare the “old style” bureaucratic, paperwork corporation of the midcentury and the “new style” technological one, in which workers are tracked, often unawares, down to minutes. The old-style companies were hierarchical and feudalistic but, by giving middle managers the ability to protect their underlings, ran on a certain sense of reciprocated loyalty– a social contract, if you will– that no longer exists. The worker agreed not to undermine, humiliate, or sabotage his manager; the manager, in turn, agreed to represent the worker as an asset to the company even when said worker had a below-average year. All you had to do in the old-style company was be liked (or, at least, not be despised) by your boss. If your boss liked you, you got promoted. If your boss hated you, you got fired. If you were anywhere from about 3.00 to 6.99 on his emotional spectrum, you moved diagonally or laterally, your boss repping you as a 6.75/10 “in search of a better fit” so you moved along quickly and peaceably. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it worked better than what came afterward.

I’ve worked in the software industry long enough to know that software engineers are the most socially clueless people on earth. I’ve often heard them debate “the right” metrics to use to track software productivity. My advice to them is: Always fight metrics. Sabotage the readings, or blackmail a higher-up by catfishing as a 15-year-old girl, or call in a union that’ll drop a pipe on that shit. Always, always, always fight a metric that management wishes to impose on you, because while a metric can hurt you (by flagging you as a low performer) it will never help you. In the old-style company, automated surveillance was impossible and performance was largely inscrutable and only loyalty mattered– your career was based on your boss’s opinion of you. It only took one thing to get a promotion: be liked by your boss. In the new-style company, devised by management consultants and software peddlers with evil intentions, getting a promotion requires you to pass the metrics and be liked by your boss. In the old-style company, you could get fired if your boss really, really hated you. (As I said, if he merely disliked you, he’d rep you as a solid performer “in search of a better fit” so you could transfer peacefully, and you’d get to try again with a new boss.) In the new-style company, you can get fired because your boss hates you or because you fail the metrics. The “user story points” that product managers insist are not an individual performance measure (and absolutely are, by the way) are evidence that only the prosecution may use. This is terrible for workers. There are new ways to fail and get fired; the route to success is constricted by an increase in the number of targets that must be hit. The old-style hierarchical company, at least, had simple rules: be loyal to your boss. Having been a middle manager, I can also say that the new-style company is humiliating for us– we can’t protect our reports. You have to “demand accountability from” people, but you can’t really do anything to help them.

This, I think, gives us a metaphor for the American Gentry’s failure. Middle managers who cannot protect their subordinates from the company’s more evil instincts (such as the instinct to fire everyone and hire replacements 5 percent cheaper) have no reason to expect true loyalty. They become superfluous performance cops and taskmasters, and even if they are personally liked, their roles are justifiably hated (including by those who have to perform them.)