A Psychoanalyst Explains How Corporations Infantilize People

I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours. ~Hunter Thompson

Everyone who gets hired by a new employer becomes part of a small community that has it’s own set of values, which the new employee is expected to adapt herself to. Some of these values are meant to help the business function well, and some are a function of habit. Some are emergent of the social environment of the workplace, and some are the result of administrative and executive decisions made by the owners. The dynamic of a businesses internal culture and philosophy, of course, differs from job to job: If you are a wage laborer in the warehouses of Amazon or Foxconn, for instance, the value system that is the basis of your day-to-day working life is almost entirely administered from above; In other, more desirable jobs, there is more of a healthy balance between executive and administrative choices, and that of the emergent culture of the workplace.

But in either case, what is important is that the worker is willing to fully adapt herself to the values and mores of her job. On some level what this demand requires—what it necessarily requires—is a suspension of the worker’s morality, of the personal values that she had accumulated in her life up to the point of employment. Even if none of the worker’s personal values are incompatible with that of the company, which is often the case for the middle class, those values are nonetheless placed into a framework that is ultimately outside of the worker’s own determination. In the context of the workplace, any virtues or merits the employee might possess are effectively rendered into an extension of the employer’s will.

Even the person who, having read this far, doubts the practical relevance of what I’m trying to say, on a deeper level already agrees with me. Like most of us, they are probably annoyed by street canvassers, even when they support the cause the canvasser is representing. They probably realize that military recruiters and the people in SeaWorld ads are lying idiots. We all have an intuitive dislike of someone who is behaving insincerely in order to fulfill a petty or short-sighted obligation, yet this is the normal mode of behavior for almost everyone who has to pay rent.

As unnatural as this arrangement would seem, it is a fairly natural product of a society that is based on competition for both resources and social status. Whatever benefits of this mode of organization there are, it is important to try and understand the fundamental character of such a society, and the ways that it informs how we relate with one another, and ourselves. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote at length about this subject. For Fromm, the corporate version of ethics—that of bureaus, corporations, and other hierarchical organizations—is, unlike humanistic ethics, authoritarian and irrational in essence. It views people as incapable of judging right or wrong without the aid of some transcendent authority, and is only able to evaluate people in an exploitative way, judging them solely in terms of whether or not they are of benefit the authority. This authoritarian form of ethics is a necessary basis for a corporation’s existence, since it wouldn’t be able to function or even exist without human agents performing it’s prerogatives.

What’s of more interest than the nature of corporate ethics, however, is why so many people internalize the value judgements of their employer. We’ve all seen coworkers get unnecessarily stressed out about not meeting some trivial quota, much in the same way that state employees often seem to confuse statutory laws (such as those against recreational drug use) with moral values. Fromm helps to understand the reasons for these sorts of moral confusions. “The foundations of our ability to differentiate between good and evil are laid in childhood,” he wrote in Man For Himself. These distinctions are learned before the child is able to independently determine these moral differences through reasoning:

His value judgements are formed as a result of the friendly or unfriendly reactions of the significant people in his life. In view of his complete dependence on the care and love of the adult, it is not surprising that an approving or disapproving expression on the mother’s face is sufficient to “teach” the child difference between good and bad. In school and in society similar factors operate. “Good” is that for which one is praised; “bad,” that for which one is frowned upon or punished by social authorities or by the majority of one’s fellow men. Indeed, the fear of disapproval and the need for approval seem to be the most powerful and almost exclusive motivation for ethical judgement. This intense emotional pressure prevents the child, and later the adult, from asking critically whether “good” in a judgement means good for him or for the authority. [Emphasis added]

Certainly, fear can be a much stronger motivator than reason, often diminishing or negating the effectiveness of the later. As the Milgram Experiment in the 60’s demonstrated, many people will obey a perceived authority figure even if it goes against their deepest moral urges. A surprisingly large percentage of volunteers to the experiment who were told to administer “shock therapy” to a hired actor continued to obey the instructions even when the actor, who had been pleading for the experiment to stop, ceased responding to the shocks as if unconscious or dead. The experiment was intended to help us understand how “ordinary” Germans were capable of performing the horrific crimes ordered by the Nazi leadership, but it is at least as applicable to, for instance, the actions of American workers in the health insurance industry who (prior to recent federal regulations, at least) on a daily basis helped their employer deny health coverage to the sick and dying.

That it is so easy to get people to act against their own judgements certainly lends credence to the notion that our need for approval underlies so much of our moral behavior. What it also might suggest is that the responsibility to make correct judgements is a burden that we would rather not bear. We would much rather live in a state of innocence, free from obligations to others, and to ourselves.

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