Wednesday, March 11, 2015
The Most Powerful Idea in the Universe (Part 3: Infiltration)
Originally, I thought this would be a three-part series of posts. But if I try to pack everything that’s left into this post, it will be too long. So I’ll finish this topic next week.
If you’ve read the first two parts of this series of posts, you are probably thinking I’m overstating the case just a bit with my title. I guess it all depends on your perspective. I’m sure many people would counter with something like “The restored gospel is the most powerful idea in the universe” or “The Atonement is the most powerful idea.” Well, let me try to convince you.
The idea I’m talking about, of course, is the organizational imperative—the notion that since all the good things in our modern lives come from large organizations, it is imperative that those organizations not only survive, but thrive, and therefore anything that promotes the health and success of large organizations is good and desirable. What I am claiming is that it is the most pervasive, invasive idea ever conceived, and that nothing else even comes in a close second.
Let me create some context by asking a couple of simple questions. First, how much impact has the restored gospel or the Atonement had on today’s multinational corporations? Second, how much impact has the organizational imperative had on the LDS Church? I think we would probably agree that the impact of the restored gospel on the corporate world has been negligible at best. By contrast, I would argue that the organizational imperative has quite thoroughly infiltrated the Church. I spent seven and a half years working as a senior editor at Church magazines in what was then the Curriculum Department. I am well acquainted with the bureaucracy, and from what I have seen, the values of the organizational imperative (see part 2) were alive and well in the corporate side of the organization. And from there they have spilled over into the ecclesiastical side of the Church.
So, how did this happen? I’ll get to that next week, but first let’s step back and examine how the organizational imperative infiltrates any organization.
The Pervasiveness of Corporate Values
The adoption and perpetuation of the organizational imperative and its values by most organizations should not surprise us in the larger context of the rise of corporate capitalism, which I chronicled in an earlier post. Noted historian and social critic Christopher Lasch explains why these values are so pervasive in our modern world and so difficult to resist. He refers to this set of values as “the market,” but this is just a different name he employs to describe the same force Scott and Hart label the organizational imperative, which is a more descriptive term.
The market notoriously tends to universalize itself. It does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all. It puts an almost irresistible pressure on every activity to justify itself in the only terms it recognizes: to become a business proposition, to pay its own way, to show black ink on the bottom line. It turns news into entertainment, scholarship into professional careerism, social work into the scientific management of poverty. Inexorably it remodels every institution in its own image.1
Lasch’s observation is important, because as the values of the organizational imperative (the market system) absorb everything in their path, society becomes more and more economic in nature, even aspects of society that seemingly have nothing to do with money-spinning matters. And so we now have former hippies in business suits on Wall Street, and rock and roll has become just another industry. Feminism and civil rights may have started as liberal cries for general equality, but where they eventually focused their attention was on the desire of women and minorities to gain economic equality. Politics, increasingly, is dominated by the economics of power: not only are elections often determined by who has the most money to spend, but corporate interests routinely sway the perspectives and decisions of elected officials. Similarly, the media, once an institution that helped preserve our liberties by disseminating pertinent information and thoughtful analysis of current issues, has become primarily a profit-making venture, and advertising dollars often shape both the content and the slant of the news (and sometimes—with Fox News, for instance—the news isn’t news at all, but a thinly veiled political and social indoctrination). Perhaps most tellingly, though, a university education—once intended to produce a well-rounded, moral, intelligent, and informed citizen—is now unashamedly promoted as a means to a far different end: producing marketable commodities for multinational corporations. Even English departments now advertise themselves as good preparation for law or business school. They obviously know which side their bread is buttered on.
Regardless of the target, first the corporate values infiltrate it, then they slowly remodel it from the inside out until it is an adequate reflection of the preferred corporate pattern. This process has occurred over and over among the organizations of modern society, and so the values of the organizational imperative have spread like a silent epidemic, until they have become nearly universal.
As citizens, as pawns on a chessboard not of our own choosing, we are so overwhelmed that we have stopped fighting these values. We have become passive and complacent. Jill LePore, in a recent New Yorker article on inequality, references Steve Fraser’s book The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, in which he laments the retreat of liberals who once had the courage to attack aggregated power (he ignores conservatives because they have generally facilitated concentrated power). Writes LePore:
Fraser argues that while Progressive Era muckrakers ended the first Gilded Age by drawing on an age-old tradition of dissent to criticize prevailing economic, social, and political arrangements, today’s left doesn’t engage in dissent; it engages in consent, urging solutions that align with neoliberalism, technological determinism, and global capitalism. . . . Why not blame the financial industry? Why not blame the Congress that deregulated it? Why not blame the system itself? Because, Fraser argues, the left has been cowed into silence on the main subject at hand: “What we could not do, what was not even speakable, was to tamper with the basic institutions of financial capitalism.”2
Why? Because it is imperative that these large organizations thrive. Our very lives depend on them. And so we have become not just good corporate citizens but contributors to the very concentration of power and wealth that accelerates our inequality and further entrenches the values of the organizational imperative. We have silently acquiesced to Pirsig’s Giant until we have mutated from an economy of individual proprietors, artisans, and craftsmen to an economy of human resources.
But what about the Church? How did the organizational imperative infiltrate even that inspired institution? Stay tuned.
1. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 97–98, emphasis mine.
2. Jill LePore, “Rich and Poor: Accounting for Inequality,” The New Yorker, March 16, 2015.