It was a heady spring for the fire-eating leaders of the business revolution. First there was Wired magazine, seeking to bring the uprising to new media shores with the launch of a book-publishing branch and simultaneously to enlist support from more conventional mercantile powers with an initial public offering. The official release that accompanied the Wired IPO will no doubt someday be remembered as one of the essential documents of the 90s: assuring investors that “none of the Company’s employees is represented by a labor union,” it credits the business with “creating compelling, branded content with attitude.” Much of the commentary on the Wired IPO to appear so far holds the idea of investing in tude, no matter how it’s branded, as something akin to a joke. But that’s just the grumbling of the Second Wave: the truly enlightened know that today tude is the realest commodity on earth, the economic lever that will never let you down.
The tude count is even higher these days over at Fast Company, a business publication launched recently by the publisher of U.S. News & World Report and dedicated to pushing the idea of hip as an aesthetic of information-age power as far and as fast as it can. Its third issue, which hit newsstands in June, blares forth the central tenet of what it calls the “new economy” from virtually every page: subversives make the best businessmen.
While Wired celebrates the democratic possibilities of developments in the world of computers and media, Fast Company takes the celebration of democratic promise in the corporate age one step further. Embracing the language of “revolution” with a fetishism reminiscent of the late 1960s, it devotes itself not to the establishment companies favored by Forbes and Fortune, but to covering “business activists,” “change agents,” and “corporate radicals.” Making liberal use of the curiously postmodern-sounding jargon now favored in MBA programs everywhere, Fast Company supplies rhetorical ammunition to an army of young corporate hotheads, whose letters in return salute the magazine for “pushing the envelope,” as a “Mecca for my generation of business leaders,” and for its effort to “wake up corporate America.” Fast Company’s premier editorial late last year was a streamlined manifesto of what it calls “the Business Revolution,” hailing the forces whose “convergence overturns 50 years of received wisdom on the fundamentals of work and competition,” and announcing that the corporate upheavals of the 1990s are “as far-reaching as the Industrial Revolution.”
Fast Company’s apparent success brings into sharp focus the strange cultural-political climate of recent years. Ordinarily, of course, it’s the political left that talks “revolution” so enthusiastically. But today, with the left nearing outright extinction, the language seems to have become the province of corporate ideologues. “(Knowledge) Workers of the World Unite!” runs one Fast Company headline. Much of what this “business revolution” entails is pretty familiar: the rise of information technology, a mania for nonhierarchical language and for democratic-sounding terms like “empowerment,” the ever-advancing rationalization of corporate structures and–just incidentally–the elimination of large chunks of the workforce.
With the exception of this last detail, there’s plenty of standard “revolutionary” stuff in Fast Company. A computer scientist who’s profiled is described as “a rabble rouser, an agent provocateur, a product of the 1960s who never lost his activist fire or democratic values.” Another story offers tantalizing glimpses of a “dis-organization” (a maker of hearing aids) that inhabits an “anti-office” where “all vestiges of hierarchy have disappeared.” And another details how Levi’s, a perfectly successful trousers manufacturer, decided to implement “the most dramatic change program in American business,” rooting out “resistance” and reorganizing itself utterly because…well, because it seemed like the thing to do. The magazine’s editors sum up their own understandings of the new world of business with quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and the eternal proletarian, Bruce Springsteen.
Literally every article contains some denunciation of order and some recipe for subverting holdovers from the Second Wave world. Fast Company offers glimpses of the future with stories about an “alternative business school” that teaches “young people to navigate in chaotic systems,” or about the Texas computer services company that “consciously accelerates time,” with such devices as an instructional video set to music by R.E.M., reverse dress codes, and “culture cops” who punish employees “when they talk the language of the old world of business.” Then there’s the cover of the magazine’s second issue (dated April/May 1996), featuring one executive’s confessions about his retrograde leadership practices, complete with anecdotes about how his hierarchical ways inhibited revolutionary behavior among the rank and file and tales of how “high-ranking” executives were taken “through a personal reinvention process to show them new ways of leading.” Naturally the executive’s article begins by acknowledging that “organizations must change radically: we are at the beginning of a revolutionary time in business,” and proceeds to inform readers how to root out the corporate reactionary lurking deep inside and achieve a more correct and wholesome line.
An article entitled “The People of Hewlett-Packard v. the Past” describes the inventive replica of a courtroom confrontation one company used to stimulate a business meeting and the friendly and creative means by which the same company “killed off” an entire division: by staging “a full-scale New Orleans-style jazz-band funeral, designed to help the division’s people deal with the emotional loss and the prospect of moving to other jobs.” The company believed it was helping its employees to “celebrate transitions,” to break those rules that used to bind us to one career and one job. “All possibilities come from endings,” the magazine quotes one executive as saying. “One career is finishing and another is beginning.”
The editors go to great lengths to unearth at least one genuinely progressive-seeming operation per issue: a company that makes beer in Namibia and recycles its waste; the Whole Foods supermarket chain, whose armies of hip “team members” represent the “future of democratic capitalism.” Not only are such companies beloved of the people who work for them, the magazine insists, but they are powerful competitors as well. And it’s this curious belief, promulgated by editors who possess both solid business-journalism credentials and unblemished liberal pedigrees (one editor once worked with Ralph Nader, the other for a Carter administration cabinet officials), that inspires the amused suspicion with which more conventional business observers tend to regard the Fast Company project. Noting “the hip and democratic culture preached in its pages,” one Wall Street Journal writer recently wondered just how far Fast Company could push such an improbable vision.
My guess is pretty far. With its dedication to the audacious idea that socially responsible businesses are not only nicer places to work but competitively stronger than ordinary self-interested operations, Fast Company may be in the woods factually, but it’s right on target ideologically. It was only a few months ago that business was on the defensive, surprised by sudden attacks from longstanding friends like Pat Buchanan and the New York Times, which published a much-lauded series of articles called “The Downsizing of America.” For a brief moment, organs of mainstream opinion seemed on the verge of actual outrage over high-handed corporate doings. But Fast Company is telling you that your outrage is misplaced. Left to its own devices, business will not only make us rich, it will give us a just society to boot.
It’s a strange but eerily predictable twist in the developing ideology of the businessman’s republic. In an age when unregulated capitalism has become the model for running everything from prisons to public schools to police forces, it was only a matter of time till someone suggested that the application of free-market theory can in fact solve all problems–that the best way to deal with the problems of business (you know, layoffs, unemployment, low wages, alienation, etc) is not organized labor or government intervention but…more business.
What makes Fast Company truly revolutionary, then, isn’t its fascination with cool executives or its reliance for workplace wisdom on people like Hunter Thompson and Bruce Springsteen but the breathtakingly grand cultural-economic shift that its editors imagine to be taking place and in whose forefront they are endeavoring to place themselves: as the Wall Street Journal put the magazine’s basic idea, business is “overtaking politics as a force for social change.” The revolution whose anthems Fast Company is reverently composing is nothing less than the replacement of civil society by business culture. As one of the magazine’s writers puts it, “Corporations have become the dominant institution of our time, occupying the position of the church of the Middle Ages and the nation-state of the past two centuries.” Corporations are becoming society, and the hip businessman knows it.
It’s a theme that Fast Company hammers home with alarming smugness. The cover of its first issue announced the parameters of the new dispensation with two terrifying aphorisms–“Work is personal” and “Computing is social”–that summed up its vision of society as something that exists within and between the office complexes of the world and the upscale suburbs where members of the world’s change teams spend their downtime. Naturally these paradoxes are offered up not as developments to be resisted but as principles of revolutionary liberation (one can easily invent others: “Boss is love,” “Office is home,” “Temps are rich”). When human and political qualities are mentioned in the magazine, it’s usually not to note their inherent value but to show how they can make us more competitive. One article about the solemn subject of leadership, for example, points out that “self-discovery” is an essential business practice, and remarks that “if you want the kind of performance that leads to truly exceptional results” you must embrace a sort of corporate tao: “You have to be willing to embark on a journey that leads to an alignment between an individual’s personal values and aspirations and the company’s values and aspirations.”
It’s a curious fantasy, a strange mutation of the progressive impulse no doubt brought on by the virtual disappearance of the political forces that once questioned the conduct of business and the virtual triumph of free-market theory everywhere from Chicago to Stockholm. And one can’t help but be impressed by Fast Company’s vision of the socially responsible corporation, by its schemes for integrating nonconformists, ne’er-do-wells, and eccentrics into the corporate world. The dream is an enticing one: government is unable to build a democratic economy, so business will do it itself, evolving gradually toward the cooperative utopia that is the object of so much human aspiration. Maybe corporate levity teams and “Departments of the Future” (as they are called at one advertising agency) are the solution to the anger and alienation that have so plagued us since the birth of the mass society.
But the more one reads about the coincidence of the profit motive and the purest human values, the more it seems like just a 1990s version of the capitalist-utopian fantasy that fueled the patriarchal schemes and authoritarian company towns of George Pullman, Henry Ford, and so many other captains of industry. Now, as then, rosy talk of “team members” and “stakeholders” is little more than a fig leaf for profit maximization, a dirty business where dreams of the good society have never had much of a place. A better rendition of the relationship between the “business revolution” and the fates of actual workers can be found in a recent New York Times article on one Ohio company: after detailing the events of the last ten years, in which countless unionized rust-belt workers have lost their jobs to cheaper nonunion laborers in the south, the story gives the CEO’s astonishing explanation: Those people had to go because the company was becoming more democratic and was “empowering” its workers! “‘Unionism is going down because corporations have changed their views,’ he said. ‘We empower our people now. They work in teams with shared responsibilities. It’s not management versus the workers in the plants now. We’re all one for our shareholders.'”
You don’t have to look beyond the pages of Fast Company to find similar contradictions of the magazine’s revolutionary pretenses. As article after article insists, the new world of total competition is going to be much, much more ruthless, not kinder and gentler. The true revolutionary may talk about “teams,” but he lives to make himself an uber company man, a hyperintense competitor. The magazine includes stories of enlightened businessmen who realize that the best way to climb is to reconcile yourself to the impermanence of employment and change jobs frequently; an essay in the second issue informed readers that no matter what the virtues of the revolutionary organization, “work environments” are “less secure” these days, that “knowledge-based competition will demand more of us, not less; the requirements of committed involvement in work will increase in parallel with the insecurity associated with it.”
What is the answer? The ad on the facing page provides one solution: a type of computer software that “can save your ass.” Other ads repeat the theme, acknowledging the essential horror of the corporate world and offering up various products as palliatives. While the magazine’s articles fantasize about rediscovering community in the workplace, its ads for cars tantalize with a vision of escaping the workplace. No less august a vehicle than Cadillac offers “the right to be free”; Chrysler promises to help you “forget…your doubts, your insecurities, your boss”; and Chevrolet offers a car where one can be “off duty” and press a “mute button for reality.” Here the logic of the “new economy” is stated a bit more directly: the new capitalism is fueled by nothing other than emotional misery. We work to afford cars that allow us to escape work.
For all its excesses, Fast Company gets at a basic truth of the corporate order: workplace democracy is exactly what we need most desperately in this age of rising economic desperation. But it’s superstition of the first rank to believe that the market is going to correct the problems that the market has caused, that total competition is somehow going to rescue us from the destruction wreaked by total competition, that new management theories are the solution to old management theories. What the businessman’s republic requires to keep it fair and honest is not greater power for business but some sort of power that confronts business. Because it’s not going to matter much to the people on the receiving end of the “business revolution” whether the guy who downsizes them is wearing a blue serge suit or a nose ring.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Peter Hannan.