The Banality of Capitalism

The story of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds is tragic and no doubt will generate continuing revelations about his bad behavior and that of others in Hollywood, as well as the willful ignorance, inaction, and outright aid provided by those who benefited financially from association with Miramax and The Weinstein Company.

Misogyny and violence against women is not a new phenomenon, and much of the condemnation of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior has been framed in terms of protecting vulnerable women from an evil ugly predator male. Being a victim of sexual harassment or assault is a traumatizing and life-changing experience that no one should ever have to endure, and hopefully this conversation will help us to stamp it out.

However, there is an additional aspect to what has been reported so far, which is that the incidents all seem to have occurred in the context of work. When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace it can also be seen as evidence of totalitarian tendencies in the organization, in which leaders are allowed to abuse power and the trust that others place in them in order to promote the organization and serve their own financial gain or self-aggrandizement.

In a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, the needs of individual humans are subservient to the desires of the regime and subject to the dictatorial control of those above them. Fear, intimidation, and violence are used to remind people that they are dispensable and that their value lies only in serving the perpetuation and expansion of the state as well as the ego of the person above them.

People in a totalitarian system learn that to survive, succeed, and advance, they must become zealous in their embrace of state theology. Most importantly, they must not question the state’s motives and goals lest their own loyalty, and thereby their ability to survive, be questioned. This becomes their normal existence and the dream of a better alternative can fade away. In short, they forget that it doesn’t need to be this way.

As the state is most often personified by the next higher authority in the hierarchy, and questioning is seen as a sign of disloyalty and lack of commitment, totalitarian systems lend themselves to abuses of power and trust by anyone in a position of authority or influence over others.

A capitalist organization is not unlike a totalitarian state:

  • There is a theology that puts company needs (profits) above all else
  • Humans are valued according to their ability to contribute to the company’s success or glory and any hero aura that surrounds the leader; their other needs should be minimized because they are a drag on profits
  • There is a strict hierarchy that lends itself to the abuse of power
  • The theology is used to control the behavior of individuals by making them feel unimportant and expendable and, ultimately, in fear for their bonus, their future advancement prospects, and even their continued employment

The theology of profits is unquestioned. A glaring example occurred earlier this year when American Airlines announced a pay raise for pilots and flight attendants. Airline stocks generally declined, and analysts were critical; one said “This is frustrating. Labor is being paid first again. Shareholders get leftovers,” while another said, “We are troubled by AAL’s wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups.”

Labor is generally viewed as interchangeably as any another input in the profit making machine, indistinct from, for example, gasoline or tires. There is never-ending pressure to reduce costs as much as possible to ensure maximum return for the owners of capital and for the CEO, whose bonus is often tied to company financial performance. For public companies, the quarterly earnings cycle constantly reinforces the preeminence of profit and the continuing quest to grow it.

The theology can cross into unethical if not criminal behavior, as companies including Wells Fargo, Chase Bank, Goldman Sachs, and Uber have demonstrated recently. In Uber’s case, they have been called out for generally bad corporate behavior. These companies represent just a sampling of bad actors; it is a truism that what one can see is only just a portion of what’s actually happening and that hasn’t yet been discovered or published.

The profit theology helps to contain the workforce, who are meant to feel expendable and expected to feel grateful for whatever they are allowed. It also helps to prevent requests for the kind of respectful treatment one finds in more enlightened capitalist societies.

People and their needs are considered only to the extent necessary to support the primary objective of growing profits. This creates tension between the will of the organization to get humans to be more efficient doers while overlooking the intrinsic being aspect of their existence. In fact, people have needs, wants, emotions, and free will in a way that objects do not. Existence is much more complex and nuanced for a living thing than it is for something that can be mined, engineered, or manufactured.

Because of the hierarchical nature of an organization and the theology of profit, harassment and abuse can arise easily in the day to day interactions between supervisors and employees. One is expected to be a “team player,” and in many organizations it is a badge of honor to work through lunch, stay late, and login online before going to bed and as soon as getting up in the morning. In effect, to work at no cost to the organization. Vacations and personal life are relegated not just to the back seat but to a little trailer towed behind the car. A mindset of scarcity keeps people competing with one another and working harder to ensure they don’t become expendable. Even then, it is a customary expectation that an employee will give at least two weeks notice of an exit even as few employers terminate someone with any notice at all.

Which brings us back to Harvey Weinstein. Harvey generally harassed and bullied people to get what he wanted, and they tolerated it. They tolerated it because he instilled in them fear for their livelihoods. Small transgressions blur our ability to recognize when our power is being taken from us, and most of us are accustomed to it. We are like the proverbial frogs in a pot of boiling water. When one is inured to disrespectful treatment and uneven power dynamics, it becomes harder and harder to recognize when a line is crossed. In most societies, that line is unquestionably crossed when the harassment and bullying is of a sexual nature — and even then it has been too often tolerated.

Certainly many of the people who aided and abetted Harvey’s predation didn’t feel like they could stand up to him even as their own consciences might have been troubled or they felt demeaned and diminished, while others looked away because of his role as a high priest of profits and glory. Harvey’s experience was that others would allow his abuses, and he therefore had no incentive to restrain himself. His example demonstrates how too many people endure being disrespected so long as the money is flowing. They are paid not only for work output but to tolerate being emotionally and, in some cases (including at The Weinstein Company), physically abused.

The ultimate irony is that people do not perform their best in a totalitarian environment. Fear is a powerful demotivater, kills creativity, and generally decreases engagement. People trying to stay employed, i.e., survive, make that survival their primary focus. The lens through which they view choices and generate ideas is self-preservation when it could be how to advance corporate goals. The fearful employee is less able to contribute to corporate glory than one who is supported and respected. In short, fear actually subverts the profit theology.

Employing fear and intimidation of any kind is traumatizing, demeaning, and antithetical to the values that inspire, motivate, and engage a workforce. Harvey got away with it for more than 30 years because too many have become accustomed to being demeaned and diminished in the workplace, and even if one can still distinguish inappropriate behavior, there is often no one to tell.

For today, the conversation that Harvey’s actions has generated about sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, as well as misogyny, is one we all need to work through. When we are ready, we need to examine the underlying issues of power, authority, and purpose that are expressed in harassment and bullying. Because until we all learn to discern beliefs, behaviors, and communications that distinguish healthy and supportive from demeaning and diminishing, the harassment and bullying will find fertile conditions to continue.

Rick Hanson is a writer and consultant. He is researching totalitarian tendencies in organizations and developing a new paradigm for executive leadership to better balance the theology of profit with the humanity of employees. If you want to share your story, please contact him.