Professionalism and Alienation

I recently heard (or perhaps instigated) someone at work talking about how proper attire promotes professionalism. My faithful readers will recall that I, as a fashion anarchist, have commented on Jeffrey Tucker’s suggestion that people should dress properly at work (Bourbon for Breakfast, Chapter 37).

Now to tackle the tangent idea that a dress code promotes professionalism. First, if professionalism is meant in the narrow sense of an individual’s competence to complete the tasks at hand with rigor, efficiency, and integrity, the fashion anarchist wins this one easily. Obviously, my engineering or accounting or design skills are not affected every time I change clothes.

If professionalism is meant in the general sense – the sense that it is generally easier to maintain professional relations where people are dressed professionally – this is a little trickier. On this level, I say good riddance to professionalism, which has been a scourge on human contact for some 300 hundred years.

The Age of Bourgeois Capitalism, which began in roughly the 18th century, could also be called the Age of Professionalism.  In the previous age, the frame of reference for human relations was the landed hierarchy of commoners, gentry, aristocracy and various subsets. Doctors and lawyers and such were generally commoners, subject to much mirth and ridicule in the literatures of the day. Even where respected, their professions (or one might call them “occupations” in that pre-professional age) conferred no class status. As bourgeois capitalism replaced landed hierarchies as the defining scaffold of power, the “professions” came to confer the kind of class status we see today, with grandmas encouraging grandkids to grow up to be doctors or lawyers (and not, on good authority of Waylon and Willie, cowboys, those residual personae of the land). The old frame of reference for human relations in the landed order – things like de facto respect for those above you in the hierarchy and generosity towards those below you in the hierarchy – was replaced by the public sphere paradigm to “behave professionally.”

“Professional behavior” presupposes human connections that are less vertical and more horizontal/democratic, and that may well be a step forward toward the ideal of a human community of mutual fulfillment, but it comes at a cost. The cost is alienation. Human relations becomes the “business of human relations.” When Karl Marx says that under capitalism “human relations take on the fantastic form of relations between things” (Capital, Vol. 1), this can be applied on the social as well as the economic level.  Human relations become a little bit icier. The other person is objectified, which enables us to treat him or her as an object in some market-driven game and not as a concrete human being. One scene in The Godfather (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, screenplay Coppola and Mario Puzo) nicely encapsulates human relations in the Age of Professionalism. Tessio has betrayed Michael and now realizes that Michael has discovered the deed and set him up to be killed. Tessio, knowing the end is near, tells Tom: “Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.” Tom replies with some pathos, “He understands that,” and then goes forward with the hit. Lift the veil on professionalism’s polite exterior, and this is the model of human relations you have underneath. It brings everyone one step closer to the version of human identity manifested in the “officials” of Kafka’s novels, who epitomize ad absurdum the sloughing off of all human responsibility in the execution of the office.

The alienation that takes place in the Age of Professionalism indeed gives us another reason to look to the Luddite/technophobe point of view. In particular, the technophobe distrust of mechanization may raise valid points about the impact of technology not just on labor markets but on human relations generally. If professionalism takes a subjective toll on the fullness of human relations, new technologies, without moral steerage, can give a kind of exoskeleton to the process of alienation, abstracting us from the human warmth and human consequences of our actions. The person who pushes a button in Nevada to launch a drone strike on a Pakistani village and then stops by Walmart on the way home probably does not see his actions the same way as one who had to stand toe to toe and push the steel blade into his opponent’s belly.

Now for the optimistic conclusion: In our collective reach for higher ideals, professionalism has served its purpose, weaning us away from hierarchies that were antithetical to the fullest form of human relations and giving us a basis for something more democratic and fully reciprocal. But we have paid a cost in terms of the objectification of, and alienation from, our fellows. It’s time take the next turn, put professionalism to bed, and reinvest full humanness into our relationships, even into our relationships in the workplace and with remote clients and customers. And one way to start that slow tectonic shift is to gently undermine the professionalism paradigm by bringing, so far as we can manage it, a little fashion anarchy into the workplace.  It might look funny, but it beats becoming characters in a Kafka novel.

From Fashion Anarchy to German Socialism

A friend who read my “Letter from a Fashion Anarchist” recommended that I read Chapter 37 of Jeffrey Tucker’s Bourbon for Breakfast, which addresses workplace attire. I was happy to comply and my response led me into the curious byways documented below. (I haven’t read Tucker’s full book so sorry if I haven’t got him altogether right.)

Tucker and I actually see the role of clothing in the workplace similarly, the only difference being that he seems to be a realist all too happy to buy into a system that believes in wearing a “suit” to “show off your character”(p. 175), and I am an idealist (perhaps a naïve idealist) working to change the sensibility that props that system up.

Since the book as a whole seems to be libertarian anti-statist tract, this requires some explanation. Aren’t Tucker and I both against the status quo? Yes and no.

He seems to be an anti-government libertarian and I am an anti-Establishment hippie in ideology.

In his clothing chapter, any power he takes from the government he vests in a kind of pro-Establishment sensibility. He sees the fashion conventions of old being supported by a kind of self-censoring sensibility. Certainly his view of “work” and “workplace” are in line with what I would call the world view of the Corporate State, whereas the Age of Aquarius hippies envision a whole new social order beyond the horizon line of the Corporate State, with a radically different view of what “work” and “workplace” would mean.

It turns out that “anti-government” and “anti-Establishment” may be two very different beasts. Tucker would do away with the government but would, despite his subtitle (“Living Outside the Status Quo”) hold in place the status quo (e.g., fashion rules) with a normative sensibility. It reminds me a little of Michel Foucault’s reading of history, where establishment hierarchies update their ideological support system (circa the 18th century I believe in Foucault) from technologies of coercion to technologies of consent. The formations of absolute monarchies yield to more subjective strategies of subjection. But these new strategies, far from being liberating, turn out to be even more effective at and by controlling the sensibilities of the subjects.

My anti-Establishment views are quite different. I see government per se as neither good nor bad, but only as good or bad as those who control it. In the 60s, e.g., it seemed to the hippies that the government was the enforcement wing of Establishment thinking – old white guys sending young men to die in Vietnam in support of the Corporate State, with its vested interest in a culture of war, money and machines. Thus there was indeed an anti-government angle in the hippie movement, but the real villain was not the government but the Establishment that was pulling the puppet strings of government. The government was just a mediator between the Establishment world view and the individual. Fixing things required not a change of government, not merely a Marxist-type revolution in the control over resources, but a change in the sensibility of individuals en masse.  (See my Taxes, Private Property and the Age of Aquarius.)

To sum up the point of dispute, Tucker would lock in the chains of conventional fashion/thinking so deeply that we would all toe the line (e.g., dress appropriately at work) without the need for government. I would rather obliterate the chains of conventional thinking entirely.

In terms of the full implications, I’m guessing that Tucker is consistently anti-government but ambivalent about Establishment conventions and mores. I am consistent in my rejection of Establishment conventions and mores, but I have a hippie ambivalence about the government. I have a libertarian distrust of government restrictons on individual freedom (going back perhaps archivally to the issue of the Vietnam draft). But wherever people gather in groups there needs to be governance. If that government takes the form of enforcing the chains of convention, it is bad. But if the government is a guarantor of liberty and collective well-being, it can be very good indeed. And although I agree with my libertarian friends (to the dismay of some of my liberal comrades) that the government can overregulate behavior, the government has in fact often been a guarantor of liberty. The Civil Rights Act is an obvious case. But also through workplace and environmental legislation, the government has often acted to protect the individual’s right to life, liberty and happiness, and the collective right to clean resources, where powerful individuals and corporations would just as soon crush individuals and the environment to enhance the profits of the elite. And per Tucker’s libertarian idea that the government messes up everything it touches, I dispute this as an a priori. It has messed up some of its ventures. But it is hard to argue that the U.S. achieved its greatness without any provision from the government.

Imagine back for a minute to the antebellum days of the Southern aristocracy, which Tucker only half tongue-in-cheek idolizes in his introduction, take government off the table, and re-envision history from there. No government interest in public education, or postal service, or highways, air traffic control, no child labor laws or Civil Rights laws. Would the trajectory of history have been better?

Don’t get me wrong. Like any self-respecting hippie or fashion anarchist, I have some sympathy for a vision of society governed by smaller, decentralized nodes of power. But Tucker’s small-government vision takes a conservative turn where mine takes a radical turn toward a new age. His libertarianism is rooted in the rugged individualism of the 19th century. But the libertarian retreat to rugged individualism is no longer an available option. We can’t just work in our own cottage industries, we can’t just pay-as-you-go at the neighborhood doctor’s office. Even if we wanted to, the infrastructure just isn’t there any more. If we just pretend that the gigantic corporate formations of late capitalism, which exert economic control over health care and other trillion-dollar industries, are not there, if we just rely on our Davy Crockett individualism at this moment in history, the vast majority of us will be crushed by those very formations whose existence we deny.

I am not saying that the corporate giants of capitalism are intrinsically malicious; they are merely indifferent to the fate of individual human beings or the environment. They focus myopically on profit – and who can blame them. They evolved within a system where they are expected to generate profit and the government is expected to protect consumers, workers, the environment. Everything evolves together, as part of a system, and the moral mechanism has evolved external to the engines of corporate profit. To be sure, the government doesn’t always function well as a “moral mechanism,” but simply to do away with that external mechanism and expect the corporate giants and power brokers of profit to refrain from exploitation is to expect something all out of scope with what they have evolved to do.

So if the libertarian approach to small government is anachronistic, how does the anti-Establishment hippie move us toward the happy valley of small, decentralized government? We have to start with small steps. If I look at the current situation and say that a bad government binds people to the chains of convention, or to the status quo as Tucker says, and a good government smoothes the path for individuals to flourish in freedom, where do we go from here? Germany, for me, exemplifies a good blend of capitalism and socialism for today’s state of social evolution. The government takes into account the massive health care formations that exist today and works the system to the benefit of the people. All statistics show that they spend half per capita on health care than we do in the U.S.and have significantly better outcomes. Every American worries about health care costs if they get sick, and about 1.5 million Americans per year go bankrupt over health issues. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety.

I recall how startled a German visitor to New Orleans was when he saw a benefit show for someone with cancer. “This is what you have to do when you get sick?” he asked. No one in Germany has that anxiety. Or when I was talking to my young German friends at the university in Karlsruhe. They were stunned to learn that American banks now make more money from student loans than from all credit cards combined, that American students routinely go through decades of adult life with massive student debt. Germans are free to pursue their dreams without any of this anxiety about carrying crippling student debts into their search for work and family stability. Or gun control. We have 10,000 gun-related homicides per year (compared to 200 in Germany), and 30,000 gun-related deaths overall. We have 300 murders a year in New Orleans alone, a city with less than half a million people.  So we in America have widespread crippling student debt, widespread anxiety about health costs, have to plan where we can and can’t walk without being shot, and we do it all in the name of “freedom.”  Germans, on the other hand, give a little more to the government, and in return, are free from anxiety about things like student loans, health care costs, and safety. Who is the freer people? One can’t deny a free-spirited element in America at the grass roots level, but one also must be suspicious when certain Americans use the word “freedom” to justify policies that generate big business profits while shifting burdens downward toward those grass roots.

So the droll truth is that the path to libertarian freedom runs through German socialism. To forego that evolutionary process and merely disempower the government as today’s libertarians might wish to do is to throw ourselves on the mercy of some very powerful formations that are expressly indifferent to our well-being (since they evolved to have the single “moral” obligation of turning a profit for investors). Sure, German socialism is still a long way from utopia, and the vision will have to be adjusted as we go along, but this is the direction we need to move in if we want to get beyond the dreams force-fed to us by a profit-driven Establishment, if we want to recast for ourselves what it means to be fully human, what it means to be bonded in society to fellow humans, what it means to attain a level of self-fulfillment that goes beyond the anemic forms of fulfillment offered by our current consumer culture.

. . .

So anytime Jeffrey Tucker comes my way, I’ll make a pot of sangria (can’t really do the bourbon for breakfast) and engage in a good-natured debate over the bowl with him, but I’m a little reluctant to enlist, based on Chapter 37, in his version of “living outside the status quo.”