Attack of the Superchickens!

Link got in a bit too deep…

Not too long ago Margaret Heffernan, a former CEO of multiple businesses, gave a talk during a TED conference about the “pecking order” of various businesses. Places where getting to the top, competing against one another, being the most productive and so on are valued above all else. There’s little (if any) time for talking to each other, socializing, getting to know who your co-workers are or thinking about your place in the organization. All that really matters is how good you’re being about working and how hard your working and did we mention how hard you should be working?

But through multiple illustrations Heffernan gives us reason to doubt that the Order of the Super Chickens makes much sense either if you’re trying to breed out the most productive chickens or trying to keep the most productive folks in the firm. The problem in the chicken example was that all but three chickens were left alive after six generations because the rest had been pecked to death. They were all productive but they kept that productivity alive by keeping each other in check. By not having too many productive and goal-seeking chickens in one group the productivity just went crazy until most of the chickens died.

Now, it’s not the perfect illustration of course, not at all. Humans aren’t very much like chickens and it’s good to be careful about equating the two. But it could serve as a cautionary tale of letting our motivations override our ability to reason, empathize and cooperate with others on some level. If you’re so goal-seeking that you forget about the means then your work and larger efforts are likely to be undermined at various parts.

Now, as an introvert and someone with aspegers making all of these times to talk to my fellow workers doesn’t sound super exciting to me. The problem with Heffernan’s recommendation is that she still leaves the hierarchy and bosses involved but tries to aesthetically shift it around so the workers have a bit more autonomy. And while it’s nice that we would eliminate this race to the top that tends to cause all sorts of irrationality, I don’t feel like she’s really striking at the root of the problem.

As mutualist writer Kevin Carson argued in “The Root is Power”:

The central identifying feature of a reformist effort is that it fails to strike at the root of oppression — power. All such efforts aim either at changing individual behavior without regard to the individual’s position in the overall system of power, or at creating an authoritarian institutional framework staffed by upper-middle class “helping professionals” to protect the individual from oppressive behavior.

This perfectly encapsulates some of the problems I see with this TED Talk. A lot of it is just changing your “perception” of the power structures that govern our lives. But it doesn’t really give us any good tools to openly challenge them, disrupt them or, god forbid, burn them down to the ground. We need those sorts of tools and we need them much more than piecemeal reforms about how everyone feels in a given structure.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If workers can gain more autonomy, more money, they can feel better about their lives then I’m not against that by any means. But as too with the fight for marriage equality that was recently ended for at least some people (polyamorous and polygamy people say hi) it doesn’t end the story of fighting for radical equality. It’s great that many people can now get married, can express their love for each other, can visit each other in the hospitals, can more easily share financial things and so on. All of that’s great.

But it doesn’t stop the fact that, as Charles Johnson has argued the cake is rotten:

However, there are deeper concerns than with the internal operations of a household. In every case, marriage marks out a specific form of privilege for some sorts of households over others. Even if every married household were a perfect participatory democracy, the privilege of married over unmarried households (and thus, at least one of the people in the married household over the person in the unmarried household) is a questionable social institution. What right has the government or community to subsidize a particular form of sexuality?

Without better justifications than have been advanced, the conservative demand for exclusive privilege to heterosexual monogamous couples is indeed homophobic and heterosexist, but the liberal-reformist cry to Let them eat wedding cake! is, to overextend a metaphor, only cutting homosexual couples an equal slice of a rotten cake. (X.3)

Indeed, the liberal-reformist critique is often itself subtly heterosexist, in that the arguments often, to a more or less overt degree, suggest that the highest ideal to which queer people can aspire is the ideal of having a relationship just like the straight mainstream, except with a different gender configuration in the couple.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for better conditions in the workplace. It doesn’t mean if you can get some demands caved into that they are meaningless, always will be and all we should strive towards is some nebulous radical future where work is abolished and marriage is too. While, meanwhile, lots of folks are suffering from being institutionally dis-privileged.

It just means that when we’re cutting from the cake we know who does the baking. We know who made the cake, what game they are playing and what game we are playing.

In other words, we need to have some sort of radical conception of the social dynamics going on when we make demands from power structures. We may get healthy concessions sometimes and under the current structure those are worth celebrating to some limited extent because it means more freedom and happiness for more people. That’s undeniably a good thing in some sense. But, for example, we shouldn’t assign the anti-work goal with either some universal basic income or getting some more window dressing in the workplace as our Last Stand.

Similarly for the queer movement we (I am pansexual) shouldn’t just treat this as some big step in the right direction, necessarily. It’s great that some people will get to marry but in the end the institution of marriage is plagued by many privileges that the state doles out to what recipients it chooses. Ultimately folks who decide to assimilate and become more legible for the state get the benefits that folks who’d rather stick to themselves will never get.

In both of these cases of marriage and workplace, the root is power.

It isn’t enough in the end to just change the draping of the window or the shine of the floor. It isn’t enough to just open up inherently problematic institutions like marriage, the military or corporations to queers. And it isn’t enough to just focus on making those hierarchies less aesthetically displeasing rather than the hierarchies themselves. Just telling people to collaborate more doesn’t undo the damage that hierarchy and power does to social relations between individuals. These types of relations cause real damage to our surroundings and lives and they can’t be substantially routed around by pretending there aren’t core problems with the way we’re doing things.

So sure, maybe Super Chickens aren’t such a good idea.

But maybe there’s also a more going on than the lack of chatter at the water cooler.

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