Corporate masochism: fifty shades of black

A while ago I wrote a number of posts relating to mental health problems in the City and the ‘toxic’ environment within which its employees spent excruciatingly long hours each week.1 From what I can gather there is no evidence to show that such a culture has really changed, in spite of a great deal of hand wringing and lots of talk about ‘how we must change the culture’.  This seems to apply equally to other major institutions in this country, for example the NHS, government, the media.

However, what I really wanted to focus on in this post is to try and gain a better understanding of the kind of culture we are talking about in the first place.  Only then might it be possible to consider how it might be transformed; at the same time it may become clearer why such change is often so difficult to effect.

As a starting point, I want to refer to a paper by Carl Cederström and Rickard Grassman, which contrasts two very different types of corporate culture, and then uses certain aspects of Lacanian theory to try and make sense of such different cultures.2  Although this paper was published several years ago (in 2008), if anything I think its basic argument is probably more relevant now than it was at the time.

The background to Cederström and Grassman’s paper is the question of how organisations can best persuade, encourage, indoctrinate, or even force, their employees to accept the values of the corporation and, in effect, make such values their own.  As Cederström and Grassman note, over the last few decades there has been a move amongst many corporations to ‘humanise’ the work environment, and to encourage employees to view their work not as something alienating or unpleasant, but rather a source of personal satisfaction and personal development.  Furthermore, such an approach encourages employees to view the organisation as part of a wider ‘family’, rather than somewhere that employees go to earn a living, whilst carrying on their ‘real lives’ outside of work.

Cederström and Grassman argue that this attempt to humanise the work environment has reached its logical conclusion at Google, who have essentially tried to redefine ‘work’ as play.  The idea is that employees at Google no longer see themselves as working, but rather as pursuing their hobbies and interests – and getting paid for it.  Furthermore, Google do everything possible to ensure that their employees feel well looked after and cared for, including free meals, free sports facilities on-site and free health care.  Of course, the only caveat is that the employees’ ‘hobbies’ and ‘interests’ have to coincide with Google’s vision and mission, i.e. to ‘Googlise’ the world: a small price to pay perhaps, especially when we look at the alternative…..

Which brings us on to the other kind of corporate culture that Cederström and Grassman discuss.  This is based on a study of a London based consulting company which goes by the fictionalised name of Leo Ebing.  In this case, the corporation has turned cynicism and hatred of work into a virtue.  Work is accepted by the company’s employees as a necessary evil, which is compensated for by large salaries and bonuses.  Furthermore, employees are allowed, and even encouraged, to express such cynicism and hatred towards their work – and towards their colleagues.  And perhaps this is the most striking, not to say peculiar, aspect of the organisation’s culture: a deep sense of self-loathing and lack of respect for others.  Having said that, perhaps this is not as unusual as it seems at first sight; one of the things that I highlighted in my posts on City culture was the aggressive, competitive, macho, and Darwinian attitude of many (if not all) its employees.  This is a ‘survival of the fittest’ environment, which is why any expression of psychological ‘weakness’ is simply not allowed.

But going back to Leo Ebing for a moment, the key point here, according to Cederström and Grassman, is that such self-loathing and lack of respect (for both oneself and others) generates a particular form of jouissance (enjoyment).  Cederström and Grassman argue that this is a perverse jouissance, although I think it could be argued that all (non-phallic) jouissance is perverse in the sense that it is a transgression of the law (of the Name-of-the-Father).

The question that interests me, however, is whether we can think about an organisation such as Leo Ebing – and, perhaps, many other City organisations, as being perverse in the Lacanian sense.  As Bruce Fink points out, the perverse subject, be they masochist or sadist, is trying to invoke the Other, to bring the Other into being.3 For the perverse subject, there is alienation but not separation.  In other words, the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father has only been ‘partially’ registered, and there is always a sense that the subject can ‘regain’ the ‘lost’ jouissance that he or she is supposed to have given up as the price of entering the Symbolic universe.  At the same time, such jouissance, such enjoyment, becomes unbearable, hence the need to invoke the Law, to bring the Other into existence.

What I find problematic is whether this really applies to organisations such as Leo Ebing.  In other words, is the organisation essentially made up of a bunch of sadomasochists who are ‘getting off’ on being totally ruthless – both towards themselves and other people, but are doing so in order to invoke the Law, to bring about about some form of sanction or limit?   If indeed this is the case, then judging by the current goings-on in the financial world and the lack of any meaningful response (beyond the usual rhetoric of course) from the powers that be, they are so far on a hiding to nothing……

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  2. Cederström, C. & Grassman, R., 2008. ‘The masochistic reflexive turn’. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, 8(1), pp.41–57. []
  3. Fink, B., 1997. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. []