Thursday, 23 July 2009

Professionals, employees and slaves

Kenneth Minogue provides an explanation as to why we're lacking integrity in public life at the present time: the decline of the self-governed professional and his or her replacement by the managed employee. It's a detailed argument worth following, but here's how he concludes:

'The decline of professionalism is...one way of tracking the change in our moral sentiments over the last two or three generations. What is today recognised as a "bonus culture" is part of the enfeebling of inherited integrities and their replacement by the external inducements that governments and other powers use in the project of improving society. The problem is that the moral life includes not only doing the right thing (whatever we may take that to be) but also our duties to the character we believe ourselves to have. This is an inner responsibility for avoiding whatever we would despise ourselves for doing. It is a test that many people have failed in remarkably public ways today and there is a lot to learn from it. As with all forms of moral change, there is no easy way back to the sensibilities so many people have lost. We have become so accustomed to being administered and managed by official power that many in our society have no other principle of motion than oscillation between impulse on the one hand and external control on the other, without much of an inner core of self-direction in between. The classical Greeks called this condition "servility."'

He sheds light on something that's been bothering me and which I've posted on before: the strange death of self-government.

The mention of servility and Greeks reminds me of a discussion in Theodore Zeldin's* 'Intimate History of Humanity'. He reminds us that slavery is not an unusual condition in history and warns that it can come in many forms, some masked and unexpected:

'We are all of us descended from slaves, or almost slaves. All our autobiographies, if they went back far enough, would begin by explaining how our ancestors came to be more or less enslaved, and to what degree we have become free of this inheritance....[T]he world is still full of people who, though they have no recognised slave masters, see themselves as having little freedom, as being at the mercy of uncontrollable, anonymous economic and social forces, or of their circumstances, or of their own stupidity, and whose personal ambitions are permanently blunted thereby....

It is therefore important to understand what legal slavery meant.... There was slavery first of all because those who wished to be left alone could not keep out of the way of those who enjoyed violence. The violent have been victorious for most of history because they kindled the fear with which everyone is born. Secondly, humans became slaves ‘voluntarily’...overcome by depression, wanting to be rid of their responsibilities.... The third kind of slave was the ancestor of today’s ambitious executive and bureaucrat.... Slaves had no family, no loyalty to anybody but their master. They made the most reliable officials, soldiers, private secretaries. The Ottoman and Chinese empires were often managed by slaves, who rose to the highest posts and indeed sometimes ended as grand viziers and emperors; castration made sure that they placed loyalty to the state before family. There are no statistics to say how many people are morally castrated by their employers today.'

Zeldin's last example is the one that fits worryingly with Minogue's description of the current process of de-professionalisation. He also makes an important distinction: even the most powerful of people can live without freedom, effectively as slaves. Zeldin warns:

'The sting in the tail of this history of slavery is that once free, people often become robots, at least in part of their lives. There has been a great reluctance to abandon all forms of slavish behaviour...[T]o live outside the protection of someone more powerful than oneself was too frightening an adventure.... It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free; and in times of exhaustion affection for freedom has always waned, whatever lip-service might be paid to it...[F]reedom is not just a matter of rights, to be enshrined in law.'

Minogue's article is entitled 'Slaves of the Bonus Culture'. Worth pondering on.


* Zeldin is a francophone with a cosmopolitan background. He's an eccentric and eclectic thinker and very learned and readable. I believe Alain de Botton has secretly modeled himself on Zeldin. However, the original is often the best.

7 comments:

elberry said...

i'm glad someone else likes Zeldin - whenever he's mentioned, it's usually with scorn, but i enjoyed An Intimate History.

Brit said...

Ah, the OTHER K Minogue. But how does he look in hotpants?

It is important to remember that it is tiring, and trying, being free.

Or as Byron put it:

It might be months, or years, or days
I kept no count, I took no note-
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
And clear them of their dreary mote;

At last men came to set me free;
I ask'd not why, and reck'd not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter'd or fetterless to be,
I learn'd to love despair.

And thus when they appear'd at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage-and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:

With spiders I had friendship made
And watch'd them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill-yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn'd to dwell;

My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:-even I
Regain'd my freedom with a sigh.

Gaw said...

Elb: He does have his comical aspects but I think he's a force for good. He's worshipped in France, by the way.

Brit: Not an image I'm keen to dwell on!

Great and remarkably apposite poem. It's new to me. What's it called?

Brit said...

The Prisoner of Chillon. It's a long poem - that's the concluding bit.

Byron identified Stockholm Syndrome long before whoever it was that identified 'Stockholm Syndrome'.

Anonymous said...

Load of rubbish, ma.

No Good Boyo said...

I loved Zeldin's eccentric but wise multi-volume history of the 3rd Republic when I ploughed through it at college, and am glad to hear he spread his wings further.

Minogue did a splendid BBC series on the New Right a while back. Worth tracking down.

His ex-wife Valerie was professor of French at Swansea when I was a student. They remained on good terms, and I remember her saying that Prof Kenneth had to change his ansaphone message during Kylie's first big UK tour to make the point that no, he wasn't Ms Minogue and, sadly, he didn't have her number.

Gaw said...

Boyo: Minogue is an excellent rascally name that deserves to be used more widely.

I remember reading that Zeldin and his friends used to invite an unemployed or homeless person to their regular Sunday lunches. I always wondered how they tracked the individuals down and whether they used nets. It must have been a disturbing proposition for some. To use a phrase apparently from US TV, it made me feel empathetic towards Zeldin in both directions.