Last Tuesday, between my late dinner and early bedtime, I was able to catch up with The Man, best known for being the head of The Establishment, and the developed world’s biggest employer. Millions of people work for The Man, and many complain about his managerial practices and his indifference to the plight of workers. I sat down with him to get his side of the story, and he was very candid.
David: You are an authority figure in all sorts of spheres: government, religion, culture, politics — but today we’re focusing specifically on business and work. A lot of people work for you, and you don’t have the best reputation. The thing people say most about you is that you “Keep them down.” Is that how you see it?
The Man: No, not at all. Nobody provides more jobs than I do. I think what they mean is that there are things about working for me that they don’t like. Working for me is voluntary.
DC: If it is ultimately voluntary for people to work for you, why do they do it?
TM: Well it’s the normal thing to do, and I give them money to do it. All of their friends work for me, their parents almost certainly did. Obviously if it was so horrible it wouldn’t be so popular. I guess when you begin to believe someone else controls your life you can stop worrying about it so much.
DC: You don’t take any responsibility for the condition of your employee’s lives? Work is a huge part of life.
TM: You’re touching a nerve here. Listen, I run a solid business, and I don’t think I’m going to run out of employees or customers any time soon, so I’ll spare you the company-spokesman runaround — no, I don’t take responsibility for the state of their lives and I don’t see why I should. Particularly when they don’t take much responsibility for their lives themselves.
Do you know how people with hoards of money get to have those hoards of money? They make some money, and then they don’t spend it all. They keep some each time it comes in, and they use it to make more come in next time. That’s how power is accumulated. Instead of accumulating power, most of my employees accumulate objects in their homes, or they just burn the money as it comes in, on booze and expensive sandwiches. What I see is people setting up their lives such that they become dependent on powerful people like me, which is exactly the opposite of how one ought to build wealth. That’s why I’m The Man and they work for The Man.
They’re free to do this. I pay a fair wage, in thousands of different areas of work, each of which they can take or leave. I find they don’t pick very good ones for themselves, but they just stay with it rather than starting over somewhere else. Then they get grumpy, and instead of finding a more personally appropriate way to earn a living, they stay on the payroll and go through the motions and try to “stick it to me” by stealing pens and playing rock music.
DC: Is rock music still subversive?
TM: Well no, not like it was in the fifties and sixties. Not because the music is tamer these days, it’s really not, but because the mainstream was just so perfect and obedient back then. One night of unchaperoned jukebox dancing and I could lose a young person’s earnestness and naivete forever. They start writing poetry and looking for meaning. It’s a businessman’s worst nightmare. Don’t even get me started on LSD.
DC: By the eighties the counterculture was definitely pretty tame. How did you eventually deal with rock and roll’s threat to The Establishment?
TM: I killed John Lennon. I bought MTV. And, thank God, Bob Dylan went and found Jesus.
DC: You say many people “have learned” to see working for you as their only option. Aren’t you the one who teaches them that? It almost seems like you want them to feel stuck.
TM: *steeples hands* Okay… you know I’m a pragmatist. So are you. I do what works. Obviously I want people to keep working for me, so I want to make quitting look like an unattractive option. So I give them positive incentives to remain in positions that they are otherwise unhappy with. Benefits they don’t want to walk away from, and quite often more money than they need. Otherwise who would sell insurance, conduct phone surveys, and keep the dollar stores stocked? It’s hard to make people want to do that stuff, and I think I’ve done a great job of it. And of course, I don’t want people to be too downtrodden. People are always saying I want to crush everyone. I really don’t. I want people to be vital and productive. Homeless people are pretty useless to me. I want people to have amenities and spending money, but I want them to be predictable.
DC: So, you have tried to set up The System to serve you, at the expense of others.
TM: As we all would if we could, yes. The table slopes my way, it does. But in places like the US, Canada, Japan, Australia, the UK — I think people really don’t take advantage of the freedoms they have. And they have a lot, way more freedoms than anyone has ever had in history, even with my “System” tilting things a bit. Yet many insist that I ruin their chances at living the life they want. Nonsense. You should have seen how my Dad ran things.
DC: You have employees everywhere, but the United States is probably your most profitable venture so far. What’s been your secret to success in the US?
TM: I love America. As much as I dislike the phrase “Perfect Storm”, it’s like all the right factors came together in one place. The big one is the hyper-normal level of consumerism and its relationship to self-esteem. I know you did a piece on that. [Here – Ed.] People in the US, more than anywhere else, respond to personal inadequacy by buying stuff or trying to get in a better position to buy stuff later. This is great, because buying stuff eventually creates disappointment, which creates more buying.
I also love its strange breed of future-focused happiness. Almost every young American thinks he’ll be rich at some point. Later is when life will be great. No matter what their salary, very few people think they make quite enough money now. So they’re willing to put up with “just ok” or even “not quite ok” for many years.
There is also, in the working world, this wonderful shaming of any hint of Bohemianism. Can you imagine an American taking a two-hour lunch, with wine, like they do in Europe? Nobody does it, nobody. Work is a virtue, no matter what the work is or what they produce. They are grateful for two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks out of fifty-two! The culture does most of the work for me. Some people don’t even take those two weeks, because they’re afraid their colleagues will think they aren’t serious about working at all. Stopping to smell flowers is suspicious behavior there, unless you’re retired.
Despite that, there is a permeating sense of entitlement here, as if things should not only be good all the time, it should be easy to keep them good. Do you think the citizens of the world’s richest nation actually want fairness across the board? They think they’re getting the short end of the stick, can you believe that? If they only knew.
Mind if I smoke in here?
DC: Go for it. Did you contribute to the creation of this work-worshiping culture on purpose?
TM: Well, at this point it’s more than self-sustaining, but yeah, I do push for certain policies to secure its momentum. Now, I know this is a touchy subject for a Canadian like yourself, but for example, private health care is crucial to my business model. We’ve been fending off a universal system for decades. To keep the workforce in place, I need there to be a constant risk of financial catastrophe that can be mitigated by having a job. A Canadian or a Brit will always worry to some degree about getting sick or injured, simply because it’s unpleasant and debilitating. But to an American, health issues also threaten complete financial ruin — unless they have secured medical benefits somehow. I’m happy to help them do that, if they will just make a few widgets for me.
Oddly, there’s a lot of support for this system among the working classes, because many Americans have this wonderful fear of helping people who have not “earned” help. They do not distinguish it from communism. The idea of pure meritocracy is alive and well here, which means two good things for me: one, that people believe the more they suffer for their work, the more they are getting ahead, and two, that people believe those who end up at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom. So I end up with an especially hardworking population — compared to the rest of the world they have a particularly strong desire to get ahead, and a particularly grave fear of falling behind. Obviously safety nets of any kind do not benefit me. In other countries they take in old and unfortunate relatives as a matter of course. Family structures are bigger and more responsible for each other. I hate that.
DC: You keep saying “here” when you refer to the US. Where do you live?
TM: New York.
DC: In your experience, is Canada much different than the US?
TM: Canada doesn’t realize how American it is, but it’s still a rather toned-down version. There also is a slight embarrassment about openly seeking lots of money there. It’s seen as a bit crude. You can see this reticence when you cross the border. Vehicles get smaller, people hold their cash closer to their bodies when they count it out, there are far fewer billboards. This particular kind of shame doesn’t benefit me.
DC: Where is The Woman?
TM: There isn’t one. Wouldn’t things be different if I was a woman!
DC: Why did you make me work 55 hours a week all summer?
TM: I didn’t. You kept showing up.
DC: I have to keep showing up, I have bills to pay, and I get fired if I only show up most of the time. I worked so much I barely had time for writing, friendships, or any of the other things that are important to me.
TM: Those bills are the consequences of your choices, and it was you that let the “important” things slide. Every day, you chose what to do with your 24 hours, just like the rest of us. You did what you thought was smart. But you know you could have done better things with your time and money, yet you blame me for that. If you’re getting a shitty deal, find a better one. Save up some money and quit, then do something else. Don’t say I don’t give you options. And believe it or not, there are people who don’t work for me.
DC: Who doesn’t work for you?
TM: Well, independent small business owners mainly, and also a lot of artists and creative types. There are people who are unusually concerned with what they produce for a living, which means I can’t easily fit them into the positions I need filled. Most people are quite indifferent to what it is they are paid to produce, so long as they are paid enough. Look at everything around you. Somebody was paid to design, produce and distribute all of those objects, and I doubt it was a joyful act for many of them. There is a growing minority of people that I just can’t strike a deal with, because they don’t want to make what I want made.
DC: You have to admit that there are people who really have no practical way of removing themselves from your payroll.
TM: Sure, in any group of people there will be some who are, for whatever reason, at the bottom in terms of their options, over-committed and truly stuck. But the fact that some people are stuck has nothing to do with why the other 80 or 90 per cent continue to do work they don’t like and then complain about it. You are not at the bottom and I doubt many of your readers are, but many people act as though they continue to work for me just because some people apparently have no other choice, like they’re some kind of martyr. They’re just making excuses for staying close to the nest. And hey, why should I be the one to talk some sense into them?
DC: And I guess some people actually do like working for you.
TM: Yes, let’s not forget that. But by the way they talk about me, I think there are more people who say they do than really do. They should be more honest.