The Religion of Workplace Culture Is Eating Capitalism and Institutionalizing Abuse

Ed Zitron 9 min read

In yesterday’s newsletter I went into some detail around a greater theory I have that theocratic and autocratic leadership in business is poisoning capitalism. I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean that I believe that capitalism is dying, or losing its foothold, or that anything good is happening in this process - I just believe that there is an overwhelming issue in business where, somehow, companies are destroying themselves by becoming more interested in power or adulation than they are in money.

The most obvious form this takes is the growth of workplace culture, as I previously said:

Company culture is only about control. It is about a borderline religious set of rules that people abide by not because they’re fair, or good, or reasonable, but because The Company Said So. They are bordering on faith-based orders - that if you work hard, you’ll get more money, and suffer less, because of all of your hard work, and your tolerance of the bad stuff. It’s eerily close to Irenaeus’ Theodicy: you were chosen to be here by the company, you will learn and grow with us, and the suffering you deal with here will make you better at your job, and you will be rewarded in the end. The bullshit that “culture” justifies is all part of the soul-making theodicy of work - that you will suffer through this and win in the end, because work is suffering.

But where does this come from?

Well, so much of our lives are spent being prepared for the workforce and then being part of the workforce, to the point that our culture has inherently pushed us toward finding our purpose in our work. It’s beyond simply living to work - we are societally encouraged to “find ourselves,” where success is not simply making a lot of money, but “being someone” (or something). We seek to get rich enough to buy a home that we are barely in because we’re working all the time to live in it, with the eventual goal of making enough money that we can stop working so that we can enjoy something before we die. Our lives are increasingly becoming capitalist highways, from cradle to grave, where earlier and earlier kids are being forced to consider not the joy of life, but the ways in which you can begin fiscally and mentally preparing yourself for what it costs to stay alive.

This is very much the bog-standard evils of capitalism speech - things cost more than ever, we have to work more to get less, and the world continues to be increasingly unfair and hostile to most people that want to just live. It’s laughable to imagine a time when someone working a regular job could just buy a house, or that most people could afford a college education without the weight of masses of debt. And yet society keeps holding the same pressures on young people (and, increasingly, older people) - you must find meaning, you must find a purpose, and that purpose, realistically, has to be a cash generator.

Theocratic Capitalism

Workplace culture is something I’d argue that grew similarly to Religion - a symptom of a problem of an unjust world, where we seek meaning and find the world does not operate in terms of fairness but in a chaotic, barbaric fashion. Depending on who you read, Religion can actually be seen as a form of evolutionary adaptation:

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a "group-level adaptation." Religion is a "kind of glue that holds society together," Dunbar wrote in "How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks" (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Similarly, workplace culture keeps people at work together when the company fails to provide them with enough pay to make the work feel worthwhile, or suitable conditions to do said work. Workplace culture, as I’ve said, is mostly an assumed series of tolerances and expectations in a workplace that are either not specific enough to write in a handbook or are actively abusive - and culture itself (and the poisonous term “culture fit”) are used as a kind of religious dogma to suppress voices that would ask the obvious questions, with the description of someone being “a bad culture fit” generally meaning the same thing as “someone who doesn’t have faith.”

The difference is that instead of a theoretical God, you have the Higher Power of the executive, the person that you believe in, and the values that they and their acolytes lay out, usually in some sort of company handbook or set of values. Disney’s Four Keys of “safety, courtesy, show and efficiency” attempt to add a theocratic layer to what should just be company policy, and even goes as far as to say that these keys are “[a] blueprint for the decisions [cast members] make during the workday and the approach they bring to their interactions with others.” It isn’t simply the expectations of the workplace, but the belief system and theocracy of Disney - these are religion-esque axioms, described religiously rather than in the terms of working for money. Unsurprisingly, Disney World is an absolutely awful place to work, as is usually the case where a company has a lengthy and overwrought section on their website around culture.

On some level this is a kind of deeply evil capitalism - where you are paid money to do a job, but also held to a vague moral standard that mostly means that you have to accept a culture of abuse and pain because that’s all part of the show. Amazon’s Culture, which has been described as “breakneck-paced” and “harsh, but effectively contributing to the bottom line,” a necessary cost for working at a successful company - similar to how the book of Job in the Bible describes suffering “brings faithful believers into deeper understanding and relationship with [God],” and indeed that Christians suffer so they can be conformed more closely to the character of Christ. Company culture encourages us to work hard so that we can be a manager, or a boss, and that tolerating workplace cultures that suck is what makes us better at work.

The pains that we face from a distant and/or abusive boss are things that we use to become better at our jobs - “a calm sea never made a skilled sailor” - and workplaces generally have learned to accept that bad things happen with no recourse because you’re oftentimes lower than the person in question on the totem pole. Companies have spent millions on marketing more than selling a product, but a lifestyle - for example, Salesforce makes the bonkers claim that “Customers aren’t buying software, they’re entering a relationship with a company that’s going to help them navigate the future of technology.”

The difference is that this vague, philosophical approach to buying and selling goods and services has now turned inward to establish cultural norms inside organizations that frankly do not need to exist. Salesforce’s culture is a great example, because it’s described in the vague idea of “community,” as well as the truly grating cultural appropriation of the Hawaiian cultural axiom of “Ohana”:

Ohana represents the idea that families — blood-related, adopted, or intentional — are bound together, and that family members are responsible for one another. When he created Salesforce in 1999, he made sure that “Ohana” was in the company’s foundations.

The reason these terms are adopting is brutal on two levels - the idea that you are somehow in a non-standard family with your workmates, but also that the idea of family, at its heart, is an infallible and “safe” concept, when families are incredibly common vectors of abuse and control based on assumed ownership of a person. Basically no business that has referred to itself as a family has ever operated with a functional and positive culture - the use of the term family is at its heart abusive, and generally “we’re a family” is used to make someone do something they don’t want to do or shouldn’t have to do, similarly to how religious dogma is used to justify suffering.

Unsurprisingly, Salesforce has significant issues with their workplace culture - a senior design research manager posted her resignation letter publicly, describing “countless microaggressions and inequity,” and have been “gaslit, manipulated, bullied, neglected, and mostly unsupported … the entire time I've been here."

These systems and cultural workplace norms are built specifically to control people using social constructs, creating dogma that is reinforced through management. Part of a dysfunctional (and common) manager’s job - much like a religious leader - is to reinforce dogma and evaluate people based on their adherence to it, IE: whether someone is a “cultural fit.” And the commonality in truly awful places to work is the consistent reminders that we’re “all in this together” and “we’re a family” - these are the beliefs they want you to have, and by extension the things you need to do because the family needs you to, like work unpaid overtime or tolerate bad conditions.

Amazon’s recent allegations of gender bias in their Prime team, to quote business insider, grew from a “culture of aggressive male-dominated management.” This to me is where culture actually exists - not in the vague “leadership principles” a company claims to create, but in the malformations that are created in a company when they don’t really give a shit about having a good place to work. If Amazon cared about a culture of inclusivity or whatever defensive PR statement they had to issue, they’d probably deal with the “abusive mistreatment by primarily white male managers.” Management culture and workplace culture twists itself in knots trying to justify why these things happen, and suggests that they have to “work hard” to fix them (or maintain a “good culture”), when usually the situations are blatantly obvious to anyone looking at them objectively, but it’s harder to fire someone who’s been at the company a long time who is popular with the C-suite than it is to hand-wave and claim you’re investigating.

Culture, as a term used in the workplace, is something only used to justify inaction and hegemony. It does not exist to make things better, to foster an actually positive culture, or to make things fairer or more equal. When a company says that they ‘work hard to create a culture of diversity and equality,’ they usually just mean that they have told everybody that this is something they care about, and they have made those who are responsible for hiring aware that this is something they need to care about.

To put it bluntly, workplace culture is usually there to protect abusers, not stop them. I cannot think of any company where I’ve seen abuse where it wasn’t an open secret that someone bullied someone else, that a manager was horrible to people, that an executive was horrible to people - and usually adherence to cultural norms really meant accepting that bad things happen and that’s all part of the struggle to win whatever industry you’re in.

If anything, the inverse of a toxic workplace culture is something that involves the removal of any and all barriers to just doing your work and getting paid a fair amount for it. “Great places to work” are usually ones where you feel valued for your contributions, and said value is usually defined in whether the people in power listen to you and use your ideas, and whether you’re paid for your work and ideas. The monstrosity of workplace culture is absolutely something that was bred with capitalist desires - getting more out of a worker for less money - but has become a massive inefficiency, where bad workers are kept in power because of something other than their ability to contribute to the bottom line.

It is where the world of capitalism has begun to move away from capital, and toward greed (slightly different) and ego. The societal growth of work being our purpose means that we have a new capitalist culture that is less interested in being the most profitable and successful business, and more engaged with the idea of being “popular” and seen as the best. Andreessen Horowitz’s “Future” blog was borne out of Andreessen’s disgust with the media’s hit-piece mentality, and at its core is a situation where an incredibly rich man cannot simply buy what he desires - the adulation and love of all - and thus must try and spend money to create a world where he is “treated fairly,” despite enriching himself in a world that isn’t fair at all. Ego has overwritten personal enrichment - or perhaps at some point money stops being as satisfying - it becomes more about being known as an arbiter of the future, of people owing you something, of the world respecting you.

Workplace culture is a symptom of the egocentric capitalist - the capitalist that doesn’t simply want to own something or have a lot of money, but be told they’re a magical genius for doing it, probably because they know, deep down, they’re not a magical genius, just a fortunate person who was able to make the right decision at the right place at the right time. And indeed, their injection of “culture” into their business shows a deep insecurity in how they process being part of capitalism - because without that purpose, without saying that you’ve built or created something, you’re making more money than your actual labor requires, and that makes the entire system fall down.

Workplace culture is the religion created to give greater purpose to work than actually exists. It exists to control and placate, to enrich those in power and empower those who would keep the current power structure established.

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