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Wednesday, Apr 21, 2021 - 03:21 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Yup, More Ethnography

Digging deeper into the yuppie culture and the influence of Church's three-ladder class system had me collate more than enough material for another hopefully-illuminating synthesis, so here goes; by the way, Church appears to be... quite the character, from how he's gotten banned from Quora, Wikipedia and Hacker News (that last being pretty remarkable, for how open-minded and level-headed they tend to be compared to most of, say, Reddit), and publicly admitted to siccing a private investigator on coworkers he held a grudge against. However, this doesn't detract from the quality and incisiveness of some of his writings (said class system proposal included), and I do like to separate the evaluation of ideas from the behaviour of their originators, whenever possible.

Much of the following is borrowed from Venkatesh Rao's formulation of The Gervais Principle in 2009, and Alex Danco's fusion of this principle with Church's three-ladder class system a few months back (which has in turn gotten a response from Church himself), into The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class. Rao's and Danco's original writings are - as with Croesus' article in the previous post - recommended reading; but I will attempt to summarize the broad development of these theses here, peppered by my own commentary.

The Gervais Principle (TGP)

Before there was TGP, as noted in its introduction by Rao, there was the Peter Principle (1969) and the Dilbert Principle (1995). Probably still the best known of the three, the Peter Principle observes that people in a hierarchy tend to be promoted to their "level of incompetence", which must be a tempting explanation for why large organizations appear dysfunctional (most every manager is stuck doing something they're bad at). The Dilbert Principle, on the other hand, posits that top executives aren't that dumb, and strive to promote the most incompetent employees to middle management instead, that being the place where they do the least harm (since much of it involves arranging mostly-useless busywork such as endless meetings, whereas the line workers actually produce, and the executives actually set high-level company strategy)

Rao, however, claims that both these principles are incorrect, drawing from numerous case studies of the celebrated The Office sitcom. His full TGP consists of several main components: the division of employees into three broad stereotypes, the Sociopaths, the Clueless, and the Losers; the MacLeod Life Cycle of an idealized firm, which describes the growth, stagnation and dissolution of companies in terms of these stereotypes; and what might be termed OfficeTalk, which describes five broad languages that characterize interactions between the three stereotypes. Rao's original dissertation supports the development of these theories with concrete examples taken from The Office, which shall be largely elided here.

It begins with the typical pyramidal structure of a company, of which I gather there is little dispute. Here, Rao places Sociopaths at the top of the hierarchy (corresponding to the C-suite and upper management; also not much argument here), the Clueless (low/middle management) below them, with the bulk of the pyramid (oft around 80% by headcount) comprising the Losers beneath the Clueless. Definitions follow:

  • Losers: it should be noted that the Losers in this telling are losers only in the economic sense, and not necessarily in the larger picture. They can, indeed, be very cool people. However, they are by and large ripped off financially in that they are underpaid for their work, and that going above the call of duty in their positions generally does not yield its just rewards. Moreover, the Losers tend to understand this fact instinctively. As such, their rational response would be to coast - to do the minimum necessary to keep their jobs, and seek fulfilment in other areas of their lives

  • Sociopaths: Skipping to the top, the Sociopaths are the jackals who're out for themselves, and woe betide any who stand in their way. They're assertive, they know their value (if possibly extremely overinflated), and they ain't taking no guff. Even more than the Losers, they have no concept of company loyalty, and will jump ship at the whiff of a better opportunity after waxing lyrical about "our team/family" yesterday. The best that can be said about them, is probably that they're the ones responsible for kickstarting most new ventures - and cold-bloodedly abandoning them if need be

  • Clueless: And we come to the Clueless, the consummate "company men". These are the guys who actually believe in loyalty to the firm, although it is possibly partly due to them being more Talebian-fragile than both the Losers and the Sociopaths, in that they are relatively the least suited to restarting in a new environment. That said, company loyalty can make sense when reciprocated, as with traditional Japanese firms offering lifetime employment in exchange for the employee's commitment. Of course, such loyalty from companies is increasingly becoming extinct, even over there

Having established the three stereotypes, the MacLeod Life Cycle of a firm goes as such: a bunch of Sociopaths sets it up, and draws in enough useful Losers to do the actual work, while underpaying them as much as they can get away with. Note that the mark of a Loser is that he accepts his fate as told by the Sociopaths, for whatever reason - if he actively fights for his due, he might very well join the group at the top; if the Loser instead simply puts his nose to the grindstone and hopes to be recognized for his hard work by the Sociopaths one day... well, it could happen, but what's a heck a lot more likely is that they'll be known as Big Fat Suckers - the Losers who're dumb enough not to at least coast along with the rest.

Continuing, as the firm grows, an interverning layer is required between Sociopaths and Losers, and this is the Clueless middle managers; the functional threshold between Clueless and Losers is stated to begin at the point where the reward-to-effort ratio suddenly hits sharply-diminishing returns, such as with a fast food joint assistant manager who, for a nominal 20% raise over his take as a burger-flipper, is now responsible for coddling half a dozen disinterested teenagers, mopping the place after work, making sure it stays up to code etc. - possibly earning less per hour than before his promotion. Naturally, this level is where the most earnest Suckers get strung along, to act as an unwitting warning to the clear-eyed Losers nominally under him: this is a crap deal, don't strive to be a Sucker.

In this way, the Clueless layer acts as insulation between the Losers and the Sociopaths, with the dividing line between Clueless and Sociopath being about where a promotion actually results in more pay for an easier life; true, maybe being CEO is challenging in that one can fail and collapse the firm... but there's almost always a golden parachute even if the worst happens. According to the MacLeod Life Cycle, the growth of this Clueless layer tends to outpace that of the Sociopaths and Losers as a firm stagnates, until the zombified structure crumbles under its own weight, and another set of Sociopath corporate vultures swoops in to cannibalize the scraps.

Which brings us to OfficeTalk, which is a discourse framework on how these stereotypes communicate within the firm (for the nitty-gritty details, please refer to Rao's magnum opus):

Languages spoken in organizations, according to TGP
(Original source: ribbonfarm.com)
[N.B. The least I could do was to clean it up in Powerpoint]

  • Straight Talk: This keeps its everyday meaning, in that what is said is exactly what it means; sometimes, a cigar is indeed just a cigar, and sometimes, when a guy runs in screaming that the factory is on fire and it's gonna blow within the minute, maybe he really just means that the factory is on fire and it's go...BLAM!

    Notably, in the framework, it only occurs between Sociopaths at the top, and Losers at the bottom. This is because the power differential between these two groups is fixed, non-negotiable and large enough that any attempted manipulation through speech is pointless, and they can might as well just be open and honest with each other. This is, however, not to say that direct communication between Sociopaths and Losers within a firm is at all common, to begin with

  • Powertalk: This happens exclusively between Sociopaths, a.k.a those who know how the Game is really played. While outwardly possibly friendly and bro-ey, Powertalk is deliberate and directed towards a single overarching aim: gaining power. This involves exploiting ambiguity and maintaining plausible deniability (i.e. corporatespeak/legalese), and the teasing out of useful information while revealing as little of one's own position as possible, and so forth.

    While one could uncharitably consider this as manipulation, it might be recognized that almost all forms of communication (other than maybe Straight Talk, and likely not even then) manipulate. The defining attribute of Powertalk is its very direct objective towards the true stakes, and that all involved are hyper-aware of what they are doing. Interestingly, it has been stated that with Powertalk, supposed status matters relatively little; Sociopaths can appreciate those officially beneath them, trying to play a good hand with what they have.

    [N.B. In geopolitics, the CCP probably recognizes it coming from the American side, and they are certainly comfortable with coldly calculated realpolitik]

  • Gametalk: Gametalk is then the Loser version of Powertalk. There isn't much real power to go around amongst Losers, but there's still relative status to compete for and defend. In traditional critical discourse analysis, this would probably come under in-group rapport building - cracking jokes (often the same few worn gags), shooting the breeze, that sort of thing, towards the end of subtly establishing some social pecking order (note contrast versus Powertalk, where the Sociopaths don't bother to waste time on such high schooler nonsense). Personally, I'm not too much for this sort of communication myself - my attitude is that if someone's my friend, he doesn't need to say anything to remain one (and really, it may be for the best)

The remaining two speech types are exclusive in requiring the participation of the Clueless set:

  • Posturetalk: Posturetalk is the native language of the Clueless, i.e. those who don't realize that A Game Is On (or actually do, but manage to beat those thoughts back into the depths of their subconscious to avoid cognitive dissonance). Posturetalk is, in a single word, vacuous. Compare it to the other speech types described thus far - Straight Talk deals with reality, things as they truly are; proper science is Straight Talk. Powertalk may be edged and self-serving, but it gets stuff done. Gametalk at least reflects authentic relationships, and the banter can get kinda witty with the right folk. In contrast, representative Posturetalk goes something like:

    It is critically important to deconstruct climate change from its roots in toxic masculinity and white supremacy, under the aegis of normative colonial hegemonies and attendant ecological inequalities.

    Or, to give another example from Danco:

    You are so smart for watching The Good Place!

    Perhaps the easiest way to recognize Posturetalk is that one can't exactly disagree with what was said, but there remains a lingering unease on whether anything of import was actually said (even Gametalk at least tends to involve two-way meaning between individuals). The speaker is, in a way, faceless - any of the Clueless class could very well be expected to say much those very words, in any given situation. Posturetalk is a kind of impersonal muzak, created to fill silence and little else.

    And the Clueless speak it to everyone else - including themselves (note the unidirectional arrows in the framework diagram)

  • Babytalk: What the Clueless receive in exchange for their Posturetalk from both Sociopaths and Losers, then, is Babytalk - because what else could be uttered? With Babytalk, both the Sociopath and Loser groups - who at least maintain some coherent grasp of reality, cold and ugly as it might be - tend to try to gently (well, if a Sociopath is feeling generous) guide the Clueless back from cloudcuckooland. For example, a Sociopath might try to inform a Clueless acquaintance that when a company says that they can't negotiate on wage, they mean they can. Or a Loser might try to hint at his Clueless "boss" that he's toiling eighty-hour weeks at US$3.45 an hour, despite no further advancement being likely. Remarkably, Danco's "You are so smart..." quote above would be considered Posturetalk from a fellow Clueless, and Babytalk from a Sociopath/Loser

The Three-Class Overlay

Interested readers can self-study TGP more deeply through Rao's writings, but it's time to move on to Danco's Michael Scott Theory of Social Class here. Danco's key insight is that the three TGP stereotypes of Sociopath, Clueless and Loser map pretty neatly to the three classes in Michael Church's ladder theory: with the Elite being Sociopaths, the Gentry being Clueless, and Labour being Losers. A little thinking finds this applicable to many other contexts (e.g. in the military, Officers/Sociopaths, Specialists/Clueless and Enlisted/Losers), but we will keep to social class for now.

The central statement of the Michael Scott Theory is that the higher you ascend the ladder of the Educated Gentry class, the more you become Michael Scott - yes, the guy who goes around quipping, "That's what she said!". Notably, Danco also recognizes the accuracy of Bobos In Paradise in splicing the classes atop the stereotypes. The defining attribute of the Gentry/Clueless class in this unified theory is then their wholesale departure from reality. Recall, Church in his three-ladder theory assigned virtues and vices to each broad class, and recognized the similarity between Labour and Elite in that they both prized money and raw power (both of which, to be fair, are neutral in themselves). Not so the Gentry, who were after knowledge and cultural influence above all.

The trouble with the Gentry nowadays, however, is that the balance has gone out of kilter, with the "knowledge" part getting sacrificed. In Danco's own words: "Generally speaking, the farther you go up [the Gentry] ladder, the more detached from reality you get. Importantly, this isn't seen as a problem: it's actually a virtue, so long as you portray it correctly. Sixty years ago, this group sought refuge and status in the suburbs, explicitly detaching themselves from the reality of dirty, dangerous cities. Now, it's fashionable to move back downtown, detaching ourselves from the reality of gas-guzzling, chain restaurant normie suburbs. The farther you go into expensive, performative habits (Doing triathlons, eating farm-to-table) and coastal echo chambers ('I don't know a single person who voted for TRUMP'; 'We should ban cars'), the farther you progress up this ladder". Put another way, the mainstream American Gentry appears to have constructed an artificial reality - aided by the compliant corporate FAKE NEWS - and are determined to maximize their influence within its parameters.

This embarassing disingenuity of the modern yellow-bellied Gentry - who are the ones supposed to be truth-seekers, within the class system - is only starker when placed against select Elite and members of the Labour/Underclass. The True Elite (E1/E2) likely espouse Straight Talk/Powertalk, because they possess "f**k you power" of the sort that can dismember nosy journalists at will*, or at least "f**k you money", that prevents them from having to proclaim views that they do not believe in, simply to keep making a living (note that this was the motivation behind tenure for academics & judges)

In keeping with Fussell's trenchant observations, many of the Labour class share the same predilection towards free speech as the Elite, but in their case it's more of "f**k you, I got no money anyway". Take your everyday construction worker† - he can (reasonably) state that he dislikes illegal immigration on social media, and if he gets cancelled by the woke Gentry mob and loses his gig, he can just march over to the next worksite to earn his bread. In contrast, your average professor is finished. Nobody's listening to his explanation on why he didn't kneel to the mob; his reputation with the only crowd that matters (professionally) is shot; his career may as well be over.

There really is no shortage of intellectual cowardice from present-day Gentry to harp on, and we may be examining a recurring example in the following blog posts...

Salient example of a member of the modern Gentry class bouncing heedlessly from one Herd Approved Worldview™ to another

[*This example reflects poor taste and a lack of class from the supposed perpetrators; the proper way would be for said journalist to silently vanish without any trace. Amateurs.]

[†The representative people to hear some real Straight Talk from, I gather, are the cabbies. It's almost as if taxi rides were invented for Straight Talk - the environment tends to be convivial, what with usually-passable seats and air-conditioning, and one doesn't face their interlocutor full on; any conversation is as private as can be expected nowadays, and the parties involved are basically anonymous and might never meet again, removing worries about long-term consequences; there's nothing much else to do (well, before smartphones); the cabbie is empowered by a sense of being in control (which he is, of the hunk of steel hurtling down the road); and he's indeed not unlikely to be of the requisite interchangable-labour class (really, are you really gonna take a cabbie's license away, for something he said that you don't agree with?); Singapore, New York, Nairobi, Hong Kong... it's the same everywhere.]

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