Thursday, May 19, 2011

Everyday Stalinism

Every ordinary office environment is a window into Soviet political despotism and tyranny. Historians spend an inordinate amount of time asking why radical political ideas associated with liberty and egalitarianism degenerated into political violence and Stalinist terror. But this misses the point: human nature is the natural ally of unmitigated despotism.

Not all men and women are necessarily potential tyrants in the making; but, if given the chance to be political leaders in an undemocratic government, surely one out of every ten office bosses—the despotic tenth to misquote DuBois—has the capacity to set up show trials, launch political purges, and exile or assassinate enemies. Think of that greatest of all office movies, Glenngary Glenn Ross. As Alec Baldwin arrives from “downtown” he strides into the office to terrorize and humiliate his subordinates, and demands that the seasoned salesman played by Jack Lemon put his coffee down, because coffee is reserved “for closers.” Lemon and the rest of the sales staff are incredulous, yet Baldwin proceeds to berate them. “You think I am fucking with you? I am not fucking with you.” In fact, Baldwin tells his hard-working crew of flim-flam men that they’re all fired, but have one week to try to sell enough bogus properties to redeem to regain their jobs.

The film is filled with similar scenes of unbridled masculinity and sadistic insults. Al Pacino’s brazen attack on his weakened supervisor his typical: “Who ever told you that you could work with men?” Kevin Spacey, chastened by his star salesman, has no reply whatsoever. He’s utterly defeated. His only recourse will be to eventually take pleasure in the fact that another salesman, Jack Lemmon, is weaker than he is, made vulnerable despite years of experience, by falling sales figures and a sick daughter who requires care and financial support.

The office, everywhere and at all times, is a playground for the powerful. Why did Bolshevism degenerate into Stalinism? Why did Stalin overcome his rivals? Why was he allowed to create ever more outlandish schemes for disciplining his party and the nation as a whole? Did Stalin suffer from some form of degenerative mental condition that led him to kills friends as well as enemies on a hitherto unimagined scale? These questions are beside the point. To intentionally misquote what a movie producer told a screenwriter in the movie, Barton Fink, we might say the following: “You think you’re the only Stalin around here? I have twenty Stalins on staff.”

Indeed, every office space houses a plethora of hidden dictators, waiting only for the opportunity to thwart conspiracies or anything that even smacks of public opinion or democratic sentiment. More than this, every office houses dozens of potential Molotovs, sycophants ready to praise and support the worst tyrannical tendencies of the newly powerful. If it seems hard to imagine that you’ve overlooked a potential dictator in your own tranquil office of Dilbert cartoons and cat calendars, consider this: not even Stalin was Stalin at first. In fact, if it seems hard to believe that Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamanev and the others overlooked Stalin’s worst tendencies, take comfort in the fact that they weren’t really there. While Lenin’s last testament shows that he was alert to Stalin’s political power and propensity to rudeness, Stalin was generally seen to be a capable and even moderate “team player,” often the most reasonable person in the room. It’s just that over time Stalin gained more power, and came to realize that there were no longer any checks to his own ability to reorder the political world to suit his own neuroses, no matter how fanciful.

Of course, many office leaders terrorize those around them, but even so, they’re brutality is usually tempered by fear: fear of potential lawsuits, whistle-blowers, or governmental or corporate scrutiny. It’s nice to eliminate rivals without cause, but why risk one’s own job security or retirement benefits if there’s a shadow of a chance that the victim will be able to retaliate? But, given the chance that Stalin had, to mete out extreme punishments without any fear of negative consequences, what petty office dictator wouldn’t launch a bloody purge or two?

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