What We Can Learn From What People Think We Can Learn From Rome

I can’t tell if this Aeon article about the similarities between the Roman slave system and corporate hierarchy is written in earnest, but either way it’s so telling even when taken as satire that sections of it could be copy/pasted right into the “About” section of this blog.

The article is written from the vantage of someone lamenting the ostensibly amicable but actually officious “professional” culture. And what’s the remedy for bosses trying to be friends with their underlings? Why, an arbitrary and wildly capricious, but rigidly (read: violently) enforced caste system, just like the Romans employed in their rise to become the best civilization ever.

The Romans thought deeply about slavery. They saw the household as the cornerstone of civilised society. Similarly, the modern corporation is the bedrock of the industrial world, without which no kind of modern lifestyle, with all its material comforts, would be possible.

And just as a household needed slaves, so companies need staff.

Need I go on?

But it gets even better:

Once he bought them, the Roman master tried to rebuild his slaves’ characters to suit his own needs. He made them forget their old gods and start worshipping at the household shrine instead, ridiculing their former beliefs. He might choose to brand them with his own mark. So, too (if less brutally), the modern manager ‘rebrands’ new recruits by teaching them their company’s mission. They must carry out rituals to publicly proclaim their faith in these new goals, such as attending away days (or off-sites) and taking part in humiliating group activities such as paint-balling or karaoke.

It’s at this point that I thought surely that this piece was a joke, but then again, this kind of language is not far removed from the seminar speak I see in many a brochure, and on many a conference (and classroom) wall. Maybe its absurdity is simply highlighted by making it honest:

In Gellius’ retelling of the famous Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion, the slave Androcles put up with undeserved floggings every day. It was only after endless abuse that he finally took the tremendous risk of running away. No doubt there are few wage slaves who do not also dream of throwing off the yoke of their mundane existence and becoming ski-instructors, writers, or their own self-employed masters. Modern managers must make their staff feel that they are earning enough, or have the possibility of earning enough, that these dreams are possible, however remote they might be in reality.

Here I thought capitalism was all about solving real problems and finding innovative ways to make the material world better for everybody. Apparently all along it was a hologram: some buzzword bullshit used to keep people from questioning why they would trade a majority of their waking life for the possibility of being allowed by someone else to, say, go skiing, or to write. Who knew?!

And, to round out the highlights:

Owning slaves and employing staff are in a simple sense a million miles apart. A comparison of the two is going to provoke, but similarities do exist. It is an uncomfortable truth that both slave owners and corporations want to extract the maximum possible value from their human assets, without exhausting them or provoking rebellion or escape.

Yes, similarities do exist.

If we take for granted that the piece is not written in jest, here are some of its unstated assumptions, all or most of which one would need to believe to be true in order to even entertain the piece’s thesis, let alone take it seriously:

1. The “modern lifestyle,” with its “material comforts” is either necessary or collectively desired, i.e. we’ve all been given a choice to make the trade-off or refuse without threat of violent repercussion, and have accepted, even knowing full-well the consequences of the bargain.

1. a. Modern society has made life better for the majority of people associated with it.

2. Industrial productivity is the only worthwhile human endeavor. Corollary: industrial productivity is much, much more important than friendship.

3. Capitalism does not require a constant underclass. Or conversely, the goal of corporations is to provide jobs (er, “opportunities”) for the maximum number of people possible.

3. a. A function of corporations is to allow passage between socioeconomic classes, i.e. “up the ladder,” thus making “success” attainable to anyone willing to be a “good” worker.

4. The Roman Empire was either necessary or collectively desired, i.e. people were given a choice to join the empire or continue their mostly rural existence without threat of violent repercussion, and they all accepted, even knowing full-well the consequences of the bargain.

5.a. The Roman Empire made life better for the majority of people associated with it.

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