On Tyranny

In Ancient Greece, a tyrant (τύραννος) was someone who seized absolute power over a city by force, without due consideration for tradition or law. The word did not necessarily have a pejorative connotation. Not all Greek tyrants were hated men; some were popular rulers in their time. But the worst of tyrants are remembered for their cruelty. They exemplify how unchecked power and arbitrary rule can easily degenerate into exploitation. This points to the fact that the concept of tyranny does not only apply to governments. Tyranny, I will argue, is something that can occur at different levels of society.

The abuse of power is a danger that looms in all kinds of hierarchical relationships, not only in government. I have witnessed many situations where powerful managers treated their subordinates in a repulsive manner. Why is this type of small-scale tyranny so widespread? Is there anything one can do to avoid being affected by it?

This essay explores how hierarchy inherently generates possibilities for tyrannical behavior to emerge, how thoughtful executives can forge securities against misrule, and what sovereign individuals can do to avoid the evils of hierarchy.

Tyranny in the workplace

The industrial revolution triggered enormous social change in Western society, on a scale never seen before. Masses of people migrated from the countryside towards the cities in hope of better fortunes. Whether their fortunes actually improved is something one can really ponder about. Many worked in dreadful conditions, and it took a very long time before workers’ wages actually started rising.

Pre-industrial economists, such as Adam Smith, had previously assumed that free individuals operating in markets would be independent artisans, merchants, or participants in small-scale manufacturing enterprises, who were all equal in their enjoyment of economic freedom.

This dream was shattered for the new generation coming of age in the industrial era, which often met a cruel fate in the factories. “When workers sell their labor to an employer, they have to hand themselves over to their boss, who then gets to order them around.” According to Stephen Macedo, economies of scale overwhelmed small proprietors, “opportunities for self-employment declined drastically,” and “workers had fewer alternatives to managers’ arbitrary and unaccountable authority.”

Today’s developed economies offer much higher real wages than at any previous point in time; however, many managers still wield unchecked power over their subordinates. While workers may be better paid than those of the nineteenth century, stories of managerial abuse still remain widespread.

According to the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, this is largely due to the nature of our organizations: the modern corporation still amounts to a system of arbitrary and unaccountable private government, a managerial dictatorship. For her, a “government” exists “wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life. The modern state is merely one form of government among others.”

Imagine a government that assigns almost everyone a superior whom they must obey. Although superiors give most inferiors a routine to follow, there is no rule of law. Orders may be arbitrary and can change at any time, without prior notice or opportunity to appeal. Superiors are unaccountable to those they order around. They are neither elected nor removable by inferiors.

Anderson observes that the government of the modern firm is like that of a communist regime, where the company leadership “owns all the nonlabor means of production in the society it governs. It organizes production by means of central planning. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an oligarchy. In other cases, the dictator is self-appointed.”

She does recognize that, unlike actual states, “its sanctioning powers are limited. It cannot execute or imprison anyone for violating orders. It can demote people to lower ranks. The most common sanction is exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do there is usually no coming back. Exile or emigration can have severe collateral consequences. The vast majority have no realistic option but to try to immigrate to another communist dictatorship.”

Anderson points out that “libertarians and free market economists wrongly equate ‘freedom’ with private enterprise, ignoring the reality that for most workers, employment in large firms brings with it subjection to arbitrary power. Of course, if workers object to the conditions of their employment, they can quit. But the cost of exit for many workers is very high.”

In the modern knowledge economy, managers often refrain from exercising much of their power, especially with higher income and skilled workers. Nevertheless, enterprises still operate according to managerial discretion, so the fact remains that “the constitution of workplace government is both arbitrary and dictatorial.” The resulting power over workers can and often is used for unjustified purposes that lack an economic rationale.

Economists such as Tyler Cowen have objected to this, pointing out the fact that large firms in particular pay their workers more and are generally protective of their workers’ dignity and diversity. Many workers actually become attached to their workplaces, their colleagues and various perks, so that the bigger problem may be wage depression, rather than unfreedom.

Yet Cowen completely misses the point. He is entirely right that many companies take good care of their employees. It might be that people are, on average, happy with their bosses. But it remains a documented fact that many of them are treated unfairly. That person could have been you. No matter how ‘smart’ your organizational design is, humans are fickle creatures with conflicting desires and interests. For this very reason, hierarchies will always contain the seeds for the abuse of power.

But then, one might ask, why is hierarchy so widespread? Why don’t workers emancipate themselves and tell their bosses to fuck off? Anderson writes that “within economics, the theory of the firm is supposed to answer this question” as it explains “why most production is undertaken by hierarchical organizations, with workers subordinate to bosses, rather than by autonomous individual workers.”

Workers face an important trade-off: get a stable job as an employee, with predictable returns but submission to arbitrary authority, or work freelance, with a highly uncertain income but total freedom. Most people are risk averse: they would rather enjoy the comfort of a regular paycheck. But this is only possible because companies act as buffers. Small business owners, who make up for most employment in our societies and who face the unforgiving reality of the market, might incur losses over several years, while employees continue to enjoy comfortable salaries. People easily forget this.

Because commercial ventures are inherently risky and uncertain, companies benefit from fast and flexible decision-making which responds efficiently to market forces. Hierarchical modes of organization are better suited to exploit economies of scale (sending a man to the moon, building a big hydroelectric dam, running a large amusement park) and economies of time (respond quickly to events without the long deliberation required to reach consensus).

Hierarchy allows an efficient mobilization of both people and capital, in ways that freely interacting individuals in a market would not be able to achieve. An organization benefits from giving its managers the capacity to intervene quickly at various points in time, in ways that cannot be fully predicted and specified in advance, in other words: considerable discretion over their subordinates. Many observations indicate that humans are psychologically programmed to respond to social rank and status, which might further explain why hierarchy is everywhere.

What matters in the modern age is not so much what workers are being paid, nor even the fact that they have bosses, but rather their freedom from domination. It does not take much for a worker’s dignity to be destroyed by an abusive manager. By what means can organizations achieve greater protections for their employees?

Securities against managerial misrule

Can I dump a really shitty task on you? Thanks.
— Former boss

Corporations are legally required to make their owners wealthy. This profit imperative means that the main check against managerial power is usually economic performance. My belief until recently was that a manager that negatively affects his company’s performance due to his misbehavior will likely end up being fired, demoted or repositioned, given enough time.

However, it is important to differentiate observable performance from the ethical behavior of managers. The problem is that unethical behavior is often hidden: people tend to do bad things when they know they can get away without any consequence.

While whistleblower lines can be effective against corruption and other serious crimes in big organizations, they remain largely useless against petty acts of aggression — those frequent sly comments by a boss who is intent on getting rid of you, or the arrogant attitude of a CEO that you have to endure day after day.

Hierarchies have a tendency to create information asymmetries. People at the top have a much wider and more holistic view than people at the bottom. But people at the bottom often have a much closer contact with reality; they know many operational details that the top is unaware of. These asymmetries are exacerbated when there is a greater number of hierarchical layers.

As if this wasn’t enough, the specialization of employees into separate functions and divisions creates information silos which further hamper communication between different parts of the organization. Cunning managers can exploit these asymmetries to their advantage, precisely because it allows them to hide the nature of their actions.

Suppose that you are hired into a company where employees work in their own closed-door offices. A nice little perk, you might think. But you soon discover that your boss is a total control freak who insists that you report to him and avoid speaking to anybody else. Somehow everyone at the company seems to think that this is fine.

One day he comes into your office, closes the door, and tells you that he will take over all the tasks that you have been working on for the last six months. From now on, you will work on finishing some obscure report. Nobody sees this — except you and your boss. But it does not end there. Behind the scenes, without you even knowing about it, he starts telling company executives that you can’t be relied on. They believe him. From their perspective, you never seem motivated, never complete what you start working on, and never grab opportunities to take more responsibility. One day you try to bypass your boss, but opinions have already been made. You are told to fall in line and do what your boss says. You are fucked.

Hierarchies also facilitate the appropriation of information. If a highly motivated and creative employee joins a company, that person will likely come up with many new initiatives. Some people may be tempted to claim his or her ideas as their own. It’s particularly easy for superiors to do this. They can take their subordinates’ ideas without giving them due credit, and sell these ideas to executives higher up in the hierarchy. Nobody will ever know where the idea really came from. The creative employee may not even know that someone exploited him.

Why do some managers act like this? Maybe (most likely) they feel insecure or threatened. Maybe they have Asperger syndrome. Maybe they are sociopaths. Maybe they have a mental disorder. In the end, it does not really matter what motivates the behavior of bad managers. The mere fact that such behavior can and does happen is sufficient cause for concern.

It turns out that a person’s moral character can only be assessed when you give him or her an opportunity to act unethically, either because he’s so powerful that nobody can oppose him, or because nobody else is looking, thereby giving him a chance to do whatever he wants. No doubt, there are many good people out there. If you have a good boss, that’s good for you. But there are also some really bad people in this world — individuals who do tremendous harm to others with little or no consequence to themselves.

These villains often get away with unethical acts because they can control information. They can perpetrate small-scale offenses because the very structure of the institutions in which they operate allows them to do so. This points to the importance of transparence and accountability within organizations.

How can leaders encourage transparence in the workplace? How can they shape a company’s structure and culture in ways that minimize the risk of local power abuse, while encouraging openness and trust? The answer, it turns out, is far from obvious, because organizational changes always have second order effects that are difficult to predict.

Consider for example the choice between “closed” and “open” office spaces. There has recently been a dominant trend promoting the enhanced interaction, creativity and transparency of open-space workplaces. But what you often end up with is “an open expanse of proximal employees choosing to isolate themselves as best they can (e.g. by wearing large headphones) while appearing to be as busy as possible (since everyone can see them).”

Due to its transparency, the open-space office has the notable effect of exposing one’s actions to others. This makes it easier to spot who is talented, and who is not. But the open communication also makes it easier for some employees to waste their colleagues’ time. As strange as it may sound, closed offices may actually help minimize the damage caused by incompetent employees who cannot be fired, a situation that is typical in the public sector, by confining them to restricted spaces.

In many instances, it also turns out that the open-space plan was adopted specifically because of cost savings and its capacity for improved surveillance. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault argued in Discipline and Punish, the physical space in which people work plays a critical role in the processes, activities and power structure of any organization. The way that the physical workplace is organized has many effects on motivation, some of which are not always obvious.

A change in office design has different effects on different people. “While a transition to an open-space office may mean a loss of status to a manager, it may be a source of empowerment to a clerical employee.” Open-space offices are generally associated with higher levels of noise and lower privacy. Individual workers are limited in how much they can personalize lighting, temperature, and décor — including the extent to which they can display status symbols.

In contrast to past Tayloristic office designs aimed at increasing efficiency by reducing costs or “waste,” the managers of knowledge workers can opt for an “enrichment” approach that seeks to boost productivity by motivating employees to outperform. But employees are almost never consulted on their preferences for the office design, even if the new design is intended to enrich their worklife.

Perhaps the best approach is simply to experiment with different design elements and perspectives, and observe what works best for different types of teams. Offices can be designed to fit the specific needs of specific employees, combining different closed- and open-office features depending on context. As Harvard’s Ethan Bernstein suggests, “let the experiments proliferate, and let the people who are working in the spaces feel ownership over them, because without that collective and rapid experimentation, we are not going to get better workspaces.”

When running these experiments, one should keep in mind that the purpose of transparency should be to encourage justice. Bad behavior should always be punished and shamed; but that requires that bad behavior be visible. Transparency in the built environment, in formal structures, and in the company culture can help promote a dynamic labor system, where nobody ever rests on their laurels. Companies benefit from structures that empower the competent and make them even more productive, while getting rid of toxic employees (including tyrannical managers) by exposing them to the light of day.

Escaping the tyranny of hierarchies

As Étienne de la Boétie once pointed out, tyranny is only made possible thanks to our widespread submission to authority. Our biology and our socialization make us revere high-status individuals. It is this voluntary submission that makes it possible for a single individual to dominate many, and for the freedoms of the unfortunate few to be infringed.

If freedom from domination is to be valued more than material well-being, then this means that autonomy, not wealth, is the highest good that individuals can achieve. The highest degree of autonomy is reached when you can turn down any course of action that anyone tries to impose on you.

The publishing house tells you that they won’t publish your book unless you accept their suggested changes? Fuck them, you’ll publish with someone else. Your wife had an affair with your neighbor? Fuck her, she’s out of your life. Your boss is being a dick? Fuck him. Hand in your two-word resignation letter. You are nobody’s bitch, you bow down to no one, cost what it may.

Such a “fuck you attitude” is a mark of freedom, but it is not easy to achieve. Long-term financial commitments, such as having signed a loan agreement with a downpayment on a house, forces you to service the lender. This is a problem, insofar as it makes it difficult to make decisions that might reduce your disposable income. Financial wealth and financial autonomy do not necessarily go together. For most people, there is a trade-off between the two.

Being rich — having a lot of readily disposable cash — is obviously something that improves your options in life. One could argue that “fuck you money” provides the leverage required to make decisions on your own terms, without being dependent on anyone. You become what Nietzsche called a master: someone in full control of their life, strong and proud, who makes decisions based on a sense of honor, authenticity and truthfulness. But how much money do you need to achieve autonomy? Perhaps not as much as you think.

Aristippus: Look at you. If you would only learn to flatter the king, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.
Diogenes: My dear Aristippus, if only you could learn to live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the king.

The admirably strong and independent Cynics of ancient Greece demonstrated that it is very possible to be a master of your own life without being rich. If you say “fuck you” enough times, you will eventually end up in a position of autonomy, although it might leave you with very little money for some time. Can you survive this? The Cynics would argue that you can. It’s all about your mindset, and your ability to accept the necessary trade-off between security and freedom.

The “master” is an ideal type, and in reality very few people enjoy the luxury of living as absolute masters in the Nietzschean sense. If you are not in a situation of financial autonomy, you are by definition in a state of financial dependency. Most of us (including myself) are dependent on others for our subsistence. I would argue that people who are financially dependent can be further divided in two categories: mercenaries and slaves.

Mercenaries are those who enjoy a high level of flexibility with regards to their source of income. A successful freelance consultant who can choose between different customers falls in this category. But corporate employees can also be mercenaries, if they have the possibility to find a new employer easily. The ease with which people can “jump ship” in this way varies tremendously according to industry, location, and profession.

A very good friend of mine, who works as a programmer, is lucky enough to receive several job offers every single day. He recently decided to quit his job, leave his rental apartment, and spend some of his savings on a six-month travel in Asia with his girlfriend. When he told his employer about this, they offered a 30% raise and a promotion to a new position with managerial responsibilities. He politely told them to fuck off, being confident that he would still get attractive job offers on his return.

In contrast, a modern slave is a man who sees no choice but to submit to the arbitrary authority of his employer. Suppose that an engineer has worked for many years in a stable niche industry, say in a company that makes highly specialized pumps. He also happens to have an expensive mortgage on a big suburban house, three small children, and a stay-at-home wife.

This man cannot easily quit his job without there being serious consequences. He would incur a financial loss that affects not only himself but also four innocent human beings who depend on him. If he is not ready to accept this consequence, he will have no choice but to accept whatever crap his boss gives him.

This might leave him bitter. As Nietzsche pointed out, the typical mindset of a slave is one of resentment, the natural reaction to oppression. You should do everything you can to avoid being in a state of self-pity and resentment. The most honorable goal in life is not to be comfortable and safe; rather, it is to live free.

One could rank life outcomes by their degree of freedom. At the top of this list, the most honorable outcome that one can achieve is total financial autonomy. If you cannot achieve this, that’s fine, but you should remain aware of your limitations, and you should do whatever you can to avoid being a victim. Always seek to position yourself so that you can avoid the worst effects of workplace tyranny. Invest your time and efforts to gain greater autonomy in the future.

Controlling and reducing your expenses is a great way to increase your financial autonomy. But this goes contrary to the social norm, which is to increase your consumption as you age. It’s hard to reduce your standard of living because your ever more expensive lifestyle becomes part of your identity, it signals who you are. Reputation is a trap: caring too much about it will easily make you a slave to the opinions of others. More important than reputation is personal integrity.

At some point, you just know that it’s time to quit, and you should be willing to take a hit. In their insightful book Quitting, Bernstein and Streep argue that people with more complex identities are buffered from the negative affect and emotional fallout when losing their jobs. They point out that anything that helps you be cognitively and emotionally flexible will be beneficial as you move forward.

This ability to move forward, to rise above situations of indignity, is precisely what defines freedom. Blind faith in future progress can be dangerous. Always entertain the possibility that unjust acts might happen; always maintain a willingness to leave a tyrant.

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