The whirlwinds of moving house recently swept me into the checkout line of my local K-Mart, waiting an inordinately long time to purchase a single infant safety item. Thinking myself clever, I looked up the Amazon price on my phone and asked the cashier to match it. Her response was the most unintentionally effective customer-service interaction that I have ever had: “What do you think this is? Walmart?? We don’t even match the prices from our own website!” We both had a laugh and, to my own astonishment, I found myself paying the difference without much grumbling.
It was refreshing to have a dialogue with someone who spoke her mind, who acknowledged not offering a service that peers do, and complained about the absurdities of a company policy. The implied message was clear: “I would really like to help, but my employer has terribly stupid rules that won’t allow me to do so.” That is a human response with which any decent person can sympathize; we’ve all been in that position, whether we work for a corporation, or a government office, or a university. It is an interaction that contrasts starkly with what one so often hears, usually over the telephone: a faceless voice droning through a script that always repeats the same empty message: “We here at Indifference Global strive to provide an excellent customer service experience, and we know that your time is valuable. Have we addressed all of your concerns today?” Invariably the script comes at the end of a conversation where both interlocutors know that the experience has been a miserable waste of time addressing no concerns whatsoever. The human voice at the other end of the line that might acknowledge these facts has been replaced by meaningless company-speak. All of this invariably arrives with the warning that the call may be recorded for quality control. The possibility of surveillance confirms that the customer-service script is language at its most debased, language primarily intended to serve as an obstacle to human encounter. What if one of those recordings were to catch a moment like my exchange with the K-Mart cashier? Would her job be safe?
This may seem like grousing about the minor inconveniences of day-to-day living, and of course it is. But it also gets to the heart of the distinction before us, that between corporatism and professionalism. Corporatism values human activity only insofar as it advances an organization’s narrowly mercenary objectives. Acceptable effort is that which is immediately monetizable, and any form of expression that does not answer this demand must be stifled. Gaming the system, finding the shortcut that produces maximum return with minimum effort, wringing efficiencies out of disposable worker-units are the highest virtues. To be “on company time” is temporarily to resign ownership of oneself for the sake of the corporation’s insatiable appetite for profit.
Professions, by contrast, are organizations through which individuals pursue a specialized activity that serves a vital social function. They are guided by the recognition that productive human effort arises from training and focusing individual abilities, from nurturing talent, sharing best practices, and guarding against incompetence and corruption. Shortcuts are discouraged. Newcomers are expected to run a gauntlet of preparation and various kinds of formal and informal apprenticeship. And yet vital to any profession is allowing space for creativity so that new ideas and practices can emerge. This benefits the profession itself, and also gives practitioners a sense of fulfillment. There is thus a humanistic core to professionalism—the emphasis on life-long cultivation of abilities, on individual achievement placed in service of a greater good—that is quite absent from corporatism.
But that humanist core has its pitfalls: the rewards and aspirations of professional life can map themselves all too neatly onto those of human life. Measures of professional success become measures of human success. The logic of the profession makes such statements as “I am a lawyer” or “I am a journalist” feel like confessions of identity. “I am a mid-level executive in a national insurance company” doesn’t have the same ring. Being “on company time” is a temporary state; the locution itself acknowledges the existence of time outside the sphere of company activity. Members of professions are denied this outside: to be in a profession is to be told where all of one’s meaningful energies ought to be directed.
The case becomes more fraught still in an age when professions are under corporate control: when physicians serve the interests of drug and insurance companies, when professors work in a university system that is a front for the student-loan industry. Professionals themselves, trained to work effectively within a system of all-consuming demands, are very poorly equipped to change this cooptation of their calling. Under such conditions, professional life retains only a false dignity. All of the virtues of professionalism become an especially pernicious form of corporatism, valued for their ability to generate profit while still hiding behind the patina of delivering a social benefit. The lab-coat wearing physician, quietly exuding authority and commanding trust, becomes a corporate mascot—all the more effective because we have no choice but to place faith in this high priest of the modern religion of physical health. If the profession is a structure that helps human practitioners get a handle on complex spheres of activity, it is also a highly effective device for making certain spheres of activity entirely opaque to outsiders. The harm is very pronounced indeed when the public benefit of a profession is replaced by corporate benefit: a service necessary to modern life, and that we simply cannot perform for ourselves, becomes yet one more means of transferring wealth from individuals to corporations.
Our lived reality is thus one where the inherently conflicting values of corporatism and professionalism are often intermixed. Rejecting corporatism’s absolute value of profit, some companies prefer a small-scale and artisanal ethic where craft and creativity can be pursued on their own merits. And the labor crises of lawyers and academics have prompted a younger generation to think about ways in which they can promote the best aspects of their fields by having only one foot in the door of the profession. These developments are not entirely happy in that they so often arise from the economic insecurity that so many young people of all walks of life now face. But they also give us a glimpse of what it means partially to escape corporatism’s greedy maw.
a series of essays on necessary and unnecessary distinctions
Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor in the Graduate Center at CUNY. With Marcus Keller and Ellen McClure, he edits the Northwestern University Press series “Rethinking the Early Modern.”
image: Edward Hopper, Office in a Small City, 1953