Rise of the neutral company
"Politics is the exercise of collective power against human opposition."
This new idea of corporate neutrality—as lately invented by perhaps the two most different high-profile companies in Silicon Valley, Coinbase and Basecamp—is, for once, new. It means something. It might even mean more than it knows it means.
I had been toying with this idea myself for a few years—and even kind of practiced it. But I couldn’t get past the fact that I was the wrong person to invent it. I have a lot of drafts on the subject, but frankly—Coinbase and Basecamp said it better.
The spirit of neutrality is simple: no politics at work. The details are full of devils. What is politics, actually? Is it—campaigning for a candidate? The election definition remains an old-fashioned piece of workplace etiquette—and misses most of politics today.
Any effective neutrality policy must define politics in the broadest, most philosophical sense. Politics is the exercise of collective power against human opposition.
Building a dam is not politics, because it is collective power against natural forces. Deciding to build the dam is politics, because no dam is in everyone’s interest—implying some human opposition that the pro-dam collective must overcome.
In today’s official language, when we talk about elections, we say politics. When we talk about politics, which is power, we talk about impact. We talk about changing the world. We talk about mattering.
Who doesn’t want to matter, make an impact, or perhaps even change the world? Not that anyone can do any of these things on their own—only as part of a movement, a party, an affinity group: a collective. So politics is human collective action—against humans. There is no politics without an enemy.
The essential distinction in politics is between friend and enemy. In theory, we could imagine spontaneous collective action without a human enemy—the Picking Up Trash By The Freeway Party. After a hot day volunteering, this joyous party will be thinking dark thoughts about litterbugs; after a week, they’ll be ready to spray for them. Politics is a special case of war; war is a human universal; the military mind is a default feature.
So a workplace is neutral if no one in the office is trying to change the world—except, of course, by just doing their jobs. They can try to change the office—but such changes can have no reference to the world, just to the office itself.
If they are soldiers in one of today’s political armies, which is fine, they must leave their flags and uniforms at home. When we imagine an office in Northern Ireland which must employ both Protestants and Catholics, we imagine a very simple and easy-to-enforce “No Troubles In The Office” policy.
In the neutral workplace, you are at your professional best if no one can even guess—except by superficial linguistic, cultural, national and/or racial affinities, all of which are unreliable—how you would want to change the world. (Or if you think it’s fine the way it is—which is fine, too!)
And if people can guess—which is sometimes unavoidable—well, at least you can refrain from reminding them. Whatever your polarity, always hide your power level at work—even if everyone at work already knows your power level. How hard is that?
The practical ethos of the neutral workplace is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but for politics. Anyone who can otherwise remain professional in a professional situation can master this black art of political neutrality.
Anyone who can’t is a prima donna. Prima donnas have their place, even in the office. But no opera needs more than one prima donna. Some do better with none. And if you have to ask whether you can get away with being a prima donna—
The Zen of neutrality
Neutrality is like Zen: a practice, not a belief. You don’t have to believe in Zen to do it. Once you learn to do it, though, it is not unlikely that you will start believing in it.
The resemblance is not a coincidence. The essential principle of Zen or any Buddhism is the conquest of desire. Neutrality is the conquest of desire for power—for the sense, authentic and unforgeable, of individual participation in collective victory which past generations would have been unashamed to call glory.
Humans are a social and military species. The desire to matter, make an impact and maybe even change the world is as innate as the sex drive, and almost as fundamental— and almost as easy to manipulate with artificial stimuli.
A policy of workplace neutrality just says you can’t express your power drive at work. You already can’t express your sex drive at work. This policy does not require you to be celibate or asexual. It does not even try to ask you to be opposed to sex. It just asks you, politely and reasonably, not to be sexual within this time and place.
Even if you are a promiscuous swinger or a passionate activist, obeying this physical rule forces you to learn to control your desire—if only in one situation. This in turn grants you a small and incomplete taste of life beyond desire: literally, nirvana.
Keep sucking on this straw, and it turns into a hose. You realize that every thought you have, every story you know, about the true story of the world today, is saturated with importance—this artificial-glory drug, or pornography of power, or intellectual MSG. Every idea comes soaked in the salted corn-syrup golden sauce of changing the world. Everything you believe is an evolved expression of desire.
But you’re still changing the world, aren’t you? If the collective action is good—and it can be good, surely—sure. But—we don’t see that much in practice. Look a bit deeper, and you see the ugly side of everything.
The trouble is: once you become a rocket-powered cocaine god, you are anything but ready to solve some kind of complex moral-calculus trolley problem. Which is exactly what you need to solve—if you want to make sure your impact is actually positive. Or even exists, in reality, at all—but, if you are not doing the math, it is very likely that your collective impact is objectively negative and counterproductive.
True: cocaine still has medical uses. False: you should be prescribing it for yourself. If someone does prescribe it for you, he should be a doctor. He should not be on cocaine. His prescription should be motivated by a reasonable and scientific analysis of your health, not by a romantic ideal, a financial adventure or a sex fantasy.
When you try to change the world and your motivation is intoxication with desire, usually what will happen is nothing. Usually nothing is the best thing that can happen.
Less often but still quite often, you will harm yourself or others. Rarely, you will even do something good. And almost always, you will serve the powers that be—and this is true whether your polarity is “left” or “right.”
Once you decide that the baseline of collective political action is folly, the attraction of philosophical neutrality—not mere refraining from collective action in one place and time, but refraining even from ideas and stories evolved to motivate collective action—is the attraction of intellectual fine dining that isn’t soaked in political corn-syrup.
At the start of this exercise in abstinence from desire for power, every idea on your plate will taste sour, harsh, bitter and dry. At the end, you won’t even need to butter your pancakes. The palate always adjusts.
Aristotle on corporate governance
If neutrality is spiritually good for you, it remains professionally good for your employer. This is why these extremely smart companies would make this kind of painful move (which for both resulted in substantial employee attrition).
Aristotle said a lot about governance but nothing about corporate governance. Aristotle never knew what a corporation is. Aristotle never even grabbed a Doppio at Starbucks.
But we can reuse Aristotle’s simple taxonomy of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy in the 21st-century C-suite. A monarchy is a company which is managed by its CEO. An oligarchy is a company which is managed by its employees. A democracy is one which is managed by its customers.
It should be unnecessary to state that with rare exceptions, all functional companies big or small are monarchies. While mere input from employees and customers is often valuable, any variety of corporate oligarchy or democracy is almost always a human zoo. (One struggles to imagine the toppings at “Democratic Pizza”—let alone the dough.)
One of the banal phenomena behind “woke capital” is the office Slack—or equivalent. Basecamp, famous for a similar tool, knows all too well what Balrog its delvings woke. Speaking as a former CEO, here is what all CEOs should know:
It turns out that letting your employees express themselves, on any and all subjects, in any and all internal chatrooms, is not just a strong way to promote bonding, culture and communication. Said chatroom is also a great onsite for a… Tennis Court Oath.
Quite inadvertently, your “general” Slack becomes a sort of parliament—a stage where loud voices compete to proclaim, condemn, demand and denounce. You have invented the oligarchical form of government. You, the CEO, are cast as Louis XVI in this play. Having fun yet?
It is easy to calculate that a public action which satisfies both the company’s internal activists, and the external journalists who report on the company, would be doubly in the company’s interest. However, this calculation would be incorrect, since neither of these groups is generally motivated by outcomes—rather, by power.
If they were motivated by outcomes, conceding their demands would mollify them. Satisfied, they would disband or at least dwindle. But if they are motivated by power, we would expect concessions to make them louder, hungrier, and more aggressive.
This is probably why Basecamp flipped: the actions it thought were solving the problem were making it worse—and its leadership seems to have figured that out. This would be a rare, but not unheard-of, recovery of monarchical initiative.
When the monarchical power tosses a bone to the oligarchical power, we would expect this to strengthen the oligarchical power and make it more aggressive, not to calm and weaken it. Such a bone might be control over some irrelevant, symbolic, publicly-facing policy decision.
Throwing this bone does not set the dogs to eating. It sets the wolves to howling. Wolves aren’t stupid. They know there are more bones where this one came from. The more a wolf gets, the more a wolf will want; and “man is wolf to man.”
Once this chatroom parliament (the word “parliament” literally means “chatroom”) is given power on a symbolic issue outside the company, it is only a matter of time before it demands sovereignty over substantive issues within the company—which has now become unmanageable.
At least on certain subjects—and that set of subjects will tend to widen. Yet no such parliament is an island; the chat parliaments of different companies will not disagree; all are antennas for one prevailing power, sails to catch one uniform political wind. The parliament thus becomes the ideological agent of this total power, within the firm—the role of the Party commissar, which also existed in both the Third Reich and the USSR, and exists in China today.
If nothing at all about this universal ideology, this “marketplace of idea,” was wrong—if it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—this or any mechanism of oligarchical governance would be foreign to the nature of management. Decisions should never be made communally if possible; such decisions are unaccountable.
In all well-shaped organizations, power is accountable. The design hack in the modern joint-stock company is that the CEO has authority over all other staff, and all other staff are accountable to the CEO; and the CEO is accountable to the board, but the board has no authority to manage the CEO.
The board can only replace the CEO—which keeps them (or the shareholders behind them) from micromanaging the company and turning it into another kind of oligarchy. Yet everyone in an operational role is fully accountable.
The nature of oligarchy is essentially foreign to good governance, because it dissipates accountability. It is not even clear who is in charge. Positions of leadership in the chat parliament are an unpredictable, informal consequence of personal charisma.
Power’s flow has changed its regime; it was laminar, it is now turbulent; responsibility flowed smoothly up to the CEO, authority smoothly down; now power flows into a social-media parliament and disappears in a fog. Needless to say, this fog of power is not accountable to anyone or anything.
By banning politics, broadly defined, from internal chats and meetings, the company intercepts the emotional energy that gets this transition started. The parliament does not create its own internal power; the CEO only fears and respects it because of its power to channel external powers that are outside the company, and above it.
And the form of this channel is politics—collective action against human opposition. Unconditionally block all forms of politics, and all this ends…
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