The Organization Man by William Whyte: Introduction

William Whyte‘s 1956 classic, The Organization Man is far too embedded culturally to be ‘reviewed’ today, even as a classic. The book can only be read within its context, and reconstructed for 2008. It is also much too dense and nuanced to dispose off in a single post, like I do most books. So I am going to start my first-ever multi-part series devoted to a single book; the book that began the study of worker archetypes, 52 years ago. If you want to follow along, make sure you buy the 2002 reissue edition, with a great foreword by Fortune Magazine executive editor, Joseph Nocera. Since I have to do a bit of setup, in this first part, I’ll only get as far as Chapter 1. In future parts, I’ll try to do 3-4 chapters at once.

Let’s start by reviewing the cultural impact of the original. The best-known artifact of course, is Apple’s famous 1984 commercial (YouTube video here), which owes as much to Whyte as to Orwell for its arresting imagery.

The Origins and Cultural Impact of ‘Organization Man’

Whyte’s critical portrait of post World War II corporate America, and the suburban lifestyle it created, is next only to Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in influencing how we think about work. In many ways, it is in fact an updated version of Weber’s arguments, against what Whyte saw as a culture that had drifted much too far from the individualist, competitive and Darwinian ethos to which Weber attributed the growth of the West.

Any book which creates an iconic cultural image will necessarily itself be reduced to caricature. In Whyte’s case, his nuanced (if unsympathetic portrait) of his subject ended up reduced to a strawman collectivist figure, as in the 1984 Apple commercial. Some have assumed, without reading the book, that it is a case against organizations and for nonconformity. This was explicitly not Whyte’s intent. As he says:

This book is not a plea for nonconformity. Such pleas have an occasional therapeutic value, but as an abstraction, nonconformity is an empty goal, and rebellion against prevailing opinion merely because it is prevailing should no more be praised than acquiescence to it. Indeed, it is often a mask for cowardice, and few are more pathetic than those who flaunt outer differences to expiate their inner surrender. …there will be no strictures in this book against “Mass Man”… nor will there be any strictures against ranch wagons, or television sets, or gray flannel suits… the man who drives a Buick Special and lives in a ranch-type house just like hundreds of other ranch-type houses can assert himself as effectively and courageously against his particular society as the bohemian against his particular society…the fault is not in organization, in short; it is in our worship of it. It is in our vain quest for a utopian equilibrium…it is in the soft-minded denial that there is a conflict between the individual and society.

We’ll consider Whyte’s ideas in their original sophisticated forms, but you will need to make a conscious effort to think deeper than the default simplistic imagery associated with the phrase ‘Organization Man’. The book rings very true and very current, which makes sense, since if we are right about cloudworker economics, we are seeing a partial return to a form of work that is a century old. A form of work whose loss Whyte was bemoaning, since he wrote about its antithetical form, the corporation, in its heyday. But before we dive into the first 3 chapters, here are some examples of how The Organization Man managed to frame the discourses around work for 50 years:

  • The 1984 Apple commercial I already mentioned
  • The image of suburbia in The Stepford Wives
  • Malvina Reynolds famous 1962 song Little Boxes on the Hillside, which was also used as the theme song for the Showtime suburbia drama, Weeds.
  • And of course, all the literature about work since TOM. Peter Capelli’s Talent On Demand is a a good example of TOM-informed analysis, as is all of Dan Pink’s work.
  • The notion of empty suit to describe a useless, faceless warm body
  • The surreal Coen brothers’ movie, The Hudsucker Proxy

The list goes on (do post other examples you know of in the comments).

Whyte himself tired of Organization Man related work after about eight years and spent the rest of his life as an urbanologist, exploring the culture of cities. Some day I may blog about that.

But let’s dive into the text itself.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Whyte begins the book with an open declaration that while his project is a journalistic in nature, his own views are strongly unsympathetic towards the culture he is about to dissect. The setup begins with a compact definition. Whyte is setting up talk about a specific social ethic:

By social ethic I mean that contemporary body of thought which makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual. Its major propositions are three: a belief in the group as the source of creativity; a belief in “belongingness” as the ultimate need of the individual; and a belief in the application of science to achieve that belongingness.

The specific ethic Whyte saw around him was a dreary sort of Utopian anti-individual collectivism. An ethic that represented lifelong and lifeless pre-adulthood and dependence on infantalizing nanny institutions (he calls suburbia the “dormitory” of the organization man). He saw the ethic as pervasive across the Western world, and most prominent in America (us non-Westerners can testify that it has been equally prevalent outside the West: my Dad was a classic Organization Man at Tata Steel between 1959-1993). Whyte saw it as stultifying the creativity of all professions, not just corporate middle managers. To this ethos he attributed the bureaucratization of innovative potential and the professionalization of academe.

The organization man pre-adult culture of the 50s was at the other end of the spectrum, relative to the self-reliant adult culture Max Weber admired. Clearly, even then, Whyte anticipated the critique that he might be attacking a strawman. The chapter cogently argues that the trend might well be very long-term, and that dependence on a counter-trend might be misplaced. In this, I believe Whyte was more right than we like to admit. In the preface, Nocera seems to take it for granted that the Organization Man ethos died in the early eighties; that companies today actually prize individualism and individual renegade creativity. But in corporate America, the picture hasn’t actually changed as much. There is lip-service to the value of mavericks, and the role of talent over training. But the organization man is still alive and well, and in the majority, even if the corporation is no longer playing Nanny.

Two other pieces of Chapter 1 are worth highlighting. First, the commentary on the unique aspects of the American experience. Like Francis Fukuyama did more recently, Whyte points out a fundamental irony about American self-perceptions that was first observed by de Tocqueville:

One hundred years ago [now 152] De Tocqueville was noting that though our special genius — and failing — lay in cooperative action, we talked more than others of personal independence and freedom. We kept on, and as late as the twenties, when big organization was long since a fact, affirmed the old faith as if nothing had really changed at all.

This observation that Americans do not like to admit their collectivist spirit is not new. What is perhaps unfamiliar to people is the weird idea that large American corporations, those bastions of capitalism, might internally be the last bastions of communism. Corporate socialist cultures might outlast the governments of China and Cuba. And we are not talking labor unions here. We are talking about the culturally communist ethos of the managerial class. Something people usually refer to by means of euphemisms like “a consensus-driven culture.” I had never thought of this until a reader, tubelite, pointed it out in a comment to one of my earlier posts, and then it seemed obvious. Whyte dissects this schizophrenia particularly eloquently:

Collectivism? He abhors it, and when he makes his ritualistic attack on Welfare Statism, it is in terms of a Protestant Ethic undefiled by change — the sacredness of property, the enervating effect of security, the virtues of thrift, of hard work and independence… He is not being hypocritical, only compulsive. He honestly wants to believe he follows the tenets he extols,

Let me conclude this opening post with an extract from the opening paragraph, one of the most difficult that I have read. The part in red I found particularly tough.

They are not workers, nor are they the white collar people…in the usual sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions…. In a system that makes such hazy terminology as “junior executive” psychologically necessary, they are of the staff as well as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism.

This is a very subtle form of the common critique that bureaucratized organizations end up codifying meaningless process over substantive content. The line gets at the essential idea that the organization man, ultimately, is a ghostly, shadowy half-worker. This is Bartleby the Scrivener institutionalized as the norm.

And that’s the setup. Next time, we’ll look at a few more chapters, covering Whyte’s analysis of the fall of the Protestant Ethic, the rise of ‘Scientism’ and the values of Belongingness and Togetherness.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Venkatesh–

    I believe that Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, is an excellent example of a work of art framed by the ideas surrounding the Organization Man. His depiction of corporate culture (especially the importance placed on uniformity, stability, and especially, belonging) was informed by the author’s stint at General Electric.

    I would recommend this book heartily to anyone who has an interest in the kinds of topics covered on this site.

  2. Thanks, I enjoyed this.

    When you say “even if the corporation is no longer playing Nanny”, I take it you’re referring to the increased casualisation, outsourcing and unreliability – for the organizational man – of contemporary corporations?

  3. jan reinecke says:

    Many moons ago when I was student at Wits(Jo’burg, South Africa) I came across the title of William Whyte’s classic but this morning the title surfaced in the context of our internet culture(cf. Jacques Ellul’s “Technological Society”). My youngest daughter is into what I am calling “internet culture” for want of a better phrase.

    I think Whyte’s insight was that it’s not technology, or the organisation per se that is the demon but our worship of culture or structure or the corporation that is problematic.

    Whyte was in the privileged position that he was paid for writing – earned his living by writing and being critical of institutions. The problem is we are not all so privileged – we have to earn our bread by being part of something bigger than ourselves – which brings obvious pressures to conform.

    I don’t have the solution. Man is an individual and a social being. Both are true. It’s a false dichotomy to play the one off against the other. There are going to be tensions as I seek to live out my uniqueness and balance it with what seems it’s opposite – human relationships.

    Jan

  4. norman gibert says:

    In 1956 I was 26 years old, had just graduated law school, made the tough choice to leave detroit for los angeles. I read and reread the Organizaion Man at least twice and now that I am 81 years old, remember it as a remarkable treatise that shaped my intervening 55 years.