Kleider machen Leute and the corporate cocoon

There is a scene in Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, where the Pope is getting dressed.  While he is still in his underwear he is sympathetically disposed to Galileo; by the time he has his papal robes on, he is ready to allow the Inquisitor to show Galileo the instruments of torture.  As the Germans say: Kleider machen Leute.

Something similar was expressed in a blog post on the Bustard a while ago (https://www.thebustard.com/?p=750 ) on how we can be different people at home from at work.  For example, at home we might act for the long-term wellbeing of our children (e.g. teach them to swim) while at work we might do things which disadvantage the long-term the wellbeing of our children (e.g. promote the burning of fossil fuels).

The other day I understood another force which reinforces this split in our character.  I asked someone about being an executive with Shell, where your primary purpose in life is to get oil and gas out of the ground and get it burnt up.  I asked, when does the point come that you have enough money so you can walk away and do something different?  He explained that with a senior job at Shell come a Shell wife, a Shell car, a Shell house and a Shell mortgage.  It’s hard to get off that lifestyle.

But then he said: “Shell is a big family.  We all know each other.  We all feel part of it.”

Perhaps the surrogate family is as strong a lure as the lifestyle.  Within that family there is a shared purpose, a shared set of beliefs and a shared morality: in all, a powerful regulator of human thinking and behaviour; thereby our intellectual independence is dulled.  This is a kind of corporate alcohol which gives us a warm and cosy feeling and softens our mind.

It is good when an employer provides a great working environment and engenders a sense of belonging and common purpose.  But it is sorry at the point that talented people are lured into that warm and conflicted cocoon where they toe the line in order to enjoy the lifestyle.  Not because there is necessarily anything wrong with a nice life, but because, to cut emissions, we need talented people to focus, with clear, independent and sparkling minds, on the long-term interests of their children rather than on the short-term interests of their employers.

This might sound a bit idealistic but there are too many difficult problems to solve for it to be desirable for talented people to be lured into corporate families whose business further exacerbates those problems.

Environmental campaigners and even subversive policy makers might consider the home-work split and the corporate family delusion as areas for further investigation.

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