by Lazarus B. Danzig
“In my role as a puppetmaster, lounging in this blasé bureaucratic atmosphere virtually devoid of repercussions, any lack of diligence on my part shall only encourage if not excite my own profound negligence of everything.”
“Lazarus B. Danzig” is a manager in an unnamed department at McMurdo Station, where he has spent numerous summers and a few winters.
Burdened as the middle manager is with a pedigree of doubt, and trapped in a cubicled prison cell, suffering endlessly in like company, it behooves us to understand that these errant figures, tormented by perceptions of privation and suffering the frozen associations of life in Antarctica, should finally be granted their righteous due.
The vile rancor one naturally feels towards the mental dictums of middle management might be somewhat mitigated by a rational inquest into the work ethos of White Collar management as opposed to Blue Collar laborers. The separation of work ethics and values between the two camps is as great a gulf as between a Priest and an Atheist. I believe we must take a look at the mechanisms of mind, body and spirit exhibited by these two groups, their respective philosophies on the nature of accountability and achievement, as well as their fundamental differences in response to the physical environment they co-inhabit.
A pithy example of how managers inure themselves to creature comfort is their abject refusal to deal with the environment in which they live. The average manager in Antarctica insists on indoor temperatures that would call for air conditioning were they summering at home. And, while the outside temperatures might for months remain well below zero, they will wear clothing suitable to Sub Saharan Africa or perhaps Polynesia. Their flesh recoils from the refreshing bite of sub-zero air as would a vampire’s when exposed to sunlight. Fearing any hint of exposure, they bundle themselves in the heaviest of parkas and dash from one indoor oasis of heat to the next. Their working experience of Antarctica might just as well occur in a windowless office at some home-and-garden depot in wintertime Peoria.
The indoor nature of the manager’s work precludes any of the healthful benefits found in manual labor, especially those labors performed in outdoor Antarctica, with its fresh, crisp, and cleanest of all airs. Here an easy Blue Collar day outdoors provides more exercise than a month of inane managerial exertions. This lack of physical endeavors makes for a steady and inexorable decline in the health and fitness of our ignoble hero. The inevitable result is a sickly, enfeebled and impuissant specimen of humanity that glowers in envy at the jocular fitness of even a slothful Blue Collar worker. The physical prowess of the outdoor laborer radiates health and vitality, and these qualities attract the attention of both sexes, occasionally dictating a laborer’s summons to the office. This attraction only serves to illuminate by contrast the paunchy flaccidity of the managerial ranks, both to their own eyes and to those of the opposite sex. These feelings of inadequacy brew over the years in a seething cauldron of lustful animosity.
While the image of an indoor working manager slipping into obese decrepitude hardly engenders feelings of empathy, a manager really needs little if any physical strength. Rather, he flexes mental muscle and exercises discriminating faculties to do a proper job. A thick skin and a strong back hardly make for a nimble mind—a bounty far more difficult to display than a bulging bicep. The manager grasps this straw of truth tightly, just as he desperately grasps at the enduring image of the Blue Collar worker as a muscle-bound cretin. Unfortunately, as civilization has progressed, the luxury of public education has worked its magic so that, contrary to popular myth, the Blue Collar worker of the postmodern age is often an educated free-thinker, especially so in Antarctica. Many have thrown off the yoke of button-down collars while still in college, having realized that the health and monetary benefits of Blue Collar employment far exceed the perceived drudgery and lower social standing. And here our ambitious middle manager is chagrined to discover that the skills of the lowly laborers often command premiums that exceed his own expectations. This, along with the realization that years in the same trade dramatically increase the value of the skilled laborer, is like a hot needle in the eye. The life expectancy of a stagnated middle manager is measured in dog-years, and failure to advance steadily through the ranks leads to a life-sentence of cubical obscurity and impotent mechanizations. This disparity is the bitterest of pills to swallow, and further alienates the middle-manager from the happy-go-lucky plebeians under him, who frolic in childlike freedom from responsibility and organizational woes, prospering all the while.
While these physical roles are easily established, the principle disparity between the two groups is a divergence far more endemic than even physical attributes. The average Blue Collar worker is loath to boast a daily record of work performed, for fellow employees will deride him if such an account is offered. Merely noticing, let alone boasting, that one has sweat blood in the course of a workday is cause for a lambasting. Indeed, the more difficult the deed flaunted, the more derision one can expect to receive from one’s fellows. This derision rises on an order of magnitude if these same deeds are mentioned to the accursed manager. To offer one’s manager an unsolicited account of the workday so negates all that was done as to be almost worse than having shirked those duties completely. To boast of one’s accomplishments is looked upon by the rabble as a mark of betrayal and a sure sign of managerial leanings, and thus a secret yearning for a life of scheming manipulations and physical ease. The results of the worker’s day speak silent volumes to all who labored beside the productive fellow, and a more mute testimony need never be offered. The honor of knowing one’s mettle is the reward, and the endearment and respect of one’s co-workers is like an invisible badge of rank, one which can only be displayed in a swagger of towering self-respect.
This muscle-sore swagger of barrel-chested pride will necessarily never be experienced by those who populate the cubicles of officialdom. These creatures must by necessity take credit for the accomplishments of the Blue Collar worker, cloaking themselves in distant deeds and reaping illegitimate kudos. The more verbose the accountability, the greater the acclaim; and acclaim is the ultimate goal of one who accomplishes nothing tangible. The beleaguered middle manager must accumulate accolades in order to showcase his command of the departmental muscle, thereby gaining in prestige over the other puppetmasters. These poor wretches are never secure in their posts, and must either rise, or perish in lateral obscurity. Many affect an air of intellectual condescension to mask the reality of their position, and this is especially so in cases where the manager has no practical knowledge of the work being performed under him. The overlord is secretly at the mercy of the foreman and, knowing so, the inept manager husbands this resource like a miser’s treasure. On the other hand, should the inept manager inadvertently install a conniving foreman, he risks becoming the manipulated mouthpiece of his own lackey, an unwary monkey dancing for a scheming organ grinder. In this worst of all scenarios, a symbiotic relationship develops between manager and foreman in which little gets done but much is taken credit for. When at some eventuality the reality of the situation is presented, the display of indignation (whether genuinely felt, or feigned) is a self-righteous farce worthy of operatic grandeur.
Our beleaguered middle manager lurks about under constant delusions of Blue Collar ineptitude and laziness. These traditional views upholding Blue Collar lassitude are not completely without merit. While most Blue Collar workers slave in spite of themselves, a growing minority of suburban milksops are infesting the ranks of laborers here in Antarctica. To them a work ethic is a weakness to be scoffed at, and by shirking responsibilities they believe they are pulling one over on “The Man”. Many of these miscreants are neo-hippies who romanticize the past and view themselves through a distorted lens of self-indulgent platitudes. They have perverse notions of what it means to be living the good life, free from the constraints of servitude, but ensconced in luxury and material excess. These children of the sun are damning genetic examples of the 60′s era “Free Love” and that dubious generation’s legacy of duty.
While such louts are rare in number, the deviant Blue Collar worker is a constant source of aggravation to all who suffer the presence of this individual. This one malignant strain personifies many of the preconceived notions management holds in regards to Blue Collar workers as a whole, and this blight maligns all who strive to do a job for its own sake. The all seeing eye of upper management is always by chance glancing about when this buffoon makes an appearance, and the observation becomes a reflection on the group as a whole. This reflection of the group is a concentrated reflection on the abilities of the manager who, under this magnified spotlight of misconception, is burned alive for failing to motivate or rein in unproductive workers. Such Blue Collar mites of humanity recoil under any direction and are engaged in constant petty rebellions against all of the smaller forms of authority. When approached by management of rank these lackeys either run and hide or transform into sulking lickspittles willing to make any concession, and praise any decision however harebrained, in an effort to distract the detractor’s attention away from themselves. The inept and vainglorious supervisor often mistakes these obsequious sycophants as creatures of talent and, against all rationality, promotes them into the lower rungs of middle management. In this sense, a constant battle between genuine talent and politically-savvy ineptitude is being waged. The managerial aspirant, although aware that some degree of real merit is demanded by his position, nonetheless holds political agility and endearment as attributes of greater value than competence and insightful knowledge. The manager of talent scoffs at such connections and shoulders on, despite the sometimes temporary aggrandizement his nemesis might seem to enjoy. Thus, the ranks of management are as split amongst themselves as are the ranks of their laboring minions; the bad apples of the office sector, just as in the work yard, spoil the image of the lot.
Who wields the power to promote mediocre imbeciles to positions of authority? It is the upper middle manager, often an aged curmudgeon who after years of clerical exile in the middle ranks has managed to clamber a rung or two higher. Securely perched, these marooned scavengers glare about with a profane sense of self-satisfaction. All the while clinging to precarious notions of grandeur, they are actually ebbing in prowess and desperately harbor stillborn dreams of advancement. These pitiful curs people the crevices of Antarctic operations at Denver headquarters, and have for many years. These ranks of management are festooned with backbiting, inept bunglers, as immune to competency and sound reason as they are to original thought. Many of these self-inflated mountebanks are just now fading into well-earned obscurity, after half a lifetime of penury accomplishment and self-serving mechanizations. Their penchant for half-witted manipulation and self-aggrandizing schemes chased many a genuine talent from the Antarctic program, and populated it with the lowest cost (and cast) of laboring humanity, and in the end have cost the Antarctic program many millions of dollars.
A variation on our theme is the newly graduated professional manager. Often, if not principally, the directly hired graduate possesses an attitude of aloof antagonism towards the Blue Collar wretches under his or her control. This form of nobility often represents a second or third generation of White Collar manipulators, and has been spoon-fed from birth in the superiority of his person. Having been schooled in the “art” of management, and with little, if any, hands-on experience with tasks physical or practical, these masters of chicanery are the vampires of their kind. Ambitious to a fault, each position attained is a stepping-stone to greater pastures, thus importance far beyond relevance is placed on every action that may effect a bystander’s perception of the manager’s performance. In the end, however, the ranks of middle management are an anathema for any truly ambitious manager, and usually only the younger recent graduates are ever to be suffered as a boss. The very notion of rubbing shoulders with an “untouchable” is an abhorrence to these BS, MBA imposters, although a young, hot, hardbody laborer is still worth a poke.
Let us now observe the metamorphosis of a Blue Collar employee to a White Collar puppetmaster. To step away from one’s toiling fellows and enter the world of managerial largess, the ties of camaraderie are twisted and strained in ways that inexorably sever them. Despite enthusiastic pledges of fidelity, a polar shift has taken place, and the open doors of warm reception with past fellows are slowly shut. The forcing of opinions in matters of procedure breeds resentment among old friends. Former fellows foster feelings of diminished status. Inadequate servility towards the newly promoted forces an eventual reproach, a laying down of authority. Once this breech has been crossed, all but the rarest of workplace friendships will fall by the wayside. When former fellows gather, barbed jokes about you are bandied about. Grab-ass horseplay and former tolerances of your proclivities are eroded until what was once endearing is now offensive, if not repugnant. In the blink of an eye, what was once jolly good humor has become taboo.
There is no going back. To abandon the course undertaken and attempt to undo the transformation as a middle-manager would only disenfranchise one as a failure in the eyes of both groups. There is no cure other than competency during this chrysalis period of one’s transformation from grub to moth. Former Blue Collar workers hold the touchstone of one’s managerial mettle to a much harder surface than any other breed of manager, and rightly so. To know what is involved in any undertaking, and having tasted the bitter draught of nonsensical taskings, the nouveau taskmaster has no excuse to shield himself from the harsh criticisms of former mates.
In some cases, one is expected to maintain some semblance of fellowship by lending a hand in the drudgeries one has just proscribed. The separation here is acutely felt, as your fellows know that when you are not beside them, you are lounging inside while they toil in unabashed cold. But by keeping abreast of upcoming changes and problematic situations from a centrally-located desk, the insightful manager is able to affect a solution before problems arise, thus saving the cursing fellows a great deal of effort outdoors. This notion is lost in their wrathful jealousy. A pro-active stance from management is an attribute lost on the suffering laborer. Reactive management is far more endemic to the various Antarctic departments, and is thus more familiar to the near-sighted ethos of the laboring peons.
But a manager who constantly acts as one of the minions interferes with the group dynamics (as nobody likes to work with the boss) and acts to usurp the foreman of the crew, effectively creating a now superfluous team leader, who naturally resents the diminished authority. Such continual hands-on participation from a manager is an affront to God’s order and it blurs the lines of nature. It is like having sex with animals or making deserts out of vegetables (i.e.: Zucchini Bread: what kind of an abomination is this? A sacrilege conjured up by one of these gender-blurring Neo-Hippies that infest the kitchens of the Antarctic stations.) The new manager’s hammer-forged inclination for action and physical activity is an initial hurdle on the path to officialdom that only time will overcome. The desk-bound comfort of the new position is an insidious treat, since in one’s former incarnation respites from manual labor were stolen moments of ease, and just as sweet as a pilfered cookie in one’s youth. Now the cookie jar of surfeit ease is under your command and while initially this feels like wealth, the constant diet of languid exertions diminishes the flavor, but increases the appetite for comfortable vacillation, and the inexorable decline begins.
Therein lies the conundrum of my own experience as a manager. Only through manual labor have I been able to give any semblance of strength and steel to the indolence and languor that is my true nature. In my role as a puppetmaster, lounging in this blasé bureaucratic atmosphere virtually devoid of repercussions, any lack of diligence on my part shall only encourage if not excite my own profound negligence of everything.
The middle manager is as old as Man, and the species as it exists in Antarctica has evolved outside the constraints of accountability and exists in a state of eroding isolation. The brain-fevered ideology of the remote outpost manager as a beacon of enlightened civilization died in the Congo a hundred years ago. The larger legacy of middle management lies in its dictums on the nature of bureaucratic responsibility. This school places every impetus on abject security and recoils from the risks involved in direct decision-making or in the sponsoring of insightful changes. Longevity is its mantra, first and last and always.
These bureaucratic toadies are in fact the very axis of our civilization. Without them we are condemned as a species to disintegration and unsustainable drive. Managerial mediocrity is the very mortar of our civilization, and no institution in Heaven or on Earth would fail to crumble in the absence of its mollifying umbrage.