Working as an office functionary a few summers ago for a local university, I was handed a report by my supervisor as part of a performance review. According to the report, my work in the office had been ‘first class’ with the wider implication that I was performing as a respectable member of society at last. Dad would be so chuffed. There was however, one caveat:
“Rob’s laidback, accessible attitude has allowed him to gel well with his colleagues and to fit into the system. He should be advised, however, that in some institutes, his laidback approach to work may be considered unprofessional.”
Unprofessional? But I had never claimed to be a professional. I held no professional qualification, nor was I a member of any professional body. I’d not even held down a job that could be considered a professional one. I was just some kid.
What the hell is professionalism anyway? What is this vague thing that’s supposed to determine all workplace behaviour? It is surely important to understand how the professional mechanism works, given that it permeates every aspect of work culture from staffroom to sales floor. But surprisingly, the disciplines of organisational psychology, sociology and business management have very little to say about it.
The anarchist philosopher, Bob Black writes: “[All ideologies, left- or right-wing] will carry on endlessly about wages, hours, working conditions, exploitation, productivity, profitability. They’ll gladly talk about anything but work itself.” Indeed it seems to be assumed that professionalism is an intrinsically good thing (or else one without a conceptualised alternative) and so hardly anyone seems to have cast a critical eye over the topic.
In order to try to find some half-decent definition of the nebulous thing that dictates our workplace etiquette, I decided to look to the philosophers. While many of these guys lived and died before the modern incarnation of the word ‘professional’ was even invented, their work provides an underlying matrix to the way that organisation works.
Bob Black points out that to define work (“Compulsory Production”) is to despise it and I discovered something similar when I sought to define professionalism. When one gains a clearer image of where professionalism comes from and what its function is, it is quite difficult not to hate it. It is a manipulative, pretentious and individualising technology, incapable of avoiding social segregation. No wonder so many people die from work-related stress disorders.
David Brent, the managerial boob portrayed by Ricky Gervais on The Office, preaches in one episode of the sitcom that “Professionalism is… and that’s what I want.” He reveals that he has not even the vaguest idea of what professionalism is, which is probably why he spends most of his time playing around with ‘Big Mouth Billy Bass’. Brent is an accidental anarchist and champion of unprofessionalism. But maybe his “Professionalism is…” sentence can be completed after a little rumination.
A panopticon is the name given to the architectural design of a prison building conceived of by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. It consists of a cylindrical or circular building like an amphitheatre with a single watchtower in the centre, occupied by one guard. The inward-facing windows of the main building are tinted so that the guard can see into each cell but so the prisoners cannot see out to the guard: the blackened windows become symbolic of the guard’s supervision and the inmates must assume that they are constantly being watched: it is a near-perfect system of government in which the one can govern the many.
In his 1975 book, Discipline and Punish, the postmodern thinker, Michel Foucault uses the panopticon as a metaphor for how society is self-regulatory, how a culture of fear has been engineered and how the privileged few are in control of the oppressed many. Professionalism, too, I believe, is a technology not entirely unlike Bentham’s panopticon.
One of the key aspects of panopticism is that it individualises its subjects. Bentham, in his 1843 plans of the panopticon prison system explains that the inmates are supervised “by a sequestered and observed solitude”. And of the cells Foucault writes: “They are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible” and that “the major effect of the panopticon [is] to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.”
When this is applied to the workplace, and we replace the idea of inmates with workers, then, as Foucault writes, “there are no disorders, no theft, no coalitions, none of those distractions that slow down the rate of work, make it less perfect or cause accidents.”
Professionalism in the form of job descriptions, wage scale and level of training is the workplace version of panopticonic technology. In an automobile factory, if there is a problem with the windscreen wipers of the final product, then the one guy who makes the windscreen wipers can be isolated and blamed. So everyone must focus upon their own part of the task out of the threat that they will be caught out as being a fraud or a slacker.
If the guard were to take a prolonged bathroom break or decide not to come into work one day, the prisoners would still maintain obedience. In professionalism, though the architect of the system is long dead, the majority of people continue to observe his authority and so the system of self-regulation goes on and on.
While working at the same university I mentioned at the beginning of the article, it was explained to me that the institute goes through an annual quiet spell: during the summer, the majority of students have little to study for and so there is less demand upon the staff. So finding jobs for every member of the ‘team’ would be a difficult task for the supervisors to implement. There was an unspoken understanding between the supervisors and the staff that we must not work too hard or too quickly, since there were only so many jobs to go around and it wouldn’t ‘look good’ in the eyes of the deceased architect to have people sitting idle.
And this, perhaps, is one of my key arguments against professionalism. When we understand that the architect is dead and that we perform only to memories of memories of his surveillance – to his out-of-time and no-longer-manned sentinels – we must give up the ghost or continue to suffer the consequences.
Professionalism is employed as an untrue aesthetic and calls upon us to falsify personalities. It essentially invents what Thomas Hobbes called ‘artificial’ or ‘feigned’ people. Hobbes notes in his famous 1651 publication, Leviathan, that the word ‘person’ derives from the Latin persona: a character portrayed on stage by an actor. And just as an actor acts, so do people in the professional context. Hobbes writes: “Of Persons Artificiall, some have their words and actions owned by those whom they represent. And then the person is the Actor; and he that owneth [the actor’s] words and actions, is the Author: In which case the actor acteth by Authority.”
He goes on to say that the only people who act under authority without their own sense of reason are “Children, Fooles and Mad-men”. Which are you, boy?
This problem is illustrated beautifully by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 doorstop of a book, Being and Nothingness. He describes a waiter whose behaviour in the café is purely theatrical: “his movement is quick and forward, a little too precise” and “his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer” So what is up with this guy? Sartre explains: “He is playing at being a waiter in a café.”
When he leaves the café after his shift, he ceases to be a waiter and returns to what Hobbes would call his ‘natural self’. So why the need for professional falsehood? Sartre explains it as a battle between facticity and transcendence: the professional ‘waiter’ part of the man competing with his ‘free’ and human side.
The real individual behind the persona is not the person required for the café job, for the true person required for the job can only be the waiter’s employer: the employer after all is the one who wants to get food on the tables and to put money in the till. But the employer is lazy or otherwise engaged and so the employee must act as an agent and perform the master’s deeds in his absence. The waiter does not want to wait; he simply has to be there in order to earn his wages with which to buy food and drink and precious sex jelly. So he is running the errands of the managers: acting out the pre-prepared script just as the employer desires and just as the actor does on stage. Moreover, by acting and not truly entering the spirit of things, he is removing himself from any consequences of his actions: he is, as the old war criminals say, only obeying orders.
How long can this madness go on? How long can a whole society go on pretending to be people they aren’t just so that they can go on paying the rent. Kurt Vonnegut, a true philosopher if ever there was one, writes in his novel, Mother Night that “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” And he’s absolutely right. People can surely not live on pretence alone and when we’re not actually engaged in work and cowering behind our professional personas, we are recovering from them or preparing to put them on.
Instrumental in creating social rifts
The assumption that social rifts are categorically bad derives from the ‘Five Steps to Tyranny’ idea proposed in the 1990s by the psychologist, Stanley Milgram. ‘Tyranny’ refers to a the path to an all-out final war and the end of civilisation; the first step on which is the forming of social rifts caused by a hatred or fear of ‘difference’ as opposed to the celebration of ‘diversity’. It is happening all around us already in the arenas of race, sexuality, gender and religion and professionalism isn’t helping things either.
From looking at the panopticonic nature of professionalism alone, we can see that social rifts are unavoidable in that the ultimate shattering of a collective takes place as a result of individualising measures.
Rifts occur due to the identification (or invention) of in-groups and out-groups. In professional organisations, there is an undeniable rift between managers and staff where staff consider the various levels of management to be the stuff of out-groups and vice-versa. Even this article has positioned managers and employers as being the bad guys in that managers are the ones who serve as guards in the panopticon without much in the way of a quibble and employers the ones who bring about the problem of agency or pretence.
But neither managers nor staff are inhuman out-groups: outside of the workplace both mangers and staff are unranked, unprofessionalised humans. It is only within the organisation that humans are divided into masters and slaves. Management/Staff or Masters/Slaves is the most obvious example of segregation caused by professionalism. Professional underlings are sick and tied of managers riding their backs: they are oversupervised, underpaid and not given the credit or respect they have been promised by the universally naïve understanding of professionalism. Managers, on the other hand, are fed up with underlings not working to their full potential, stealing from stock, grumbling about their workloads and questioning authority. Hence the rift. But the rift is only a product of professionalism, for it is seen to be professional for a company to have a hierarchy of managers and staff.
A thorn in the side of both work and play
Anarchist philosopher, Bob Black is quite insistent that work is bad for your health: “Work is the source of nearly all the misery in the world,” he writes, “Almost any evil you’d care to name comes from working or from living in a world designed for work. In order to stop suffering, we have to stop working.”
Such buoyancy is difficult to argue with, isn’t it? But where Black’s famous 1985 essay, The Abolition of Work explains how work is the cause of any social ill you care to name, I’d argue that it’s not ‘work’ per se but professionalism that causes the misery and suffering.
Black subscribes to what he calls a Ludic conviviality: the idea that play is more productive and satisfying and worthy of human attention that work. He writes that “Play isn’t passive. Doubtless we all need a lot more time for sheer sloth and slack than we ever enjoy now, regardless of income or occupation, but once recovered from employment-induced exhaustion nearly all of us want to act”.
Play, Black argues, is not without consequence. It’s just that the consequence does not happen at the end of the process as with work and mostly in the grubby hands of someone else, but rather along the way. He write that in a Ludic Utopia, “life will become a game, or rather many games, but not – as it is now – a zero/sum game. An optimal sexual encounter is the paradigm of productive play, The participants potentiate each other’s pleasures, nobody keeps score, and everybody wins. The more you give, the more you get. In the ludic life, the best of sex will diffuse into the better part of daily life.”
But imagine a professional variation of play. Imagine play confined to specified etiquette and with hierarchies where the microphysics of power are conducted just as they are in the workplace. It would suck. It would essentially be work given that the outcome would not be gratuitous. So it is not necessarily ‘work’ that is bad, for one can assuredly enjoy many modes of work. Work can be rewarding: it can provide direction in life; can help to support worthy organisations; or can allow you to appreciate the good things in life which would be more trivial without the contrasting hardship. In the sex example, one body can ‘work’ to stimulate the erogenous zones of the other and that will most likely be fun: it is work as its own reward. This can only occur after the removal of the professional dimension.
I’m confident when I say that an elimination of professionalism and a promotion of work-as-play will allow individuals to exist as genuine human people rather than as Hobbesian parodies. As a result we can lead happier, more fulfilled and possibly even – mercy me – more productive lives. By extension, I’m certain that an initiative programme of ‘deprofessionalisation’ would allow organisations to prosper and grow. Modern companies were invented by Professionalism and fashioned to be strange machines existing between people rather than as people.
The alternative to professionalism is, I think, ‘collegiality’: a structure of peers in which people can work with other people towards common goals without questionable authority, persona or pretence. When the error of professionalism has been recognised and amended, things can begin to improve.