I’ve been reading William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man. First published in 1956, it describes a shift in American culture. The author argues that in spite of all of our rhetoric in praise of the American dream of success through rugged individualism, our real dominant mythos has to do with loyalty to organizations.
In some ways the book is dated, for example when it talks about young people today– the college graduates of the year 1956.
There were parts of the book, however, that seem as if they could have been written today. I particular, Whyte describes how Americans continue to use the language of rugged individualism but put it into service of a new mythos of championing organizations.
“Officially we are a people who hold to the Protestant Ethic…there is almost always the thought that pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift and competitive struggle is the heart of the American achievement. But the harsh facts of organizational life simply do not jibe with these precepts…When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do, he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition…the committee way simply can’t be equated with the ‘rugged’ individualism that is supposed to be the business of business.”
When the economy crashed in 2008 and so many Americans were laid off, the populace as a whole did not say what you would expect in a culture that truly praises its cowboys and risk-taking lone entrepreneurs. We did not hear that these people were laid off because they took the easy route and worked for someone else rather than blazing their own trails. No, what you most often heard was that it was unfair because these people “worked hard and played by the rules.” They got educations, they got good jobs. In other words, they played their roles as organization men and women.
Back in 2010 sociologist Claude S. Fischer took on the question of just how independent Americans are in his blog Made In America.
“There is considerable evidence that Americans are not more individualistic – in fact, are less individualistic – than other peoples,” he wrote.
The article displays the results of a series of responses given by people of different nations in the International Social Survey Program. Of the different nationalities surveyed, Americans were the least likely to endorse the idea that personal conscience should sometimes trump the law. They were the least likely to say that right and wrong were matters of individual conscience. Americans were the most likely to say you should support your country, even if your country is wrong.
Fischer resolved the seeming contradiction by saying that America’s real culture is neither that of the rugged individual nor of the organization man.
What makes Americans culturally exceptional is not their historical commitment to individualism, but their historical commitment to voluntarism. Voluntarism is about being part of a community, but belonging voluntarily. Americans have long held that people can and should join or leave groups – families, congregations, clubs, townships, and so on – of their individual free will. But Americans also insist that, as long as individuals are members of any such group, they owe their loyalty. “Love it or leave it” seems to be the dominant ethos.
This rang true for me when I first read it, but I would add that there is considerable pressure to “voluntarily” define oneself as part of certain groups. When politicians say that middle class people deserve a break because they did “all the right things” they are clearly defining what groups people should choose to join. You don’t have to be an organizational man. It is your choice. But being an organizational man makes you, in some way, blameless. You chose of your own free will to do what you are expected to do.