Sunday, February 5, 2017

An Officer and a Gentleman

Even today, in our society, some people are chosen, almost from birth, to be leaders and part of the elite upper classes.  Others are shunted to the working class early on.   Why is this?

I spent many years working in industry and have a number of friends who were (or are) in the military, and when we swap stories, it is always interesting to me how similar the structures are between military and industrial organizations.

In the military, you have enlisted men and officers.   The latter usually went to a military academy (West Point, Annapolis, etc.) and started their military careers on the top of the heap - as officers.   It is possible for an enlisted man to "work his way up the ranks" and go to Officer Candidate School and become an officer, but even then, he is viewed by the other officers differently than their fellow former cadets.

In industry, we have the same dichotomy.  There are the hourly and the salary employees, the latter having gone to college and started their work careers in the office, not on the shop floor.   It is possible for an hourly employee to work their way up the ranks and become a salaried employee, but it is rare, and they will be viewed differently by the office staff.

And one reason why this is so is fraternizing - a crime in the military and frowned upon at the factory.  If you are a salary-man, you are expected to avoid being friendly with the hourly employees.  You aren't supposed to go out to the bar for a beer with them after work, and even if you did, you'd make them feel uncomfortable more than you'd be.   The lower classes want to hang with their own.

The similarities don't end there.  In the military, the interface between the officers and enlisted men is the toughest job there is - the Sergeant, who has to take orders from officers and then cajole his fellow enlisted men to do their jobs.  In industry, it is the Foreman, who is on the front-lines between the office staff and the production floor, tasked with the thankless job of taking company policy and molding it into action on the part of employees.

This bifurcated system of organizing a society seems to permeate not only our culture, but that of most of the world.  The British have their house of commons and house of lords - the commoners and the royalty.  And our congress is bifurcated along similar lines, with the Senate being the "august body" of older and presumably wealthier people.

Even in Communist countries, where everyone is "equal" there are some more equal than others, with party members and the politburo on the top of the heap, managers and engineers somewhere in the middle, and the workers and farmers at the bottom.

What is odd, people on both sides of the divide seem to like it this way.  No matter the situation, it never pays to "fraternize" between classes, if in fact, it is not illegal.  The upper classes look down upon one of their own ilk being chummy with the lower classes, and the lower classes don't like it either.  This is a fascinating aspect of human nature.   If as a manger, you try to be "friends" with your employees, it will all go horribly wrong in short order.  Employees don't respect and like a manager who is too chummy.   They actually want their manager to be a distant authority figure who is smarter than they are and tells them what to do.

And maintaining this facade is very important and psychology is used to make the upper classes seem upper and the lower classes lower.   In the military, they refer to the parts of the ship or base where officers are billeted and work as "officer's country" and it is viewed with respect by the enlisted men.  Officers wear elaborate uniforms to distinguish them from ordinary soldier and sailors.  In the law firm, the partners all had their offices in the hushed "partnership row" where mere clerks and associates tread only with fear. 

Why is it we have this need to have someone above us?   It is a survival instinct, of course.   Humans are like ants in one regard - we work together cooperatively to do amazing things, which is one reason why these "sovereign nation" people are full of horseshit.  Every single thing in your life from your house, to your car, to your computer, to your coffee cup and the coffee in it, required an intricate ballet of hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of people to produce and ship to you.   Without an organized society, none of this would happen.

So, like the military, we need and require and desire organization.  We want someone to have a grand plan telling us what to do, so we can all work toward that desired goal.  And this is why populism has such a hollow ring to it, and why deep down, people know populism is wrong - and why they will actually vote themselves tax increases on occasion, if they think the money will do society as a whole good, and not just benefit some other individual instead. 

It is also why, on occasion, people will elect dictators.

There are other people too, who have no problem with assuming a role of power and authority even if they have little or no experience in the field.   This is the one thing that has always amazed me about human society - that we would crown a teenager as King and have him lead us into battle.   Or a young officer, right out of college, is expected to lead a dozen seasoned men who have more practical experience that he does.   Or that a young guy out of college should take a salary job and boss around people twice his age - and feel comfortable doing this.

Some folks have it, I guess, others don't. Others just fake it.  Myself, I was never comfortable with the idea that by dint of college education I was superior to someone working in the same field as an hourly employee, and perhaps that is why I was never cut out for management.

But of course, others have fewer compunctions about this, even though they are utterly clueless at what they are doing and often cause endless trouble for others.

I am not sure what the point of this all is, other than it struck me as an odd feature of our modern society.   And perhaps ancient society as well - societies where royalty was an inherited trait, and the demarcation between ruling class and working class was well established.

It just seems, sometimes, to be odd and maybe antiquated.  But part of who we are.