The ‘Real World’: The Corporate Workplace

Dear Reader, do you know where the ‘real world’ is? Do you live in it? Do you work in it? Corporate recruiters and CEOs can tell you.

If you are attending a school or a university of any kind, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you are a child, you are not living in the ‘real world.’ If you teach in a school or in a university, you do not live in the ‘real world.’ If you work for a non-profit organization you do not live in the ‘real world.’ You are merely living in a world of make-believe and fantasy and charming artifice.

The real world, it turns out, is a workplace, and a very particular kind at that. It is the corporate workplace, where you will have a boss, and where you will not be allowed to indulge in those childish fancies and illusions that sustained you in the bubbles you previously occupied. Here is the McCoy; all else is ersatz. In this arena, the lessons you have learned in the fantasy world you previously occupied have to be unlearned; they should be checked at the door like pilgrims’ shoes outside a temple. They would bring in too much of the unreal world’s dust and dirt otherwise. Those lessons include a great deal of moral instruction, which must now be discarded as irrelevant, unrealistic, and fantastic. In sharp contrast, in the ‘real world’ you will learn all about punctuality, conformance to schedule, the virtues of hard work and nose-to-the-wheel commitment–all the better to boost those bottom lines that ensure a livelihood for you.

The good old public-private distinction has nothing on the real-unreal world distinction that corporate boosters espouse. Aristotle thought the polis was where you went to become a citizen, a full political subject, a person. Corporate recruiters will tell you that the corporate workplace is where you go to get a dose of reality. Your childhood, your school days, your learning in school and college, those books you read, the games you played, the friends you made–all mere specters, ghosts, insubstantial spirits. You were merely prisoners in the cave; the light and illumination and enlightenment of the ‘real world’ awaits. Then mere shapes will acquire substantiality; then reality will slap you upside the head.

This invocation of the ‘real world’ as a rhetorical device with which to dismiss the experiences of those who do not live in it has a long and dishonorable history. of course. It is a prominent arrow in the quiver of the corporate propagandist; it is drawn and fired all too indiscriminately.

It should come as no surprise then that denizens of the ‘real world’ find even the domain of politics and governance possessed of inadequate reality. So much so that they will even deign to step away from their upholstered desks and carpeted offices to intervene, to take over the helm of the national ship and steer it into zones regulated by rules they know well. The ones of the ‘real world.’

Donald Trump And The Art Of The Presidential Deal

Shortly after I arrived in the US in 1987, I began working in my campus cafeteria (at the then minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.) One of my non-student companions at work was a young man who worked on the weekends as a replacement for the weekday staff. He was frivolous and funny and irreverent; he brought a little sparkle to what was otherwise a dreary pair of eight-hour shifts. Among other things, he introduced me to the colloquialism ‘dead presidents,’ telling me that collecting them was his favorite pastime, the hobby that was way more useful and relevant, in this day and age, than philately or lepidoptery. (I realize the latter is not a hobby, but you catch my drift.)

And one fine day, he informed that the person he respected the most was Donald Trump. Who?

I did not know who ‘the Trump’ was. My friend informed me, in a slightly breathless and incredulous tone of voice, that Trump was a ‘go-getter,’ ‘a man who knew what he wanted,’ ‘a leader.’ He knew how to make money; he didn’t put up with bullshit. The evidence was there for all to see: all those buildings he had ‘built,’ the millions he had amassed–he was, you see, a great and accomplished collector of dead presidents.

Intrigued by this transparently sincere account of hero-worship–and still fascinated by the phenomenon of the American businessman as cultural hero, a fact which I had noticed in the adulation directed at Lee Iacocca–I resolved to read Trump’s ‘autobiography’, The Art of the Deal. (I had also read Iacocca’s autobiography, unimaginatively titled Iacocca: An Autobiography, by then.)

Book-length brags by corporate tycoons are not unknown in publishing; Iacocca’s book was a good example of it. Trump took it to the next level. The rest of the world merely put up barriers; Trump destroyed them. The world consisted of bureaucrats and those who would choke the honest, money-making ambitions of good Americans; they stood in the way of all that was good and pure about the American Dream[tm]. Trump fought them all. And he won. It was, truth be told, a curiously thrilling story. There was adversity; it was overcome. There was grime and dirt and squalor; majestic–even if gaudy and architecturally loud–buildings rose over it all. (One of them even offered the cleanest public restrooms in New York City; they had pink walls!.) And money, the thing that seemingly enabled the good life, was made. Lots of it. The Rising Tide of Trump floated the boats of all those who jumped in on the deals he made.

I lost contact with the legend of Trump after that. From time to time, I would receive periodic updates: perhaps a divorce, a television show, an intervention in politics. He never seemed to move too far away from the spotlight. His presidential candidacy was unsurprising; he must have known all along that he excited a curious fascination in the American mind, that his tale of big money and relentless ambition and hustle would resonate with many.

Trump is not a fool even if he is a buffoon. He is wealthy and ambitious; he knows what resonates with those who believe this rigged world is their oyster in potentia. He knows that if he spends enough money, he could win this all. And write another bestseller about the experience.

Confession: I do not know if Trump is serious about his presidency bid or if he is simply angling for a new television show.

A Tiny Pleasure: Heading Home On Time

Yesterday evening, I took the train to my wife’s place of work at Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center. I was going to drop off my baby daughter at her mother’s office, and then head to the gym to workout. It had been a tiring day as any day of infant daycare invariably is; my wife was going to take over for the rest of the evening. As I arrived at the MetroTech subway station at 5PM, I noticed commuters waiting for the train, waiting to go home; as I walked up the stairs, out into the plaza and into my destination office building, more commuters streamed past me, wearing suits, jackets, formal and semi-formal wear, and a mixture of expressions, some tired, some smiling, others engaged in conversations with co-workers. The workday was done; families and friends awaited; the rest of the day did too.

Somehow, I found this sight absurdly pleasing;  it had been a 9-5 day, and now those who had ‘put in their time’ could put it behind them and move on. Here was visible proof then, that workers could still go home on time, that a life beyond the workday, and not just on the weekends, was possible.

Of course, that same pleasure reminded me that the reason I had had occasion to experience it was that I knew all too well that most workers put in ridiculously long hours at work, that they do not earn overtime or ‘comp’ time for it, that they often do not manage to take advantage of their vacation days, that sometimes falling sick is not an option, and finally, that very often retirements have to be delayed, if not postponed indefinitely.  (This situation is undoubtedly worse in the US than it is elsewhere in the world, though when I hear stories about the Indian corporate world during my trips to India, I’m convinced the US has serious competition there.)

Somehow, bizarrely, too many workers in the US have settled for a situation whereby not only are they working longer hours, they are not compensated for it. Their workplaces are unregulated in the worst possible way: their bosses can command them to come in early, stay late, skip lunches, work on weekends, spread their two weeks annual vacation out over the year so that they become a bunch of long weekends instead, and perhaps to final injury to insult, suggest that they aren’t really sick enough to take the day off. As for ‘personal days’, well, they aren’t.

Workers could change this, of course. They could unionize, bargain collectively as a unit, push back on employer power so that space is made for their needs, their time, their lives. They could ask for paid overtime–in time or money. But most workers in the US have convinced themselves, or have been so persuaded, that organized worker forces flirt with the Antichrist, with all that is good and holy in America, that unions are parasites. So rather than organize themselves and secure for themselves the benefits of a unionized work force, they’d rather stand by and let the remnants of organized labor in this country come under sustained political attack.

And never get home on time.

Election Season Debates: A Modest Proposal

My only contribution, thus far, to the ‘conversation’ about this year’s election season has been a rather facetious celebration of the continued viability of Newt ‘The Professor’ Gingrich’s candidacy. My reason for disdaining seriousness in that comment was not so much contempt as much as it was weariness. The curve of the quality of election season conversation and ‘debate’  has shown a remarkable downward incline over the years; much as I celebrated the potential for levity in the continuation of the Republican primary battle in that post of mine, I did so knowing that there was very little chance that I would actually be able to tune in for more than a few minutes of the debates (so far, I have watched some 45 seconds of one debate last year).

This weariness finds its roots in an acknowledgement of the vapidity of the interactions between the candidates, of course, but its real provenance, lies, I think, in the knowledge that the candidates’ conversation appears to be mere epiphenomena, mere misleading froth above the surface of the domain of the real powerbrokers, the real puppeteers: the landed, moneyed, corporate entities that control political discourse and action in this nation of ours. This knowledge produces a certain sense of futility: Of what use public declamation and proclamation, when the real action is happening off-stage in corporate boardrooms and lobbyist offices? That’s where future political strategies and maps are being currently charted, where tactical and strategic syllabi are being drawn up, to be distributed to the cartel of political figureheads that will execute them and bring them to fruition. The vassals of our obedient media will supplement this activity with a crescendo of faithful echoes, amplifications, and hosannahs of approval.

So I have a modest proposal to make, one grounded in the hope that it will be seen for what it is: A call for honesty. Let us dispense with these faux-debates, these performances by political grandstanders, forced to master talking points and spin strategies, and to enter domains of discourse that seem so clearly beyond their limited intellects.  In instead, with the real wheelers-and-dealers: Let us have real debates and question-and-answer sessions with CEOs and lobbyists. They could articulate to us their vision for America; they could, armed with Powerpoint and video, point us to the map of their future courses, perhaps even distribute brochures and prospectuses of planned activities for, say, the next five years, the next ten years and so on. Management consultancy aides could supplement these with a series of presentations involving concentric circles, looping back arrowheads and intersecting rectilinear figures.

A conversation like this would bring some refreshing honesty to the American political landscape. It would dispense with this bizarre charade of middle-aged, besuited white men–in this age of supposedly rapid, bewildering change, it is good to know that some things are stable and enduring–exposed to the harsh glare of studio klieg lights, forced to mumble inanities for television audiences.

A great nation can do better than this.  Becoming more honest about its elections would be a good start.