Saturday, April 11, 2015

Banality and American Bureaucracies: A Case Study

In her famous 1961 New Yorker article on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and in her book that evolved our of that article, 1963s Eichmann in Jerusalem, political theorist Hannah Arendt sought to understand how and why the seemingly ordinary Adolf Eichmann, became the man who helped devise the logistics for the mass murder of millions of Jews in Nazi occupied Eastern Europe. At his trial in Israel Eichmann claimed that he was simply following orders. This wasn’t good enough for Arendt, however. Arendt concluded that Eichmann was neither a sociopath nor a fanatic nor that he was a madman or evil incarnate. Instead, concluded Arendt, Eichmann was simply an ordinary man following the bureaucratic genocidal orders of Nazi leaders uncritically and unreflectively. Eichmann, in other words, didn't think beyond the historically socially and culturally created boxes in which he was embedded. Eichmann, Arendt concluded, was a prime example of a banality that had conquered one nation of the modern world.

To fully understand banality and how it works we have to go beyond the personal and the individual. The banality that led people like Eichmann and others to become cogs in the Nazi bureaucratic genocide machine aimed at eliminating Jews, Gypsies, gays, lesbians, socialists, and communists, can only be understood if we understand the broader social and cultural contexts that manufactured this banality. Nazi Germany was characterised by an apocalyptic ideology in which the forces of good (Aryans) were pitted against the forces of evil (subhuman Jews, subhuman Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, artistic and musical decadents) in a manichean struggle for the survival of the Aryan species. This banal ideology, which had its roots in Christian anti-Semitism, modern anti-leftism, and modern social Darwinism, became instantiated or embodied (a modern day logos) in the very everyday and commonplace machinery of the Nazi bureaucratic mass murder machine. It was an ideology, in other words, which created the reality that many German bureaucracies and many German bureaucrats and others operated in and was uncritically and unreflectively regarded as empirical fact by many Germans (and beyond for that matter). I give you the social and cultural construction or fetishisation of reality.

Banality, of course, doesn’t have to be genocidal, the most extreme form of banality, to be banal. Nazis, in other words, were certainly banal but that doesn't mean that all of those who are banal are genocidal Nazis. There are varying degrees of banality. Banality must be understood as a continuum with genocidal banality at one end (Nazis) and more kindler and gentler, if those are the terms to use for this phenomenon, forms of banality at the other end and with other progressively more dangerous forms of banality in between. I was recently privy to some of these more kindler and gentler forms of banality and how they play out thanks to historical and ethnographic research I have been engaged in an American bureaucratic business, the Honest Weight Food Corporation. In this blog I want to argue that it is not only human beings who are banal or potentially banal but that the institutions that humans have made can be and often are banal as well.

I have been a member (“a shareholder”) at the Honest Weight Food Co-op during the last three or four years. During that time I have been not only a worker at Honest Weight but I have been an observer of its practises. So what have I learned about the Honest Weight Food Co-op over the three or four years I have been a member and an ethnographic observer? Let’s start with Geography: The Honest Weight Food Co-op is located at 100 Watervliet Avenue in the old rust belt city of Albany, New York. Earlier versions of the Corporation were located on Quail Street from 1997 to 1995 and then on Central Avenue beginning from 1995 until 2013 in the same Northeastern city which once saw better days. It moved to its brand spanking new (and cost overrun) location on Watervliet Avenue in 2013.

Economics: The Honest Weight Food Co-op is a registered corporation that brings in around $24 million dollars a year, up from some $12 million dollars a few years ago. Its shelves, to give a few examples, are filled to the brim with products made by mega corporations such as Hain Celestial Group (Hain, Celestial Seasonings, Free Bird Meats WestSoy, Garden of Eatin’, Terra Chips, Yves Veggie Cuisine, Avalon Natural Products), butter from Ireland (Kerrygold), blueberries from Chile, cheeses from all across Europe, kitchen implements made in China, almonds and pistachios, the nuts that take a gallon of water to produce just one, beef and pork that presumably requires significant water resources to produce, and local eggs and apples. The "Co-op" stocks Dole Pineapples and Del Monte bananas just like mainstream stores. It carries a few fair trade and equal exchange items. Most of the items in the store, however, seem not to be either fair trade or equal exchange.

Politics and Culture: Though the Honest Weight Food Corporation claims to be “democratic” and “member run” in its official literature or propaganda, it is actually a republic just like the nation it is situated within and just like most of the economic bureaucracies that operate in that nation. Honest Weight is hierarchical and characterised by inequalities of power and authority just like the US and the vast majority of its economic corporations. A small proportion of the working membership (only working members are allowed to vote at present though there are apparently some elites at Honest Weight that want to change that) can and does vote for members of several boards to represent them. Deduction: most members join to get the discounts and aren’t really concerned about the politics of the corporation just as many Americans don't vote in either federal, state, or local elections and seem to be satisfied with the status quo as long as they have consumer goods to consume. There is a counterculture of sorts at the Corporation that has sought to bring Honest Weight back to its worker “collective” roots. Sectarianisation has not occurred as of yet though I have heard talk from some of wanting to form a real co-op.

Corporate elites recruit members and staff members to serve on one of the numerous "Co-op" boards. This process, of course, is grounded in selectivity. Apart from a handful of dissidents who serve in a few capacities at the Corporation dissidents are generally never chosen to serve on such committees. This is yet another way that the elite assures ideological conformity in the centres of power.

The board and management structure replicates the uncritical and unreflective ideology of corporate America if with a somewhat liberal bent. Members of the Board, the most powerful institution in the "Coop", include a banker, an educational bureaucrat, a housing inspector, a non-profit bureaucrat, and have included an accountant and a lawyer, hardly the stuff of which countercultural radicals are made or of which alternative economic systems, political systems, and cultural systems are made. The vast majority of members and the vast majority of elites seem to inhabit an ideological mental world in which a corporate structure with a putatively liberal heart is the unquestioned best of all possible worlds and majority rule not consensus is at the heart of political “deliberation”. Most of the members of the Board exhibit a typical human ethnocentrism, in this case a manichean us, we who do things differently at the "coop" and we superior professionals, versus them, those inferior non-liberal non-"coops" and those non-professionals with a penchant for vengeful behaviour.

The Corporation's elite, of course, control all communications at the "Co-op". External communications are controlled by a Communications bureaucrat. Needless to say, external communications, just as they are at most modern corporations and in most modern governments, are filtered by the communications apparatus of the Corporation. You see, in other words, what they want you to see. Most of this discourse, of course, is of a public relations, spin, or propaganda nature. The communications apparatus of the "Co-op" also controls what you see on their internal email site and on its Facebook site. Communications, even informative communications, that don't have the seal of elite approval either do not appear on such sites or they disappear into a black hole never to be seen again. I give you corporate censorship.

There are, as I noted, contradictions at the heart of this so called corporate liberalism. The "Co-op" claims to be “democratic” in its propaganda but it is run by an elite who are sometimes unaccountable to the “membership” that elects it and is more in ideological and political line with the wishes of the LT (“the professionals”). I give you a variation on the labour theory of aristocracy, the elite as part of a political and ideological aristocracy. I have personally heard elites claim to be life long pro-union folk at the same time that they were writing and distributing anti-union broadsides to the staff via email. I have seen "Co-op" elites put out digital mailings praising Earth Day at the same time that that the Corporation ups its carbon footprint by stocking butter from Ireland, fruit from Mexico, and cheeses from Europe. I give you irony, inconsistency (some might call it hypocrisy), profit margins, and banality.

Conclusion: Honest Weight looks a lot like the US. It is a semi-democratic oligarchic republic.

Demography: On the basis of my observations I have concluded that most of those who shop at Honest Weight are urban, White, and professional. In terms of age, some shoppers are elderly, many if not most are middle aged, some seem to be in there twenties and thirties. Beyond Whites, there are a smattering of people of colour who shop at the "Co-op" and who are members of Honest Weight. Interestingly, the Corporation is located in what is today a largely minority neighbourhood. Once upon a time it was a working class neighbourhood.

As I mentioned earlier there are a smattering of countercultural bourgeoisie young and old, like myself, who are members of the "Co-op" or who shop at Honest Weight and who, in some cases, seek to return of the Corporation to its more worker cooperative roots (sectarianism). Many of these counterculture types have been members of Honest Weight almost since the beginning. Others were members of other co-ops in the sixties or seventies. Others are on a mission to make the corporate bureaucratic world more humane and more geared to human life in general than to 1% of human life. The divide between the more mainstream and the more countercultural fractions of the "Co-op" and the different cultures each are imbedded within are why there is currently a culture war at the Corporation.

Now back to a personal experience I had which foregrounds, I think, how banality works at the Honest Weight Food Corporation and, by extension, at other bureaucratic entities, political, economic, and cultural, in the US and in the modern Western world. After much prompting from several members I decided to run for one of the open seats on the Board this April. I knew that there would be vigourous opposition to my candidacy among the elites given how forthright I have been about the Corporation in my numerous blog posts and given the fact that I, unlike the Corporations elite, don’t uncritically and unreflectively fetishise republican and corporate structures and governance. I also knew that they would find some way, any way, regardless of how banal and Machiavellian it was, to keep me off the ballot. But I went ahead with the experiment anyway, an experiment whose outcome I honestly found amusing and entertaining if a bit coldly frightening.

As I noted in an earlier blog I was given to understand that the application deadline for Board applications had been extended a few days from the original deadline of 27 March. I also explained how, in an earlier blog, that I was confronted by two (rogue?) Board members who told me that my application was late so it was not possible for me to run for the Board. I noted that these two Board members backed away from their initial ruling that I could not run for the Board and decided to take the question of whether I could run for the Board to the full Board on Tuesday, 7 April. While I have not been officially informed of the Board’s decision by letter as I requested, I have heard rumours through the grapevine that my application has been denied but not for the reason I was initially given. Now, I am told, my application is being denied because I was not a corporate shareholder as of the 27th or 28th of March. That this ruling ignores the fact that I had not cashed the refund cheque I received on the 30th of March and which made me, as far as I am concerned and as far, I suspect, as the law is concerned, a member, and that a Board member told me via email that to run I had to have my membership in order by 31 March, something I did, do not seem to have been factors in the Board’s decision. Needless to say I am shocked, shocked, that some of the Corpop's elites have resorted to such petty, pharisaical, and, of course, banal means to keep me off the ballot. I should have known that corporate types can postmodernise with the best of them. Still it is nice to know that this 60 year old (no making peace with a messed up world for a sofa or a girl for me) is still critical enough to scare the hell out of a bunch of Homo Bourgeois Bureaucraticus types. I was, by the way, not surprised by any of this. Honest Weight is a rather typical example of an American bureaucracy with its healthy dose of a kindler gentler banality and its elite paragons, practitioners of a kindler and gentler banality. Honest Weight, in other words, is not exceptional.

Banality in corporate bureaucratic America, of course, hides behind a curtain or veil of bureaucratic “objectivity”, a bureaucratic “objectivity” that social theorist Michel Foucault and others before him and since have clearly shown is a curtain or veil that covers up, particularly for the uncritical and unreflective, the real empirical operations of bourgeois ideology and the uses and abuses of bourgeois power. Honest Weight is no different.

In this blog and virtually all of my other blogs on this site in general I have, by the way, written as a “professional” intellectual and academic who gathers empirical evidence and then interprets it through the theoretical filters of those factors that always have be and are at the heart of human life, economics, politics, culture, geography, and demography. That anyone would or could get emotionally uptight about such empirical research and its conclusions--my posts have apparently caused emotional traumas among some of the Corpop’s elite--is fascinating if not surprising. Most humans, after all, are governed by ideologically constructed emotions rather than rationality and which are tightly linked to ideologically constructed notions of identity and community and as such can be touchy subjects for some. Given this let me apologise for any emotional traumas my empirical research and analysis has caused anyone at the "Co-op".

None of the above, by the way, means that I can't play my role of cashier at the Corpop (on historically situated social and cultural roles we play in everyday life see Erving Goffman). My job at the Corporation is a job much like any other job I have had or likely will have. I try to do my Corpop job to the best of my abilities just as I would any other job I have or might have. Long ago I learned that living and working in the US is not the best of all possible worlds but it is the hand we have been dealt. What we have been dealt, as critical and reflective thinkers understand, are not the products of god or nature. They are the social and cultural constructions of humans, particularly elite humans, the 1%, who have created worlds largely for their own benefit. The worlds the elite have created do not and never have gone unchallenged. Whether those of us on the outside looking critically in can change these manufactured worlds that benefit the elite is another matter and another issue for debate.

Finally, let me close by noting that I don't think I will be running for the Board in the future. I will likely be moving back to Texas sometime in 2017 so I may not be able to serve a three year term and, even more importantly, I don't want to chance losing my dispassionate analytical skills by becoming too emotionally involved in Corporation economics, politics, and culture. More than anything else in my life it is my dispassionalte ability to see through ideological rot, to paraphrase the Oxbridge don or whoever it was that uttered this proverb, that I most treasure.

A member of the "Coop" emailed Board Administrator Vicky Saraceni a question about my Board candidacy. Here is that members question:
I understood that Ron Helfrich also submitted an application to run for one of the vacant HWFC Board seats. What became of his application?

Vicky, in turn, passed the question on to the president of the Board William Frye, yes the same (rogue?) Board member who along with Roman Kuchera tried to bully me in one the the backrooms of the fortress of power at the Corporation on 31 March. Here is his 11 April response to the member:
Dear [Member]

The Board of the Co-op. decided on Tuesday night that Mr. Hilfrich [sic] was not qualified to run for a vacant Board position because he was not a shareholder when he first applied and his subsequent application was not timely.


William Frye,
Board President

On 13 April, two days later, and almost a week after the Board's decision, I received the following communique from Frye:
Dear Mr. Helfrich:

Tuesday night, 9 [sic: actually 7 April] April, 2015, the Board of the Honest Weight Food Cooperative, Inc. decided that your application to become a candidate for the Board in the upcoming election is denied due to the fact that you were not eligible to run on the date you filed your application.

If you are a member in good standing, you are free, of course, to run next year.


William Frye

Interestingly I was not invited by Board president Frye or Board member Kuchera, the two Board members who confronted me about my application on the 31st of March, to the Board meeting to decide my Board application fate. Honourable men would have invited me to the Board meeting. The fact that they didn't invite me to present the facts in this case speaks volumes about them and about the nature of governance at Honest Weight. These are clearly not honourable men. None of this, by the way, was or is a surprise to me. Bureaucrats pumped up on steroids of power are all too predictable.

Now the moral of this tale: I am being punished for the inability of Board members to get on the same page. I was informed by two Board members that the deadline for Board applications had been extended and that I had to have my membership in order by the 31st of March. Not being allowed to run for the Board by the Board is, I guess, Honest Weight's version of blame the victim. But that, of course, is not what is really going on here. What is really going on, as two members I showed an earlier blog on this subject to noted, there are powerful elites at Honest Weight who do not want you, me, on the ballot. Perhaps, in other words, I really am a victim, a victim of bureaucratic banality. Still it is flattering to know that I can still scare a bunch of corporate mentality types into using the flimsiest of excuses to keep me off a ballot. It is nice to know that I haven't followed in the footsteps of the protagonists of the Clash's "Death or Glory".

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