It՚s May Day, time for some working-class solidarity. And are not most of us workers? Employees of someone else? Unfortunately the very idea of class solidarity in America, especially in Silicon Valley, has an odor of ridiculous obsolescence. It՚s a boring and trite view of the world, compared to the technological sublime. SV culture, for all its cachet and raw intelligence, runs on the basically same toxic individualism that rules in the rest of the US and prevents any real political left from forming. It՚s just brought to a more intense level here, where everyone thinks they are or should be an entrepreneur.
The class struggle is not much in evidence here; everyone՚s just trying to get rich by making their company awesome. Companies use obvious tactics to make it seem like everyone at the company is best buddies, teammates, all working hard and happily together towards the same goal. And to some extent this works! It always amazes me that companies, despite their petty politics and obvious social pathologies, actually get shit done. Whatever their flaws, they seem to solve the general problem of goal-directed cooperation.
Doing so always seems to require a communal myth of the company, and everyone has to take part in building up this myth and everyone has to occasionally make a public display to the effect that they are bought into it. This is just as true at both excellent and crappy companies, I suspect. My current company actually does do pretty well in both mythmaking and living up to its myth. Today they chose (by coincidence I՚m sure) to give a presentation on stock options. Can՚t complain about that; stock options actually do work, they do help align labor with the interests of the organization.
So companies build what I՚m going to call vertical solidarity, that is, solidarity and loyalty within a company, between its various ranks and groupings, and to the company itself. Let՚s distinguish that from horizontal solidarity, which is solidarity to your class, profession, or community.
Both of these have their necessary uses. Companies require vertical solidarity to operate; and society requires horizontal solidarity to keep from degenerating into a hellscape. But both forms of solidarity seem to be decaying over the last few decades or so.
In the vertical dimension, the old-fashioned arrangement between company and employee, where a job was a lifetime identity, is long gone. While companies try to instill loyalty into their workforce, they rarely reciprocate. (This is not so much in evidence in technology, where employees are often the companies chief asset, but quite obvious in the most other sectors of the economy, where owners will do whatever they can to eliminate workers as an unnecessary cost),
Horizontal solidarity also seems to be on the wane, as evidenced by the diminishment of labor unions and the absence of much professional class consciousness in technology. This is a shame for several reasons. Aside from purely self-interested motives, which of course are important, professional solidarity exists so that market forces can be resisted. Lawyers and doctors seem to grasp this; computer people largely have not. There are very clear rules for professional conduct among doctors and lawyers; violate them and you are out. But there are roughly no standards of ethical conduct for computer professionals.
This might be all for the best in a field which is still defining itself. On the other hand, as software eats the world, the job of a software developer becomes increasingly important to every aspect of society. Mathematicians have noticed that the largest employer of their talents is not always acting in a a way that is a credit to their profession and a net gain for society, and have proposed setting some standards that would reign this in. Unlikely to happen, but at least they are making an effort. The organization that was making gestures towards the idea that there computer professionals as a class had some social responsibility dissolved itself a year ago.
I suspect that both horizontal and vertical solidarity are going permanently out of fashion, perhaps to be replaced by something more network-based. My real loyalty isn՚t to a company (sorry) or to a particular class or professional identity, but to various far-flung friends, and to the network of ideas and experiences that bind us together. That might not make a revolution, but in an era of general institutional turmoil and decay, it is what binds the world together.
[Past May Day posts]