When I picked up “The Gone Away World,” a gloriously cartoonish book by Nick Harkaway, I wasn’t looking for, or expecting, economic theory. But I’m not sure anyone has explained the problem of corporations better. Early on in the book, a rag-tag crew of post-apocalyptic firefighters (did I mention it’s a fun book?) is confronted by a corporate bureaucrat named Dick Washburn (Harkaway is almost as good as Vonnegut when it comes to names) from the biggest company in the post-apocalyptic world: the Jorgmund Company. Our heroes quickly size him up:


“Dick Washburn… is a type D pencilneck: a sassy wannabe paymaster with vestigial humanity. This makes him vastly less evil than a type B pencilneck (heartless bureaucratic machine, pro-class tennis) and somewhat less evil than a type C pencilneck (chortling lackey of the dehumanizing system, ambient golf), but unquestionably more evil than pencilneck types M through E (real human screaming to escape a soul-devouring professional persona, varying degrees of desperation). No one I know has ever met the type A pencilneck, in much the same way that no one ever reports their own fatal accident; a type A pencilneck would be a person so entirely consumed by the mechanism in which he or she is employed that they had ceased to exist as a separate entity. They would be odourless, faceless and undetectable, without ambition or restraint, and would take decisions entirely unfettered by human concerns, make choices for the company, of the company. A type A pencilneck would be the kind of person to sign off on torture and push the nuclear button for no more pressing reason that that it was his job – or hers – and it seemed the next logical step.”


This is all very amusing. But where Harkaway really shines is his pithy explanation of why this comes to be:


“It always creeps me out being with pencilnecks. Anything over a type E and you can get the feeling what you’re talking to isn’t entirely human, and you’re not entirely wrong. A guy named Sebastian once explained it to me like this:


"Suppose you are Alfred Montrose Fingermuffin, capitalist. You own a factory, and your factory uses huge industrial metal presses to make Fingermuffin Thingumabobs. Great big blades powered by hydraulics come stomping down on metal ribbon (like off a giant roll of tape, only made of steel) and cut Thingumabobs out like gingerbread men. If you can run the machine at a hundred Thingumabobs per minute, six seconds for ten Thingumabobs (because the machine prints ten at a time out of the ribbon), then you’re doing fine. The trouble is that although in theory you could do that, in fact you have to stop the machine every so often so that you can check the safeties and change shifts. Each time you do, the downtime costs you, because you have the machine powered up and the crew are all there (both crews, actually, on full pay). So you want to have that happen the absolute minimum number of times per day. The only way you can know when you’re at the minimum number of times is when you start to get accidents. Of course, you’re always going to get some accidents, because human beings screw up; they get horny and think about their sweethearts and lean on the Big Red Button and someone loses a finger. So you reduce the number of shifts from five to four, and the number of safety checks from two to one, and suddenly you’re much closer to making Fingermuffins the market leader. Mrs. Fingermuffin gets all excited because she’s been invited to speak at the WI, and all the little Fingermuffins are happy because their daddy brings them brighter, shinier, newer toys. The downside is that your workers are working harder and having to concentrate more, and the accidents they have are just a little worse, just a little more frequent. The trouble is that you can’t go back, because now your competitors have done the same thing and the Thingumabob market has gotten a bit more aggressive, and the questions come down to this: how much further can you squeeze the margin without making your factory somewhere no one will work? And the truth is that it’s a tough environment for unskilled workers in your area and it can get pretty bad. Suddenly, because the company can’t survive any other way, soft-hearted Alf Fingermuffin is running the scariest, most dangerous factory in town. Or he’s out of business and Gerry Q. Hinderhaft has taken over, and everyone knows how hard Gerry Q. pushes his guys.


"In order to keep the company alive, safeguard his family’s happiness and his employees’ jobs, Alf Montrose Fingermuffin (that’s you) has turned into a monster. The only way he can deal with that is to separate himself into two people – Kindly Old Alf, who does the living, and Stern Mr. Fingermuffin, factory boss. His managers do the same. So when you talk to Alf Fingermuffin’s managers, you’re actually not talking to a person at all. You’re talking to a part in the machine that is Fingermuffin Ltd., and (just like the workers in the factory itself) the ones who are best at being a part are the ones who function least like a person and most like a machine. At the factory this means doing everything at a perfect tempo, the same way each time, over and over and over. In management it means living profit, market share and graphs. The managers ditch the part of themselves which thinks, and just get on with running the programme in their heads.”


So, what’s really goes wrong with Fingermuffin Industries? There are lots of answers, but to me the big one is the market’s need to grow. Not every economic system requires growth, but in the context of the corporate form and fractional-reserve banking, it’s a necessity to avoid disaster. The pressure to grow forces corporations to keep squeezing employees, and the competition from other players institutionalizes the bad working conditions. And, not surprisingly, this has a dehumanizing effect on everyone involved. All in order to produce a Thingumabob, which probably no one actually needs. 


But what’s the solution? Government can do some good here, by instituting worker safety regulations and a minimum wage. The media can do some good here, by publishing horror stories of bad working conditions and getting consumers to care about how their Thingumabobs are made. The legal system can do some good, by enforcing liability for worker safety claims – if Alfred Fingermuffin knew that he could be personally liable for worker injuries, even if his company went bankrupt, he would rationally be at least a little more careful about how he treated his workers. But none of these solutions really addresses the problem, they only mitigate the effects. And they do nothing about the depersonalizing nature of the work. And they probably lead to more animosity between the factory owners, who are annoyed at all the paperwork they have to do, and the workers, who are probably a little embarrassed that the government has to stick up for them.


One can envision a co-op ownership structure, where the employees get a share of the profits and decisions are made more democratically. But they’d still be subject to the same market forces, which would drive them to either adopt the same policies or go bankrupt. In certain industries, they could turn inefficiency into a boon, and market artisanal breads or pickles that their local yuppies would love. But it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting an artisanal Thingumabob.


So it all feels somewhat inevitable, and sad. If you want to go full Luddite, you could argue that before the industrial revolution and mass production, these problems were practically nonexistent, because since factories in the modern sense didn’t exist, and one person could only produce so much. 


You could also argue that the central issue here is the corporate form itself. If there is a real market for Thingumabobs, they will get produced, one way or another. Maybe the demand isn’t enough for a businessman to make a whole factory for them – maybe it falls to local producers to make them by hand, slower and more inefficiently. Either way, the workers in those factories will be better off if they can live as efficiently as possible in their home lives. And that means exploding the nuclear family and living communally.  


Pencilnecks, Thingumabobs, and Capitalism

by Jackson Lay

September 5, 2014

Pencilnecks, all. Can you spot the Type B?

A market for handmade Thingumabobs?  Or are we dreaming?

An economic classic?