Archive for November 27th, 2008

Fair Dues and Hairdos

Let’s say Mary Harney spent $1,000 on three wash and blow dries (it was probably far less) during July 2004 during her stays at the Cocoa beach hotel. That was about €820 in total, or €275 per go. If people are to be concerned with efficiency and effectiveness of public services, then one would have to consider what the cost to the Irish public would be if she had attended her functions looking as though she had been dragged through a hedge backwards. So I think the first questions should be:

How proficient is Mary Harney at washing and drying her hair?

Is she proficient enough to ensure that her attendance at whatever functions she was required to attend does not militate against the objectives of her attendance, resulting in an opportunity foregone by the Irish public that can be expressed in cost terms as of greater value than €820?

Was she required to attend to other duties during her stay  there? Given her degree of proficiency at washing and drying her hair to an acceptable standard for the purpose of her visit, would the time she spent doing this have been in excess of the time spent getting the service done privately, and, if so, would this excess time have been better employed attending to other duties on behalf of the Irish public in her then capacity as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment?

Perhaps with the establishment of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes and the revelation that ‘the performance of all staff in all sectors of the Public Service is to be assessed, including teachers, nurses and gardai’, a key attribute in performance reviews ought to be ‘displays a capacity to know when and how to outsource personal grooming requirements to the private sector in order to deliver maximum efficiency on behalf of the taxpayer’.

Let’s be serious for a moment. The fact is that Harney was off representing the public in functions where it would not have been appropriate for her to turn up in, say, olive-green combat fatigues , because it would send out the wrong message. She was there to (I hate the word) network.

And part of networking in these circumstances, regrettably, means that you should demonstrate you share the values of your fellow networkers, because you are out to use each other in your mutual interest (I don’t believe it is ever truly in one’s own interest to use someone else, but I am, as Martin Amis might put it, adumbrating things here). Part of this probably entails being a bit lavish: a bit bling. Just enough to grease the wheels and get what you need out of things.

Mary Harney would not have achieved anything by turning up and revealing her plans for an end to wage slavery . But it is reasonable to imagine that she might have achieved something by looking a bit more the part than usual, since top executives can be surprisingly superficial.

This was revealed to me the time I conducted a surveys of hundreds of senior executives asking them what they think would make them enjoy their work more. The pettiness of their replies was astounding. Hardly any said ‘more money’. Most of them were things like ‘a fast track concierge service for when I come into the office’ (which would save about 10 seconds per day), and ‘a note from [the CEO’s first name] every now and again telling us how much we are appreciated’. There were also calls for extra perks to differentiate between the Senior Executives and the really Senior Executives, like a shiny pen.

It is clear that this matter is being tied in to a wider narrative being established of a ‘privileged and protected’ public service by contrast with the ‘private sector workers…facing into unemployment or a wage freeze’. But the sort of thing Mary Harney got up to is, at the very worst, a reflection of precisely the type of values that prevail at the top of that private sector so lauded for its efficiency. It is part and parcel of the corporate form: perks and privileges for those at the top.

But in terms of the massive exploitation of workers through the tyrannical hierarchies of corporate capitalism, where workers must compete relentlessly with co-workers in order to win a greater share of the rewards that trickle from above, where CEOs who earn many multiples the salary of the average employee can openly send out e-mails talking about increased profits but how tough challenges ahead mean wage freezes, this sort of thing really is, to quote the head of Fás, chickenfeed.

It’s superficial stuff, presented to distract from the fact that it is corporate capitalism and its relations of production that have left us where we are. Recall the Zizek quote from the other day:

the main task of the ruling ideology is to impose a narrative that will not put the blame for the meltdown onto the global capitalist system as such, but on, say, lax legal regulations and the corruption of big financial institutions.

To which we can add here the corruption of state institutions.

The insecurity, discontent and powerlessness people experience in their jobs is redirected against those state institutions over which they are supposed to exercise some real degree of control.

Even though the state may be my only protection, however meagre, against the powers of voracious corporate capitalism, I am incited to believe that, when it comes to the state, I can really be the boss and threaten everyone employed by it with the sack. I can re-enact my own relations with my boss with the hapless civil servant or the privileged politician, only this time, I‘m the one who has the power. And it is true that I have power: if I focus all my anger and outrage on the inefficiency and laxity of government, I have the power to deliver the state to my bosses.

And maybe then I‘ll get to fly business class.

And a shiny pen.

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