Working for the money? Whatever next!

How multinational companies manipulate their employees' personalities; plus, bad predictions and the modern dandy

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In a week in which ominous creaking noises could be heard coming from certain parts of the UK economy, it was good to find some press attention devoted to the case of Andrej Stopa. Mr Stopa was recently fired from his job at Pret A Manger's York Way branch, near St Pancras station in London. Countering internet rumours that Mr Stopa's loss of his livelihood was connected to his efforts to establish an independent Pret A Manger staff union, Pret said all its employees "are free to form or join a trade union". The company pointed out that Mr Stopa was sent packing for repeatedly threatening a member of his team, having previously been warned about making homophobic remarks.

As unravelled by Paul Myerscough in the new year number of the London Review of Books, this gets us thinking about 21st-century corporate culture. Would-be Pret workers, according to a list of Dos and Don'ts, are hired for their "personality", which is intended to ginger up the "Pret buzz". The company disapproves of a worker who is "moody or bad-tempered" or who "over complicates ideas", and of time-serving ingrates who are "just here for the money".

According to Mr Myerscough, this is a pattern example of what radical theorists have identified as "affective labour", in which work is judged not merely by what it produces but by the authenticity of the emotional compact forged between the person who offers the service and the client who purchases it.

But the implications of the Pret story are arguably more complex than this. It was James Burnham, all of 70 years ago, who first suggested that the real power in the world of the future would be exercised not by gigantic superstates but by managers, technocrats and corporate whip-crackers, whose organisations would operate beyond the grasp of particular political jurisdictions while wielding exactly the same kind of clout.

Pret's insistence on the behavioural orthodoxy of its staff, as outlined in and replicated by dozens of other companies around the world, suggests that we have reached a point at which ethical codes, or what passes for them, are more likely to be enforced by business rather than the state. There is another paradox here, which is that a government keen on promoting free-market principles is signing its own death warrant in respect of its ability to wield economic influence.

Regulation-chary Chancellor George Osborne, desperate for international businesses to set up shop in Britain, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a shopping-mall owner trying to flog off vacant lots. Say what you like about high public spending volumes, but they do at least allow governments to govern.

...

Private Eye's commemoration of the death of William Rees-Mogg ran to several columns. In particular, there was an extensive round-up of the predictions of "Mystic Mogg"', in which dozens of wildly inaccurate political forecasts were cruelly exposed to ridicule. John Major's 1993 resignation; his replacement as Conservative leader by Kenneth Clarke; the ascent of Colin Powell to the US presidency in 1996; a 2008 presidential election fought out between Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee – all these offered evidence of just how misguided Lord Rees-Mogg could be when he got the prognostic bit between his teeth.

Hilarious as all this is, it is worth pointing out that political crystal-ball gazing is one of the most thankless tasks known to man, and that the prophetic shortcomings of political journalists are usually far exceeded by politicians themselves. During the Labour leadership election of 1980, for example, the New Statesman commissioned a piece from a Labour MP responding to what was seen as Denis Healey's certain victory. This appeared on the morning after Michael Foot won the election by 10 votes.

Even more fantastic was some of the punditry encouraged by the 1997 general election campaign. Thus Tony Benn noted that "Neil Hamilton was re-selected as the Tory candidate for Tatton and I have a sort of feeling that he might do well." Hamilton lost by 10,000 votes. Best of all was the Tory MP Nicholas Soames declaring to Alan Clark on 19 April that "We will win, Alan. We-are-going-to-win." Two weeks later, Labour secured a majority of 179 seats.

...

The week's most paradoxical event was Men's Fashion Week. Its paradox lay in the fact that although pages of newsprint are routinely devoted to pictures of celebrities attending to the rows of models in rococo beach shorts, there is still a faint suspicion that none of this orchestrated preening can really be taken seriously.

As to where this distrust of male fashion comes from, some of it undoubtedly derives from old-style native puritanism, and the idea that a man who spends hours in the company of his tailor must be fundamentally light-minded.

When Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair owns to being "a dressy man", his moral card is instantly marked. The dandy has always occupied an odd position in our national life, esteemed for his butterfly exuberance yet disparaged for his proudly borne shallowness.

As the product of an exemplary petit-bourgeois provincial home, I was brought up to believe that for a man to take the slightest interest in his appearance was a sign of effeminacy. Or as my father put it when he saw me in my first suit: "What are you doing dressed up like a pox-doctor's clerk?"

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