Tom Sutcliffe: Watch out, office bosses – you too could topple

Social Studies: Do the sovereign virtues of democracy somehow break down when miniaturised?

Tuesday 01 March 2011 01:00

I found myself wondering the other day how far the inspiration of Middle Eastern popular uprisings would spread. And my curiosity wasn't about the lateral contagion we've already seen, with the spirit of insurrection spreading from neighbour to neighbour and then beyond. (That's what the world's despots and tyrants are worried about, obviously, so that as far away as China and Zimbabwe even showing an academic interest in events in the Middle East is treated as evidence of potential infection).

What I was thinking about instead was vertical contagion – the possibility that people enduring petty tyrannies might look at Tahrir Square or Libya and ask themselves: "I wonder if that might work for us as well?" What I had in mind was businesses and workplaces, essentially – and the fact that very few office Mubaraks or Ben Alis will be thinking – as their global counterparts certainly are – it could be me next.

The analogy may need defending first, against accusations of frivolity. True, micro-tyrants aren't nearly as pernicious as their macro equivalents. They don't imprison or execute or torture their victims (although there might be some dispute about torture, from anyone who's ever had to endure workplace bullying for any length of time). They're also unlikely to go completely mad and invade the office next door.

But – at a scaled-down level – quite a few employees in Britain will have some experience of arbitrary power, cronyism, and the punitive repression of dissent. They'll know too about divide and rule, and even – in some extreme cases – about corruption and the illegal sequestration of funds. And yet – although popular discontent might be almost universal in a badly run office – the idea of a workplace protest is all but unthinkable.

Well, revolutions are always rare, of course – and there are good reasons (besides timidity and fatalism) why discontent in this arena might not lead to an uprising. The entire population turn into émigrés every evening for one thing – which means there's at least a sense of refuge from the regime that oppresses you nine to five. There's also the vague understanding that you're being paid to put up with it – and that if you don't think you're being paid enough you can always seek employment elsewhere.

In most jobs people think they have a choice – and understand that there are some limits to their serfdom. But even so, it seems odd that people will endure, within the framework of a firm or an institution, a degree of subjection and speechlessness that would strike them as insufferable at the level of citizenship.

It would seem counterintuitive, even utopian, to suggest that Hillary Clinton's remark yesterday – "History has shown that democracies tend to be more stable, more peaceful and more prosperous" – might apply to businesses, too. But why? Do the sovereign virtues of democracy somehow break down when miniaturised?

I doubt it myself – and I suspect that office tyrannies would prove as vulnerable to popular protest as the real kind. So if you're groaning under the yoke of a departmental Mugabe or a corporate Gaddafi, perhaps it's time to march on the photocopier, issue a list of "legitimate grievances," and show that regime change can happen anywhere.

Hi everyone, it's only Colin here

"I have a feeling my career's peaked," said Colin Firth at the beginning of his Oscar acceptance speech. It was a wry line which got the laugh it deserved, but I wonder whether it left some of those present a little bemused. Self-deprecation, after all, isn't really a native American form. Nor is understatement or repressed emotion – as exemplified by Firth's confession that he was "experiencing stirrings somewhere in the upper abdominals which are threatening to form themselves into dance moves". Only stirrings? And why feel threatened?

Of course Americans understand there must be an upper limit to public celebration. When Tom Cruise bounced on Oprah's sofa after talking about his relationship with Katie Holmes there was a general sense that he'd gone too far. But his was an error of scale, not of essential behaviour.

I was reminded by Firth's admirable restraint of a scene my wife once witnessed in the New York office of the firm she then worked for. Another expat Brit rang her mother back in London. "Hi Mum," she said, "It's only me." At which point American jaws dropped open. "Only me?" someone repeated wonderingly. If you couldn't even claim A-list status and above-the-title billing with your own mother, the thinking ran, then what hope was there? I'd say that it makes one proud to be British, if it wasn't such an un-British thing to say.

Is anything left that's not for sale?

Product placement has finally arrived on British television with the appearance of a coffee machine on This Morning. This isn't the end of the world, to be honest, or even the beginning of the end of the world. The only programmes likely to be detrimentally affected by the change of policy are those that already do an excellent job of ruining themselves. But it's still a faintly depressing development, another advance for those who believe that everything – including the realms of our imagination – can be cut into saleable chunks and have a price tag attached. The free world is just a tiny bit smaller.

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