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Research du temps perdu

Sun, 3rd Oct 2004

THE CASE of Corinne Maier was one of the media events of the French silly season. Maier, an economist at Electricite de France (EDF), a pillar of the French corporate establishment, wrote a book called Bonjour paresse ('Hello Sloth') which landed its author in a bathful of eau chaude when it was splashed on the front page of Le Monde

Billed as a slacker's manual and subtitled 'of the art and necessity of doing as little as possible at work', Bonjour paresse was a publishing sensation. But it also brought the author a summons to a disciplinary hearing on the grounds of damage to EDF's prestige and the self-esteem of her colleagues.

Would she, wouldn't she be sacked? In the event, having been given time to reflect by Maier's defiant departure for a nice holiday ('Everyone knows you can't have a disciplinary hearing in France in August,' she snorted), the company let her off with a warning, an outcome she accepted with remarkably bad grace, muttering darkly about 'harassment'.

It's not hard to see why EDF was cross. A nod to Francoise Sagan's dark existential 1954 novel Bonjour tristesse ('Hello Heartache'), Bonjour paresse does a rather more direct job on the existential void at the heart of business.

Stingingly written by a formidably well-read intellectual (Maier's other subjects are literature and the famously abstruse psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan), her anti-business polemic pulls no punches. Much of corporate life, says Maier, is quite literally absurd, consisting of empty rituals and arbitrary actions whose only function is to provide the illusion of purpose.

Underneath is stasis - 'everything has to change so that everything remains the same' - in which the job of executives is to fill the time between pay cheques by doing nothing as actively as they can.

This hollowness is perfectly reflected in corporate speak, of which Maier produces several choice examples, some from EDF. 'Rester leader implique securiser le sourcing et/ou le positionnement du groupe sur le midstream gazier, de meme qu'identifier un mix/portefeuille de production optimal en fonction du mass market,' gives a flavour, its posturing self-importance even more offensive for its linguistic barbarity ('no man's langue,' as Maier neatly dubs it).

Maier's wrecking ball scores many bruising hits, for how could it not? But although she mercilessly exposes the unsayable - the gulf between the seriousness with which top managers regard their activity and the triviality of the object of their pretension, between the claims of flexibility and cool and the stultifying conformity beneath, between rhetorical benevolence and the reality of control - in one crucial respect Maier doesn't go far enough.

She shares with the cartoon strip office worker Dilbert, whom she quotes, the unquestioned assumption that corporate existence is inherently meaningless. Hence the advice at the end of the book, which got her into trouble: to sap the business from within by going through the motions while doing as little as possible.

But - and this actually doubles the absurdity of today's reality - there is no practical or intellectual reason why business should be like this.

Historically, business and trade were civilising influences. As Jane Jacobs has shown, 'le doux commerce' required honesty and trust as well as numeracy to flourish. The first use of writing was to record inventory - crudely, business made literature possible. As Maier herself notes, capitalism's beginnings have been closely linked to the Protestant work ethic.

The original sin of modern business, if one can call it that, is not to do with its nature but the practical matter of its organisation. Back in the early days of mass production, standardised products seemed to demand standardised work to churn them out. Hence Fordisation, the defining characteristic of which was command and control and specialisation - the hiving off of thought, management and decision-making from frontline work.

Command and control may have enabled huge increases in productivity at the time, but with every day that passes we pay a heavier price for its continuing legacy, the evacuation of purpose from work. One result is the colossal inefficiencies that disfigure almost all organisations in both public and private sectors, with consequences that Maier so clinically describes.

She is right to be outraged. But the answer is not passive resistance. In a jokey aside earlier in the book, she fantasises that taking a leaf from French history and chopping off a few heads might be a step forward, a prelude to a new settlement that would at least bring a fairer division of the spoils between the industrial classes, if not a more meaningful existence.

Regime change, however, is exactly what's needed. In effect, large companies are the ancien regime , the last surviving practitioners of central planning, as rusted, dysfunctional and archaic as latter-day Soviet Russia. But there's no point in guillotining a few of today's chiefs and replacing them with others of the same ilk. The whole apparatus of command and control must go.

So ignore the call to cultivate sloth. Instead, sweep away the entire top-heavy company superstructure, together with all the highly paid courtiers on the executive floor who do nothing but complicate the issues and weigh the company down. Liberate purpose. Put decision-making back into work. Adieu paresse , bonjour la revolution !

Simon.Caulkin@observer.co.uk

French lessons

'The supreme goal of the organisation is to induce the employee to internalise the things that would otherwise have to be imposed on him or her from the outside,' writes Maier. To combat this you must:

*Remember that white-collar work is today's slavery: you work for your monthly pay cheque, nothing else.

*Bear in mind that trying to change the system is futile.

*Since your job is pointless - any idiot could do it (and will, given the chance) - spend time cultivating allies rather than working.

* Avoid responsibility, which brings extra work at small reward, and operational assignments like the plague. Give preference to 'staff' jobs (research, internal consultancy, communications) whose contribution is impossible to measure.

* Talk the talk but learn to recognise fellow doubters.

* Be courteous to temps, contractors and others brought in from outside. After all, they are the only ones who do any real work.

the Observer, 3 October 2004


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