'THERE WAS only one catch and that was Catch-22.
'Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause ... "That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed. "The best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.'
Joseph Heller's brilliant, excoriating 1961 novel, set on a fictional US airbase in the Second World War, was always about capitalism as much as war. But to read it again is to be struck by how much nature has come to resemble art.
In business, too, there is a trap - a catch in whose 'spinning reasonableness' and 'elliptical precision' individuals seem helpless. Well before capitalism's global triumph, Heller imagined today's organisational configuration in which the individual revolves around the system, rather than vice versa. Ever pondered the logic of companies taking away career and pension and upping work intensity, for your own good? Or the fact that you can buy any insurance you please, except for the things that you know you'll need? Or that companies are delighted to give loans to anyone who can repay them but not to those who can't, ie those who need them? Welcome to Catch-22. Only a few years in the future lay its ultimate expression in Vietnam in the shape of the My-Lai school of management, in which to save something it became necessary to destroy it.
For John Yossarian, Heller's quirky contrarian protagonist, it slowly dawns that his life is in as much danger from the corporate ambitions of his own side as from enemy bullets. Not just the enemy - everyone is out to get him.
Thus, the naive and fabulously successful mess entrepreneur, Milo Minderbinder, successfully sells defence to the Germans, because he knows where the Americans will attack, and attack to his own side, because he knows where the German defences will be - despite the resulting carnage a victory for private enterprise, he points out, since both armies are socialised institutions. ('Frankly,' he confides, 'I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether.')
When Yossarian opens a first-aid kit to comfort a dying airman, he finds the morphine gone and a note its place with the words: 'What's good for M&M Enterprises is good for the country' (everyone, as Milo insists, has a share in the syndicate). With his opaque deals and magical profits, Milo anticipates both the role of the private sector in modern war (think Iraq) and today's private-equity and hedge-fund claims that it is somehow possible for purely financial instruments to conjure up perpetually higher returns than those earned on the underlying investments.
In real life, as in the book, Catch-22 is alive and well today in bureaucracy, provisos and small print. Corporate risk-management systems are sophisticated forms of it, being designed not to eliminate but to pass on risk. But the apotheosis of its diabolical reasonableness is undoubtedly numerical targets. Targets seem hard and tangible, the stuff of modern management. But the instant they are used to manage by, they melt: the figures can no longer be relied on, since people whose only control is over the numbers will instantly find ways around them. Hence a paradox of an elegance that Heller would have loved: targets are necessary and should be used, but in use they are useless and should be abandoned.
Not surprisingly, in this world of paradox, language too is mangled as it is forced to embody rival versions of reality. The novel features constant linguistic battles over meaning, characterised by blizzards of negatives and positives ('I always didn't say you couldn't punish me, sir'). Much less wittily, corporate language reflects a similar struggle to reshape meaning - hence the excruciating circumlocutions and euphemisms which accurately express the conflicted objectives beneath. Try 'workforce culture re-engineering' and 'leveraging supply-chain solutions' (I leave the meanings to your imagination).
At the end of the book, by playing out his personal version of the dilemma - 'jeopardising his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them' - Yossarian is a danger both to himself and the system. He is offered the classic deal for the rebel down the ages: wealth and fame in return for accepting the system. Initially tempted, he refuses, and then has no option but to desert ("You'll have to jump". "I'll jump". "Jump!" Major Danby cried. Yossarian jumped'). Nowadays, with no other game in town, it's harder to opt out the challenge is to tackle Catch-22 from within. But Heller's weapons - anger, surreal humour and a brilliant eye for human absurdity - are as important, perhaps more so, than ever. In the roster of alternative books about business, Daneeka's right: this one is the best there is.
The Observer, 29 July 2007