Caught in the Cogs

“The machinery of contemporary life is wonderful, admirable, marvelously convenient and productive.  The trouble is that the human race seems to be caught in the cogs of it, and to be in danger of being ground up.” 

Edward Sandford Martin, The Unrest of Women (1913)

“Rational calculation . . . reduces every worker to a cog in this [bureaucratic] machine and, seeing himself in this light, he will merely ask how to transform himself from a little into a somewhat bigger cog.” 

Max and Alfred Weber, “Address to the Verein für für Sozialpolitik (1909)

The bane of bureaucracy runs like a red thread through all of today’s inanities, obscenities, and cancerous evils.  As Max and Alfred Weber explained to the bureaucratizing academics of the Verein für Sozialpolitik, bureaucratization strips a man of individual agency and makes him a patient cog in a social machine.   Just as a cog moves only when the machine moves, and then in the direction and at the speed dictated by the machine, so a bureaucrat moves only when the bureaucracy moves, and then in the direction and at the speed dictated by the policies and procedures of the bureaucracy.

And since bureaucracy forbids individual initiative, judgement and agency, since it stipulates a procedure for every act and decision in a vast and minute system of rules and regulation, the only form of self-expression and achievement left to a bureaucratized man is promotion to the office of “a somewhat bigger cog.”

Thus bureaucratization makes a man into both a cog and a careerist.  But it does not, indeed cannot, make every man into a successful careerist since every bureaucrat must eventually be passed over for promotion to the office of “a somewhat bigger cog.”  An unsuccessful and disappointed careerist is, however, still a careerist, just as a disappointed and unsuccessful womanizer is still a womanizer.  And anyone who comes into contact with a bureaucracy soon discovers that they are largely staffed by sour and surly little cogs who were passed over for promotion, who were therefore denied the sole satisfaction of a cog, and who therefore take their bitter revenge on helpless victims like you.

Thus to the keywords cog and careerist we must add the keyword cynic, since almost every careerist cog becomes a cynical cog in the end.  I am not using the word cynic in the proper philosophic sense of a man who, Diogenes-like, voluntarily repudiates all worldly pomp and circumstance, but am using it rather in the bastard-modern sense of a man who has been denied, and therefore affects to scorn, the “sour grapes” of promotion and higher office

A careerist cog still hopes and strives for promotion to the higher office of “a somewhat bigger cog,” and all his hopes are founded on, all his striving consists in, his efforts to make himself into a more perfect cog.  This means ever more efficient submission and obedience to the movements of the machine.  Like a perfect cog, the perfect bureaucrat is a frictionless transmitter of impulses that originate outside of himself, and that he passes on without adding or subtracting anything of himself.

If a perfect cog is a frictionless transmitter of external impulses, it might seem that a careerist bureaucrat would make himself most eligible for promotion by processing his paperwork so promptly and precisely that no one would really notice that he is there.  It might seem that a careerist cog would act with the deft efficiency of a waiter who is almost invisible as he clears the table of dirty plates.  But this is not the case, since a careerist cog must catch the eye of the boss by conspicuous displays of what I call performative cogliness.

Performative simply means histrionic, theatrical, or melodramatic, and every human occasionally uses performative exaggeration to call attention to himself, his activity, or his mood.  We have all heard the overloud clatter of performative dishwashing by an angry dishwasher.  We have all seen the performative piety of a devout drama queen. An act is performative when it is raised to the level of an expressive gesture.

Cogliness is the state of being a good cog, just as manliness is the state of being a good man, and performative cogliness is therefore an exaggerated pantomime of the qualities of a perfect cog.  In his efforts to catch the eye of the boss, a careerist cog draws attention to his cogliness in much the same way that a woman trying to catch the eye of a man draws attention to her sexiness.  She walks like a woman but more so.

How does a cog sashay and catch the boss’s eye with a display of performative cogliness? To answer this question, we must remember that a perfect cog responds perfectly to external impulses, and then transmits these impulses without loss to friction.  The perfect bureaucrat likewise exactly follows the policies and procedures of the bureaucracy, adding nothing of himself and subtracting nothing for himself.  The perfect bureaucrat evidences no personality because personality causes irrational “friction” in the bureaucratic process.   The perfect bureaucrat is, moreover, resolutely cheerful and zealous, betraying not the slightest hint of doubt in the superior wisdom of the bureaucracy and its process.  He has a horror of irony because he knows that irony is the tell-a-tale chancre of a cynic.

Performative cogliness is a melodramatic pantomime of this absolute surrender to the impersonal and “other directed” ethos of bureaucracy, and the substance of this melodramatic pantomime is,

flamboyantly uncynical repetition of the cant and clichés of corporate culture.

A careerist cog puts his cogliness in evidence when he, for instance, declares–without the slightest hint of cynical irony–that “diversity is our strength” or “we must build a culture of inclusion.”  It is by such histrionic displays of cant and cliché that a careerist cog shows his boss that he will say whatever the social machine tells him to say, do whatever the social machine tells him to do, believe whatever the social machine tells him to believe.

And what is more, he shows his boss that he can say, do and believe these things with zeal and good cheer.

* * * * *

I said at the outset that the bane of bureaucracy runs like a red thread through all of today’s inanities, obscenities, and cancerous evils.  Most Americans nowadays are bureaucratized cogs whose only hope for personal satisfaction is promotion to the office of “a somewhat bigger cog.”  So long as these hopes live, these Americans are careerist cogs.  When these hopes die, these Americans become cynics, ironists, dead-enders.  Irony is the tell-a-tale chancre that marks a cynical cog as a man who has nowhere to go.

Cheer and zeal, on the other hand, are badges of the careerist cogs who are still “rising stars.” Cheer and zeal are exhibited in performative cogliness, and performative cogliness is most perfectly exhibited by cheerful and zealous work for inanities, obscenities, and cancerous evils.

This is how a careerist cog shows the boss he has the chops to be “a somewhat bigger cog.”  And this is why the bane of bureaucracy runs like a red thread through all of today’s inanities, obscenities, and cancerous evils.

6 thoughts on “Caught in the Cogs

  1. Well said, JM. The careerist cog is a yes-man, but not to his boss (as back in the day) but to the bureaucratic machine in which he is enmeshed, and to the social / political / religious machine in which we are all enmeshed. Unlike the yes-man of old, who only had to please the boss and his inner circle, the new yes-man is never off duty and thereby never allowed to thumb his nose at his captors.

    He must be a non-stop cheerful yes-man.

  2. Thanks, Alan. I like your distinction between the yes-men of yesterday and today. Then you had to suck up to the boss, but now you suck up to the boss by joining him in sucking up to the system.

  3. “…now you suck up to the boss by joining him in sucking up to the system.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂

  4. Pingback: Sunday Morning Coffee 12/12/2021 – A Mari Usque Ad Mare

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