Sacrifice and Survival at the Top
Spare the Whip and Spoil the Prayer
Posted Dec 01, 2012
Work has been contentious since the Garden of Eden, when a disappointed God sentenced Adam and Eve to hard labor and death, with painful childbirth thrown in to discourage pregnancy leave.
In our economy the corporate executive has God's unpleasant job. The day after the election, Robert E. Murray. GOP donor and owner of the nation's largest coal-mining company, read a homemade prayer to company staff members that attacked "liberal" policies: supposedly "redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom." The prayer begs for forgiveness for "drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business."
Then he fired 156 employees and leaked the story to the media.
Even if the episode was a political stunt, the homemade prayer is worth a closer look. After all, to terminate 156 people just before the holidays, after an election in which nothing changed, doesn't sound like Christian compassion. Practically speaking, the prayer provides cover for an attack on policies and voters the boss dislikes. The 156 "terminated" employees are collateral damage. In sanctifying corporate aggressiveness, the prayer is a public relations tactic. In this way it resembles the devious attack ads that have taken the place of information in American political campaigns.
Just for fun, let's take the prayer seriously for a moment, since it has something to tell us about denial in business culture. For one thing, the prayer functions as a sacrificial rite. The boss invokes his god as he is about to sacrifice 156 lambs to insure his—"our"—well-being.
Sacrifice usually has an element of bargaining in it. Christ's sacrifice "atones," "ransoms," and "takes away" the sins of the world. Aztec priests cut the hearts out of captives in ceremonies conducted to insure—in Murray's phrase—the "hope of our survival." In their sacrifices, the Aztec priests were transacting a scapegoat economy, paying in victims' blood for more life for the community. It was ambivalent work, too. When rulers offered a few drops of their own blood, it was a valuable gift, but also earned them relief from anxiety and guilt. At the same time the ritual killing of victims was an extension of warrior culture. In cannibalizing parts of the victims, the Aztecs were feeding themselves as well as the gods. The Aztecs were experts at domination and killing, and the technology supported a supernatural economy.
Now the coal-mine mogul is not sacrificing to Queztzalcotl. Yet his prayer has teasing echoes of that ancient psychic economy. In a sacred gesture, appealing to his god for help, Mr. Murray gives away—sacrifices—the livelihoods of 156 victims in "hope of our survival." At the same time his prayer attacks "the American people" who are draining life out of the country and especially its children because "the takers outvoted the producers." In this case the sacrificial bargain is warning a nation of lambs to get with the program or else.
Mr. Murray fights for survival through politics. In fact some of his employees have complained that he not-so-subtly forces them to donate to his favored candidates, which is a unique way to protect endangered "individual freedom."  Given the boss's hostility to "big government," compulsory donations could be a problem for miners whose survival underground depends on Federal safety regulations.
According to the boss, the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal." In his conception, capitalist competition itself is a form of warfare. "Free market" capitalists in particular assume that only the fittest survive—at least when they're not asking for government bailouts. Capitalist corporations strive to "corner a market" and make a profit by enforcing "lean and mean" discipline, which means keeping wages and new jobs to a minimum. Free market ideology sees government regulation as tyrannical meddling, although you could argue that regulations actually represent competing interests. When environmental and business needs compete, the useful model would be trade, because trade encourages imaginative sympathy. The participants in a trade have to read, or identify with, one another so each can discover what the other feels things are worth.
A prayer that divides the world into "takers" and "producers" isn't curious about other people. This is war, not trade. And it's personal, given Mr. Murray's claim that the administration's environmental policy is a "war on coal." The problem is, "war" isn't a business analysis. Though he blames the Obama administration, coal-mining is actually under pressure from the unexpected boom in cheap natural gas produced by new drilling technology at a time when coal-mining costs are going up. Meanwhile, as a climate threat, coal produces about 80% more CO2 than natural gas, not to mention a host of other noxious pollutants. The "war on coal" is actually policies that respond to economic change and environmental concerns. To complicate things further, coal use is actually up around the world, where it generates 40% of all electricity and supports 70% of steel production: and for better or worse, shows no signs of stopping.
Given the furious pace of globalization and change, all business is under pressure to innovate these days. Executives often combat their own anxiety by attacking "waste," triaging "surplus" employees and suppressing wages. But even realistic fears may reinforce inappropriate responses. During the Depression the confounded Henry Ford shut plants and kept demanding lower wages when deflation had already made clear that squeezed workers could no longer afford to buy his cars. He behaved as if unlimited executive power and worker sacrifice could dictate solutions to a systemic meltdown. Ford used company police and spies to enforce executive control. The underlying idea of warfare surfaced in 1932, when police and company security men killed 4 unemployed workers during a hunger march outside Ford's Rouge plant.
Postwar prosperity tamed labor conflicts. But when the rebalancing global economy began to challenge US dominance, executive power and "lean and mean" policies made sacrifice prominent again. Corporations turned to outsourcing, downsizing, union-busting, and givebacks, urging "No pain, no gain" sacrifice, though not for executives. At the same time Wall Street radically "financialized" the economy, doubling its share of the action, with leveraged buyouts and derivative alchemy that sucked wealth to the top of the top.
There's been suffering. During the "lean and mean" mania of the 90s, the NY Times published a report on employee stress captioned "On the Battlefields of Business, Millions of Casualties" (March 3, 1996). Even the Times saw it as warfare. Yet mutinies were few. In effect, insecurity and anguish were privatized. Corporate media propagandized for "creative destruction" and ignored protests. Like the prayerful Mr. Murray—who can't very well outsource his coal mines—executives used passive aggression to sacrifice employees.
It's easy to forget that the world once ran on slave economies. Not so long ago in the US you could own another person like a pickup truck or an Iphone. Slavery is the violent organization of work. Slaves give the executive master more "hands" and magnify his will. More slaves = more life. The executive mind wishes and thousands of bodies spring into action. Those bodies may be expendable, but mastery feels immortal. By contrast, as Orlando Patterson points out, slaves have no legal identity, so slavery for them is "social death." Stripped of self, they're like zombies or robots—think of Hollywood fantasies about revolting cyborgs. And social death applies today. Failure and rejection can cost you your family and self-esteem, and that can be as terrifying as real death. If you doubt that, consider the number of dismissed employees who have "gone postal" and rampaged through the workplace with guns blazing—once again crystallizing the underlying idea of warfare.
The US has the weakest labor laws of any advanced economy. Without a labor union, you can be terminated at any time, for any reason. You can see your pension swindled and benefits vaporized by predatory venture capital and banks that are too big to fail—or be held accountable. Nobody at the top goes to the slammer these days, not even at BP, whose safety mischief since 2004 has killed 28 employees and devastated the Gulf of Mexico.
So what is Mr. Murray praying for? Yes, corporate survival anxiety is real. Business is cutthroat unless you're too big to fail. Yet given the power of business lobbies, indolent regulators, and a politicized Supreme Court, the corporate state could hardly be friendlier. Executives blunder and taxpayers—in Wall Street slang, the "sheeple"—rescue them. If you're an alpha honcho, as among our primate cousins, you live longer than underlings. You have money to hire unlimited "hands." Still, as the song says, the higher you go, the farther you fall. And if survival-anxiety is an issue, you can never have enough immortality juju. No wonder you fear a world of "takers" draining your vitality. If you cope by applying even more force, your anxiety and frustration may morph into all-out survival greed. Which is why business needs regulation.
"The wealth of the Walton family - which still owns the lion's share of Walmart stock - now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute." Meanwhile Walmart is about to pay a $180 million dividend. "(According to the online weekly "Too Much," this $180 million would be enough to give 72,000 Wal-Mart workers now making $8 an hour a 20 percent annual pay hike. That hike would still leave those workers making under the poverty line for a family of three.)".
As the Murray prayer rightly says for the wrong reasons, this is a "drastic time."
Here's the prayer:
The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance.
We are a Country in favor of redistribution, national weakness and reduced standard of living and lower and lower levels of personal freedom.
My regret, Lord, is that our young people, including those in my own family, never will know what America was like or might have been. They will pay the price in their reduced standard of living and, most especially, reduced freedom.
The takers outvoted the producers. In response to this, I have turned to my Bible and in II Peter, Chapter 1, verses 4-9 it says, ‘To faith we are to add goodness; to goodness, knowledge; to knowledge, self control; to self control, perseverance; to perseverance, godliness; to godliness, kindness; to brotherly kindness, love.’
Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corp. for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build. We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise.
1. Steven Mufson, "After Obama reelection, Murray Energy CEO reads prayer, announces layoffs." Washington Post (Nov. 9, 2012).
2. Alec MacGillis, "Coal Miner's Donor," The New Republic (Oct. 4, 2012)
3. Barlett and Steele were shocking prescient in their 1991 study of the leveraged buyout spree, America: What Went Wrong. Their website is a good source of current data on the nation's economic warp: http://americawhatwentwrong.org/
4. Robert Reich's blog, "Organizing McDonalds and Walmart" (Dec. 1, 2012), quoting an Economic Policy institute study.
5. For samples of survival greed in the recent Wall Street rampage, see "Making a Killing," in my Berserk Style in American Culture (Palgrave, 2011).