There are a handful of non-fiction books I come back to again and again. These are sorts of books that each time you go back to them, you find something new, and seminal. They express ideas that were influential later on, and were first expressed there in that particular way.
When talking about cities and urban planning, favorites are books like Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage of Nations, Lee Kuan Yew’s From Third World to First and Chester Liebs’ From Main Street to Miracle Mile. Each of these books, mostly about cities and economics, speaks about how to improve the human condition, or observes something important and special about where we are today, and where we need to go.
One book that seems to be resonating with me today is William H. Whyte Jr.’s The Organization Man. Whyte, a sociologist and urban theorist who wrote books and articles about the way cities work, wrote The Organization Man in 1956, at the height of the 1950s expansion of the U.S. in the Eisenhower era. Interestingly, the book came out in 1956, the same year of Sloan Wilson’s famed critique of corporatism, the novel Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
What Princeton-educated Whyte describes so perfectly is the advent of a post World War II culture that was completely alien to the American way of life as it had been known up to then. Whyte, who was called Holly, noticed that our American individualism was in the process of being destroyed. He saw it decades before many others, and put it in the context of something larger than the liberal/conservative or capitalist/socialist argument that was going on then, and continues to rage now.
The dust jacket, still present on my worn 1956 edition, reads, “The old precepts of the Protestant Ethic, to which he still gives lip service, simply do not jibe with the kind of group life he has to live. Intellectually, it is not the defects of organization life that cloud decisons for him, but its very beneficence. To resolve his doubts, he is constructing a new faith, a social ethic that would make morally legitimate the increasing power of society over him.”
The book follows these sold out men as they move from pre-induction training at college to the new suburbia of Levittown, where his family activities, purchase habits and aspirations are all chosen for him. Whyte saw an American culture that was moving away from individualism and the Protestant ethic of community, exchanging our noble ideals constructed over hundreds of years for another life of corporatism and conformity.
He is the middle-class American who has left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life. He can be found in corporations, in laboratories, in large factories, in foundations, in the hierarchies of our churches.
Intellectually, it is not the defects of organization life that cloud decision for him but its very beneficence. To resolve his doubts, he is constructing a new faith, a social ethic that would make morally legitimate the increasing power of society over him.
The challenge for today is that Americans sold their souls to these corporations, churches and governments in the last decades, yet today, these institutions are unable to look out for them, and consider them disposable. The Organization won, we lost, and now the only Organization is a klepto-government-industrial complex.
There are many useful insights. Perhaps the most applicable to marketing is the idea that once two or three people have a consumer item on a particular street, the rest of the group must have it. Writes Whyte:
“It is the group that determines when a luxury becomes a necessity. …..soon the nonposession of the item becomes an almost antisocial act.”
The book details that the debt consumer economy is not new, and that low savings rates are now a historic norm in the U.S. The only exceptions are first generation Americans, who come to the U.S. from other places and have a savings ethic.
Sections detail the ideaology, training, testing and neuroses of The Organization Man. Chapter names explain the important thesis, including The Fight Against Genius, The Bureaucratization of the Scientist and Society As Hero.
The appendix of the book is called “How to Cheat on Personality Tests.” Today, the personality test is sort of taken for granted, that we all really can be categorized by Myers-Briggs, or really think it is useful that corporations screen potential applicants with inane multiple choice questions in online employment and aptitude tests.
The book details the myriad ways Americans were giving up their individuality, but it is not a plea for non-conformity. Instead, Whyte just wanted Americans to understand what was going on, and fight against it when it was practical and useful, recognizing that our improving standards of living were useful, and through it all had a profound love of the United States. I never met him, but though through a family friend, the late Dana C. Creel, I got a sense of the large contribution Whyte made to the quality of life in the United States. Creel, who was head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, sponsored Whyte’s Street Life Project, which researched how cities worked successfully.
Whyte, who was at the time of the book a writer for Fortune, created the 1969 Plan for the City of New York. He also loved rural landscapes, and detailed how to preserve them in the 1968 book The Last Landscape. I have that book, as well as another called City: Rediscovering The Center, published in 1988. I read it while I was studying Urban Planning at VCU. It had many seminal thoughts, the most useful of which being that the company headquarters will always move to near the CEO. Whyte actually made a map of the addresses of corporations and where the CEO lived, in order to prove it. The other important part was making the case that gentrification was good, which it is.
The only problem with reading the Organization Man is that to read it now is quite scary. So many of the things Whyte warned us about are now institutionalized. Today, the Federal government is even in the middle of every doctor visit and local school.