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On Mad Men and the impossibility of transcending capitalism

Mad-men-season-6-dante-inferno-theoriesThe documentary maker Adam Curtis wrote in 2010: ‘In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.’

The system in which the characters are stuck forces them to live divided lives in divided selves. Don Draper, in particular, has learned to put on a mask in order to get ahead and leave behind his background of shame and poverty. But the cost of this pact with American capitalism – I will put on a mask if you let me become successful – is a gnawing loneliness and restlessness. In the first scene of the sixth series, we see him on a beach, next to his beautiful wife, reading in the sun. He’s reading Dante’s Inferno:

Midway through the journey of our life
I found myself within a dark forest,
For the straight path had been lost.

Of course, Dante gets out of the Inferno. How about Don? Is there any transcendence? Any redemption? Any escape from the system? This is one of the great questions which shows during TV’s Golden Age has asked us – from The Wire (no escape), to The Sopranos (no escape), to Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks (some escape maybe), to Breaking Bad (definitely no escape).

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, used to write for The Sopranos, and both these shows excel at exploring some of the ways people try and escape from late capitalism through therapy or New Age spirituality, and yet somehow remain stuck in the system, just as confused and egotistical as ever.

Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga
Janice Soprano seeking escape through yoga

In fact, as Mad Men explored, late capitalism rapidly co-opted the insights of therapy, sexual liberation, the arts and New Age spirituality, and used them to sell us things (this is the main point of Adam Curtis’ documentary, Century of the Self, which aired three years before Mad Men began).

So, on the one hand, Don Draper has a sharp artistic insight into the human condition. Some of the key moments of the show are moments during a high-stakes pitch, where he seems to have run out of ideas, and then suddenly he has a brilliant epiphany, and everyone is wowed by his creative power. He’s a Michelangelo of Madison Avenue.

And yet what are these epiphanies? Revelations from God? Glimpses of a better world? No, they’re catchphrases to sell cars or cigarettes. That’s what the idea of epiphany has been reduced to in late capitalism: the magical creation of a new product or ad slogan. That’s what all those innovation companies and creativity gurus are selling: more imaginative ways to sell us things. It’s the least innovative definition of innovation in human history.

So is there no escape?

Certainly, various characters seek various forms of escape. The most common form of escape is booze. The show is swimming in it, the male characters keep their pain and frustration sedated with the bottle.

Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas
Paul seeks escape through the Hari Krishnas

Others seek more radical forms of escape as the Sixties counterculture gains momentum: Paul the copy-writer joins the Hari Krishnas, though it seems pretty phony. Roger Sterling’s daughter joins a hippy commune, again it seems phonier than the capitalism it rejects. Roger himself spends a few seasons experimenting with LSD and group sex – it doesn’t really make him any less selfish, though he is perhaps the most likable and content character in the show. Don also finds an escape of sorts through his constant affairs and one slightly weird S&M dalliance. Ken Cosgrove has the option of escape into bohemian creativity by becoming a novelist, though he doesn’t take it.  Ginsberg the eccentric copy-writer takes the escape of psychosis. And Lane Pryce takes the escape of suicide.

Don, meanwhile, often takes the escape of going on the road. That old American dream: let’s get lost. Let’s disappear. But this is not a long-term solution. By the final episode, after months of traveling, he feels truly lost, and washes up in a New Age retreat on the coast of California.

This retreat is clearly based on Esalen, which was the spiritual centre of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s, the place where unhappy middle-class people came to learn yoga, give each other massages, and seek through endless workshops and encounter sessions for ‘the real me’, the pure me, the me stripped of all baggage. Here’s a clip on it from Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self:

As Curtis explored, the Human Potential Movement rapidly became absorbed by late capitalism. Today, there is a booming industry of business coaches who use the ideas and techniques of Human Potential in companies and weekend courses, to help people find their authentic selves within late capitalism. The system proved flexible enough to absorb all the radical experiments of the 60s counter-culture, and turn them into commodified experiences.

We see the apparent impossibility of genuine transcendence in the show’s final scene. Don is meditating and chanting ‘om’ – a very unlikely scene. Eyes closed, a quiet smile curls upon his face. A bell chimes. Has he finally found the answer? Has he unlocked the mystery of his self? The scene cuts, and its a famous 70s advert for Coca Cola, ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. The implication is that Don’s epiphany at Esalen is merely another idea for an advert, another way to sell things. (Perhaps the ‘merely’ here is mine rather than Weiner’s – he says he thinks the Coke advert is genuinely beautiful).

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This might make Mad Men sound a very dark and cynical show, and it certainly has its dark edges. But for some reason it’s not a dark show. I think that’s because the characters and stories are drawn with such love, such deft words and gestures. None of them are all bad or all good. We care about them, want them to be OK, are interested in their progress. The writers respect our intelligence, and know they can tell a story through a word, a look or a gesture, and we’ll pick up a subtle reference to something earlier in the show. A point doesn’t have to be obvious: ‘subtext is pleasure’, Weiner says. Characters’ motivations are both revealed, and also mysterious – as in the Sopranos, motivation is never a simple cause-effect equation.

And, unlike every other Golden Age hit, this is a show where no one gets murdered. Think of the body-count in the Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood, Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead. Mad Men instead captures our attention with what Weiner calls ‘the quotidian’, with the details of office and domestic life in the maelstrom of the 60s. Office life can feel stale, flat, dull, but it never feels boring at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (particularly when half the office is on amphetamines). Like 30 Rock, it has a rosy view of the humour, creative anarchy and occasional love to be found in the office. Whatever late capitalism is, it’s interesting.

Even if there is no great transcendence from the system, we do see better life-opportunities open up for female and coloured characters as the civil rights movement progresses. Compare the autonomy and power of Joan and Peggy at the end of the show with the simpering bimbos they were at its beginning.

So, in the words of the Peggy Lee song that begins the final season, ‘Is that all there is?’ The show seems to agree with Sigmund Freud – the only transcendence we can hope for are the consolations of work and love.

What Quaker companies can teach us about well-being-at-work

Henry-RowntreeMy great-great-great grandfather, a York Quaker called Henry Isaac Rowntree (that’s him on the left), set up Rowntree’s chocolate company in York in 1862. He was an amiable young man, ‘perhaps the only Rowntree with a sense of humour’ according to one historian. He had a parrot who liked to shout obscenities from under the table, much to the consternation of the Quaker elders when they visited. Henry loved adult education and journalism, but family members feared he knew ‘next to nothing about business’.

This led to him not being invited to be a partner at the family grocery business, so instead he bought a cocoa company in York.  A few years later, the young cocoa company was in financial difficulties. Bankruptcy was the height of shame in the Quakers – indeed, you were ejected from the church for it – so Henry’s older brother, Joseph, came to help him run it. Joseph was much more sensible and meticulous, and public demand for cocoa powder and chocolate was beginning to take off.

By the 1940s, Rowntree’s had become one of the biggest confectioners in the world, making well-known brands like Aero, Rolos, Kit-Kat, Polo, Black Magic, and Rowntree’s Fruit Pastilles. Alas it was sold to Nestle in 1988, and Joseph had already given away all the money he made to his charitable trusts, so distant descendants inherited not so much as a packet of Smarties.

Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree's
Peter Cheese of the CIPD talking about Rowntree’s

Nonetheless, Rowntree’s are still relevant to my interests because the company was a pioneer in adult education, and well-being-at-work. In fact, when I went to a conference on well-being-at-work, organised by Robertson Cooper last year, the first speaker began his keynote with a slide of the Rowntree’s factory. So what can the example of Rowntree’s tell us about well-being-at-work?

1) Rowntree’s made worker well-being a priority 

Rowntree’s, like its Quaker rival Cadbury’s, was run in a spirit of industrial paternalism. The workers were treated not as mere cogs in a machine, but as characters to be developed (and souls to be saved). Rowntree’s was one of the first companies to have dedicated ‘welfare officers’ – what today we’d call human resources managers – whose job was to look after the well-being and moral character of the young and typically-unmarried male and female workers. There was also a medical officer, regular medical and dental examinations, and company public health campaigns against the evils of tobacco and booze.

The women's canteen at Rowntree
The women’s canteen at Rowntree

As the company grew to a staff of 4,000 or so, Joseph Rowntree was keen to make sure it was still ‘united by a common purpose’. To that end he introduced one of the first in-house company magazines, as well as group-bonding concerts, theatricals, meals together and field trips. One trip involved sending the workers on a walk across the Yorkshire dales. Unfortunately it rained, the workers repaired to a nearby pub, and after an afternoon’s intensive drinking, the police had to be called to eject them.

Historical accounts, like this history of Rowntree female employees, suggest workers enjoyed working at the firm

The Rowntree’s also supported workers’ education through libraries, discussion groups, the Yorkshire philosophical society, and through a network of adult schools. Quakers played the leading role in the establishment of adult education at the end of the 19th century – by 1900 there were 350 adult schools around the UK, with 45,000 pupils, of which two-thirds were at schools run by Quakers. Many Rowntree family members were actively involved in setting up and teaching in adult schools.

Some of the Rowntree staff lived in a ‘model village’ launched by Joseph Rowntree, called New Earswick. It was inspired by the ‘garden city’ designs of Ebenezer Howard, with worker cottages, a village green, and a veritable Quaker porridge of village committees – a library committee, a women’s guild, an orchestral society, a village council, a men’s social club, a musical society etc etc etc. It’s still going.

Historical records suggest that, to a large extent, Rowntree employees enjoyed working there, forged good relationships, and were happy – indeed, Rowntree women were famous for singing at work, as this short film from 1932 shows.

2) This sort of Quaker industrial paternalism was potentially patronising and illiberal

However, the strong emphasis on worker welfare could potentially be creepy – the company poking its nose in your inner life. Fry’s Chocolates, for example (another Quaker company), held an annual workers prayer service, which Joseph Fry said  was ‘often a means of observing their conduct and checking any tendency to impropriety’. The Rowntree’s welfare officers, known as ‘overseers’, were also sometimes resented (‘she sits up there like the Queen of Sheba’, one worker complained).

Workers might well feel that what they did in their own time was their own business, and that the imposition of Quaker ethics on them was an infringement of their own religious liberties. So what if they drank in their own time? Should that be a cause for sacking, as it was at Fry’s? When did religious non-conformism become so conformist?

The Quaker emphasis on character and do-gooding could be annoying and patronising, as one poem showed:

Take a dozen Quakers, be sure they’re sweet and pink
Add one discussion programme, to make the people think
…Garnish with compassion – just a touch will do
Serve with deep humility your philanthropic stew

A modern equivalent of Rowntree’s focus on worker-welfare might be something like the American shoe company Zappo’s, which also is something of a personality cult of its CEO, Tony Hsieh, and also has a strong emphasis on employee well-being. Reading Hsieh’s smug and self-congratulatory comic book, Delivering Happiness, makes me feel queasy – Zappo’s sounds like a bit of a happiness police state.

It’s important, then, for companies to think about how to balance a strong collective ethos with autonomy, how to create a culture that encourages people to be individuals rather than clones, how to create room for dissent and satire, and how to make sure their well-being programme doesn’t feel forced, patronising, conformist. or a form of illiberal surveillance.

Saracens rugby club is an interesting example here – its ethos was also inspired by a strong Christian emphasis on the well-being and personal development of its staff and players, but manages to find a way to promote this without being too patronising, and with room for dissent. Staff and players are co-creators of the culture, rather than merely automatons to be programmed.

3) Ethical capitalism always has its internal tensions

The Quakers helped to set up some of the best British companies – Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s, Barclays, Lloyds, Clarks, Friends Provident – most of which strived to be not just profitable but ethical. They were family-owned, meaning they could pursue their own values rather than trying to please distant shareholders. They were often run as quasi-mutuals, ‘as a kind of partnership between masters and men, uniting their labour for a common end’, as Joseph Rowntree put it.

In all of this, perhaps there are lessons for our own time, when corporations have come to be seen as psychopathic, and when Barclays and Lloyds have become by-words for dodgy dealing (indeed, Barclays’ CEO, Anthony Jenkins, recently suggested the firm needed to remember its Quaker history).

However, Quaker capitalism always had its internal contradictions and tensions.

Quakers blossomed in business partly because their religious non-conformism meant that historically they were unable to go into other careers like politics, partly because they had amazing networks of trust between themselves, and partly because their austere Puritanism made them very good at meticulous book-keeping and rational management. But, as Max Weber explored in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, there was a paradox in directing this Puritan zeal towards the accumulation of capital.

An advert for Aero’s Bubbles. Not entirely Quaker.

Quaker businessmen had a constant struggle to try and balance their service both to God and to mammon. For example, Rowntree’s initially rejected advertising as insincere and duplicitous, but quickly realised they had to embrace it to compete. Both Rowntree’s and Cadbury’s used their ethical principles as a form of advertising, which works from a marketing point of view but is not really in accord with the Gospels. They also spied on each other to try and get each other’s recipes – this was the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They colluded and set prices when it suited them. Both families made their fortunes by profiting on our growing addiction to sugar – which was originally intended to wean the nation off alcohol but has become its own public health menace.

And the family-ownership model depended on having family members with the genius for business. The Rowntree heirs became increasingly interested in different things, so the company appointed its first non-Rowntree chairman in the 1930s – George Harris, my great-grandfather, who married into the family. He wasn’t a Quaker and had little time for their Puritan do-goodiness. He was more inspired by the American Forrest Mars, who once told his employees: ‘I am a religious man…I pray for Milky Way, I pray for Snickers…Profit is our sole objective.’ Harris used marketing research to launch the very un-Quaker ‘Black Magic’, advertised as a tool for seduction!

Black Magic, a tool for seduction
Black Magic, a tool for seduction

4) So what we can take from Quakernomics today? 

– Try to run companies as mutual enterprises, by facilitating discussions, suggestions and group activities with all levels of the company. Strive for fair pay for all levels of the company, and make sure your suppliers’ values are aligned with your own.

– Provide opportunities for employees to broaden their minds, like Rowntree’s adult schools, the Google Campus, or the Saracens personal development programme.

– Support employees’ well-being through online and one-to-one advice, which should be entirely confidential rather than a means to spy on staff. Connect well-being services both to broader adult education (like Google’s Search Inside Yourself course) and to wider philanthropy and CSR.

– Provide opportunities for employees to pursue philanthropic activities and to feel they are working for a company with a moral mission.

– Provide opportunities for dissent, for disagreement, for satire and internal criticism – to make sure a strong collective ethos doesn’t turn into a cult!

– Explore new models of ownership which don’t make the company a slave to short-term shareholders.

–  Combine moral mission with empirical rigour – what works, both for the company and for employee well-being? What sort of philanthropy or social reforms genuinely work, rather than simply making the giver feel good? Joseph and Seebohm Rowntree were both more than mere do-gooders. They were scientific in their do-gooding.

– Finally, a commitment to employee well-being is entirely in line with a commitment to business excellence, although companies can expect some dilemmas and tough decisions along the way. The moral mission needs to be led  by CEOs at the top, rather than Corporate Social Responsibility reps in the middle.