Spring 2005 - Volume 8 Number 2
The Way of the Rat: A Survival Guide to Office Politics
London: Cyan Books, 2004
"We're all beasts when it comes down to it."
- Richard, Lord Buckley 1906-1960
In our species' earnest history of trying to figure out what, if anything, we are about, it has always been tempting to look to our fellow animals for insight and instruction. Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) saw in the allegedly selfish behavior of bees a greater communal good to be realized through competition and, therefore, economic productivity. About three hundred years later, E. O. Wilson looked at the same insects and came to a similar conclusion, albeit through a different line of reasoning. One thing was shared between these fellows, however; it was the idea that behavior was natural, instinctive and ultimately selfish.
Other scientists looked to other species and for different purposes. B. F. Skinner used pigeons to demonstrate his theories of behavioralism, based on premise that we are tabulae rasae - blank slates, and can be trained to do and to be almost anything. Konrad Lorenz employed geese to tout the concept of innate aggressiveness. Robert Ardrey and Lionel Tiger, who were less skilled observers of our primate cousins, proposed that humans were "naked apes" and that apes were inherently ferocious.
Today, people flying the flags of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and other variants on what I will call primitive Darwinism are making a strong and apparently persuasive case for such fictions as "selfish genes" and, when they fall under the sway of technological metaphors, for humanity's "hard-wired" propensity for territoriality, violence and narcissistic reproduction. Given this proclivity to link human actions to biological instincts, I was intrigued by Joep Schrijvers's international best-seller The Way of the Rat. It has sold close to 400,000 copies in several languages (including this competently rendered English edition translated by Jonathan Ellis). It has been widely reviewed and subjected to hand-wringing analyses by liberal commentators who are horrified by Schrijvers' account of the rat-like character of the people we have known and (we thought) liked. Schrijvers has a word for it: "verminicity" - the egocentric, merciless, power-seeking stratagems that our co-workers, bosses, employees, students and others are constantly using in their nefarious plots against us.
It is a bit of a sham.
I have long believed that the two most unfairly treated political thinkers in the Western tradition have been Machiavelli and Hobbes. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) was the Italian courtier who, in The Prince, sought to advise rulers about the use of force, deceit and pretence in the struggle to maintain power. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was the English philosopher who, in Leviathan, informed us that humanity was relentlessly selfish and that, at base, we were a rather horrid species whose lives in the "state of nature" were "nasty, brutish and short." Neither theorist would win a prize for warmth and cuddliness from any of the late Jim Henson's muppets - probably not even from Oscar the Grouch.
What we fail to remember, however, is that Machiavelli advised trickery of necessity and in the interest something he called "virtù" which does not translate easily into English but which we can probably call "civic virtue." Hobbes, as well, championed human reason as the basis of civil society; wicked we may all be, but we are also smart enough to accept the necessity of restraint, even if it must be enforced by authorities which use remarkably undemocratic and often unjust methods. Machiavelli and Hobbes have looked humanity in the face and found it wanting, but both sought to overcome our bestial natures and to civilize us in spite of ourselves.
The Way of the Rat, therefore, held some promise. Tired of Oprah, Dr. Phil and the plethora of look-good, feel-good piffle that currently passes as social philosophy on the self-help shelves of big box book stores, I was ready for something with an edge, and a sharp one at that. Just as, in the past, anthropologists and biologists and philosophers had sought a plausible definition of human nature, I was now prepared for a nicely drawn analogy between people and rats. I was to be disappointed.
For a start, Schrijvers tells us nothing about rats, the alleged standard against which we (or at least some of us) are to be measured. He uses unpleasant words such as selfish and ruthless. He mentions motives such as winning and power seeking. He does not, however, give any plausible explanation of why anyone (rat or human) would strive to be self-seeking in particularly amoral ways.
Of course, he might simply be taking "verminicity" for granted. But, if he is, he is decidedly undecided about it. He claims to be uninterested in ethics, but routinely labels "rats" as wicked and evil in an apparent attempt to admire and despise the same people and the same actions at the same time.
What's worse is the banality of the evils he reports. He recounts tale after tale of corporate leaders who use dirty tricks to undermine employees. Humiliating people in order to make them quit a job is, apparently, an extraordinarily rat-like strategy. Really? I know people who have been subjected to humiliation for decades and refuse to quit, perhaps just in order to irritate their bosses. So, who's the rat?
From the other side, Schrijvers lets us in on the big secret that employees can ruin a boss by simply failing to carry out orders expeditiously, deliberately making a botch of things and showing that their "superior" is incompetent because organizational goals were not being met. A surprise? Not to John Diefenbaker!
Perhaps I have not spent enough time in the "real world" of cut-throat, private sector business, but Schrijvers told me nothing I haven't regularly seen in close to forty years as a classroom teacher.
Anyone who would be chilled by his accounts of the rat's nest of office politics, or the rat race of corporate competition is just not ready to be allowed out on the street without a minder. Hoping to find a revivification of robust Machiavellian intrigue and unashamed Hobbesian realism, I witnessed nothing that was other than run-of-the-mill "interaction" among "human resources."
Want to know if you're a rat? Here are some test questions that Schrijvers dutifully provides: "I know my aims"; "I know exactly which power sources I can tap"; "I am good at interviewing." Answer "yes"? Well, you're almost a "clever" rat and well on your way to being a "filthy" rat! You've won seven points on his scale, need only fourteen more to become "filthy," and there are still ten more questions!
Schrijvers promises us insight into the "way of the rat," but delivers only a field guide to mousy little rodents: "wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beasties," that are barely worth breath.
Howard A. Doughty teaches Philosophy and Natural Science at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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