In order to understand who we are, we need to understand the culture that we live in. Over the past three or four generations, we have transitioned from a culture where we were subjects to powerful institutions to where we became captives to a culture focused on consumer products. And now, we are on the cusp of a third cultural transition. The following selection is from my short book, Seeing Below the Surface: The Brokenness of Modern Organizations.
The Consumer Culture Hegemony
French writer Jean Baudrillard, in one of his last pieces before his death, described the transitions in culture of society that are mirrored in the structures of organizations. It is a transition from domination to hegemony.
“Domination is characterized by the master/slave relation … a relationship of force and conflicts … There are the dominators and the dominated … Everything changes with the emancipation of the slave and the internalization of the master by the emancipated slave. Hegemony begins here … (and) brings domination to an end. We, emancipated workers, internalize the Global Order and its operational setup of which we are the hostages far more than the slaves. Consensus, be it voluntary or involuntary, replaces traditional servitude … “HEGEMON” means the one who commands, orders, leads and governs … Contrary to domination, a hegemony of world power is no longer a dual, personal, or real form of domination, but the domination of networks, of calculation and integral exchange.”
In order to make sense of the English translation of Baudrillard’s complex French, let’s try to understand the difference between these two ideas of domination and hegemon.
Until the recently, most people were subjects of a governing power. Power was not subject to the people but to a king, a queen or an emperor. The popular series Game of Thrones is a good illustration of the master/slave culture. Then later the factory owner or corporation became our masters. People were cogs in a machine. There was little freedom, little personal autonomy, only accountability to the authority of the institution. As the old mountain folk song rhymed it, “I owed my soul to the company store.” There are very few instances in human history where this was not true. During the past century, we entered into a transition where prosperity spread beyond ownership of factories to people owning their own small businesses and entrepreneurial enterprises. In this transition, most of us witnessed the growth of the middle class, the driving social force of the post-World War II world.
As technology advanced, economies grew, the social dimensions of working for a company changed. No more master/slave relation. We became consumers, no longer workers. We became masters of our lives. We worked to consume. For to consume is to define who we see ourselves to be. In our consuming, we joined a culture of consumers. We participated as brand ambassadors for the products and ideas that define us. This is the hegemon we joined.
We cannot see that we have been captured by this hegemon. We are not personally dominated by it. Instead, all the places where we interact with people, places and institutions are controlled by this culture. We are held hostage to it. We cannot see that it is a mono-culture. It is a culture of consumption, period, end of sentence. We join it because there is nothing else to join. It is the entire culture of the world. As hostages to it, it is very difficult to say that we will not participate. We join by the simplest acts of having to make choices at the market between brands, types of products (organic or non-organic), and how we pay for our selections, cash, check or debit card.
This global mono-culture is what we see on our screens. It is also how it sees us through our screens. It is a culture of identification that is constantly appealing to us. Not just to buy, but to believe in the messages that are presented to us through our screens.
Organizational titles are vital in the marketing of products, services, and the narratives of belief. A title defines our role in the hegemonic culture. With that title, we are identified in our relation to the larger culture of organizations.
This identification, however, marginalizes us. This marginalization is reflected in our most fundamental human need, which is to compare ourselves to others. Beyond our titles, our identity is formed by our comparison to other people. A consumer culture is constructed to create a constant lack of satisfaction in life. The result is that we live in conflict with ourselves and the rest of the world.
Historian Rene Girard refers to this human phenomenon as mimetic desire. It is the desire to imitate, to be like others. The closer we are to someone the greater conflict we have. This desire brings us to a point of violence as we must destroy those with whom we compete to be alike. Girard sees the implication this way.
“Competition is the desire to imitate the other in order to obtain the same thing he or she has, by violence if need be. … America indeed embodies these mimetic relations of rivalry. The ideology of free enterprise makes of them an absolute solution. Effective, but explosive. These competitive relations are excellent if you come out of it as the winner, but if the winners are always the same then, one day or the other, the losers overturn the game table. This mimetic rivalry, when it turns out badly, always results eventually in some form of violence.”
The power of this culture is a chief obstacle to living a fulfilled, satisfied life. If we wish to be persons of impact then must address this mimetic desire. Without awareness, our desire to imitate those we wish to be a like takes away our unique voice and perspective. The hegemonic culture is a mimetic culture. It tells us how we are to fit into society. As a result, we become victims of our own desire to be like everyone else.
The transition that Jean Baudrillard identifies is from a world dominated by economics to social influence. The worst thing to happen to a person today is to be socially ostracized online, to be cancelled. The power of the hegemon is the power of inclusion and exclusion in a global social consumer culture. We feel it in the fear of alienation, of being alone in a world of people. The key word here is fear. For it is not just a fear of rejection, but a fear of the loss of identity. As long as our identity is external to us, this fear will dominate our lives.
If we were able to look under the surface, we would see is the actor without make-up, the Wizard behind the curtain, the house collapsing, and institutions operationally lost in the complexity of a rapidly changing world. If we could see below the surface of our lives, what would we see?
The Transition in Identity
A real shift in self-understanding came after the Second World War. The culture shifted from a focus on industrial production to the consumer. My father returned from military service in the war and became the first in his family to earn a college diploma thanks to the G.I. Bill. It meant that he, unlike his father, who was a clerk in a factory, became a corporate executive. Our family transitioned from a being office workers into being middle class consumers.
Over time, as the middle class grew, we began to define ourselves by what we could purchase. Brand names became important to us. We took pride in the labels that we wore. They defined us as people in relation to our neighbors and co-workers.
As a child, the kind of car you drove said something about you. There were Ford people, Chevy people, and Plymouth/Dodge people. Where I grew up in the South, stock car racing grew to be so popular because we followed the drivers who drove our cars. The transition was one of self-perception. We aligned ourselves with products that we felt represented the values of who we were, even if that connection was nothing more than clever marketing. As a result, we no longer worked to produce. We worked to consume, to buy, and to move up in status as we bought.
Consumer products became status objects. The status was in the name, not in the quality of the product. I remember when luxury brands began to show up in outlet malls to sell lower priced, knock-off versions of their more expensive clothing or consumer products. We could not see what this change in society was doing to us. Products represented social advancement. We had become subjects of the brands that became the source of our identity.
In our consuming, we join a culture of consumers. We participated as brand ambassadors for the products and ideas that define us. This is the hegemon we joined.
We cannot see that we have been captured as hostages to this consumer hegemon. We have freely assimilated the brand idea into our own self-understanding. With the emergence of social media, we now develop our own brand identity.
The Next Transition In Consumer Culture
However, nothing remains as it is. We are always in transition. This is also true of modern consumer culture.
There came a moment when commercial products began to lose their appeal.
Products and labels became boring. We owned more stuff that we could store at home. A shift in culture happened. We became consumers of social interaction. The emergence of the internet and social media platforms led to us becoming a culture of influencers. We follow people who we want to be like. We become consumers of opinions. We talk about their Instagram pictures, their YouTube videos, podcasts, and Facebook posts. We buy products now, not because of the label, but because of the social influencer who is associated with the product.
This is the hegemon that Jean Baudrillard describes. This is the mono-culture of social media. Now, we decide who we are to be, not because of our family history or some community group, but because of what we see on our screens. We have replaced relationships with connections.
A Simulated Consumer World
In another place, Jean Baudrillard writes about this as world of simulation. Instead of purchasing a real product, like an expresso machine or electric bicycle, we buy into a simulated world of ideas. Today, we consume social expectations. Through social media, we are taught who to believe, who to vote for, and, even more importantly who to hate and resist. We are purchasing a simulated reality. How do we know this? Because there is no direct relationship or outcome from our participation. It all remains on the screen and in the cloud as data which defines who we are. These simulations are designed to attract us the same way a sports shirt or the latest craft beer does. They are representations of persons that we have been led to believe are us. Baudrillard describes this simulated world this way.
To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign (fake) to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending: “Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littré). Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.”
Baudrillard is not a simple writer. To make sense of this, he is making a distinction about the difference between pretending and simulating. We dress up at Halloween to pretend to be a superhero or some character that we know we are not. To simulate on the other hand is to believe we are something that we are not. The culture of the hegemon is a simulation. It is not a place where we are our real selves. We portray ourselves in a manner that simulates something attractive to us. We are actors where the character we play becomes more real and attractive than we believe ourselves to actually be.
This global mono-culture is the culture of our screens. It is a culture of simulated identification. It is a celebrity influenced culture. Their opinions and endorsements matter because … because … they are celebrities. And they are celebrities because … they are marketed that way. Their online and onstage persona may or may not be real. We don’t know. I’m not sure we really care. WE like the image. This celebrity consumer culture follows the insight that Umberto Eco, the Italian novelist gave that, “… the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”
This world of simulated reality is primarily acquired through images on our screens.
French writer, Guy Debord, writing before the advent of social media, described this culture of simulation as a spectacle. He wrote,
“…all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. … The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
This is why we may feel at the same time a strong draw to participate in the culture of social media and feel a strange alienation in the connection to all those people and topics.
Welcome to The Borg
A constant process of change has been with us for a long time. We have moved from being industrial producers to purchasers of consumer products. The next stage emerged as social media turned us into brand ambassadors for social media memes which may or may not have any direct connection to our lives.
It is why organizational titles matter so much in the marketing of products and services. A title defines our role in the hegemonic culture. It subjects us to the role we play (simulate) at home and at work. It marginalizes our own distinct voice. We become agents of a hegemonic culture where we are held hostage.
Where we are today in our social media saturated world reminds me of Alice Krige’s portrayal of the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. This is a film, produced in the mid-1990’s, that illustrates the hegemon that Baudrillard describes. In the film, the purpose of the Borg is to assimilate every being into a collective consciousness. It requires the elimination of individuality. As the dominate personality of the hive, Krige, the Queen, converses with Data, the cyborg from the Enterprise. The end game is to assimilate Data into the Borg. She tells him, “I am the beginning, the end, the one who is many… I bring order to chaos. I am the Borg. I am the collective.” As she speaks to Data about the importance of evolving, he says, “The Borg does not evolve. It conquers.” She responds, “I am assimilating other beings into our collective. We are bringing them closer to perfection.” She would be the perfect politician for our world today.
Our hegemonic consumer culture is very similar. In the chaos and complexity of the world we live in, we long for safety and order. Social media platforms serve to assimilate us into a global collective mind. Free speech is not safe speech, and safe speech is not free speech. The hegemonic nature of social media provides a simulated order of safety. It only requires our assimilation into its simulated reality.
But it is not safe. It requires each of us to constantly self-monitor, self-censor, and self-correct what we think and wish to say. It is not safe because the violence is with us. We are in conflict between our imitated selves and our real selves. Both want the same thing, an authentic life, but both cannot have it at the same time. As a result, we have to make decisions about whether to accept the simulation or to reject it for a more alienated, yet authentic life, away from the screen. We are not allowed to be honest about this conflict. The pull of social media is to conform, to assimilate, and to become who the culture demands that we become. We must do violence to ourselves in order to assimilate to the hegemon of the consumer society of social media. The choice is to assimilate or be cancelled.