On managing

Professional, David?”

This was my boss speaking, thirtysomething years ago, when I was deeply implicated in “professional journalism,” editing an Asian business magazine, and allied tedious publications.

I had used the word carelessly, in the conventional way, to suggest that some of the habits and practices of the company were not fully “professional,” and might be amended to make them more so. But what I actually meant was things could be done to deliver “more quality,” as an end in itself, quite apart from any calculation of market demand, now that we’d aced the competition. I granted that my proposal was eccentric. I mentioned “ethics” at some point, thus digging my grave a little deeper.

Professional, David? … You can’t even spell the word.”

This was unfair. I had made a special study of the spelling of “professional,” carefully noting the double-S, which, for a mnemonic device, I associated with the Schutzstaffel, and imagined in Armanen sig runes.

We fell into a debate on the meaning of the word “professional,” which was promptly decided by rank. “Professional” turned out to mean an operation that proceeds smoothly; that is impersonal; that is free of temporal distractions and unnecessary costs; and in which everyone does what he’s told without thinking. (This last is called “teamwork.”) It is product-oriented, and the important thing is that the product should preserve market share, while remaining profitable. Let the philosophers decide whether it were any good. The product should rather be, in itself, smooth and mechanically predictable: anything warmly human in the packaging to be carefully faked by the experts in a professional advertising agency. Costs and benefits should be enumerable, and transparent to management at every stage. “Quality,” by contrast, “is purely subjective” — a question of fashion, for those specialists in hype.

“This is a business, not an art form,” I was told. (To be fair, this boss would himself have preferred to be an artist; but the art form would have been acting, and so he played his rôle.)

Now, ethics do come into this. A company that is flourishing will have clear “policies.” A lot of money could be lost if the company were caught cheating, on taxes or whatever; and secrets, as we know, can only be kept between two people if one of them is dead. Therefore, various “options” that might further streamline a profitable operation must be rejected on sight, as adding unconscionably to risk. But ethics cannot extend to any background worldview, that is agnostic on the fundamental human virtues, and thus essentially exploitative and sleazy.

As I have long observed, ethics are for people who have no morals.

I think “professionalism” came in, to the marketplace, about when craft standards were going out. It was discovered that a mass market had come into being, as a consequence of the technological innovations of some Industrial Revolution. Products were no longer made for specific buyers, but for demographic groups to purchase “off the shelf.” Souls could now be counted in the Gogolian manner, as “consumers” in terms of heads, eye-balls, little feet, &c. Broad-franchise representative democracy was a parallel development, and finally, the principles of marketing could be applied across the board. Far from consideration as an immortal soul, the individual could now be denominated as a capricious cypher: a one or else a zero at the “cashpoint.”

One thing I learnt from the marketing gurus: there must never be humour at the cashpoint. A financial transaction is a deadly serious thing. Jocular and amusing advertisements are permissible, but the cashpoint is no joke. It is the holy of holies for the capitalist, the place where his soul is weighed, and his worth determined. I was once told, by one of the moneybags, that I should lighten up about clowns in the sanctuary, during the Catholic Mass. But solemn he became when I suggested clowns at his cashpoints.

Words do change in meaning and flavour over the years. Like every other concept in our Western, breaking-news environment, “professional” descends from the experience of the Catholic Church. The original “professors” were of religion, and if I am not mistaken (and how could that be?) the word “professional” itself was coined, in English, at the tail end of the Middle Ages, to mean a person who “professed.” That would not have been a business man.

Mind: the idea of doing things well, does not come into this discussion at all. Saint Cecilia was, I should think, a capable as well as inspired musician. Again, craft standards preceded the “professional” ones, and what once came from the choirs of our Church was in no way inferior to the congregational karaoke we usually hear, today.

Nor, strictly speaking, would this XVth or XVIth-century “professional” have been an “employee.” The nature of his obedience was different in kind: to God in Christ Jesus. For that matter, the “managerial revolution” — which has brought us everything from Twinkies to Bergen-Belsen — was still some centuries off.

The survival of ancient, monastic ideals, in the modern, cubicled office environment, should be easy enough to discern, once we realize that the ideals have been twisted approximately 180 degrees, so that what was down is now up, and what was up is now down.

Opposing the “professional,” in still-current usage, is the “amateur.” We all know the etymology, from those who do something for the love of it. But this has come to mean, people who do things in an “unprofessional” way, which is taken as untrained, unqualified, inexperienced, and klutzy. Whereas, under the old regime (Catholic and mediaeval), Love was acknowledged as the great Teacher, and those who acted from love would (immortally) succeed.

By now, gentle reader should realize how backward I am. While I have no hope whatever in our capacity to wormhole into the past, I am given to invidious comparisons.

All this by way of expressing my lament, upon discovering a notice in the lobby of my apartment building, that the magnificent and beloved “Scottish harridan” who was the superintendent of this place (she thrilled to be called that behind her back) — the Cardinal Burke of Maynard Avenue; the lady who from sheer uncompromising will, inviolable common sense, strident intolerance for evil, and blank indifference to all professional creeds, raised this to a paradisal island of peaceable humanity in the midst of Inner Parkdale — has been “retired.” And that her singular authority has now been transferred to a “professional management team.”

Where is the High Doganate to move, I wonder?