Tuesday 25 June 2019

Behold these lords of our corporate culture

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris during a press conference on the cervical cancer scandal. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris during a press conference on the cervical cancer scandal. Photo: Frank McGrath
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

In this, at least, we are not alone. The corporate culture which has been evident at every point of this cervical cancer scandal is a global force, you might even call it a world religion.

God may be dead, but in the secular arrangements which have evolved, all that energy has to go somewhere. It seems that people will always have this urge to come together in a common belief-system, to claim that they possess some higher knowledge, to form a hierarchy.

No, in this we are not alone, though in Ireland we do have a very recent history of immersion in the ways of a religion, of being dominated by it.

So if you were getting an odd feeling of familiarity as the scandal deepened, this could explain some of it. When you start hearing a most eminent individual patiently explaining the difference between responsibility and accountability, you feel that you have been here before.

In case you don't know, a director-general of the HSE - a proverbial archbishop, if you like - can be accountable for what is happening underneath him in the organisation, but that doesn't necessarily make him personally responsible for it.

Now there are echoes here of Canon Law, of the fine distinctions which would be apparent to a senior churchman, with his capacious mind, but which would not be within the intellectual grasp of the lay person, as it were.

So there is accountability - which in this instance seems to mean that the eminent person will talk about it in public if needs be, and will accept that these unfortunate events may have happened "on his watch" - but there is no responsibility, in the sense that the eminent person will not feel that it is necessary for him to resign, or to be sacked, or to accept any diminution of the grandeur to which he is accustomed.

We know this one too, we have observed how the corporate culture has been creating its own language to separate itself from the multitudes, its own version of Canon Law, if you like.

We call it corporate bullshit, and these days it seems we are spending half our lives listening to it, listening to these silver-tongued potentates explaining to us, broadly speaking, why they are personally responsible for all the good things that happen, and why all the bad things have nothing to do with them.

Which helps to explain why they are "getting the big bucks". Indeed in the most advanced form of corporate culture, the one that exists in the financial services sector, they would argue that they are worthy of the big bucks even as we surveyed the ruins of the global banking system for which they were directly responsible. Or perhaps just vaguely "accountable", I mean, let's not get carried away here with some hysterical over-reaction.

Like medieval peasants, we are left there gibbering, as the lords of this new church proclaim these truths, which to them are self-evident but which to us do not make sense. In the harsh world in which we are forced to live, outside of the palaces in which they reside, it's all a bit more complicated.

We, the "laity", are responsible for some things - the things for which we are... well, responsible - and we are not responsible for other things, perhaps because we had nothing to do with them. As for the distinction between being responsible and accountable, we are not familiar with that one.

So it is beyond our limited powers of understanding, when we hear the high priests of corporate culture explaining that on their side of things, the vast remuneration which they receive is down to the fact that they have such vast responsibilities - and yet when something goes catastrophically wrong on their watch, whoever is responsible, it is not them.

No, that doesn't make sense to us, in our unsophisticated and literal-minded way. But then we recall that the central tenets of any major belief-system are not supposed to make sense, they are supposed to be a mystery.

In the most extreme cases though, of death or destruction, a senior figure may stand aside, or step back, or perform some other such manoeuvre, which will usually not have any bearing on future entitlements to a massive pension or to other compensations or remunerations or emoluments or whatever they choose to call it, in that language of theirs, that executive-class version of the old Latin.

I mean, it would just be ridiculous, to expect a person of such distinction to forego their entitlements, just because the mob can't get their heads around the difference between responsibility and accountability.

Yes, we recognise a lot of this stuff from our upbringing in the old-time religion, that obsession with the protection of the institution against the claims of individual victims, even that ancient curiosity on our part about the nature of the work that these people actually do.

I know what I do, and you know what I do - you're reading it. You probably know what you do yourself, and you could describe it to me. And that, my friends, is our tragedy, that in the foolishness of our youth, we dedicated ourselves to these occupations which are so specific, so quantifiable, so visible - you wouldn't find the wizards of corporate culture making that mistake.

But what do they do, that can entitle them to such fantastic rewards? We don't give much thought to this, probably because we are too busy doing whatever it is we do ourselves. But now and again we wonder what a top executive might be doing in the course of any given day, if he is not actually responsible for anything?

It used to be like this with priests and bishops too, indeed it is said that part of the greatness of Father Ted was that it finally addressed this question which had been niggling at the back of our minds for generations: what do priests do all day?

I guess it was always hard to get the full picture on that one, because these guys kept their distance - how appropriate that we are often kept away from the executive classes too by ropes and railings, and that's just at a football match. That often we are not allowed into the inner sanctum wherein they perform their strange rituals, wherein they sip their special wines.

All we know for sure is that whatever they're doing, they will give themselves all the credit if it goes right, and they will take none of the blame if it goes wrong.

Other than that, and various activities loosely defined as "giving leadership", the main thing they seem to be engaged in, is a kind of a perpetual process of self-regard and self-advancement and self-protection.

Ass-covering, as it might be called by the masses, cast out as they are from the corporate feast.

And to break through that elaborate infrastructure of self-regard and self-advancement and self-protection, you need some kind of a miracle. Writing on these matters some time back, I noted that "they have constructed a great labyrinth into which all accountability disappears".

I didn't know at the time that they'd constructed another one, for responsibility.

Sunday Independent

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