The Harbor by E. Poole and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I recently read of a television program in which senior managers go and work undercover in entry-level positions within their same company.  They deep fry the chicken, sweep the floors or work on the production line.  It is often the case they become overwhelmed by the touching stories of their new colleagues and when returning to their Vitra Executive Throne, are quick to dole out bonuses for these people or scholarships for their children.

The Harbor written in 1915 told a fictional account about the New York Harbor.  It captures a period when two distinct ideologies were projecting their visions upon this heart of commerce.  Capital versus Labor.  The capitalistic world was made up of  the great industrialists who saw the harbor and what it meant in an economic sense for the city, its businesses and people.  In no way were their visions of the harbor's transformation malicious ones.  They were simply abstract, taking  the Harbor itself to be the living, pulsating organism instead of the people who were actually giving it this life.  The men working the docks or shoveling coal in the ships were not considered as not to complicate this constructed view.

The managers of the TV series who pay low wages and approve limited benefits to the employees do so for a similar reason.  It is the corporation that is once again the organism to keep alive through profitability not those toiling within it.  A business or an entire macroeconomy is nothing more than the people it comprises.  And all of these people have stories to tell.  It is ironic how these managers will grant bonuses to people who emotionally impact them at a personal level while refusing increased wages or health benefits to the entire workforce.

A Man in Full is a wonderful story about what leadership means to five men who are all linked together by a series of events.  The protagonist, Charlie Crocker, is an immensely wealthy developer who has over extended himself in his latest venture.  He now risks bankruptcy and is required to take certain actions in order to repay his outstanding loans.  In the same nature as our Undercover Bosses he agrees to layoff 15% of his work force as opposed to selling his quail plantation and private jet.  He justifies keeping the ranch and plane in order to avoid having to let go the staff of twenty or the pilot and personal flight attendant.  In one scene the butler at the quail plantation is brought out by Charlie during a dinner party and embarrassingly forced to describe the countless kind gestures extolled on him and his family by Cap'n Charlie.  In order to preserve these tokens of his charitable gestures he will sweep away hundreds of other workers whose personal stories he does not know - yet.

All of this changes when he is brought into contact by one of the laid-off employees whose job it was to work in a warehouse freezer for eight hours loading frozen meat.  It is through this young gentleman that Charlie is reminded how "the only real possession you'll ever have is your character...Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, including your body".

Returning to The Harbor, the young journalist, Billy, is born near the rough and tumble docks but drifts away due to his studies, travels and later on by the success of his own career.  He begins to write profile pieces on the great industrialists in the United States during that time.  He is captivated by their success, world view, and overall good nature.  His work is appreciated because people are fascinated by successful people.  Yet again, the same theme returns.  To write about these men means ignoring the labor who are directly impacted by their grandeur.

He knows as well he cannot stay away from the Harbor forever.  Its presence is too strong and the connections to him too many.  Billy's childhood friend, Kramer, has returned to the Harbor.  He is there as an organizer of strikes and wants Billy to write about the Harbor through his eyes.  It is a conflicting choice since he knows to write about it means losing the readership and access to the establishment.

The books greatest strength is in how it separates so distinctly these two worlds.  It is a wonderful insight into the portrayals of socialism in the twentieth-century.  There are many paralleles to be drawn with society today.  I have not read the biography of Steve Jobs by Isaacson but I would venture to guess there is little talk of the Foxconn facilities used to churn out the hundreds of millions of iPhones.  A book about our modern day industrialist visionary would not read the same if the author had seen the bedrooms where people sleep eight to a room without windows.  Nor will a book or article on Foxconn ever reach the same number of readers.  We want stories of individual success, leadership and personal struggle.  The somber saga of the masses is something we can do without.

"These people in their leisurely way talked of literature and music, of sculpture and painting and travel abroad, as their fathers and even grandfathers had done - in times when the rest of the country, like one colossal harbor, changing, heaving, seething, had had time for only the crudest things, for railroads, mining camps, belching mills, vast herds of cattle and droves of sheep, for the frontier towns my mother had loathed, for a Civil War, for a Tweed Ring, for the Knights of Labor, a Haymarket riot, for the astounding growth of cities, slums, corporations and trusts, in this deep turbulent onward rush, this peopling of a continent."


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