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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

More On (Moron?) Fish! Philosophy

I finally bit the bullet and ordered a $3 used copy of the Fish! Philosophy book from Amazon. I'm about as infuriated as I expected to be.

The reason for burnout in most workplaces is that management has deliberately and systematically downsized staffing levels, trying to get more and more work out of fewer and fewer people. The management of the average corporation manufactures burned out employees like Carter manufactures liver pills. Through Fish! Philosophy, management attempts to deal with burnout entirely through cheerleading and slogans--Stakhanovism--without having to increase staffing levels or pay, or otherwise alter its own contribution to the problem. Fish! Philosophy, at its core, is an attempt to get something for nothing.

The management sense of entitlement comes through loud and clear in Fish! Philosophy. Management is entitled to a workforce that's enthusiastic and dedicated and constantly goes the extra mile, regardless of how it gets screwed. Management is entitled to a workforce that greets every new steaming pile with a joyous cry of "Oh, boy! Shit again!" Management is entitled to something for nothing.

Burnout is the natural reaction to prolonged stress: a survival mechanism that involves shutting down, withdrawing, and breaking connections to the sources of stressful stimuli. It's what happens when people are doing their own work plus that of the downsized, often with no time for meal breaks, with less and less control over the structure and pacing of their jobs. Fish! Philosophy reminds me a lot of the military's attempts at creating pharmacologically engineered super-soldiers, robocops who can go 72 hours without sleep and never feel guilt or develop PTSD. In both cases, it's an artificial attempt to squeeze more out of people who've been pushed to the breaking point, rather than doing anything about the stresses they're subjected to.

Here's the thing: management doesn't care about what they've done to people, or whether it's right or wrong. And they don't care about internal or external customers, or their mission statements (and vision and values statements, either). What they care about is management featherbedding--more and more quality and process improvement committees--and the value of their stock options. All their smarmy Hallmark Cards rhetoric notwithstanding, both the production worker and the customer are means to an end for them. They're riding the gravy train, and they want to keep right on riding it. To keep the things that matter to them, they have to keep us running on the treadmill. And when they notice we're not putting out like we used to, they need to figure out what buttons to push to get their human resources back to producing value-added. Fish! Philosophy is a way of pushing those buttons.

Fish! Philosophy also seems to reflect a growing sense of management hostility to what Elizabeth Anderson called "separation of work from home" in her post coining the term "contract feudalism." Ken Blanchard, in the Preface, laments what he calls the TGIF mentality, the tendency to view work as a means to an end. How 'bout that? For the majority of self-employed farmers, tradesmen, and small businesspeople in this country a little over a century ago, the transition to an economy centered on wage labor was a huge culture shock. One of the main functions of the publik skool system was to reeducate a society of independent cusses on the habits of obedience and docility necessary for working in a factory under a boss. The skills of bureaucratic toadyism taught in the publik skools today, of sucking up to authority for a gold star or another item on the resume, are just the same function updated for a white collar world. It takes a lot of effort to get people's minds right and stamp out those last vestiges of ownlife. And surprise, surprise, surprise: there's an entire Motivational Mafia out there focused on getting people to love Big Brother and think of their jobs as the center of their life. I don't think it's gonna happen, though. People will always wake up, like Winston Smith, with that instinctive groan at the prospect of dragging themselves into that shithole again.

And speaking of Ken Blanchard.... He also wrote the Preface to Who Moved My Cheese?. And one of the Fish! Philosophy coauthors of is a vice president in the Blanchard organization. So apparently there's an interlocking directorate in the Motivational Mafia.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Fish philosophy" corporatism reminds me of Betty Friedan's description of the suburban housewife's situation as a 'comfortable concentration camp.' Endless hours, meaningless labour, a dull, suffocating routine, no control over one's life... all smothered over with gooey sentimentality that does nothing to cover the basic exploitation.

Of course, middle-class women (now) and working-class women (always) get the privilege of wearing both sets of chains at once.

Thank you again, Kevin. You are doing great work for a better libertarianism by writing stuff like this.

April 26, 2006 8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First cheese, now fish ... at least a good meal is being assembled out of these books' titles. What's next?

April 27, 2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger Doc said...

spaghetti - everybody in their own strand interlocking until somebody else eats them all at once.

April 27, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Actually, that doesn't sound much more degrading than the run of the mill "team building" class.

Lady Aster,

Thanks. I'm sure I'm violating some commandment from Human Action by treating authoritarianism as something that's possible in the private sector. As freeman informed us recently, a piece he wrote on corporate culture was summarily rejected by Lew Rockwell because it ran counter to some ex cathedra pronouncement that bureaucracy was impossible in a private business. Uh, not according to Weber's model of bureaucracy, it isn't. Taylorist management is a direct equivalent of Weber's bureaucratic rationality: division of tasks, "best practices," procedural rules, etc.


Here's your answer:
"Management is entitled to a workforce that greets every new steaming pile with a joyous cry of 'Oh, boy! Shit again!'"


Most of the job burnout here comes from thirty years of downsizing production workers, stagnant wages, and increased job insecurity and authoritarianism. I'm just guessing that (whatever the mix of statist and other causes) the average levels of job security and staffing in Sweden are considerably better from the worker's standpoint than is the case in the U.S. Certainly in this country, from anecdotal accounts, I get the impression that work was less stressful under corporate liberalism than under the neoliberal system. As the saying goes, contented cows give better milk.

I'm also guessing that your welfare state bureaucracy is considerably more intrusive and authoritarian than yours.

Is this an accurate assessment?

May 01, 2006 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin, I appreciated your comments on what Fish! represents, given my membership in the "small cog in a vast machine" club (I work for a Fortune 50 company).
One thing to ponder: If burnout bears a direct relationship to stress, imagine what levels it will hit when the inevitable bust phase hits the credit cycle. We haven't seen it yet (though there's evidence the aphelion is quite near) but an analytical framework I trust suggests that when the worm turns this time it will make the Great Depression look like a minor recession by comparison. Can half the U.S. population flame-out?

Dave C.

May 02, 2006 5:54 AM  
Blogger Lippard said...

"Here's the thing: management doesn't care about what they've done to people, or whether it's right or wrong. And they don't care about internal or external customers, or their mission statements (and vision and values statements, either). What they care about is management featherbedding--more and more quality and process improvement committees--and the value of their stock options."

This is more than a little hyperbolic. Don't forget that people who work as managers are people, and many of them work longer hours and are under more stress than entry level employees, and may not make a whole lot more money than they do, or necessarily have any stock options.

"Fish! also seems to reflect a growing sense of management hostility to what Elizabeth Anderson called "separation of work from home" in her post coining the term "contract feudalism." Ken Blanchard, in the Preface, laments what he calls the TGIF mentality, the tendency to view work as a means to an end."

Some people still actually have jobs that they enjoy doing.

May 09, 2006 5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This Fish philoshy crap has even reached North Devon in England. Until very recently a fish was a fish here!

July 31, 2006 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's easy to complain when your dealing with the steaming pile instead of the snarling dragon's head at the other end. There's no time for complaining there. It's kill or be killed.
But, with a shovel in your hand, why not lean on it for awhile and complain about the view, the smell, the life, the leader and whatever else takes your fancy. Anything to avoid the inevitable - shovelling.
I've just moved from leadership into an office (3rd door on the left) on an editorial staff. What a difference it is to listen to the thoughts of shovelers instead of the dreams of dragon slayers.
Did you know you don't have to stick your head in the steaming pile? I refuse too. Life is what you make it, where ever you are. So enjoy it!
(or keep leaning on that shovel)

September 04, 2006 9:08 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I hope I'm misreading you, but you seem to be suggesting that the "leaders" in charge of the corporation are dragon slayers. My own take on it is precisely the opposite: the people running large corporations ARE the dragon, and we're shovelling up THEIR shit. The effectiveness of the "work-to-rule" strike should tell you everything you need to know about the intelligence and awareness of those running the organization.

The actual competence of management is suggested by Robert Jackall's take in Moral Mazes: the people at the top of the corporate pyramid are about as in touch with what's really going on as the people in Gosplan.

I can't stop laughing at the image of Dilbert's pointy-haired boss dressed up in armor, though.

September 05, 2006 10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll remain anonymous due to the nature of my comments and my current possition. I love where I work. But some people around me don't. And they like to stand around the steaming pile (water cooler?) while they lean on their shovels and verbally gut the powers-that-be. It seems to be the "right" of employees that they must complain. It's futile, really.

I agree that there are many leaders who do a poor job. But, it is always true that the unseen stresses, as well as the seen ones, of leadership are overwhelming. This is something that any leader will concur with.
Of course the follower* sees only the mess in their world. Just as the Leader sees the mess in his.

A good leader will see the mess in every part of his corporation and create waste-management systems (aka toilets) for those steaming piles. The dragon should be something outside the corporation that the team is working together to slay. I would suggest that if you work in a place where the leader is dumping in your work area you have unhealthy leadership. You may need to show him the toilet, and yourself the door! The steaming piles should be dragon poo, not leader poo.

Dilbert is funny, as is most comedy, because it puts blinders on and narrows the focus to a singular point—as your imaginings of Dilbert's boss have done. Life is not a black-and-white cartoon with two dimensional characters. Cartoons speak to us because they narrow reality to a pin-prick and remove the broad context. It is the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities that amuse us. The broad reality of leadership is rarely simple enough to be explained in the Sunday funnies.

I understand that many people struggle under oppressive leadership. I would make two suggestions to these people.
1. Become part of the solution—think outside your square (cubicle?) and consider how you can make your world a better place. During my lunchtime walk yesterday I did something I don't usually do. I stopped, turned around and picked up the piece of trash I had just walked by. I'm not sure what overcame me, but I just thought, "Why don't I just put that in the next trash can I see?" And so I did. You know, I picked up more trash too. Something clicked. And I felt good!
2. Start leading something-nothing helps you understand and appreciate your (faulty) leaders as much as becoming one yourself. We are all broken and faulty. I used to rave and rage about the leaders in my work and life until I became a leader and felt the powerful sense of responsibility and knew I wasn't up to the task. So, I trained, read, listened and lead. And now, I have a high respect for leaders. I don't always agree with their decisions, but I don't attack them for their possition.

*I love the John Maxwell quote: A leader with no followers is just a person out for a walk.

September 05, 2006 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, take all of this and fax all the government reps we voted in office. Blogs are great BUT unless the gov is inundated with these kind of responses then nothing will change! Please fax your local offices! Not D.C.!

September 17, 2006 4:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The reason for burnout in most workplaces is that management has deliberately and systematically downsized staffing levels, trying to get more and more work out of fewer and fewer people."

So true so WHY do we put up with it? WHY aren't we demanding better? Why aren't we pulling together and fighting this? People need to give a damn enough to be willing to act, not bitch.

September 17, 2006 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IF you don't like where you work there's a simple solution - quit!

If you're not willing to make the sacrifices to improve your lot in life then you shouldn't be entitled to the rewards that come with a change in your personal attitude.

Sam Walton said it best when he said "the customer can fire us whenever they want" - how do they do that? By not buying your product or using your service.

The bottom line for every business or service oriented company is the "exchange". Trading goods or services for money in one form or another. The bottom line then for every employee of every business or service oriented company is to facilitate those exchanges. If, during the course of your workday/week/life, you aren't adding value to those exchanges then you become less and less necessary despite how much work you THINK you are doing. Everybody thinks they work harder than the next guy and nobody really cares how hard you work. All the FISH Philosophy is really trying to do is show the individual that their role in the process of facilitating exchanges should be valuable to themselves as well as the patron they are serving; however, it is impossible to maintain a service oriented culture without responsiveness from management as well as from coworkers. If they hate their job and see it as a literal living Hell then any new employee will certainly be indoctrinated into that same culture.

The FISH philosophy is not another way for management to "get something for nothing". It is precisely the willingness of management to make the small changes to their "style" of doing things that is the most critical aspect of the FISH philosophy.

Everyone has a "style" of doing things and they cling to that "style" because it has gotten them where they are today, but when you take that "style" into a new environment it is necessary to adapt your style to accommodate those elements of the environment that are beyond your control, such as layoffs, extra work, an unresponsive management, or disgruntled coworkers. The change that is being advocated for in the FISH philosophy is a personal change. If you are too attached to your old, outdated "style" then you will never make the changes necessary for your job to become fun and worthwhile again.

Nobody has any control over your attitude except yourself. Not a lazy boss, not an angry patron, only you and you alone. If you hate what you are doing then any attempts by management to change the culture will be seen in a negative light. You will feel coerced and put upon, but the reality is that you control your attitude and your responsiveness. The poorer the attitude then the less opportunity there will be that you are going to be recognized for your performance and the greater chance that you will remain disgruntled. If you are going to get up and go to work everyday doesn't it seem better to be happy about it, to want to go?

If you're going to wind up having to do the work anyway, why not "be there" and "play" and make the best of it - even if it is a bad situation. Why not try to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. I've read all of the posts in this blog and can say for certain that I wouldn't want to work with 75% of you and I probably make a fraction of what you people make - still I love my job and work my tail off and when I go home I feel good about what I've done. If I were you I'd start with yourself and create change from within instead of griping about external forces that you have no control over. The sense of entitlement you people believe should be accorded to you is unbelievable.

If your unhappy with your job remember the immortal words of Judge Smails when he told a young Danny Noonan that "the world needs ditch diggers too". Your job is exactly what YOU make of it.

January 25, 2007 5:57 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Uh, Jon? I suspect this was a drive-by comment, but I'll try anyway.

I assume you pay lip-service to the free market, and consider the employment relation a voluntary contractual arrangement between equals.

Has it occurred to you, then, that we very seldom see analogous arguments from the other side? Oddly enough, we don't often hear people telling bosses and owners, "If you're not satisfied with the quality of workers you're attracting, there's a simple solution--raise pay and improve working conditions!"

Why do you suppose that is?

Could it be that the bargaining strength of workers and employers is not really equal? Could it be that the state intervenes in the economy to make sure workers are competing for jobs, instead of jobs competing for workers?

The fact that you phrase your challenge in such terms, terms that I've dissected over and over again on this blog, as if it were the first time they were uttered, suggests that you're new here. If you're really interested, here are a couple of links to start with:

Contract Feudalism
Them Pore Ol' Bosses Need All the Help They Can Get

If not, fine--but unless you're willing to make an effort to consider how I've already answered your argument above, your opinion probably isn't worth much.

January 25, 2007 6:22 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

By the way, Jon...

If you have indeed read most of the posts on this blog, you ought to be aware of the many instances in which big business and employers feel fully entitled to have the government intervene on their behalf. And you ought to be aware that the owners and bosses don't feel their only option for empowerment is to "change from within," or that they're powerless over "external forces." Quite the contrary.

Yet you seem to consider it a given that the bosses and owners should possess this power over circumstances, and the only thing we should have control over is whether we swallow their cum with a smile on our faces.

Why the disproportionate response? Why do you identify so strongly with the bosses' and owners' feelings of entitlement, when you admit yourself that you're not one of them?

The answer, I suspect: an authoritarian personality. Deep down, you don't like what's being done to you. But deep down, you also know that if you direct your anger against the people in authority who are screwing you, you could get hurt. So the only way to assert some feeling of control over the situation is to identify with those in authority, and direct your anger instead against those who rebel. It's the mindset of the good house slave, who makes life under slavery more bearable by believing that deep down, he's really like "good ol' massa," and that he somehow shares in good ol' massa's superiority over those shiftless, lazy field slaves.

Well, Jon, whatever you have to do to get through your life. You're the one who has to live it.

But you might want to watch the movie Cool Hand Luke, where the title line to this post came from. Luke uttered those words in response to Dragline, who expressed an attitude quite similar to yours. The proper term, I believe, is brown-nose.

January 25, 2007 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're right Kevin,

I'm the one who has to live my life and you know what. I choose to be happy.

Work is a means to an end. Everyone wants money, some are more willing to screw others to get it and most often the ones getting screwed are the ones screaming about a vast conspiracy against them. I just cash my checks, pay my bills and live my life.

I'd just as soon have fun and enjoy my life than be bitter about forces that are beyond my control. No offense intended, I realize that mine is a minortiy opinion here, but at least I am able to convey it without reducing myself to ethnic slurs and derogatory sexual references. I thought I was dealing with intelligent individuals who might want to debate this issue, but apparently I have stepped into the wrong church and this congrgation would rather rip off their ears than listen to an opinion that might conflict with their own. Sorry I bothered. If you represent everyone who posts here then you have done them all a disservice.

Some people just have to have a reason to complain I suppose.

January 26, 2007 12:15 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Here's how you "convey your opinion" in your initial comment: "The sense of entitlement you people believe should be accorded to you is unbelievable."

That's a pretty odd way of expressing yourself when you "wander into a church," if you're really looking forward to a "debate" with "intelligent individuals."

It's the mark of a troll to walk into a forum picking a fight, and then whine about discourtesy when he gets one.

And "ethnic slur" is really stretching it. But I guess some people just have to have a reason to complain.

If you view work as a means to an end, so you can collect your paycheck and living your "real life," then the Fish! people haven't done their jobs very well in your case. That's just the sort of thing they want to stamp out.

It's interesting that you keep repeating that "forces that are beyond my control" line. My point was, and remains, that the owners and bosses DON'T view things as beyond THEIR control. But they sure as hell benefit if they can get you to think of things as beyond YOURS. Workers have, at various times in the past, managed to exert real control. If circumstances were really beyond our control, we wouldn't have a weekend and we'd still be working 80-hour weeks and eating lunch standing next to our machines.

January 26, 2007 11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked there and while the books and films speak of one thing the atmosphere at headquarters was insane. It was no different than any other toxic place. People there enjoyed reading your blog. IT brought them hope.

August 06, 2009 7:19 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Interesting, anon. Do you mean you worked at Fish! headquarters?

August 06, 2009 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FiNALLY!!!! people that see this Fu@#$&g Fish Philosophy as another way of saying "Put up & shut up" & "Be a Stepford employee"!!!! Morale is plummeting, staff is getting cut to bare bones, no more bonuses or raises, vacation time cut-- but hey "here's a fish??" WTF? The person spearheading this at my office is the most inept employee there, morale continues to plummet & this employee - Drama Queen Extraordinaire gets kudos from administration. Forget work ethic, skills & knowledge-- it's all about touchy feely group hug kindergarten mentality. GAG. Whatever happened to professionalism & hard work?

March 21, 2013 8:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My previous employer did the fish philosophy. It is an insult to intelligent educated professionals who work hard & expect to be paid well for their knowledge, expertise, and experience. I moved on to a better job, better pay, and respect & professional atmosphere w/grown-ups.

March 22, 2013 11:57 AM  

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