In The Gervais Principle, Venkatesh Rao argues that the show The Office "is not a random series of cynical gags aimed at momentarily alleviating the existential despair of low-level grunts. It is a fully realized theory of management that falsifies 83.8% of the business section of the bookstore."
In this post, I argue that viewing academia through this lens can be equally revealing. But first, we need to discuss the lens itself.
Rao develops this theory of management around the comic Company Hierarchy by Hugh MacLeod:
The theory begins by dividing people in an organization into three categories: Sociopaths at the top, Clueless middle managers, and the average workers as Losers. For brevity we will sometimes call this system the SCL hierarchy.
Because these category names were chosen for a gag comic, they aren't great matches for the groups they describe, and can even be a little confusing. Losers aren't losers in the normal sense, they are losers economically — they have struck a bad bargain where they labor for a paycheck. They don't have equity. This bargain can be perfectly rational; it's low reward but it's also low risk. Someone without great natural talents or large amounts of capital may be smart not to take these risks, and in these cases being an economic Loser is often the right call. Most of the characters in The Office are Losers, essentially everyone who isn't in management.
Sociopaths may or may not be literal sociopaths — they are like clinical sociopaths in that they are willing to take risks in the service of rewards, and that they are willing to bend social rules to do so. This too is often rational, for people who are willing to take risks and have the ability or capital to do so. It may or may not be admirable. Bending ethical rules is often bad, but bending rules like "don't question authority" or "don't have original ideas" is often good. In The Office, executives like David Wallace are Sociopaths.
Clueless might be the most appropriate of the three terms. These are people who are clueless enough that they can be easily manipulated to serve the purposes of the organization. In The Office, Michael Scott is the flagship Clueless.
The three categories can be understood as a developmental trajectory, but curiously the development is not the same as the company hierarchy.
Clueless are underdeveloped, and act like children or adolescents. They are motivated primarily by approval from authority figures, and that makes them suckers. Since they are motivated by approval, and because they are otherwise not very smart/not very self-aware, they don't realize that being a wage slave is a bad deal. This is their defining characteristic: they will work very hard for a company that doesn't value them. This is also why they end up in middle-management. They will live or die (metaphorically, we hope) for the company, which makes them very useful to organization Sociopaths, who can use them as fall guys.
In comparison, Losers recognize that being a wage slave IS a bad deal. As a result, they do the minimum necessary to not get fired and keep collecting their paycheck. Again, this is a reasonable thing to do in many cases. For example, you may be a Loser in your day job so you can pursue your real interests nights and weekends. And for many people unable or uninterested to take the risks inherent to being a Sociopath, this is an acceptable bargain. Taking such risks is not only a gamble, it often involves bending or breaking social rules. This is likely to estrange your peers, and so people who are well-adjusted will usually prefer to stay economic losers rather than become isolated.
Sociopaths are the most developed, but maybe over-developed. They understand social dynamics well enough that they begin to have a hard time taking them seriously ("...they are looking for the truth about social realities because they think they can handle it."). As a result they stop finding social or status rewards motivating, and as a result tend to value material rewards instead. Unfortunately for them, this tends to make them unhappy in the long run.
There can be state transitions. A Clueless who stops valuing approval from authority figures, or realizes that the company does not actually care about them, will stop over-performing and become a Loser. And a Loser who gains the skills, leverage, or disillusionment needed to take risks will become a proto-Sociopath, do even less work than usual, and look for a chance to get promoted. Once they have some actual bargaining chips, they become a real Sociopath. Losers do not generally become Clueless, because it's rare for people to regress that much.
As a result, the categories aren't exactly personality traits, and they're not exactly descriptions of where you exist in the company hierarchy, they're somewhere in between. The same person might be a Loser in one company, then leave the company to found a startup (where, as a founder, they are a Sociopath). If the company goes under, they might get another Loser job. On the other hand, someone who is Clueless will be an economic sucker wherever they go, so they will probably end up in Clueless positions in every company they become a part of.
In addition, Rao describes four languages (and a fifth semi-language) that the three groups use to communicate. More on this later.
A critical point, and one that is easy to miss, is that the Clueless serve two main purposes in an organization. First, since they have misplaced loyalty to the organization, Sociopaths can use them as cat's-paws and fall guys. They can get them to take risks by proxy, and have them take the fall for these or other risks as necessary. Second, they serve to insulate the Sociopaths from the Losers, or as Rao puts it, "to provide a buffer in what would otherwise be a painfully raw master-slave dynamic in a pure Sociopath-Loser organization."
In this post I use this theory of management to analyze the dynamics of academia. There are a couple of good reasons to do this. Applying the theory to a new area is a good way to explore it and test its power as a framework. It can help explain some parts of academia that might otherwise seem confusing. And finally, I think it can explain some aspects of the current culture war (so caveat lector for those of you who are wary of such things).
1. Academic Hierarchy
A university is an organization just like any business. Dunder-Mifflin has many branches; the Scranton branch is just one branch of many. A university has many departments; each department is just one department of many. Or we could say, academia is divided up into many different universities; each university is just one university of many. So we might analyze this system at the department level, at the university level, or at the all-academia level, but it doesn't make much of a difference.
To begin to analyze a system from the SCL perspective, we first need to figure out which of the three groups people belong to. In case you wonder where my loyalties lie, know that as a PhD student, under this system of analysis I am decidedly a Loser. But more on this later.
Rao names a number of signs by which we can identify the three groups:
- Over-perform for their organization, marking themselves as suckers
- Identify with the organization, to the point of having loyalty (which is not requited)
- "...cannot process anything that is not finite, countable and external. They can only process the legible."
- Do the bare minimum to stay in the organization (and the more they under-perform, the more likely they are to become Sociopaths)
- Conflate material (e.g. money) and emotional (e.g. status) rewards; "cannot process the material aspect of anything that involves strong emotions"
- Jockey over social status, rather than material power (Sociopaths) or approval from authority (Clueless)
- Play for real (material) stakes
- "about recognizing that there are no social realities"
- Perform "game design" for the organization, arranging for social competition (Losers) and medals and ranking schemes (Clueless), while collecting material rewards for themselves
Academia has many different sub-groups. This is not unlike business — the Scranton branch has warehouse staff, support, and sales, as well as a manager. In academics, however, the structure is less immediately hierarchical, and so it is worth examining this system at every level. We will skip a few levels to simplify. In particular we will ignore MA students, but that's ok, they're used to it.
Undergrads as undergrads do not fall into the SCL hierarchy. After all, they're not part of the organization — to a university, undergrads are consumers, not employees. But undergrads who aspire to become academics ARE semi-employees, usually through serving as research assistants (RAs).
Most RAs are Losers. They are engaged in a bad economic deal — exchanging their labor for a recommendation letter, a long shot chance at graduate school. They're not even paid, so in most cases this is an even worse deal than working for a paper company. Undergrads don't tend to be experienced enough to understand this the same way most workers do, but they usually have an intuitive sense for it, which is why few undergrad RAs put in long hours or show much devotion to their lab.
A small number of RAs, however, do devote themselves to their lab and work heroic hours on thankless research projects. If you've spent any time in academia, you recognize this character. RAs who act this way are Clueless — remember, the defining characteristic for this group is over-working themselves for an organization that couldn't care less about them and doesn't reward them. In this way they send a strong signal that they are suckers who can easily be exploited. Unsurprisingly, these RAs are destined to go far.
RAs cannot really be Sociopaths because undergrads, as Rao would put it, are playing with monopoly money. Having already paid tuition, they have almost nothing academia could want from them. Any RAs with Sociopath tendencies express instead as low-performing Losers. They are in the system only to look for opportunities. A hypothetical true Sociopath RA would need to have either their own funding or truly blockbuster ideas, and would turn them into first-author (or even single-author) publications in good journals, or better yet, use their ideas to do something like get a book deal or found a startup.
Especially cynical RAs will choose projects that appear to be very difficult but are secretly very easy — for example, data coding tasks that can be automated with a simple script — in order to appear Clueless on grad applications.
1.2 PhD Students
Two kinds of students are selected for PhD programs. The first are those who have proven themselves, as RAs, to be utterly Clueless. This looks like accomplishing many impressive projects as an undergraduate (for neither pay nor credit) and having very impressive recommendation letters (and nothing else) to show for it. For related reasons, these students also tend to have very good grades. As discussed, this singles them out to faculty as suckers who can be easily exploited for lots of labor. Faculty are probably not self-aware enough to see it this way, but in their own jargon, they recognize the students will be "productive".
This is part of why burnout is such a big problem in graduate school. Not because there is a problem with the system (though there is), and not because faculty push students to overwork themselves (though some do), but because there is an enormous selection pressure to promote Clueless RAs into PhD programs. In many ways this is like the promotion of the Clueless that Rao describes in the business world.
On another level, the Clueless do very well as PhD students. As Rao says, to the Clueless "everything worth learning is teachable, and medals, certificates and formal membership in meritocratic institutions is evidence of success." So while they find PhD programs stressful, it's at least stressful in a way they understand.
However, there are only so many Clueless RAs in a given year. In addition, everyone can tell that the work done by Clueless undergrads is not very creative; it looks less like independent work, and more like pulling multiple all-nighters on someone else's project. As a result, faculty can tell that this student "may not be able to do original work".
So the second kind of students selected for PhD programs are the Losers who have some Sociopathic tendencies. As mentioned, most RAs are Losers. The ones who float to the top tend to be those who trend Sociopathic, because this tendency will inspire them to create something they have at least partial ownership over, and this ends up looking like the ability to come up with original lines of work. Faculty value this, since it leads to a different kind of productivity, and so these students are often admitted as well.
In addition, faculty who lean Sociopathic will be tempted to admit students of the same stripe, because they value having someone around who sees things the same way they do. This is true even if neither of them are true Sociopaths.
So in admission to PhD programs you tend to have an even split of Clueless and Losers who trend Sociopathic. Beginning to get some real power, and growing steadily more disillusioned, some of these Losers will become true Sociopaths. This is pretty rare, however, since PhD students rarely have the power or will to play at that level. Those that do often get summer internships for major companies, leave early to do something like found a startup, or spend all their time secretly working on a side project instead of attending to their graduate research.
Losers without Sociopathic tendencies don't often make it to grad school, and don't often stay when they do, because true Losers put community and their emotional life first. This forms a feedback loop. There is not much of an emotional life in grad school, so the people who value it leave, so there is not much of an emotional life in grad school...
There are even fewer faculty positions than there are spots in PhD admission, so at this level we see another round of strong selection pressure.
This is where we run into the first major surprise from analyzing academia from a SCL perspective. Because while you might expect me to say that faculty are mostly Sociopaths, in fact they are almost entirely Clueless. I think this is true of both tenured and untenured faculty, so I will treat them together from here on.
The defining characteristic of the Clueless is over-performing relative to their level of reward. It's hard to imagine a better way to describe university faculty. Everyone knows that the unappreciated workload of faculty is massive, and the the unpaid workload even larger. They teach classes for humorously low wages, edit journals for "prestige", and perform peer review for nothing at all.
The Clueless "cannot process anything that is not finite, countable and external. They can only process the legible." Certainly this describes the behavior of faculty, literally counting lines on their CV, grubbing for citations, breathlessly calculating their h-index.
This sounds more than a little abusive, and it is, but in many ways, these people are attracted to academia for exactly these reasons. "The Clueless can process the legible," says Rao, "so a legible world is presented to them." In this way they find it very comforting.
Rao even has a whole section on the humor used by each group, and while it is a little hard to explain, faculty definitely have Clueless humor. Losers make jokes for the group, and often use forms of humor that encourage the group to join in. Sociopaths make jokes for themselves, that other people don't get, and often don't even notice. But the Clueless make jokes that are antisocial and yet also not for their own benefit. I can testify that sitting in on faculty meetings is a lot like sitting in on the lunch table at the local high school. Different faculty members will all try to make the same joke, one after another. They will make jokes that you can't build on, to which there is no possible response. They will say a joke, and then when no one laughs, they will say the same joke again, only louder. Rao's other note on the Clueless is that they make you cringe with their actions, and faculty humor is nothing if not cringeworthy.
Despite ostensible appearances to the contrary, faculty are not at the top of the pyramid in academia. Instead, they are academia's middle-managers.
Some fields are probably more this way than others. A field where there is more room for material rewards, where labs can land huge grants, may be more likely to attract Sociopaths. But on the other hand, "me win most grants" is also very legible.
Of course, there are some Loser faculty and some Sociopath faculty in every field. The Losers are distinguished by being very aware that being a professor is an economically raw deal. They tend to be people who have a passion for research or teaching and accepted this bad deal because it let them fulfill themselves in their other calling. I know one professor who never applies for grants and never takes grad students. As a result his department has pushed him into a tiny office, but he doesn't care. He just wants to do his independent work without being bothered, and his tenured position has landed him a situation where he can focus on that.
Sociopath faculty are distinguished by using their faculty position as part of a wider portfolio, or as a stepping-stone to other things. Any faculty member who is involved with a startup or has several popular trade books might be a Sociopath. Steve Pinker, who clearly aspires to be more of a public intellectual than "merely" a Harvard Professor, is almost certainly a Sociopath under this system (and maybe in general).
So why are university faculty almost universally Clueless? I think there are two main reasons. First of all, doing hard work for little reward marks you as exploitable, and two levels of filtering for that trait leads to an inevitable conclusion.
Second, the Clueless serve a special role in a large organization, that of separating the Losers from the Sociopaths at the top. "Without it," says Rao, "the company would explode like a nuclear bomb, rather than generate power steadily like a reactor."
1.4 The Top???
Universities are organizations. But as we've just seen, the faculty are not ruling the roost — they are all Clueless. Who is working these machines from the top?
My first instinct is to say that these are the people directly above the faculty, maybe the deans. This makes some sense — I have almost no experience interacting with any dean. But the stereotype of the university dean seems a lot more Clueless than Sociopath. In large organizations, there may be many layers of Clueless middle-managers, and universities are very large.
Maybe you have to go higher. The board of trustees? The president of the university? Maybe, but my limited experience of these people is that they seem pretty Clueless as well. The president gets paid a lot, but maybe seems like a potential fall guy, which would make him Clueless. But who would he be taking a fall for? I don't know; but given that I am a Loser in these organizations, and I don't even know who my local Sociopaths are, the system seems to be working as intended.
It's also possible that universities have evolved to be a truly headless entity, but I find it hard to believe that someone isn't profiting off of this system. At their heart, many major universities are real estate companies. Between them, Harvard and MIT own most of Cambridge. NYU is slowing buying up as much of Manhattan as they can. What makes these companies special is just how much Clueless flash they have been able to put between themselves and the public eye.
(In fact, the fact that many universities are secretly real estate companies makes me wonder if there might be a Georgist interpretation along similar lines — Universities are landlords, faculty are capital/bosses, and grad students/undergrads are labor. This matches the three categories of SCL surprisingly well.)
This reinforces the value of having most of the faculty be Clueless. They work long hours to be very distracting. They have brand loyalty to the university, even when that university is a monster. They will take risks for the university in exchange for nothing more than "medals, certificates and formal membership." And when the university needs someone to take the fall for a risk that went wrong, the faculty are always there to take that fall.
2. Academic Talk
In Part II of his essay, Rao describes the four (plus one) languages that the different groups speak with one another.
Powertalk is the language that Sociopaths speak among themselves. It is the most interesting language on its own merits, but as academics are almost never Sociopaths (in the SCL sense of the term), we won't discuss it in depth here. Read Rao's essay for the fascinating details.
Posturetalk is the language that the Clueless speak to everyone; indeed, "they don’t have an in-group language since they don’t realize they constitute a group." In academia, the typical Clueless is a faculty member, so this is the jargon you hear from faculty — differing slightly by field, but vague and stuffy in the ways you expect.
Babytalk is the languages the other two groups use to address the Clueless. Rao emphasizes that Babytalk "seems like Posturetalk to the Clueless." In the case of academia, this is something that sounds like jargon to faculty, but is actually dismissive of them. I'll further emphasize that the purpose of Babytalk is to allow the other two groups to manipulate the Clueless, which in this case means manipulating faculty and senior PhD students. More on this in a minute.
Finally, Gametalk is the language spoken among Losers as part of their pecking-order games. "Gametalk leaves power relations unchanged because its entire purpose is to help Losers put themselves and each other into safe pigeonholes that validate do-nothing life scripts." If you are cynical enough, maybe this will sound like the language of undergraduates to you too.
That black line on the diagram goes officially unnamed per Rao, because one of the functions of the Clueless is to provide a buffer between Sociopaths and Losers, so they never have to / get to communicate. But he says this is "an unadorned language you could call Straight Talk if it were worth naming." In academia the Sociopaths are so far removed from the Losers that this is not worth considering.
2.1 Academic Babytalk
Clearly the most interesting of these languages, in the context of academia, is Babytalk, the shared language spoken by both Losers and Sociopaths when they want to placate, manupulate, or distract the Clueless. Notably, to the Clueless it sounds largely like their own language, Posturetalk, so to an academic, this will sound something like academic jargon.
I submit that in the modern political climate, "woke" language is an important dialect of Babytalk.
It fits all the criteria. Woke language borrows the style of academic jargon and sounds a lot like academic speech to faculty. None of them are aware that they are being condescended to.
Woke language rarely changes anything substantive — in Rao's words it "leaves power relations basically unchanged" — but it is very effective in manipulating Clueless faculty and senior PhD students. The more progressive among them will readily back down out of agreement with the ideology, and the less progressive will back down out of their irrational and disproportionate fear of being "cancelled", this despite the fact that in reality professors are almost never "cancelled" for anything.
Finally, woke language can be identified as Babytalk by the fact that neither Sociopaths nor Losers use it among themselves; they only use it in communicating with the Clueless.
Certainly we don't expect the academic Sociopaths, whoever they are, to use woke language in their personal dealings. But some of you may be surprised to learn that students don't use woke language among themselves either. Now, their own ingroup language, or Gametalk, does involve similar issues of race, class, and gender, but it's distinct from the Babytalk they direct at faculty. Those of us Losers who have spent a lot of time in progressive spaces, I'm sorry to reveal, can easily distinguish between the two.
Some people are even consciously aware of using woke language to condescend to or manipulate the local middle-managers. I happened to be speaking with an undergraduate student recently. This student is not only from a notoriously progressive, even radical college, they also fit many of the personal stereotypes of "wokeness" — they are queer, asexual, neurodivergent, etc. But at one point when we were discussing a problem they were facing with the administration, they told me:
I feel like putting my case in personal terms is wrong because my race shouldn't matter, but I feel like our Dean of Students will only listen to me if I frame it as a threat to me as a woman of color.
This matches my general experience as well. Faculty and administrators prefer to ignore student concerns, but they freak out when presented with issues of race or gender. Students are in tune with this and learn that they have to frame things this way to have any hope of getting anything done.
Presumably the local Sociopaths are aware of this as well. As a result it is not surprising that both Loser and the Sociopath academics use woke language as part of their Babytalk. Nor is it surprising that many professors experience a world where everything is framed in the woke terms of race, gender, and class. This is not the dialogue spoken in the great wide world, but these professors have made it clear that this is the only kind of framing they will pay attention to, and people have adjusted their messaging accordingly. I understand that this puts them in a cold sweat, but it's hard to feel sympathetic.
This is further emphasized by the fact that when faculty (who are Clueless) try to describe "woke ideology", they fail miserably. This will be invisible to outsiders because Babytalk is designed to pass for the faculty's native Posturetalk, but believe me, professors could not remotely pass the Woke Turing Test. Young people today are not afraid of being challenged; they do not reduce themselves to their skin color or their genitalia. They are not "confused" about their gender. When college professors express concern about this sort of thing, they're just showing that they do not even understand the terms they are being condescended to with.
Because woke langauge sounds like Posturetalk to the Clueless, some of the terms have been adopted by Clueless PhD students and faculty. At this point, we shouldn't be surprised to hear the Clueless using woke terms with the other groups and even with each other. When the Clueless use it, however, it is totally ineffectual, and never sounds quite right.
Since there are Clueless PhD students and even Clueless undergrads, you will sometimes hear earnestly outrageous "woke" messages coming from them. But the main use of woke language is to cajole or frighten faculty into submission. There's no real power here, it's a bluff — Rao says, "Posturetalk and Babytalk leave things unchanged because they are, to quote Shakespeare, 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'" But because faculty are concerned about and/or afraid of these issues, they can often be convinced to back down by the use of this kind of language.
2.2 Actually Being Cancelled
What about those faculty members who are cancelled? Here we return to the other organizational role of the Clueless, that of being a convenient scapegoat.
It's hard to know for certain, as these decisions are deliberately obscured, but I suspect that many of these faculty were fired for reasons unrelated to wokeness. Rao describes how Sociopaths set up bureaucracies that are designed to be byzantine and become clogged with appeals. When they want to keep something from happening, they let the appeals pile up. But when they want to make something happen, the Sociopath who handles the exceptions lets the right appeal jump the queue.
So in the few (rare) cases where a professor was actually cancelled by their university, I suspect that what happened was that the university wanted to fire them for some unrelated reason first. To protect the people at the top, however, and redirect the blame to the students and the bureaucracy, they first waited until a student made a complaint about the professor in question. This complaint then jumped the queue and was promoted to the level of an Issue, and the professor was fired, ostensibly as the result of the student complaint. This is hard to prove but it makes sense when we observe a professor being fired for what appear to be very flimsy reasons.
This is not the only way faculty can be made to take a fall for something. It's also possible, for example, that if some other scandal were about to come to light, a school could fire some professor for "wokeness" reasons as a way to distract from the other issue.
3. Other Implications
Some final thoughts on implications of this analysis.
3.1 Graduate Programs
Everyone knows that graduate school is kind of hellish. People are overworked and underpaid. Most of them slowly become aware they will never get an academic job. They burn out, suffer breakdowns. A lot of work goes into making it a better place for everyone.
But viewing it through an organizational lens suggests that these problems can't be solved: they're inherent to the system, and can't be gotten rid of. Rao says that theory of management is "based on the axiom that organizations don’t suffer pathologies; they are intrinsically pathological constructs." Again to quote Rao directly, "It is designed to fail in ways that achieve unspoken Sociopath intentions, while allowing them to claim the nobler explicit intentions enshrined in the law. "
It's even possible that attempts to make things better will make things worse, as it gives the Sociopaths at the top an opportunity to fiddle with the system to better suit their needs. Rao says of bureaucracies that you should "periodically attempt to 'reform' it through means that only ensure it gets worse (adding complexity)." If you have spent any time in academia, this will sound familiar to you.
If this perspective is correct, the only thing to be done is to abandon grad school altogether. But as long as there are Clueless students who can be recruited to feed the machine, I'm afraid this cycle will continue.
The same probably goes for graduate admissions and faculty hiring. These processes are perverse not as a bug, but as a feature. At some level most universities really do want you to hire the person with the longest CV, regardless of how much crap is on it, because this allows you to pick out the Clueless applicant who is the #1 biggest sucker. Universities can find many uses for such suckers.
3.2 Science Generally
An interesting implication is that the reason science sucks so much these days is that mainstream science has been "captured" to serve as the intent-obscuring bureaucracy of a set of major organizations.
In the old days, most scientists were Sociopaths, bored of life, pursuing meaning through solving mysteries. A small number of them had day jobs as Losers, and did science on the side as their hobby. But "science" is now dominated by the group with the lowest level of development, the Clueless, which can only bode poorly.
This is in line with my more general feeling that we should expect most scientific progress to occur outside the academy, though it is something of a problem that so much science funding is captured in this way.