HR Tips from Roman slave owners

by Henry on February 6, 2015

A few people in the previous thread pushed me to say more about my underlying theory of trolling, and why Jonathan Chait’s piece (and much of his previous oeuvre) should be categorized as very talented trolling of the second magnitude. I don’t have one – instead I’m trying to suggest that we should evaluate trolling in aesthetic terms. This obviously implies that we can’t and shouldn’t try to come up with a Grand Unified Perspective on Trolling, since aesthetic judgments, a la Bourdieu, are inevitably drenched with positional politics and personal circumstances. I will say that in my personal opinion Chait wasn’t particularly artistically successful (it wasn’t an especially subtle or elegant troll, and entirely lacked that subtle sense of irony that I like myself in a really first rate bit of trollage) but certainly succeeded in getting the crowds out. Hence, the Michael Bay comparison – lots of explosions, noise and box office, but not very much else.

This new piece by Jerry Toner at Aeon is in my opinion a much more successful example, if not quite of trolling, then of something closely related.

Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world. … Like the weak manager who hides behind the Human Resources department when there is firing to be done, some Roman masters clearly baulked at the violence intrinsic to their system. But most openly embraced taking the unpleasant acts that being a master entailed, seeing them as a means of advertising their power and virility. … Small perks could make a big difference to morale. Masters sometimes made a point of checking the slaves’ rations personally to show them that they were taking an interest in their welfare. … Even when treated relatively well, slaves naturally longed for freedom. This desire could be turned to great advantage by the master. It was a carrot with which to motivate the slave to work diligently and honestly. … In Gellius’ retelling of the famous Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion, the slave Androcles put up with undeserved floggings every day. It was only after endless abuse that he finally took the tremendous risk of running away. No doubt there are few wage slaves who do not also dream of throwing off the yoke of their mundane existence and becoming ski-instructors, writers, or their own self-employed masters. Modern managers must make their staff feel that they are earning enough, or have the possibility of earning enough, that these dreams are possible, however remote they might be in reality.

It took me a couple of reads, and some consultation with a third party, before I was reasonably sure that this was a beautifully constructed satire. It’s so deadpan, and so close to the tone of a certain kind of glib-management-theory-building-on-the-new-institutional-economics-book, that the reader isn’t sure whether this is seriously meant or pince-sans-rire. And this is what brings it close to trolling. Its underlying logic is similar to a Jonathan Swift style Modest Proposal, but Swift is all visible saeva indignatio . He takes the language and assumptions of English elite debates on the Irish question and uses them to dress a solution that is objectively appalling. The reader is discomfited – but has a very clear understanding of Swift’s intention. Toner, instead, strands his reader in a kind of Uncanny Valley of intentionality, with a proposal that may, or may not be seriously meant. It’s a much more profound sense of intellectual discomfort. I don’t think that the piece is trolling – but it evokes a feeling of intellectual confusion that’s related to the kinds of confusion that really good trolling produce. So that’s not, obviously, a definition of first rate trolling, or even an example of it. But it maybe sort of helps all the same.

Fire away in comments. Looking at the pattern of home and away fixtures, my money is on France if they can beat Ireland away next week. But, as usual, four teams could win it.