The Michael Scott Theory of Social Class [Alex Danco]
Alex mouthblogs one of the best essays I've read all year.
Listen to the Infinite Loops podcast: https://www.infiniteloopspodcast.com/alex-danco-everyones-job-is-world-building-ep53/ (40mins in)
Read the full essay: https://alexdanco.com/2021/01/22/the-michael-scott-theory-of-social-class/
See tweet reactions: https://twitter.com/swyx/status/1424953927426928646
Read the full essay: https://alexdanco.com/2021/01/22/the-michael-scott-theory-of-social-class/
See tweet reactions: https://twitter.com/swyx/status/1424953927426928646
[00:00:00] Hey everyone today, I'm about to break one of the core rules of this mixed tape, which is that episode should come in at around 10 minutes. Uh, this is a 25 minute rant from Alex Danco, which is still one of the best essays I've read of the year. He posted it on January 22nd, and I think it's still resonating.
It basically is a theory of social class that is both entertaining and actually strangely true. Just don't think too hard about it because if you do you will realize how true it is.
Maybe this is a good segue into the other thing that I feel like we were theoretically supposed to talk about this podcast episode,
which was the Michael Scott theory of social class, which again is like another example of the power of world-building in this
case, it's the power of
world-building as applied to the phenomenon of middleman.
Right, right. Like, what is middle management? If not world built real, because that's all you've got right. Is this
world you've constructed. So originally a missile, who's
going to fill the forms out. I mean, come on.
It's not, it's not anything who's going to fill the firms out. It's like, who's going to create the meaning.
It's like I forgot who described middle
management as the control rods and a nuclear reactor. It's like, but the point of them is to slow things down so that it doesn't run out of your control and blow up. So,
okay. So I wrote this piece, the Michael Scott theory of social class,
which is basically a re skinning of Venkatesh Rouse article that your base principle, which itself was a re-skinning of Holly White's book, the organization, man.
Oh, so that's the actual source material is the organization, man. Have you read the organization, man? Do you know that book?
I don't have notes on it. So that means I didn't take it seriously. It's so good. It's so
good. It's in the list of
books that I recommend to everybody. So I'm going to have, I'm going to have to read it again.
What's remarkable about the organization, man is
simultaneously how in a literal sense. It did not get the future. Right.
But at a second
order sense, it just nailed the future so hard. They got it. So, so, so right, just at a slightly different abstraction layer than people realize. So the general thesis of the organization, man,
is that all organizations
that survive have stratified into three layers.
You have the bottom layer, the middle layer and the top layer. The bottom layer is the people who do the actual work. This is the majority of people. Their lives are spent doing literal things. So these are line workers, frontline people,
anybody who is
actually producing something. Literally there are the people at the bottom there, the majority of
people at the top, you have the exact.
They actually have a lot in common
with the people at the bottom
in the sense that they have very
literal roles and responsibilities and very real stakes involved. And they see the world very clearly as it is, but the people at the bottom and the people at the top see the world through clear eyes with clear actions and consequences, but there's this group of people in the middle called middle-management that is really, really different than either of those groups.
And their job is to intermediate between
the people at the top and the people at the bottom by basically constructing this reality called middle management that does not literally produce anything nor have any literal
stakes or consequences, but whose job is
effectively to mediate like the control rods in the reactor to say like, look,
the goal here is to create a stable system
Regardless of how efficient it is or how complicated it is or anything just like, can you get something to persist? This group of people will always emerge in one form or another. So in the 1950, in the early
fifties, when Holly white wrote this book, this was in the era
of these mega mega conglomerates, like Dow DuPont, us steel, general motors, like this was the field.
Like the current mindset was that. The frontier of progress was mega organizational dynamics. It was scaled to get scaled, to get scaled. This is how everything works. Eventually everything will be run by four corporations because we figured out the science of how management works. And specifically we figured out what middle-management.
We created this whole world
of middle management that has sense of purpose and a sense
of identity. And it was fed through these institutions called business schools and the NBA. And this whole
idea that like middle manager was actually this craft more or less independent of the
industry. It's like, what do you do?
Oh, you're a manager. Oh, like what kind of industry do you manage? It doesn't matter. Like I do manage. Right. That was the thing that you can learn. Do you go to management school and learn management regardless of where you were from? You remember in the office?
I'm just sitting here because I love that movie.
There was one particular episode of the office
where David Wallace, a CFO brings in a new boss for Michael. Who is Idris Elba who comes in as like the professional manager. And Michael's like, where are you from? He's like, oh, steel.[00:05:00]
Um, but anyway, so this is idea. It's like, like as Holly white describes
it, William H. White, he went by Holly white as
he describes it. Right? So the whole book is about this three layer system. And this three
layer construct where you have the people at the bar. Who again are doing all the actual work and have no path to leverage.
And the people at the top
who have all the leverage, but
are very deeply suspicious of everything and are perpetually trying to acquire and keep control over this huge sprawling.
Basically those two sides in order
to not fly apart at a hundred miles an hour, need this mediating influence in the middle called the middle management.
But in order for that to exist, there needs to be a purpose for the middle managers to have. And hence, what you have to do is you have to build a world in which management is.
So, this is where you get this world of
Taylorism and like management as a science,
which sort of expanded and grew and grew and grew into this really self
perpetuating construct where it's like, where, what happened
with middle management is we were able to create a world where management
was a challenge that was considered a worthy challenge that people would go into, put all of their identities into, and then it would perpetuate and perpetuating.
So, if you look at some of the really good books on how to manage, like Andy Grove, like a high output management, things like that is almost like a return w w Hyatt management, the thesis of that book. If you haven't read it is basically like we figured out how to manage production. It's called factory.
Everything can ultimately be understood
in terms of like how production management works in terms of buffer capacity, in terms of like how you set challenges and how you like arrange for like, thinking about like how you manage the output of an organization. The whole thesis here was that this is equally applicable to management and like talent and hiring people.
And like all these supposedly soft skills that didn't work like factories. Andy is like, I actually, like I made Intel, like I've.
But nonetheless middle-management does this construct, which
again, if you fast forward to today, you can just replace with product management in a tech company or any of these other venture capital associates, any of
these positions where you are
not literally in charge of anything, nor are you literally making
anything, your job is to intermediate in some way.
And hence. You live,
this is a very roundabout way to get into the thesis
of the article. You live in a world
that is entirely a construct of your own creation, right? There's nothing
literal in your world. Your world is entirely defined and surrounded
by fairly arbitrary challenges and goals and measuring sticks
that have been
created in a self perpetuating sense and are not the very literal things by which anything is.
One of the two core theses of the Michael Scott
article was that there is a reason
why these worlds, again, always back to world building what makes these worlds perpetuate? What makes Michael Scott's world have purpose and have ongoing perpetuation? That self reinforces is linked.
Have you read
Venkatesh Rao's original article that your face principle, is that
something you're familiar with?
Okay. Yeah. So for audience, if you haven't read
this, go Google that your base principle, your face, like reheat your face from the office and go read that at some point on your set aside a couple hours, it's really been through this series of articles. It gets really esoteric, but like, it's fantastic. So it's going through the office as a theory, the office, the American TV show the office as a
cynical theory of management.
That is again, it's like, it's a re-skinning of the organization, man. It says like, look like you have these three fundamental groups of people in the TV show the office at the bottom. You have group of people called. We're not uncool, but they're economic losers, no path to leverage. Fundamentally their work output is realized holy by someone else.
They are fundamentally paid on cost based pricing, not value-based pricing, et cetera. And this is the majority of the people in the office. They see the world through clear eyes and they cope. This is like Stanley Pam, Darryl. Most of these people they're there at the bottom there, the losers of the office, they occupy most of the positions.
At the top, you have the people who are the sociopaths. They are the people in charge. What they care about is power. And they occupy this other role in the show, which is there the other group of people that sees the world through clear eyes. So in the show, this means David Wallace, the CFO, the authority figure Jan, before she becomes Michael's lover and is in a mental breakdown.
Ryan, I do
need to interject here. I loved that segway for GP. Because she did go from a sociopathic
control freak to yeah. Mass complete this complete master Ryan, the temp, right. Is the most important example of somebody who brilliantly grabs real power and then immediately squanders it. And then finally,
the last sociopath character
is actually the real drama of the show.
By the way, is the, will he, or won't he go over to the dark side? Jim is the real villain of the office. Once you realize this, it actually sort of reshapes a lot of the [00:10:00] shows that Jim is the felon. Jim is actually a complete asshole. He's horrible to Dwight. He's really arrogant. He's kind of mean to everybody.
He doesn't actually treat Pam very well for that. No. So Jim is actually like the secret sociopath where the real drama of the office, as he will hear, won't he explicitly go over to the dark side. Right. But then, so both
of those two groups of
people see the world through clear eyes as it is, but then in the middle you have three characters and fundamentally the office is a show about these three people.
Yeah. Michael Deno.
And Andy, the central drama
of the show by the time the office really, really hits a stride. And season three is when it's established this relationship. It is about Michael Dwight and Andy's search for meaning in a world that is entirely their own construct,
right? It cannot escape because they are compulsively forced to double
down on reaffirming, the
meaning that they are creating for themselves.
And each of them expresses this in a different way. Michael it's in the form of
like, it's everything about Michael. Everything about Michael's world is this world of his own creation that he's made in this bubble around him. But same for Dwight and same for Andy all in their different. It sort of shows up in all
of the, sort of the meaningless talking and the jokes that don't make any sense and the constant, please,
for people to pay
attention to them.
Andy's anger management issues.
Dwight's LARPing about like
being a first responder, all of these things, but especially about Michael and his self identity that is
wrapped up in being in. There was this really notable tweet
about there's this
argument that happened on Twitter about whether Michael Scott would know how to use chopsticks.
Does Michael know how to use chopsticks? Yes or no? And the answer
is obviously yes, of course he does. He takes
enormous pride in knowing how to use chopsticks and tells everybody. And like, he probably learned it from watching TV or in his apartment by himself.
Right. She had this cast of three characters, Michael Dwight, and.
And they inhabit this world that they have built for
themselves and that other people happily help them build because it helps everybody fulfill their own respective
purposes. This senior people up top indulgent support Michael's world-building because they need somebody to
oversee the branch and make sure that it stays in more or less the same state as they expect it to be.
Whenever they come down to Scranton from New York, the people doing the actual. Pam Darryl in the warehouse, all the salespeople, everybody need Michael to stay in his state of delusion because it gets him out of their
way. Pam in the show takes
the defacto role of narrator. She's the one who basically narrating to the audience, all of
the things that they do to support
and create and perpetuate this little delusion inside Michael's little world and also.
I remember the point I was getting to, it was around language. The most brilliant part
of Venkatesh Rao's piece is the sub
chapter in the Jabez principle around language and how people talk to each other and the five different coded languages that are used between different groups of people talking to each other.
You have these three. You have the senior sociopath's you have the people at the bottom who do the actual work, both of whom are literal. And then you have the middle managers in the middle who clueless. So
there are five
possible languages that are spoken in the intersection
of these three groups. The first language
that's spoken is something called posture talk.
That is the language that is spoken by the clueless people who are in this world of their own construction. So it's everything spoken by Michael . To anyone, including themselves. It's basically meaningless babbling that has no grounding in reality whatsoever,
but makes sense. Inside this world they've created for themselves.
That is what, how they talk both
internally and projecting
out. Meanwhile, everybody who talks to them speaks the
language called baby. Which basically goes there. They're like, you don't know what you're talking about, but like there it's soothing. It's like, just stay in your little box. Like, don't worry.
Everything's going to be fine. Just please don't screw this up. It's how you talk to kids when they're actually capable of causing danger and you want them to stay. Yes. The other three languages spoken by the way are, um, there's the internal language among all the losers, which is like, you're okay. It's just basically like getting themselves through the day in group self-referencing and self.
You have the internal language of the sociopath, which is called Powertalk, which is all about information gathering, right. And retroactive deniability. And then you have the
rarest language of all, which is straight talk, which is the only
time that language happens. That's not encoded at all, which is the rare instance where the senior execs talk to the line workers, which is unincorporated straight talk like what the fuck happened.
Here you go fix it
by. It's the only time that's straight talk
is the accidental occasions where senior management ends up confronted with frontline [00:15:00] workers because Michael screwed something up in variable, right? That's the only situation in which that happens. So let's look at the office as this little three layer system where you have the Michael Dwight's and Andy's in the middle who live in this world of their own construct, where it is entirely an exercise, both for them.
And for those around them of world. Just to create and perpetuate any kind of purpose that maintains coherence sandwiched between the group of people on the bottom and the top who actually have fairly literal roles and responsibilities.
No, you can take that and actually extrapolate
that onto the American class system, more or less facing.
So you have, again, it's like talking in broad strokes here. It's like you have the people at the bottom who is the majority of people, people who earn income through labor and who there's a ladder that you can climb up from at the bottom. It's like working very, very hard hourly or informal jobs. You work your way up through blue collar jobs at the top of this ladder.
As you work up, you do own property. You own an F-150. You might own a vacation home. You have a nice life. Like you can work your way up to being well off in this group of people, but fundamentally. Fairly literal. And you have not created any paths to leverage for yourself. That's this group of people.
It's the majority of people. It's everybody who doesn't live on the coast basically is in this group of people more or less the coast or core coastal like towns skipping the middle group for a second. The people at the top, who again, are like the elites in power who are sociopath's right. This is just all about, like,
I keep saying sociopath.
I am a highly functioning sociopath.
I'm not sure you're in this group because you're on Twitter. I think you're actually the king of the middle people. We'll get to that in a second. We'll get to that in a second. We'll
get to that.
The kingdom of the Michael Scott's. So you have the people on the top who are like, this is a path that starts out, like the entry point into this path is either being born rich or being a junior.
Either you look into the path or you have to just brutally work your way to the top at either like a white shoe law firm or like investment banking, or now actually starting a startup. Can conceivably get you into this path, although it's still relatively uncommon,
but nonetheless it's like, this is also a group of people that when you're
in the world of real power, you actually do see the world more or less as it is.
And you do see stakes more or less. But in the middle, you have this group of people. This is the Michael Scott group of people, which is the bourgeoisie. This is the upper middle-class who live in the world of whole foods and farmer's market and virtue signal performance saying.
And where everything about your life is the statement about
values you have that are expensive.
you in all likelihood people in this job. And then there are some
exceptions. So like there are some jobs where like economically
speaking would put you in the middle, but socially
are not. Doctors are actually one of these groups. Like doctors do something very, very real, but whose jobs put them in the upper middle-class,
but mostly if you're an upper middle class person, like.
You have some absolutely made up job.
digital marketing or you were a product manager or you work actually like many people in law or in various forms of
this, or you work in some form of business development or you work in much
of sales is not in this group. A lot of sales is very, very real and literal, but some sales is very made up.
There's some sales that's very, very much in this world of like upper middle class permissive.
We're again, like in this group, the fundamental feature of this group. So if you were to stratify this group
along the ladder, as you work your way up the entry point to this group, if you were not born. So the main way you get into this group is you're born there.
You're born into upper middle-class parents. And so, hence you are upper middle-class, but you can enter the group by going to. If you're the first in your family to go to college, you can enter this group and you will have quite a culture shock when you do about what people are like in those groups.
But as you work your way up, you don't work your way up this ladder by making more money.
This cultural ladder definitely does not organize by income. It organizes by how interesting you are and how detached from reality. So
like people with, like, if you're pursuing a
PhD, very high status
absolutely could be a totally meaningless and contrive pursuit. Right. It could just be the most nonsensical thing,
but it's very high status to be doing your PhD blue check marks on Twitter.
Same thing. It doesn't mean you owe
money. It doesn't mean you. It doesn't mean it doesn't mean it's like, if there's a particular kind of. The
by the way, the
absolute top of this ladder people I'd say the litmus test is could
you write an op-ed for the New York? Would that make sense?
Again, people at the bottom group don't do this
people in the top group also don't do this because the New York times won't
let them because they're bad. Right? It's like someone like Jon Stewart is probably like the absolute top of this group. There's someone like that, right? Like, um,
just total cultural relevance
among this particular group of people and bringing this back to the principle thing and the office.
What [00:20:00] fundamentally defines
this group of people of which I absolutely am. One, by the way, like me and everybody in my neighborhood, around me and in my job around me. And like everyone I surround myself with is in this group of people, by the way. So this is a group of people where it's like a Subaru is a higher status car than a capital.
And I'd say that's a good litmus test. If you would never be seen dead riding, driving a Cadillac, but you would drive a Subaru and brag about it. That's me. Like I drive a Subaru Outback. That's my car. That's broken that the mechanic had to come fix. Another one is like, would you be mortified showing off a $10,000 watch, but excitedly brag about $150,000 kitchen rental.
Then you're in. Because again, it's like, you're not showing off how much money you spent, even though you clearly are. It's all about like, here's how interesting and unique I am. Right. And it's all
about like advancing in this group is all about detaching yourself from re. So remember 50 years
ago, what this meant was leaving the reality of the dirty cities and moving out to the detached from reality place of the suburbs.
Now let's the other way around. It's detaching yourself from the reality of chain, restaurant gas, guzzling, suburban car, hell and moving back to walkable neighborhoods. It's all about detachment from reality. And again, it's like, it's not only like this whole idea of like, oh, I'm detaching myself from reality.
This is something
that you brag about. If you are like, oh, like I shop at the local
farmer's market so I can do a hundred mile diet. That is you detaching yourself from reality and telling everybody about it. Yeah. I think it says something about you. It's a challenge that you're doing. It gives you meaning and it gives you purpose.
Or it's like, if you do triathlons,
you know, people who do triathlons gym, like I actually shut the fuck up about triathlons. Oh, well, yeah, it's fine. It's fine. But it's like, at some point it's like people who are really, really into these things. Well, you notice about them as they start to talk weird. They develop these speech patterns that at first are only visible when they're talking
about whatever it is, they find really meaningful, but eventually it just takes over everything.
And the reason why it's not only because they have this internal language that they talk
in, that it's all about like validate my pursuit. Meaning that I've constructed for myself. That's meaningless to everybody else, but it's a beg for acknowledgement
for the meaning that they've created. And you know how people talk back to them.
It's baby talk. It's Uber driver talk. It's like, I'll entertain this conversation, but like, please give me five stars. Like I need it. Please write it. Or
like it's all the advertising of prestige.
You are so smart for watching Fargo. You are so sophisticated for watching house of cards. Like
come on this whole idea of world-building right?
It's like the reason why world building is so important and it is especially important in worlds of plenty
and worlds of material, abundance
and worlds, where everything is basically provided. But what is scarce and valuable is actually
meaning it's challenges that you identify with and your sense of accomplishment upon challenging them.
That is what people really want when their basic needs are taken care of. And it's in fact, what
people are most desperately seeking when you enter this world of upper-middle-class dumb, it becomes entirely about this search for. Not only like ways to find
meeting, but like around with like, what is the way that you are going to detach yourself from reality and create this construct of meeting around yourself, the author who
wrote about this amazingly?
Well, what it
was, it was David Brooks a long time ago. Back when David Brooks could really throw fastballs Bobos in paradise, paradise, paradise, amazing black, an incredible line from Bobos. Is that the highest possible
compliment in this group is to call someone
serious. He's a serious kite boarder, or she's serious about cooking healthy meals.
That is the highest possible compliment. You can give someone because this is the ultimate form of validating their. Which is all we just desperately
want. Right? So you take, so the thesis of my Michael Scott article was that as you
ascend the ladder and the ranks of the upper middle-class more and more of your life becomes the self-defined.
for meaning in a construct of your own creation that is reinforced by your language progressively becoming posture talk, please validate my pursuits and other people talking back to you in baby talk. They're there. Like everything you do is made up. It'll be okay. Just stay in your little box and don't cause problems, right?
reinforcing itself until eventually you become Michael
Scott. Listen, man, I think you just did a hard close. Yeah.
That's Michael Scott. So
do you have more than 10,000 followers on Twitter? You're Michael Scott, you have an opinion about
what is the right amount of hops in an IPA mascot.
You were Michael Scott.
Do you, if you drive a Subaru and you are overly
concerned with the all wheel drive mechanics between like the new versions versus the old versions for your ability to get to the cross country [00:25:00] ski trails, you're making. I am all these things, by the way, are you pursuing a PhD in anything?
Absolutely. Michael Scott, do you read my newsletter? You're Michael Scott. Um, we are all Michael's.
If you listened to this mix tape, you're absolutely Michael Scott, if you're entertained by it, you're absolutely Michael Scott and from one Michael Scott to the other, I appreciate you.