Thursday, December 1, 2011

Analysis of Psychosis

On the quiet Friday following Thanksgiving, I read the “business life” of Sue Raby in the Financial Times, an Avon saleswoman slugging it out on the outskirts of Liverpool.
Sue Raby, coiffed shoulder-length brown hair, a grey shawl-collar coat, sets off down the road with a wheelie shopping bag full of Avon catalogues. The 52-year old single mother of two girls (22 and 11), sweeps her arm theatrically in the air. “This is one of my streets, this estate is my territory,” she says. This “territory” is a small patch of Formby, an affluent dormitory town for Liverpool, in the northwest of England.
This opening paragraph is not dissimilar to the interview scene in the opening of The Shining. Everything seems good and in order – even slightly uplifting. Sure, the main character calls a small patch of a bedroom community her “territory”, but who among us has not exaggerated the importance of his or her job/role/blog? What matters – the take away as they call it in the corporate parlance, the thing that one has to learn from the story – is that she has options, unlike those women in Afghanistan. A single mother of two driving to work in “her territory”: what was empowering women all about if not this?
If you cut Ms Raby, a former physics teacher, in half, she says, you would find Avon in the middle. The ringtone on her mobile is the sound of a doorbell, a reference to the 1960s advertising campaign catchphrase “Ding Dong, Avon calling.” When driving her silver Vauxhall, which has a pink sign advertising her website on the side, she plays motivational CDs to gee her along. Back at her suburban home, Avon boxes and catalogues are strewn around the sitting room, piled up in the hallway.
If we cut Sue Raby in half, we’d find Avon. Avon the company? Avon’s products? Avon’s certificate of incorporation?

Okay, so the former physics teacher is using poor imagery to say that she has “internalized” Avon. But that, too, does not square with what follows. “Boxes and catalogues strewn around the sitting room and piled up in the hallway” are more like an external intrusion; she, an outstanding example of a worker forced to take her job home.
This morning she is knocking on doors, selling silky-wear lipsticks and face-lifting creams while also on the lookout to recruit new sales reps. She earns 25 per cent commission on direct sales and a percentage of those clinched by reps in her team. The hardest bit, she says, is getting people to the door – “they might think I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, or the council or bailiffs”. If she is working a estate, she says, she wears jeans rather than a skirt, which looks more official. She also tends to steer clear of houses with dogs, although others push catalogues through the letterboxes with a spatula to fend off canine bites.
The “location”, like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, is beginning to reveal things that we did not originally know.

The affluent bedroom community has turned out to be a place where, if you knocked on a door, they would think you were a bailiff or the council; the coiffed Ms Raby has to dress down to even have her knock answered. And her territory, far from being hers, is an open field for an assortment of aggressive and enterprising competitors who brave dogs and who want to eat her lunch.  No wonder she listens to motivational speakers: she needs some stimulus to carry her through the day. Before she could sell, she had to buy into the confidence game of the confidence men selling confidence. It’s a mighty hard time, but I’m on my way, they have no doubt told her to constantly mutter to herself.

Suddenly she sprints off towards a blonde woman pushing a pram with one hand, grasping a toddler’s arm with the other. Ms Raby is – in the parlance – “buggy bashing”, stopping a young woman in the hope of recruiting her to her sales team. “Would you like to earn some extra money?” Ms Raby enquires tantalizingly.
Why would Ms Raby want to give her own customers to someone who has confessed to being incapable of making a sale? She insists she has spotted a potential “gem”. “You need confidence. I could get Kate up and running.” She knows this from personal experience. “When I first did sales I would go around houses with my one-year old with the catalogues under the buggy. I ran away from the door before anyone saw me. I was that under-confident”.
Forget the recruitment system that is modeled on degenerate cell mutation. I recruit you and you recruit another person who then recruits someone else and before you know it, the entire population of the earth has turned into Avon reps.

Look at buggy bashing, which is in the “parlance”. The FT writer, one Emma Jacobs, defines it as “stopping a young woman”, but she is being intuitively evasive and dishonest. She ignores the word buggy, which is central to the expression. Buggy bashing is recruiting a young woman with an infant. The infant is where the focus is because children elicit sympathy. Ask any beggar in Bangladesh. Better yet, read Oliver Twist, which is culturally closer to Ms Raby. Why, she herself was one such recruit, in her salad days when she was “under-confident”.

And that word: under-confident!

What a word! To know what it really means, you have to know the mentality of the people who have created it, their orientation and angle of vision to life. Both are adequately explained by Alec Baldwin’s character in this clip from Glengarry Glen Ross:

How effective is this kind of talk? It is effective enough to have come to use and stay in use. You saw a variation of it in terms of framing the issues in Part IV of the EU crisis. But it works on any scale. After being pumped up by Ms Raby’s faux can-do and you-need-confidence speech, even Emma Jacobs of the FT chimes in to describe a young nurse as having “confessed” to be “incapable of making a sale”.

She is already talking like Baldwin's character!

The psychosis in the title of this post is not about Ms Raby alone.

(And did you recognize the ABC – Always Be Closing? It is the “ding dong” ringtone of Sue Raby’s cell phone. When her phone rings, it is Avon Calling. But Avon is calling her. It is a reminder that she should always be closing!)
“If I can get Kate up to speed she’ll be doing me a favour. If not, she’ll be off my Christmas card list, and I’ll take my old customers back.”
Here, Sue is creating a “win-win situation”, as she is taught to do in her sales classes. Everything must be framed as a win-win situation.

If Sue Raby can get the under-confident nurse “up to speed”, then she – Sue Raby – will win: she would get a percent of her recruit’s 25% share of a £3 lipstick. Else, she will have one less name on her Christmas card list.

This latter expression – one less name on the Christmas list – Sue Raby has learned in the sales classes. The expression is on one hand allegorical. But at the same time it is very real in the sense that that concept of friendship (and Christmas cards) as means towards closing a sale are the Alpha and Omega of the salesmanship as spelled out by the grand daddy of all salesmen, Dale Carnegie. The Avon Lady is following him to a “t”. I quote from the upcoming Vol. 4:
Given this centrality of sales and its practically limitless sub-specialties in a Capitalist society– in the U.S., one could find hiring ads for “nuclear waste salesman” – it is natural that the subject is deeply embedded – intertwined, really – with culture. Often, it is the driver and creator of the culture, especially in the “Anglo-Saxon” U.S. and U.K., where the influence of businessmen goes further than other nations. The culture in these countries is the culture of a salesman, as it is shaped by the habits, sensibilities, tastes and priorities of salesmen. The influence is in plain view in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. 
The book’s title is precise. It telegraphs the content, so attention must be paid. Carnegie wants to win friends. Why? Because he wants to influence them. But the purpose of this influence is not bringing the newly acquired friends to the righteous path. Carnegie is not an Islamic zealot practicing the Prevention of Vice and the Propagation of Virtues. He wants to influence people in order to sell to them. Friendship is a mere strategy, a means, towards that end. Note the word “win” – not finding friends or making friends but “winning” friends. The purpose is exploitation, after which “friends” become what they always were: people. It is a singularly calculating and cynical title.
But Baldwin’s character in the above clip does not fit the bill of a congenial salesman in search of friends. What gives?

The answer is what links Ms Raby to the EU crisis: the falling rate of profit. From Vol. 4:

When the “conduct” of the salesman changes in a fundamental way, the effects reverberate across the social and cultural spectrum.  
One such fundamental change took place after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1973. The change which began gradually and continues to date was the intensification of competition due to the falling rates of profit. Coupled with the gradual desensitization and resistance of the population to the advertising pitches, the increased competition made selling a more stressful occupation than it was in the heydays of the U.S. industrial power.  
This gradual, but persistent and grinding trend, forced the salesman be more “productive”; he had to sell more than before in less time than before. But other salesmen faced the same conditions, so it became tough for everyone to make a living. The ensuing stress darkened the salesman’s mood, with the result that passive Willy Loman gave way to the obscenities spewing, conniving and downright criminal salesmen of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. How much can a man take!
We continue.
Cars and phones are dangled in front of them as incentives. Gatherings at countrywide Avon events are said to induce cult-like fervor. Worshiped are the gurus – the high earners. In Britain, there are no bigger stars than Debbie Davis and her partner Dave Carter. Ms Davis turned to Avon after being made redundant from a printing firm. Within three weeks, she had sold almost £19,000 of products and recruited her partner. Now the two have an 8,000-strong team and have turned over £13m in the past seven years.
You probably smiled reading about cars and phones being dangled in front of sales reps as incentives. Alec Baldwin’s character offered a Cadillac Eldorado and steak knives!

The ultimate incentive, though, are the high earners. They are real flesh and blood, people like just us, and they show that it can be done. It is only a matter of confidence and pushing forward and being steadfast in the face of adversity.

But then, there is the math.
Avon now operates in more than 100 countries with more than 6.5 million sales reps around the world (just over half the company’s earnings are from emerging markets). Last year, the company’s revenues were $10bn. Sales in North America account for about 20 per cent of this, while the UK is one of its top five markets.
$10bn in revenues divided by 6.5m sales reps works out to about $1,500 per rep, of which they get 25% commission. So a rep, probably a young mother with a child, can expect to make just under $400 a year.

With that, we go to the final scene in the FT story where Sue Raby has “put on” a “Christmas Party” in her mother’s house, no doubt because her own has no room thanks to Avon catalogues and products. 
That afternoon Ms Raby puts on a Christmas party in her mother’s house, down the street from her own. Plastic holly garlands hang around the fireplace, gold tinsel wraps the light shades and Merry Christmas signs are on the wall. Purple, orange-and-green packaged creams and perfumes are arranged in pyramids on tables. Mini-vanilla slices and bite-size doughnuts defrost in the kitchen. Cups of tea are handed out to the nine female guests who arrive, some with young children, some with their free old-age bus pass, to browse the catalogue.  
Ms Raby is on top form, showing off creams and fixing appointments to visit the guests in their homes. “You get out of it what you put into it,” she comments. 
What does she want to get out of it? “I don’t want to get myself a target as that would limit me. But maybe £80K a year. No, let’s say £100K.
How do you write a modern Gothic story?

I could begin with a Christmas party:

Plastic holly garlands hung around the fireplace, gold tinsel wrapped the light shades and Merry Christmas signs were on the wall. Purple, orange-and-green packaged creams and perfumes were arranged in pyramids on tables. Mini-vanilla slices and bite-size doughnuts defrosted in the kitchen. Nine female guests, some with young children, some with their free old-age bus pass, had arrived to browse the catalogue. 

You say that this is not per se Gothic, that it could be an O’Henry story about the warm hearts of the poor during Christmas? Perhaps. Try now:

The host, a single mother of two who was made redundant from her job teaching physics one supposes because all the knife wielding Liverpool students had mastered Newtonian mechanics, was taking down guests' name to later visit them in their homes for a sales pitch for lipsticks and facial creams.

Psychosis is, to use a term favored by Sartre, situational. Its dictionary definition is "profound disorganization of mind, personality, or behavior that results from an individual’s inability to tolerate the demands of his social environment whether because of the enormity of the imposed stress or because of primary inadequacy or acquired debility of his organism especially in regard to the central nervous system or because of combinations of these factors and that may be manifested by disorders of perception, thinking, or affect symptoms of neurosis, by criminality, or by any combination of these".

Those weasels at the American Psychiatric Society! How conveniently and cynically they shift the blame from the situational, which is always at least partially social, to individual. 

Inability [of the individual] to tolerate the demands of his social environment either because of the enormity of the imposed stress [on him] or because of primary inadequacy or “acquired debility” of his organism.

Let us define psychosis properly, for what it is:
Psychosis is the breakdown of the individual who, persistently and as a matter of his working condition, is put in a situation where he must perform at levels that the general, controlling conditions, will not allow.
The twin drugs of sermon and motivational speech that are commonly prescribed might at short term delay the onset of the disease – which is why they are commonly prescribed – but in the long run they exacerbate the tension and make its flare-up more violent.

The impossibility of reconciling the contradiction between an individuals particular situation and the general conditions surrounding him is the trigger for the breakdown.

In The Shining, Jack goes mad because he cannot write. The Shining, according to Stephen King, is about writer’s block.

Writer’s block is a modern phenomenon. Billions of people throughout centuries could not write, in the sense that they were bad writers. That was perfectly alright.

Then, modern economic conditions forced some people who could not write into the craft. Here,  force is social.  People are forced into writing for the same reason that they are forced into sales: because they need money and that is the only option. That is the social element in “writer’s block”. In the absence of social force, only those who could would take up writing. Can you imagine a Tolstoy struggling to tell a story or a Hemingway having trouble with a sentence?

What is one to do if he has to write but cannot? His particular situation could offer an escape route. If he has to take care of a young child, for example, or there was an extended illness in the family, he could point to them as circumstances beyond his control standing in the way of completing the work. Everyone would understand and the psychosis might be avoided or at not least not intensified.

But when the situation eliminates all the excuses – think of the quiet setting of a remote hotel for a writer, cut off from any distraction – the tension from the inability to perform finds no outward outlet and turns inward. If the situation persists, the result is psychosis and madness.

Look, now, at the position of Sue Raby. She expects to make £80K a year – no, make it £100k – from selling £3 lipsticks on which she collects 25% commission.  The average rep makes about $400 a year. But some reps make millions, so her goal is not really overly ambitious, is it?

If she cannot reach her goal, it could only be that she was under-confident and incapable of doing what others have done.

“You get out of it what you put into it,” says she, blissfully unaware of what she is saying, for what she has put in, beside some mini-vanilla slices and a few bite-size frozen doughnuts, is her time and labor, which is all but worthless as per educational authorities in Liverpool.

In Cameron’s England, for a 52-year old single mother of two, conditioned to believe in she-believed-she-could-so-she-did bullshit, if that is not the set-up for potential horror to come, I don’t know what is.