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Reflections of a working writer and reader



The Retreat from Common Sense

Australian playwright David Williamson has some interesting things to say about his fellow countrymen and the corporate world. Though, to be fair, his comments could apply to any other western country.

Speaking at a launch party for Shelley Gare‘s book, The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Commonsense, Williamson said that chief executives on 300 times the average wage were destroying their businesses and the lives of their staff.

“The thing to do is slash and burn and get the share price up temporarily by cost-cutting measures made at considerable human cost, then getting the resulting bonuses you’ve built into your already huge package, before the firm you’ve gutted falls to pieces.

“By that time you’ll have a golden handshake and be off to another corporate trough.”

He said the children of his friends were working 70 hours a week and when he asked them if they were enjoying themselves “they assured me they hated working those hours but if they didn’t they’d soon find themselves downsized”.

“There is a deeper malaise than airheadism, it’s managerialism, the art of manipulating, cajoling, terrifying and brainwashing executives to give their all for the company,” he said.

“This is done by the ubiquitous human resources departments which grow into huge mini empires within a firm, devoted to screwing the last ounce of productivity out of their executives.”

Williamson continued, saying that to be considered as executive material you had to pass personality tests proving yourself as a team player.

“Psychopaths are very good at appearing to be pleasant and witty team players. This probably explains why so many top level executives test high on sociopathic behaviour.”

Last year he wrote a piece in The Bulletin magazine after winning cruise tickets to New Caledonia, the Paris of the Pacific. He said “the ship was stacked to the gunwales with John Howard’s beloved aspirational Australians”. But he described their aspirations as running to little more than holidays, “new cars, to kitchen refits, to renovations, to private education for their children and to practically anything made of plastic, wood or steel”.

The passengers “didn’t seem to be discussing Proust or George Eliot.”

4 Responses to “The Retreat from Common Sense”

  1. You know I’ve been travelling of late, John, so here’s an example of “…cost-cutting measures made at considerable human cost…” from the wonderful devoted and committed “service sector” that is the hotel world. I know the original comment was aimed at employees, but they also forget their customers.

    It’s December, it’s blowing gales and it’s cold. I arrive at the hotel and I’m given a key card to enter my room and I’m told that I need to place it in the slot just inside the door to activate the power in the room. The heating/aircon unit gives me all sorts of problems on the first night, but after about 2.5 hours and by sheer fluke, I find a setting on which I can get some heating in the room. I have to leave it on overnight and at the top temperature to actually maintain the heating.

    When I check out after the third night and I’m adding to my list of complaints (oh there were many others…) the Desk Manager suddenly drops into the conversation that I’d need to leave the key card in the slot to keep the heating on, if I left the building. (Which was an obvious choice of action in the evening as the restaurant proved to be so dire.) I asked how I’d get back in without the key card and I was told, as if it was perfectly obvious, “Oh, we’d give you another one, you just have to ask.”

    The company saves money by heating the room only when a person is in it. They don’t tell the (new) customer how the system works until check out, so they save a lot of money, I’d guess.

    Well, this customer made sure that the large corporate that held them as a “preferred supplier” knew just how bad they were, when she returned to base.

    The shareholders might be happy though.

    It was also obvious that not too much revenue generated was redirected into staff training.

    Rant over. (Sorry, but it did strike a chord.)

    When it comes to CEOs, I’ve met a few in my time and I’ve observed plenty of pyschopathic behaviour over the years. It’s how they get there; what keeps them there; and what can also lead to their ultimate downfall.

    jb says: Do you remember suggestion boxes? They were everywhere at one time. I don’t know if anyone ever took the suggestions up, but at least their presence made you feel as though someone might be listening.

  2. I do, yes, now replaced with carefully worded customer feedback questionnaires, usually placed in every room. And guess what? This particular hotel (part of a big branded chain) did not have any, anywhere, so far as I could see.

    I guess they started out herding cattle and never lost the original plot!

    Academically, I say to them, what business are you in? The mere provision of rooms or travel hospitality? And because I’m so generous, I’d also add that I suggest they read Theodore Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia” for a clue and before they go out of business. (A recession would make that a certainty in my mind.)

    jb says: Is this another book I have to read?

  3. Not essential reading, John, but what an eye opener when it comes to marketing.

    We leave uni with much accumulated knowledge but little inspiration sometimes. Levitt’s “Marketing Myopia” was the inspiration that accompanied me. 20+ years on, I still remember the article and I still have the book and I’d never part with it.

    The essential question is “what market are you in to achieve or maintain success?” US railroaders thought railroads and were caught out by air transport etc.. Gas/electricity etc. are “energy” etc..

    But back to the article in question. It’s the most open and approachable of academic texts that I have read.

    When it comes to authorship and the contemporary changing world, it might ask the question to crime fiction authors “What market are you in?”

    Storytelling, obviously. But what is your market? And beneath that, what is your delivery?

    This comes back to the digital option, John. The railroaders saw only railroads. Travel, as they knew it, was their only product rather than what came next and what bited at their domain.

    An author has a story to tell. To convey this, is the previously established “media book in the hand” the final answer?

    In this ever open world, how best to convey it?

    The product is a story.

    It cannot be a “railroad” as that is history and we learn.

    But demand is there. A good story is always something else. What media now appreciate a good story?

    John, you are at the forefront in thoughts on this. I leave it open to you…


    jb says: Thank goodness my job is the writing of the story and not its delivery. I believe the book as we now know it will be replaced by some kind of digital process. But I don’t actually have a stake in that. If I’m wrong and we carry on using trees I’m quite happy about that as well. As long as the trees we use are sustainable, i.e. that the trees grow faster than the books we consume.

  4. Thomas says:

    Well thanks for this post. Many things that you write about remind me that there is more to life than plastic wood and steel. Here in Norway we talk of little else.
    I’ve lived here for my whole adult life so I was starting to wonder if I was the stupid one to be bored to tears by these conversations.

    jb says: I don’t think you can tie these attitudes down to a specific country. Although, of course, they are more apparent to us in the country in which we live. Perhaps the influence of materialism is more predominant in the west, but if it is so, I think it’s only because we’ve been submitted to it for a longer period than anywhere else.