Steve Jobs, the Stalinist

Gary Sernovitz ponders the mysteries of the late inventor:

Jobs seems to have attended the Joseph Stalin Charm School: his world was one of clear good and evil; he was a constant liar, in what came to be known among his underlings as his “reality distortion field”; he was “anti-loyal,” abandoning people he was close to; he used silences and unblinking stares to shame people; he held show trials, bringing employees of a failed project into an auditorium, telling them they should hate each other, and firing the leader on the spot. Thus, when I read about Jobs’s praising China to President Obama, I suspected that Jobs liked outsourcing, not just as a profitable business decision but also on a deeper level. Contemporary China has found a way to combine, for outcomes positive and devastating, some of the most abysmal features of 19th century laissez-faire capitalism and 20th century totalitarian dictatorships. This is a combination that would seem to have felt very comfortable for Steve Jobs, as long as he was in charge.

It’s a long essay, much of which consists of hand wringing over the fact that the Chinese factory workers who make our iPods work in terrible conditions. Sernivotz paraphrases Faulkner to the effect that one of John Keats’ odes is worth a few old ladies. But how many people is an iPod worth?

I raise this question only because it seems to me to betray a skewed paradigm. There are systems of oppression in the world, and there always have been. I’ve been reading the Gospel of Luke, and I’m amazed by the writer’s emphasis – and the emphasis of Jesus – on the evils of being wealthy in this present age. Yet the writer looks forward to a day when the valleys are filled and the hills are made low – a quotation from Isaiah which is curiously missing from Matthew’s citation of the same passage (Isa. 40:1-3). In the Gospel of Luke, the wealthy are consistently tyrants, on their way to an eternal comeuppance.

Which is not to say that we should remain passive in this age in the face of oppression. Far from it. But I’m thinking of a conversation I had with my sister and dad on Christmas Eve, where they warned me of my mother’s latest crusade – not to buy things from Evul Korporations like Wal-Mart or Target. And it seems to me that a crusader can be lobbying for the right cause, and yet still be a truly venomous person. In the paragraph I quoted at the top of this post, the author seems to suggest that Steve Jobs had the substance of totalitarianism inside of him – that if he had been transplanted, say, to mid-1940s Russia, he might have ended up in charge of the Politburo. I know more than one person who, given enough money and power, could become a latter-day Hugh Hefner. Their wounds are that deep. So it seems to me that reforming these oppressive systems is not a personal reality; it is, and will eventually become, a reality corporate and eschatological. In the meantime, however, on a day-to-day basis, it isn’t our most personal concern. Our most personal concern is to develop right substance in our own hearts; to avoid becoming the kind of people who, given unlimited opportunity, would become the next Hugh Hefner or Josef Stalin. Or Steve Jobs.

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