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A Boss is Still a Boss

The shakeup at Current Affairs shows once again who the enemy is.

A screenshot of the current affairs website, with Robinson on top, center.

There are a lot of things to say about Nathan Robinson. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Current Affairs, a high-minded magazine of leftist thought, and the author of a book called Why You Should Be a Socialist. Current Affairs has published a lot of good blogs, some of them written by Robinson, despite the fact that he is perhaps the most long-winded writer in media at the moment, which is really saying something. He also insists on dressing like he is a 19th-century robber baron’s foppish middle son posing for a daguerreotype, something that I think is stupid to the extent that it makes me a bit mad to even think about, which I suppose is sort of the point.

Robinson’s generally sharp analysis and clear intelligence, combined with his exhausting writing style and cartoonishly-annoying public persona, usually serve to give him an inflated place in The Discourse on any given day, meaning that even people like me who have never met or interacted with him often have an opinion about his whole deal.

But Robinson is not the only person who works at Current Affairs — at least until recently. Earlier today, Lyta Gold, the managing and amusements editor of the magazine, revealed that Robinson had summarily fired her and most of the magazine’s full or part-time staff after they attempted to re-organize the publication into a worker-owned cooperative earlier this month.

The details of his decision are a bit murky — as Gold’s footnote explains, Robinson technically asked the staff to resign, but then told her on the phone that she was fired — but it appears that Robinson was generally agreeable to the conversation of changing the publication’s structure to a more egalitarian one, but then abruptly changed his mind when he realized what that would mean (he would not be unilaterally in charge). Gawker reported that the publication had essentially been functioning as a co-op, with full-time staff all receiving the same pay ($45,000 a year), but with Robinson making the editorial and business decisions. In an email to staff posted by Gold, Robinson wrote:

This organization has been heading slowly for some sort of reckoning where it was going to have to be made clear once and for all what kind of authority I wanted to have over it. And I was in denial about the fact that the answer is I think I should be on top of the org chart, with everyone else selected by me and reporting to me. I let Current Affairs build up into a sort of egalitarian community of friends while knowing in my heart that I still thought of it as my project over which I should have control.

In short, Robinson was not comfortable with not being the boss. Robinson’s abject hypocrisy about workplace democracy has been noted with no small amount of glee, which is understandable given, again, his whole deal. (It has been welcomed with a regrettably smaller amount of empathy for the people who no longer have jobs).

The lesson here is that a boss is a boss is a boss. You can insert trite clichés about how absolute power corrupts but I think it’s pretty simple: once you give someone authority over a thing, they do not want to give it up. That need for control is going to win. It’s unsurprising that a person as publicly arrogant as Robinson would be unable to resist this, but I think it also points to a struggle that many more organizations are going to face as their employees fight for a fairer workplace.

Discourse Blog, for instance, works because it was built without a boss. When Splinter got killed off it basically left us all at zero — whatever authority and pressures G/O had bestowed on various members of our team were gone. It let us remake the workplace we had in a way that worked for us, something I’m not sure would have been possible if we were trying to change that system from the inside. (That’s not to say I think Aleks or Jack or Katherine would have pulled a Nathan Robinson — in the structure we were in, none of them really had the hire-fire power that Robinson is clearly seeking to control.)

A boss is never going to let you do that without a fight. The modern workplace isn’t a democracy, which means there is basically no way to take power that doesn’t involve force. We learned this, the staff of Defector learned this, the staff of the Appeal learned this, and now Current Affairs knows it too. For what it’s worth, Robinson worked harder than any boss I’ve seen to convince them that he was their friend. And maybe, in his mind, he was — bosses rarely realize the two roles are mutually exclusive. The only mistake they made was believing he liked being their friend more than he liked being their boss.