The Gervais Principle

First of all, a shoutout to Venkatesh Rao over at RibbonFarm for writing his series on the Gervais Principle. This series, in my opinion, is one of the must-reads of internet blogs.

I’m going to summarize what I read. It’s entirely likely I missed the point or will omit important parts of the series, but let’s give it a try, shall we?

Take One

If a company is an engine, it runs on the labor of exploited employees who get paid less than the value of their labor. Exploitation is not an unpleasant side effect of running a corporation, it is the only way corporations run in the first place. (Marxists say this is unfair and want to return ownership of enterprises to these exploited workers. The issue with making everything fair is that now nobody wants to go the extra mile to make the company run because, what’s in it for them? So, naturally, with nobody busting their ass to keep the operation going, it falls apart.)

The Gervais Principle calls the exploited workers “Losers” not because they’re losers in the social sense, but because they are on the losing side of the economic bargain. The “Clueless” are Losers who are unaware or refuse to acknowledge the fact that they are being exploited. Their loyalty to the company and their overachievement in spite of their position as an exploited resource usually earn them a position in middle management.

Those among the Losers who are aware of the bad bargain they’ve been offered either do the least possible work to get by, effectively minimizing the extent of their exploitation, or actively avoid work in hopes of quickly moving out of their position into one where they can exploit labor.

The people in a company who make more than their fair share — the exploiters, if you will — are the “Sociopaths”. Sociopaths are the ones “behind the curtain” making the important company decisions. They also exploit the Losers and the Clueless by paying them less than the value of their labor, shifting the blame onto them when things go wrong, and getting them to do the “dirty work” like corporate espionage.

If this model of a corporation is accurate, why don’t the Losers do the Marxist thing and seize the means of production from the Sociopaths? The answer lies in the fact that the Sociopaths, while underpaying the Losers, also provide them with a simplified worldview that the Losers can find meaning, happiness, and a possibility of a happy ending in. Instead reality-testing on their own, the Losers turn to the Sociopaths to set the parameters of their reality. The role the Sociopaths fill as a proxy-for-reality is precisely what lets them exploit the Losers, since they can set the parameters of the simplified worldview however they like.

When Losers are placed in close proximity with Sociopaths for an extended period of time, the fact of their exploitation becomes apparent, and unrest ensues. This can come in the form of strikes, union-building, lawsuits, etc. Sociopaths understand this, which is why they promote the overachieving Losers (the “Clueless”) into middle management to serve as a buffer. For the Losers, working their 9 to 5 is easier to justify to themselves when everyone around them is in the same position.

Sociopaths are will-to-power players in the corporate game. Their pursuit of outsized returns leads them to reality, and that reality-testing eventually leads them behind the curtain to see the levers of power. With each curtain they pull back, they see truths that invalidate the simple, happy-ending narrative that they started with. In a sense, Sociopaths trade meaning and happiness for power, and with this power they are able to exploit others for wealth.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
John Doe

John Doe


Processing information, stacking concepts. Writing this down so I don’t keep thinking about the same things over and over again