Masters of the Universe

masters of the universe 2

If the rich can’t save the world, how about the CEOs? They know how to get things done – how about we let them take a crack at it?

That kind of thinking has become “powerful in the public consciousness,”  say the authors of CEO Society:  The Corporate Takeover of Everyday Life, Peter Bloom and Carl Rhodes (2018):

“CEOs epitomize this fantastical figure of the empowered sovereign. Their vaunted decisiveness, guiding vision and ability to proverbially ‘get things done’ speak to this deeper aspiration for being the master of capitalism rather than its mere slave or apparatchik.[1]

“It is no surprise that many people seeking to become more powerful themselves would look to CEOs as heroes and role models.

“Perhaps the most evocative, if not foretelling, in this regard, was Tom Wolfe’s portrayal of stockbrokers and financiers as the new ‘masters of the universe’. [2]

“In the decades since Wolfe’s era-defining novel, the business executive has become the stuff of dreams on a much broader scale than the novel could have imagined.

“The CEO is the ultimate contemporary figure of power. CEOs, in their ideal form, have the ability to thrive in the market, save companies, and spread their influence across the world.”

Nothing wrong with solving the world’s intransigent problems, but watch out:  CEO power degrades into elitism in the marketplace and authoritarianism in politics:

“The marketization of global charity and empowerment has dangerous implications that transcend economics. It also has a troubling emerging political legacy, one in which democracy is sacrificed on that altar of executive-style empowerment. Politically, the free market is posited as a fundamental requirement for liberal democracy. However, recent analysis reveals instead the deeper connection between processes of marketization and authoritarianism…

“The image of the powerful autocrat is, to this effect, transformed into a potentially positive figure as a forward-thinking political leader who can guide their country on the correct market path in the face of ‘irrational’ opposition.

“[For example,] Rwanda is led by the autocratic President Paul Kagame, a close personal associate of former President Bill Clinton whom the New York Times has described as the “Global elite’s favourite strongman.” In the face of mounting criticism of this relationship, “Clinton has privately praised Kagame as someone who can “GSD” (get stuff done). One supporter, Gerald Mpyisi, the managing director of the Institute of Management and Leadership, defended Kagame’s methods in explicitly corporate terms:

‘The president is running the country like a CEO of a company who ensures that every director is accountable for their department. That is why, despite the lack of resources, you still find things happening. I believe for a country in the third world to develop there has to be a certain a certain element of organizing the population. The west tries to use its standards in the developing world and it isn’t fair.’”

Apparently the prospect of being in a position to get things done is irresistible. U.K. politician Boris Johnson once said, “I have as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as of being decapitated by a frisbee or of finding Elvis.” Now he’s the odds-on favorite to become just that. Either he actually did find the King or he’s taking to heart something else he said — back in 2008, just after the Great Recession:  “No matter how much you may dislike the Masters of the Universe, my friends, there are plenty of other parts of the universe that would welcome them.”

Meanwhile, on this side of the Pond, we have CEOs running for the ultimate corner (oval) office.

“Here’s an argument for billionaires in politics, at least as long as they made their fortunes themselves: It takes an incredible work ethic, good management skills, dedication, and a gift for setting priorities to turn a small company into a prosperous multinational one. Those all seem like skills that’d be useful in politics too, right?

“This is the case Perot made for himself, starting in 1992. ‘See, there’s a lot I don’t understand,” he said in a debate with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “I do understand business. I do understand creating jobs. I do understand how to make things work. And I got a long history of doing that.’

“Billionaires since have echoed him. Bloomberg cited the “pragmatic approach” of business leaders. Schultz’s website prominently features his successes at Starbucks. Trump leaned on his business background, telling voters in early campaign ads, ‘My opponents have no experience in creating jobs or making deals.’”

Dear Billionaires: Stop Running For President:  If you’re a billionaire who wants to transform politics and our world, there are better ways. Also, you’ll lose. (Vox, Jan. 19, 2019)

But are those skills really transferable? Again from Dear Billionaires:

“The problem is that it’s not really clear the skills transfer. In the course of their meteoric professional careers, billionaires mostly interact with people who work for or with them, and lots of political concerns that rank highly for everyday Americans aren’t areas they know anything about.”

Besides, is somebody who rakes in thousands of times more than the average person on their company’s payroll really going to understand what’s good for the rest of us? For an opinion about that, see No One Should Earn 1000 Times More Than a Regular Employee (The Guardian, Mar. 20, 2018).

Today, we’ll let Tom Wolfe have the last word on whether the CEOs can save the world:

“The Masters of the Universe were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with… On Wall Street he and a few others — how many? — three hundred, four hundred, five hundred? — had become precisely that… Masters of the Universe. There was no limit whatsoever!”[3]

[1] Merriam-Webster:  “Apparatchik:  1. a member of a Communist apparat,  2. a blindly devoted official, follower, or member of an organization (such as a corporation or political party. In the context of the definition of ‘apparatchik’ (a term English speakers borrowed from Russian), ‘apparat’ essentially means ‘party machine.’ An ‘apparatchik,’ therefore, is a cog in the system of the Communist Party. The term is not an especially flattering one, and its negative connotations reflect the perception that some Communists were obedient drones in the great Party machine. In current use, however, a person doesn’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to be called an ‘apparatchik’; he or she just has to be someone who mindlessly follows orders in an organization or bureaucracy.”

[2] Wolfe’s epic satire, Bonfire of the Vanities. You may know that the original bonfire of the vanities occurred in Florence on February 7, 1497, when Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola sponsored a bonfire of objects condemned by authorities as occasions of sin — cosmetics, art, books… you know, the usual.

[3] Said about bond trader Sherman McCoy.

Can The Rich Save The World?

adam Smith

Adam Smith didn’t think so.

“For while Smith might be publicly lauded by those who put their faith in private capitalist enterprise, and who decry the state as the chief threat to liberty and prosperity, the real Adam Smith painted a rather different picture. According to Smith, the most pressing dangers came not from the state acting alone, but the state when captured by merchant elites.

“Political actors, Smith claimed, were liable to be swept up by a ‘spirit of system’, which made them fall in love with abstract plans, which they hoped would introduce sweeping beneficial reform. Usually the motivations behind these plans were perfectly noble: a genuine desire to improve society. The problem, however, was that the ‘spirit of system’ blinded individuals to the harsh complexities of real-world change.

“What Smith is saying is that … the ‘spirit of system’ infects politicians with a messianic moral certainty that their reforms are so necessary and justified that almost any price is worth paying to achieve them.”

The Real Adam Smith, Aeon Magazine (January 16, 2018).

Smith had little faith in the free market’s altruism:

“Smith was, however, deeply pessimistic about the stranglehold that the merchants had managed to exert over European politics, and despaired of it ever being loosened. Accordingly, he labelled his preferred alternative – of liberal markets generating wealth to be passed on to all members of society – a ‘Utopia’ that would never come to pass.”[1]

The Real Adam Smith

Today’s “philanthrocapitalists” would beg to differ. Their social and economic charter originated in the 1990’s, under President Clinton’s leadership. Post-WWII neoliberalism had begun to fatigue in the 70’s, and the tide had turned against the 80’s social conservatism. Clinton and his U.K. counterpart Tony Blair offered a mix of conservative economics with social liberalism:

“As much as possible, they preferred a progressive politics that channelled private initiative, and the logic of philanthrocapitalism was pleasingly straightforward. Since the rich were getting richer, they had more money to throw around. The lure of yet more lucre could now be used to steer them into sinking some of this new wealth into the poorest communities, something touted by Clinton late in his presidency when he went on a four-day ‘new markets’ tour of deprived American neighbourhoods. Urging the super-rich to do some good with a portion of their rapidly growing prosperity, Clinton told them that a better world would make them richer yet. ‘Every time we hire a young person off the street in Watts and give him or her a better future,’ he said, ‘we are helping people who live in the ritziest suburb in America to continue to enjoy a rising stock market.’”

Economics As A Moral Tale, Aeon Magazine (Jan. 9, 2019) [2]

The rich and famous jumped on board, and the rest of the 90’s into the 2000’s, private foundations were a growth industry. The Economist’s Matthew Bishop and development pro Michael Green  wrote the book on the topic, with a foreword from Bill Clinton:  Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World (2009). The book blurb captured the spirit of the approach and the times:

“For philanthropists of the past, charity was often a matter of simply giving money away. For the philanthrocapitalists – the new generation of billionaires who are reshaping the way they give – it’s like business. Largely trained in the corporate world, these “social investors” are using big-business-style strategies and expecting results and accountability to match. Bill Gates, the world’s richest man, is leading the way: he has promised his entire fortune to finding a cure for the diseases that kill millions of children in the poorest countries in the world.

“In Philanthrocapitalism, Matthew Bishop and Michael Green examine this new movement and its implications. Proceeding from interviews with some of the most powerful people on the planet―including Gates, Bill Clinton, George Soros, Angelina Jolie, and Bono, among others―they show how a web of wealthy, motivated donors has set out to change the world. Their results will have huge implications: In a climate resistant to government spending on social causes, their focused donations may be the greatest force for societal change in our world, and a source of political controversy.”

Maybe philanthrocapitalism’s greatest appeal was that it offered a fresh, inspiring story:

“At heart, philanthrocapitalism offered not a new science of development, but an old-fashioned moral tale – one in which a hero, who would reveal himself by some magnificent achievement, would come along to save us from some peril.”[3]

Everybody loves a great story, but does this one have a happy ending?

We’ll look at that next time.

[1] Id. For more, journalist and social commentator Chris Hedges thoroughly and adamantly deconstructs and debunks secular and religious utopian thinking in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists, which he wrote after debating Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — two of the “four horsemen” of the “new atheism.” His analysis explains why utopias invariably crash into dystopias. If that topic interests you, I’ve been writing about it in my Iconoclas.blog, and you might like to check it out.

[2] The author is John Rapley, academician, world development expert, journalist, and government advisor. His latest book is  Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a Religion and How it all Went Wrong (2017).

[3] Id.