Saturday, March 22, 2008

Corrupt, Entitled Overlords of American Myth

Ok, that does it! I have had absolutely enough. Some feckless ass was on the television my mother was watching this morning, Holy Saturday by the way, explaining how to raise YOUR CHILD to be a millionaire. His website is a monument to himself, with copyright notices aplenty. He was on this television show with a youngster, and the youngster looked like a parody of Gordon Gecko (the video isn't there, yet; you should thank me).

I am FED UP with the idea of the imperial rich man.

I am sick unto death of the myth of the CEO.
Look, it's not that I necessarily hate the rich. I don't hate politicians, and I don't hate rich people. Some friends of mine are extremely rich (really extremely), and some are in politics, but there is a huge difference between a person who is rich and a person who sets out to be rich, just as there is a big difference between public service and power. However, in America, we have this desire to be ruled. It's nasty and shameful, and we don't like to admit it, but we have an inbred hatred of anarchy.

I thought, when I read it, that Carlyle was just being provocative, or perhaps he was falling victim to the same malicious, poltergeist zeitgeist that moved Matthew Arnold to do his thing. Both of these authors, and many more beside, said that we loves us some powerful men, that we needs us someone to give us orders. They seem proto-crypto-fascist to us, and loads of folks hate Carlyle, in particular, for what he said. Don't get me wrong, the zeitgeist can explain them, but it can't explain them away.

In the United States, we have always followed our own accidental way. We have put a bounty on public intellectuals. They are not allowed. Seriously: we don't allow them. We allow journalists, but not intellectuals. As soon as it looks like one is about to arise, we point out that she or he is a communist, a feminist, a Black nationalist, crazy, or something else so that we can black list and black ball them and keep them off center stage. We relegate them to "think tanks," at best, and then those release corporate reports. The result is that our policies emerge by accident. Our practices far supersede our theories. We also have this wonderful practice of talking up freedom and liberty already assured and democracy by definition and never investigating what they mean. Instead, we are more addicted to tradition than a Dickensian beadle or a Waugh headmaster.

Why do we avoid socialized medicine? Because our private system is the system we formed in the mists of time. Why do we have gerrymandering? Because this is the system we worked out ages ago. Why do we have the electoral college? Because the founding fathers (great men, all) decided on it in their wisdom.

"Money well timed, and properly applied, will do anything." John Gay, The Beggar's Opera, II xii

Well, I've worked at Wikipedia for four years now. I've written some 250+ articles on the site. I admit this to my shame, I'm sure, but it is a truth I must confess. I was drawn to it for two reasons. The first was that there is a lack of opportunity for those of us who are generalists to write. The professional journals do nothing but "applied Lacanian insights into the underclass (re)presentations of the (m)other in the post-colonial narratives of Mrs. Gaskell" or the similar. The second reason was that it promised to have a flat hierarchy and to test the idea that the crowd, each contributing, was, in aggregate, well intentioned and knowledgeable. People who knew nothing would concede to those who knew, and people who wanted a quick giggle would give ground to people who helped them with information.

However, Wikipedia has a CEO-founder. James Wales (Jimbo, Jimmy, etc.) made money in business and then donated some to found Wikipedia. The project succeeded, and I suppose everyone out there knows to what degree it has succeeded. What is curious, and what has always been curious, is that, from the day the thing started to this, people have predicted that it would collapse under its own weight, and, from the first day to this, James Wales has been a sort of voice of authority or CEO for Wikipedia.

The US loves CEO's. George W. Bush promised to be the "first CEO president" of the United States, and I would argue that he has, indeed, been exactly that. In what way has he failed to be one?

The CEO is an ubermensch. He walks into a meeting, where competing underlings shout out their reports, and, in a dash, a trice, a flash, he uses his superior will to decide between them. He is "the deciderer." The CEO does not read all those reports. They would sully the instinct. They would pollute the will. They would tether the judgment. They would drag the CEO's impulses into the paralysis of consideration and contemplation, and, worst of all, fear. The attitudes of the employees do not matter (see Cheney's response to 70% of the American people thinking the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea: "So?"). You see, the CEO is fearless, and therefore attuned to "instinct" and will.

George W. Bush has boasted of not reading newspapers, not reading reports from his Cabinet, not reading much at all (when he isn't boasting that he reads deep stuff, even if it hasn't been released yet), because he needs to remain the one to decide, not to deliberate. He sees his function as the Magic 8 Ball of government -- when all things are indeterminate, just ask, and he'll pick one for you.

Of course, most corporate CEO's have one task: the profitability of the stock. Notably, this is not "viability of the company," "earnings of workers," "quality of goods and services," but only "profitability to shareholders." Now, "profit" can be generated a lot of ways. One is to sell the company. Another is to increase markets. Another is to decrease costs. Since all other companies are trying the same things, "selling the company" and "decreasing costs" are a hell of a lot easier than "increasing markets." Now, interestingly, "costs" include cleaning up the environment, health plans, safety measures, work environment, and workers. What's more, if you fire 2 of 3 workers, threaten the third, and hire temporaries without benefits to make up the slack, you have increased profit, even though it actually costs more to do that because the costs are on a different part of the balance sheet. The CEO who figured this out got rich.

This is our hero?

This is our leader?

Well, Wikipedia, as a corporate entity of users, has worked consistently to establish hierarchies. The people who volunteer there find the idea that no one is in charge intolerable. They really hate it, and each thinks that, since no one is in charge (except Jimbo), he or she should be in charge. When Wikipedia died, it did not do so because it got too large, but rather because it got too small. Power developed, and people selected themselves for it. They wanted, desperately, passionately, to know where they stood in the ranks. They wanted to know who was above them and who below, and they wanted to know what it meant. It was important for each and every one of them, and therefore all of them had a seriously vested interest in making sure that there was a single point of power above them all, a CEO.

How can you be in charge of a project with no hierarchy, unless you can assure all the rest that there is a single commander and that this commander favors you? If Jimbo were not the CEO of Wikipedia, then none of the others could claim to have rights.

Remember my definition of the CEO's job, above. The CEO is to be the deciderer. The CEO is to be the tie-breaker, the leader, the one who is unburdened with ethical or moral considerations that might lead to fear. The CEO is to be, in other words, an ego unburdened by superego.

Google "CEO scandal" some time. The list is long. Some throw parties for themselves with ice sculptures that urinate vodka. Some get hookers. Some get hookers and vodka. Some spy. Some start wars across the planet without thinking about it. This is to be expected: the CEO is impulse, not judgment. The CEO is "profit" (i.e. "gimme") and not work. So, when Jimbo Wales turned out to be screwing Wikipedia to screw "the Canadian Anne Coulter," it was no surprise. After all, the man listed Ayn Rand as his favorite author.

So, do you want to make your child a CEO? Do you want to make "millionaire" the goal? That's easy: teach the child that its impulses are perfect and give it arbitrary obstacles. Make sure that it remains selfish, inconsiderate, unthinking, and gluttonous. You can do it, America: you worship them, so you can make your children the gods they already think themselves.

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