You’re Fired — Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO

All rise for the corporate anthem—screenshot from Rollerball (1975)

In the year 2018, nations have bankrupted and disappeared, replaced by corporations.”

That’s the premise of the 1975 sci-fi film Rollerball, which follows one star employee’s awakening and rebellion against the regime embodied by a cynical leader of the global Energy Corp. Rollerball is about as 70s a dystopia as you will find, with James Caan roller-skating through a Howard Cosell remix of The Parallax View. But as the real 2018 comes into view, the movie proves weirdly prescient, as the United States morphs into a corporate state literally governed by CEOs.

Last Friday the New York Times ran a story about all the chief executives of public companies floating the possibility that they could be the successor to Trump — as the Democratic alternative. Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Bob Iger of Disney, Marc Benioff of salesforce.com, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, and Michael Bloomberg were all named as among the business executives currently talking with political consultants about runs for high office. Trump’s election has validated the idea that running a company is a great qualification to run the country. That may be true, if you want to run the country like a corporation instead of a democracy.

You could see the emergence of the CEO President long before Trump. The idea has intuitive appeal, especially to business-oriented Republicans. Square-jawed private equity guy Mitt Romney was the warm-up, both Presidents Bush campaigned on their entrepreneurial backgrounds, and you can find other precedents going back as far as Herbert Hoover and Wendell Willkie. Carly Fiorina (HP), Meg Whitman (eBay), Rick Snyder (Gateway), Linda McMahon (WWF), Herman Cain (Godfather’s) and proto-Trump Ross Perot (EDS) all ran for president or governor on their CEO resumes, and Trump has tapped senior execs to run the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and (unsuccessfully) Labor.

It’s easy to see why people gravitate to the model. The federal government is our biggest enterprise. Our lives depend on the competence of its managers. And we have all been trained — as employees, investors, and consumers — that the fortunes of our great enterprises rise and fall under the leadership of charismatic chief executives. Lee Iacocca was the archetype, his turnaround of Chrysler a managerial metaphor for how strong leadership could turn the whole country around in a time of decline. Visionary founders like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Sam Walton are the country’s contemporary icons of all-American success, and results-oriented managers like Jack Welch and the CEOs of Good to Great its models of competence, all of them operating in one of the last realms of American celebrity mostly unsullied by gossip and adversarial attacks.

It’s unsurprising that some Democrats are so quickly looking to follow the GOP into this model — they have been copying Republican memes that work since at least Bill Clinton. But it’s astonishing that there seems to be no real acknowledgement of the dark side of the trend — that CEOs are dictators, by design and culture, even if many of them are benevolent.

11/8 was an inside job

Hail to the Chief

Having worked as a lawyer supporting both elected officials and corporate CEOs, I’ve seen the differences in how such leaders are put into power, how they tend to operate after they take office, and how they are held accountable for their performance. Politicians come to power through broad appeals to the voting populace, even if they may be aided by institutional interests and money in doing so, and tend to hold power based on how well they serve the interests of their constituents. Their self-interest becomes primarily political in its calculus—an economy of favors—and conveniently congruent with ideology. But they rarely get into the business for the money (even if that’s where they often end up).

CEOs are recruited and appointed from the top, by a handful of typically like-minded people, when they aren’t running a business they or a family member founded. While our corporate laws appoint the board of directors to manage each corporation’s business for the shareholders who elect them, in practice that just means hiring and firing the chief executive, to whom the real power is entrusted. CEOs rule over their chartered fiefs with king-like powers. They can “axe” their enemies, or banish them by redrawing an org chart. They can reward their allies with shares of treasure and new titles and powers. They control their subjects through fear — from the primal fear of being fired to the threat power of lawyering up. The new outsider CEO seen as a savior by investors is often a figure of terror to employees. (See scholar Roddey Reid’s excellent piece from last fall positioning Trump in the tradition of the bully boss.) In Trump’s first 50 days, we’ve witnessed those techniques of the “change agent” CEO coupled with the powers of POTUS, with aggressive assaults on those swaths of the civil service he views as inconsistent with his agenda, while emboldening those he views as underutilized—like the armed immigration corps he has newly empowered to terrorize a chunk of the population he would like to evict.

CEOs rule over private realms where speech is not free, and the ideas of their subjects are the property of the sovereign. Their control over the things employees say and do extends outside the office, and even after the end of employment. In 21st century companies, those controls are commonly obtained through contracts originally designed by tech industry lawyers to protect ownership of the ideas that walk out the door every night inside employees’ heads. Like the contracts the Trump campaign and the transition team made its people sign — confidentiality agreements requiring staffers to keep secrets, with non-compete clauses prohibiting work for other campaigns, non-solicitation clauses that bar poaching of personnel to work for other causes, and non-disparagement clauses where staffers agree to never say anything bad about the campaign, the candidate, or even his family. Contracts like these are often enforced through private arbitrations and confidential settlements, as with the Trump campaign’s action last year to prevent a staffer from revealing embarrassing information to the press. Trump told the Washington Post that federal employees should sign similar agreements, and while it’s not yet clear the extent to which he has done so, you can see that background working in his new war on leaks.

Screen shot from Olympus Has Fallen, one of several recent movies about hostile takeovers of The White House

Flyover country strikes back

The charismatic CEO model is ascendant in our politics despite having been discredited on Wall Street. Management scholars like Harvard’s Rakesh Khurana have cogently argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, outsider CEOs pursuing “organizational transformation” tend to leave the enterprise crippled, while enriching themselves and resisting all limits on their power. Writing in the age of Enron, Khurana attributed the rise of “savior CEOs” to business trends that sound a lot like what led to November 8 — declining growth that caused experienced professional managers to be seen as self-interested elites and fueled a new investor populism that focused on grandiose visions of change, and helped hype the markets to a bubble from whose burst we have never really recovered. By installing a change agent CEO to run our government, we choose a type that is anti-democratic, and whose destructive impulses often yield predictably damaging results. Maybe that was part of the point in November —a retributive electoral choice by globalization’s left-behinds against affluent urbanity.

Despite this evidence, the notion that government might work better if it were run like a business retains a reflexive appeal— especially in an age of widespread exhaustion with the political process and anxiety about American government’s capacity to foster a better future. But anyone who’s spent much time inside American office space knows it’s no incubator of utopia—power corrupts, especially executive power. When I set out in 2013 to write a dystopian novel set in an authoritarian USA, informed by my years as a D.C. staffer and corporate consigliere, I tried to imagine this idea carried to its logical extreme—a CEO president endowed with all the grim powers of the war on terror, running the country like a corporation with armed drones and unlimited detention authority. It was a thought experiment, not a prediction. While the world of Tropic of Kansas is deliberately darker than the real one, I think we should be wary of how our democracy will change if it gets infected by the undemocratic culture of our corporations — as is now happening before our eyes.

A rebranding exercise

America, Inc.

Signs of the corporate-government merger are all over, but we’re too busy freaking out about the distractions of the day to hear the bulldozers clearing the forests in the background. You can see it in how the capital markets have surged since the election, contrary to all predictions — Wall Street and the boardrooms’ way of declaring he may be nuts, but he’s one of us, and the shackles are coming off. The new administration is run by CEOs and staffed by privatization evangelists who want to turn every government function they can over to corporations — from prisons to education. Blackwater founder (and Betsy DeVos brother) Erik Prince is back onscreen, pitching his new business plan to solve the European refugee crisis by paying his corporate mercenaries to secure the lawless southern border of Libya, and since the elections there’s been talk of Trump building his own intelligence apparatus. You could see it in the “not safe for the Internet” snapshot Peter Thiel showed Maureen Dowd during the interview for her January profile — Thiel (dressed as Hulk Hogan), Prince and Trump commiserating at a post-election costume party at the home of the bankrolling Mercer family, foreshadowing the logical endpoint of running government like a business — military force and government surveillance married to the profit motive, and the line between the public and private sectors obliterated. Rollerball season is about to begin.

The remaking of the American state in the image of its biggest corporations reflects the extent to which popular confidence in public virtue has been bleeding out over the long decades since Rollerball came out the year after Nixon’s resignation. The New Deal vision of government as the engine of egalitarian progress, itself the liberal cousin to state socialism’s dream of communitarian paradise, seems almost completely gone. The only utopia left after the “End of History” was the neoclassical economists’ whiteboard world of perfect markets measuring out welfare through price optimization, and the financial crisis permanently discredited that. The dream of the liberation from work has been replaced by the deluded restoration of industrial age proletarian drudgery — and the reversion to a baronial warlord model of governance. Long live the new serfs.

The White House in winter, after hours

A World Without Bosses?

Maybe there’s a third way — a path that moves away from centralized power and its intrinsically tyrannical tendencies without relying on private capital to replace it with piratical pragmatism. Hopeful alternatives incubate in the margins. Fresh variations on the worn-out bumper sticker aphorism to think globally and act locally, from California as alt-Washington to sanctuary cities to kinder & gentler oligarchs like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett emerging as alternative funders of human rights. Political scientists may have given up on imagining what comes next, but science fiction writers are back at the project of imagining better tomorrows — like Cory Doctorow’s forthcoming opus Walkaway, a compelling work of utopian futurism that charts a path to a world without scarcity, ingeniously marrying great storytelling with big ideas (notably Rebecca Solnit’s revelations about human cooperation after disaster, and the fresh insights of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century). Two decades after the birth of the web promised the emergence of network-based direct democracy, we’re starting to see some real examples coming to life. The B-Corp movement is experimenting with corporate charters that require fidelity to social and environmental values in addition to shareholder value. A few brave companies like Zappos have beta-tested modes of organizational management without traditional bosses. And in the backwaters of the blockchain, people are reinventing the code of the corporation in service of autonomy through distributed governance.

Scholars tell us that the power structures of modern societies based on leadership pyramids are not our basic state. Early human bands were fundamentally egalitarian, with no formalized leadership roles, and deference based on competence without dominance. Maybe our new networks can help us find a way to organize more complex societies in accord with our less oppressive nature, nurturing cooperation instead of competition. Unfortunately, to get there we may have to see if the accelerationists are right — that the path to utopia is through a scarier dystopia than any science fiction writer could imagine.

Optimistic button from some London design grads, after the crash