Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cave Apes ... et Lupum

Alex Gibney.  "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room."  Jigsaw, 2006.

Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System--and Themselves.  Viking, 2009.  ISBN: 0670021253.

Daymon SmithThe Book of Mammon: A Book about a Book about the Corporation That Owns the Mormons.  CreateSpace, 2010.  ISBN: 1451553706. 

All of the ideas represented in these sources have been important to me over the past several years as I have slowly started coming to grips with the way things work in the modern world (including my corner of it in the United States of America).  If I could summarize what I have learned so far, I would say something like this.

Since the dawn of recorded history (sometime after the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago), human beings have been gathering in groups too large to function as small hunter-gatherer clans.  Agriculture creates caloric surfeit, which leads to more people: eventually, there are so many people that we need a way of relating to others whom we do not know personally.  So we come up with laws, by-laws, and loopholes (for the times when laws and by-laws don't apply, apply badly, or thwart us in something we really want to do, for reasons that may or may not be justifiable).  In short, we invent corporations (governments, companies, mafias, and everything in between).  Corporations, like people, create culture.  They are themselves alive, after a fashion--with their own habits, their own ways of being, and their own desire to survive and thrive (no matter what: they are not necessarily hostile toward other corporations or people, but their primary goal is to survive for themselves: at the end of the day, bees exist to protect the hive).  There is always a tension between the individual person and the corporation(s) to which he belongs.  The individual is an ancient clansman, with habits, culture, and ideals suited for relating well to people he knows personally.  The corporation subverts his clannish sense of honor and integrity--of necessity, since corporate business cannot happen unless people give up or at least suppress the kind of egalitarian individualism characteristic of hunter-gatherer clans.  The beehive and the wolf-pack do not work alike: the bee has no life outside the hive (versus the proverbial lone wolf), and conformity to the "rule" of the hive is largely beyond contention (adult worker bees do not become queens, while a low-ranking wolf-cub might easily end up ruling the pack).

Human beings are both bee-like (in their corporate activity) and wolf-like (in their relationship with themselves and people that they know personally).  Laws, by-laws, and such work for us the way pheromones and such work for bees (and other social insects that have to live in enormous groups, like ants).  But underneath the blanket of corporate pheromones lurks the werewolf, desiring nothing more than the simple life of his less civilized, less socialized forefathers.  When the hive breaks down, he comes out.  When the hive decides that he is not worth saving, or that he must be sacrificed for the common good without what he recognizes as due process, he rebels--and all good servants of the hive rush to condemn him out of hand, for his existence constitutes a perpetual threat to their lovely Deseret.  I grew up under the mistaken idea that the hive is only ever responsible for good things.  "God save the Queen!" was a mantra that I lived by.  For better or worse, however, I imbibed a lot of wolfish values to go with this apian ideal.  At a relatively young age, I became committed to things like individual freedom, civil disobedience, and constructive criticism.  As I grew older, I became more involved with the business of the hive.  My grandparents gave me some stocks (and maybe a bond or two) for birthdays.  I joined the Boy Scouts and wrote letters to congressmen.  I committed myself body and soul to the Corporation of the President (more commonly known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), dedicating two years of my life to proselytize in northern Spain.  I signed up for the draft.  I enrolled in several universities and took degrees.  But the more involved I became with learning and preaching apian values, the more troubled my allegiance to the Queen became.  I saw her hurting people--people I knew, people that the wolf buried deep in me could not forget.  These people were not always aware of how the Queen hurt them.  Sometimes they welcomed the pain, as any good worker bee would.  I sometimes wondered whether I was not horribly deviant for objecting to their suffering (particularly when they took it up so gladly). 

At some point, the turning point of my life thus far, it dawned upon me that the Queen was not acting alone.  She was not an almighty Other, living apart from ordinary humanity in some exalted state of being where moral decisions are clear and everyone always gets his just deserts.  She was just another wolf like me, and she was using me to do her business with others.  This was not bad in itself.  We absolutely need things like law in order to deal with other people, and we have not managed to create a law whose sanctity requires no guard (no Queen).  But now the Queen was using her position to get me to do things that did not feel right, things that the wolf in me found downright degrading.  As an American and a Mormon and an academic, I knew I had certain "rights" (on paper), rights to which I had often given lip service in the past.  I realized that I did not have to take all of the Queen's orders lying down.  If she ordered me to do something that I did not approve, I could protest.  I could refuse.  I could stand for something I really believed in.  In theory, I should even be able to do this without getting myself killed.  (Modern society has progressed beyond the point of burning werewolves at the stake; today we adopt a more passive-aggressive approach, which on the whole I find much preferable.  I have no objection to being ignored or shunned when the alternative is violent death.) 

I still stand for many of the things that the Queen supports.  But I take exception to a lot of what she does.  I think her proselytizing is often bad business, whether it is Mormon missionaries going door to door or American soldiers meddling in the affairs of foreign countries.  I am fortunate in that most of my academic advisors have refrained from using force or lies to have their way with me, but I am aware of others who have not been so lucky.  I want to gag just about every time I hear any kind of political advertisement, no matter what party or candidate it represents: the man who would be Queen sends out pheromones that say, "I'm cool! Put your faith in me and it'll be OK!"-- expecting me to be a good little bee and take him seriously (letting someone else, probably some crackpot with a wolfish grin, do a serious background check on his bona fides).  Don't get me wrong.  I love the sound of words like faith, hope, and charity.  But the wolf in me wants them to stand for something more than the Queen's latest scheme for fleecing me and using the proceeds to save her drones on Wall Street (not to mention the Ivy League or downtown Salt Lake City, or any other place where a few plutocrats sit in judgment over the lives of their "less fortunate" fellows, shifting them around like so many pieces of chattel without bothering to ask permission or doubt themselves or even tell the public what they are really doing). 

My real problem with the Queen is not so much what she does as the manner in which she does it.  She likes to hide.  When making really important decisions, she always avoids public scrutiny (retreating into the boardroom with only her closest flunkies, who are always kept in strict confidence).  She does not like talking to the company rank and file in anything other than rhetorical cliches ("I know this company is the best ever: we stand for hope, growth, and a better future!"), which sound hollow even when things are going well and ridiculous when they are not.  Whenever anyone gets a whiff of her books being cooked (as they more or less always are), she puts a drone on the TV to deny it (and accuse short-sellers, terrorists, rogue scholars, or anti-Mormons of seeking to ruin her beehive with base slander).  She never admits any wrong on her part, preferring to pass the buck to "bad" drones, whom she then offers for public humiliation: two recent examples are Dick Fuld (the only banker who was actually allowed to fail) and Randy Bott (who is currently taking heat for expressing out loud what some more powerful members of the Corporation of the President have long believed).  John D. Lee is another example, and anyone who blames Bush or Obama solely for any of the decisions made by their army of handlers (not to mention incredibly powerful associates, like the chairman of the Federal Reserve) comes close to making them scapegoats as well.  In short, she is not very good at being honest.

So transparency is not something she does, until she has to, and even then she fails to come fully clean, blaming one drone for a mistake that implicates all of them along with the culture of crazy groupthink that their mistress cultivates--a culture in which the greater good requires worker bees to make any sacrifice, no matter how great, to keep the company alive in its current state.  (That is the Abrahamic sacrifice, right there.  Do this awful thing because God demands it.  Hold your nose, and it will all turn out right.)  Unfortunately, sacrificing scapegoats does not always work.  Wall Street is still teetering, even though Dick Fuld's Lehman Brothers went bust.  (Other businesses also needed to go down, and the more we keep them alive on life support, the weaker our "recovery" is going to be, before we are once again in the emergency room.)  LDS doctrine on negroes is still historically racist, even if the Corporation of the President has excoriated Randy Bott.  The Democratic and Republican parties are both out of touch with reality, no matter whom the voting public elects to sit in the White House and hold press conferences.  (Clinton? Gore? Bush? Obama? Santorum? Romney?  These guys all look remarkably similar to me.  All of them are plutocrats.  All of them pander to me with words that sound nice.  All of them are Queen's men.)  Nazism was certainly bigger than Adolf Eichmann, who represents perhaps the most famous individual instance of the problem created by human hive culture.  Suppose that some historical fluke had allowed us to extract him alone, try him solo, and punish him somehow for his callous attitude toward human life.  Would Nazism then have been perfectly benign?  Was Eichmann (or the other Adolf, for that matter) the only reason thousands of bureaucratic Germans went berserk in the mid-twentieth century?  No.  The problem is bigger than any one person.  It comes from the hive.  It comes from too many people burying the wolf too deep.

The wolf knows that there is no such thing as a greater good that does not do irreparable harm to somebody.  The wolf knows that truth is always better than lies, if you want to run a business that does not go bust or trample on the people it aims to serve.  (On the other hand, if you are a worker bee dealing with a cut-throat Queen looking for somebody to scapegoat, you had much better lie than tell the truth.  The Queen always claims the right to lie to you as much as she wants: why does she throw a royal fit when someone pays her back in her own currency?)  The wolf knows that only men without honor suppress truth that is not "useful" -- coaxing workers into the hive with promises that don't match reality.  If you want to do business with the wolf, you have to stand for something yourself.  You have to be more than a company drone.  The wolf is not always polite.  He does not always dress posh.  His accent can be off-putting.  He often has habits that others find distressing.  But he is honest about them.  He doesn't play the Queen's game of Jekyll and Hyde, wearing one face in public and another inside the boardroom.  If he wants to lie to you, or take your cash (or the livelihood and life that that cash represents), or assassinate your character, then he will do it to your face.  He won't stab you in the back and then come calling with some story about how the degradation is good for your character development (but bad for his, it would seem: why does the greater good always mean workers doing more for drones? the Queen hates questions like this).  If he pays taxes, it is because he either fears retribution (e.g. from the IRS) or believes in the services that he actually securing (e.g. federal agencies, with everything they do for the common good).  If he pays the Corporation of the President their 10% of his income, it is because he believes in what that corporation does: he wants his money feeding a church that just spent some $5 billion on the most expensive mall in the world (at $2500 per square foot, the City Creek Center in Salt Lake City is more expensive than the Burj Khalifa, which only cost $450 per square foot, or the much larger City Center of Las Vegas, which came to $655) while offering a mere $1.2 billion (or so) in humanitarian aid over the past 25 years (1985-2009).  (Shopping is great!  And we should give some change to the beggars, too.  That's what Jesus would do, right?  Some wolves probably believe this.  The bees just bring their honey into the hive because that is what bees do.  They don't care what happens to it afterward.  That's someone else's job.)

The reason that we need to keep closer touch with our inner wolf is that the beehive is never as safe as the Queen wants it to seem.  Eventually, it is going to topple over.  (Every hive in history has fallen.  Why should ours be any different?  Others were no less convinced of their special invulnerability than we are, and look where that hubris took them.)  When it does fall, we need people able and willing to put up a new one.  We need people who know how to take risks, how to lose (without blowing up), and above all, how to connect with other people and convince them not to go berserk.  It takes a wolf to talk a wolf down.  Some of the Queen's top drones are just wolves patched over with a thin layer of beeswax: they are actually not as scary as those whose wolfish nature is wholly dormant.  These jokers believe in their own mythology, to the point that they cannot accept correction.  (Dick Fuld is one of these folks: to this day he thinks that he did nothing wrong, that his bankrupt business was fundamentally sound.)  These are the guys who cannot see reason, no matter how it dresses up and dances for them.  Drunk on their own righteousness, they will go to their graves refusing to doubt themselves no matter how ruthlessly reality tarnishes the fantasy that they are masters of the universe.  ("Just give me a chance!" they tell whoever wants to hear, "This time, it will be great!  Profits are going to go up!"  The proper wolfish response is, "Whatever, dude.")  Following such philosopher-kings is dangerous, to the individual (especially) and to the group as well.  I hope there are less of them in power than I sometimes fear.

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