Tag Archives: Noam Chomsky

David Koch and the Limits of Tolerance

“I believe in gay marriage.” So, in an interview with Politico last week, GOP megadonor David Koch came out in support of marriage equality. His remarks were widely reported as a “break” from the official Republican party line and Mitt Romney’s position on gay marriage. But Koch “joins a near-majority of young Republicans under the age of 35 who support marriage equality,” according to Human Rights Campaign. Among libertarians, gay marriage tends to be a non-issue. There’s little reason to be surprised or scandalized.

The whole affair reminds me of an exchange that Peter Hallward had in an interview with Noam Chomsky a short while ago. Chomsky and Hallward are talking about gains in the areas of human and civil rights, Chomsky maintaining that “the country has become a lot more civilized” in the past forty or fifty years, since the 1960s.

“Elementary rights” – Chomsky mentions women’s rights and gay rights, and the repeal of anti-sodomy laws – “were more or less marginalized until pretty recently, but now we can almost take them for granted.” (My emphasis here would be on almost.) Hallward readily concedes that human and civil rights gains were “hard won,” but hastens to add that ultimately “they don’t conflict with class interests.” Chomsky concurs:

The ruling classes are able to accommodate civil and human rights, pretty easily. In fact if you look at the opinions of CEOs, you find that their social attitudes tend to be fairly liberal. These things don’t affect their position. When you start to touch on questions relating to authority and the concentration of power in the system you run into more challenging barriers. But still, the freedoms that exist elsewhere give you the opportunity to work against those barriers.

Along with his brother Charles, David Koch certainly represents a concentration of power in the system. So does Goldman-Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who recently appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video advocating same-sex marriage. “America’s corporations learned long ago that equality is just good business and is the right thing to do,” says Blankfein in the video, urging us to join him “and the majority of Americans who support marriage equality.” And there is no reason to doubt Blankfein means what he says here. The Goldman CEO has helped advance legislation for marriage equality in New York, and under his leadership Goldman has made it a policy to reimburse employees for the extra taxes they pay on domestic partner benefits. (And that’s a draw for talented people – a big plus for Goldman.)

All this might lend Goldman the aura of a “socially responsible” company. But it’s worth noting that this issue is a good distance from the space where Goldman operates. “If Mr. Blankfein was taking a radical stand on pay you could say wow, that’s big,” Paul Argenti said when asked to comment on Blankfein’s video appearance. “But [marriage] equality is simply not an issue you associate with Goldman.” Advocating for marriage equality likely won’t raise serious questions about the role Goldman plays in the system of global finance, or the influence the investment bank exercises over American economic policy. (Those issues, by the way, are the focus of a new documentary based on Marc Roche’s book The Bank: How Goldman Sachs Rules the World, set to air on tonight on the French-German Television channel, Arte.)

Of course it’s better to have business moguls and power brokers like Koch and Blankfein join hands with young Republicans on the side of marriage equality or civil and human rights. No doubt about it. But before we break out into a chorus of Kumbayah it’s important to consider the limits of their tolerance – which is essentially what Chomsky is asking us to do – and ask where they draw the line. That’s where they will come out to fight.

A Second Note on The First CEO: the CEO As Agent of Historical Change

Susy Jackson, an editor at Harvard Business Review, emailed me last week to tell me that she and her colleagues had discovered an illustration of the acronym “CEO” that predates the early instances discussed in my previous post on this subject.  Time to update that post and, while we’re at it, the entry on CEO in the Oxford English Dictionary. (I’ve emailed them to let them know).

A search through the HBR archives (one of Jackson’s colleagues described it as “not really very scientific, but fun”) turned up an article in the May June-1970 issue of HBR by Joseph O Eastlack, Jr. and and Phillip R. McDonald entitled “The Role of the CEO in Corporate Growth.” As we might expect, the article takes care to spell out and abbreviate the term in its first use: “chief executive officer (CEO)”; the speculation is that this was “standard treatment for a term that was thought to be known to HBR readers, but not so familiar that they could dispense with spelling it out altogether.” In 1970, after all, the CEO had just arrived on the scene.

A few thoughts about that entrance.

In my previous post I speculated that the term CEO may have come into wider use at HBR under the editorial direction of Ralph Lewis, who was appointed editor in chief in 1971, and oversaw several changes in editorial direction. This 1970 illustration of CEO predates that appointment; Edward Bursk was the editor in chief of HBR in 1970. Still, there’s no doubt HBR under Lewis’ direction helped define and disseminate the term.

Whether this more frequent recourse to the acronym in the pages of HBR was the result of Lewis’ policy or just a sign of the currency the acronym was gaining in management and governance discourse is hard to say. But it’s pretty clear that the wide acceptance of the acronym in the 1970s marks a shift – not just in editorial convention, but also in ideas about governance, leadership and power, within and without the corporation. By the mid to late 1970s, CEO is well on its way to becoming not just a convenient tag but an important construct of corporate power, social status and (by the 1980s) cultural celebrity.

The temptation to start painting on a broader canvas is almost irresistible. After all, big things are happening in the early 1970s, in business, in American society, around the world. When the figure of the CEO emerges in the 1970s, the heyday of the man in the gray flannel suit has reached its nadir. In America and throughout the industrialized West, the postwar boom – which witnessed the rise of the managerial class – has yielded to a grim post-industrial reality.

Indeed, the CEO will be one of the defining figures of the period that runs from roughly 1970 to 2010, the post-industrial period. In response to falling profit rates in manufacturing, we see during this period “a shift from productive enterprise to financial manipulation” (as Chomsky, summarizing economic historian Robert Bremmer, recently put it); I think it’s no coincidence that with the arrival of the CEO on the scene, the “financialization” of the economy has begun. (I understand the word is controversial; but let it stand for now: these are just broad strokes.)

The CEO emerges from this shift. He is its creature and creator – an agent entrusted with its execution – and the period of the CEO’s glory extends from the triumph of neo-liberalism during the Reagan-Thatcher era all the way to the financial crisis of 2008 and the institutional failures and social collapse it precipitates.