Tag Archives: sociopaths

How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

Strategy’s Eclipse and the Big Chief

One of the more provocative business articles I’ve read lately appeared just last week, on forbes.com. It’s a piece by Steve Denning about the collapse of the consulting firm Monitor. The article has already generated thousands of comments and what its own author, in a follow-up post, calls a lot of “social media brouhaha”.

Most of the discussion so far focuses on Denning’s analysis of Monitor’s collapse. He traces the firm’s demise to Michael Porter’s flawed idea that “sustainable competitive advantage” could be gained in markets “by studying the numbers and the existing structure of the industry.” Monitor, in Denning’s view, was selling an “illusory product” that merely “supports and advances the pretensions of the C-suite.” Where Monitor’s approach to strategy failed was where it matters now more than ever: helping businesses connect with or “delight” customers, or innovate, or do things that customers (or, for that matter, society as a whole) want them to do.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis, of course, and Denning has been responding to criticism and comment on the Forbes site and on Twitter. I am more intrigued by what Monitor’s downfall might signify – whether it indicates that there are larger changes afoot.

Denning himself wonders if the firm’s collapse marks the end of an “era”. Several of his readers and Tweeters (including me) have suggested that pure strategy plays are simply no longer viable. But that observation only scratches the surface, I think. The downfall of Monitor may indicate something else as well – a larger change in the configuration of CEO or executive power within the enterprise, and the end of a certain idea or iconography of the CEO.

Denning approaches this very thought as he lays out his historical argument, which is basically the story of how Michael Porter got lucky and launched Monitor at precisely the right moment. When Monitor first appeared on the scene in 1979, writes Denning, a new era was dawning:

Pursuit of shareholder value (“the dumbest idea in the world”) was just getting going with a vengeance. The C-suite was starting to realize that they could cash in, big time. Along comes Michael Porter with a rain dance that justifies their cashing in. Porter arrived at just the right time. Hopefully that era is now coming to an end. People are starting to see the rain dance for what it is.

I would hasten to add that the dumbest idea in the world, the doctrine of shareholder value, helped usher in another very bad idea that is still very much with us — the idea of the “CEO” that started to take hold at roughly around the time that acronym first appeared on the scene, in the early 1970s. The CEO is largely an invention of that period.

I’ve taken up this theme in a few posts (here and here and here). A number of journalists and academics have addressed this same point, directly and indirectly. For Rakesh Khurana, the cultish construct of the CEO emerges out of the transition from managerial to investor capitalism. In response to the growing power of institutional investors (like pension funds, bank trusts, insurance firms, endowment funds, and money managers), boards had, by the 1980s, come to focus almost exclusively on the search for an outside celebrity CEO “savior” who would not only appease and appeal to newly-empowered institutional investors but also make a big splash in the newly-emergent American business press.

Needless to say, this further consolidated decision-making power at the top of the corporate hierarchy. At the same time, the newly powerful CEO had become a cultural icon of celebrity and success. We made a totem of corporate executive power.

If the mantra of investor capitalism was “shareholder value,” the central mystery of the new faith was the “agency” problem (as described in a now-canonical 1976 paper by Jensen and Meckling [pdf]). The interests of shareholders and managers were now to be “aligned.” Results have been mixed: a myopia set in, putting the “focus more on the short-term management of the share price,” writes Christopher Bennett on a Conference Board blog post, “and less on the long-term management of the business.”

In a Washington Post Op Ed, Michael Useem (who’s written the book on investor capitalism) takes it one step further. He connects the “unrelenting pressure of the equity market on company leaders to meet quarterly TSR expectations” with the offshoring of operations, “regardless of the impact on the domestic workforce.” Worse, it’s invited leaders to behave like sociopaths, or at least irresponsibly: “an incessant equity-market demand on company leaders to focus on their own advantage whatever the disadvantage for others” has made “fewer executives and directors…able to step forward to advocate what is required for a vibrant economy, not just what is required for their own prosperity.”

Shareholder value may have not have been the dumbest idea ever, as Denning would have it, but it was, at best, a Faustian bargain for American society. It was an important article of faith — and not just for the believers, but for society as a whole, during the period in which the celebrity CEO took on his (yes, usually his) unique features and cast, all the trappings of his office.

Strategy, especially Monitor’s brand of strategy, played a crucial role here. Denning refers us to a passage in Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth:

Porter’s theory thus played to the image of the CEO as a kind of superior being. As Stewart notes, “For all the strategy pioneers, strategy achieves its most perfect embodiment in the person at the top of management: the CEO. Embedded in strategic planning are the assumptions, first, that strategy is a decision-making sport involving the selection of markets and products; second, that the decisions are responsible for all of the value creation of a firm (or at least the “excess profits,” in Porter’s model); and, third, that the decider is the CEO. Strategy, says Porter, speaking for all the strategists, is thus ‘the ultimate act of choice.’ ‘The chief strategist of an organization has to be the leader— the CEO.”

With the passing of Monitor, this concept of strategy may start to go by the board. And so, with any luck, will the idea of the CEO as the “superdecider” (Denning’s word) or super-anything. The rain dance is over, and we can now see the Big Chief as he really is.

The Delta Response to Gamma Rats and Sociopaths

Doug Casey may not believe, along with Margaret Thatcher, that there’s no such thing as society, but he seems to have given up on ours. An investor and a self-styled libertarian, Casey thinks the country is done: “All the institutions that made America exceptional – including a belief in capitalism, individualism, self-reliance and the restraints of the Constitution – are now only historical artifacts,” he wrote in a post this past week. The “moral rot” runs so deep, Casey argues, that there is no fixing the institutions; the rot has become institutionalized.

How did things get so bad? Casey has a simple answer, one that doesn’t require much reading of history or economic analysis: sociopaths. Sociopaths “are now fully in control of major American institutions. Their beliefs and attitudes are insinuated throughout the economic, political, intellectual and psychological/spiritual fabric of the US.” These “really bad actors” – Casey estimates that they make up about 4 percent of the population –“are drawn to government and other positions where they can work their will on other people and, because they’re enthusiastic about government, they rise to leadership positions. They remake the culture of the organizations they run in their own image.”

Casey is hardly the first to claim that sociopaths have taken over. The movie The Corporation popularized the trope. If in the wake of Citizens United corporations are persons, then (runs the argument) they are the kind who belong in a straitjacket. Since then, and especially since things went bust in 2008, it’s become popular to characterize CEOs and Wall Street investors as sociopaths; it borders on cliché. Casey’s simply transferred the argument to government: no surprise, really, that it is as dysfunctional and destructive as the other centers of power in twenty-first century America.

Casey recommends flight over fight. He argues that it makes better sense than ever to become an International Man (the initial caps are his: the International Man appears to have achieved an iconic status in his mind), and find a safe haven to keep one’s assets and one’s life out of the reach of the sociopaths. Casey sees this flight from society not as the act of a misanthrope, but a “gamma rat”:

You may recall the ethologist’s characterization of the social interaction of rats as being between a few alpha rats and many beta rats, the alpha rats being dominant and the beta rats submissive. In addition, a small percentage are gamma rats that stake out prime territory and mates, like the alphas, but are not interested in dominating the betas. The people most inclined to leave for the wide world outside and seek fortune elsewhere are typically gamma personalities.

I have to admit that the fantasy of becoming an International Man holds its attractions – a hoard of wealth, prime real estate, the finest mates (check their teeth and gums, just to make sure). But it is, ultimately, a fantasy of power and control that betrays a feeling of powerlessness and a loss of control.  The International Man would have us believe that he is a refugee, fleeing persecution, but he doesn’t ask for pity or succor; he demands privilege and exemption from all that is common.

He is shrewd and selfish, not heroic. Odysseus, arguably the first international man, was wily, but he suffered heroically because he longed for home. The gamma cannot be nostalgic; home is where he finds or makes his fortune, until the taxman catches up. He fancies himself a hobo or tramp, but he has investment assets, property and multiple passports. He wants to own but not owe – not nothing to nobody, nohow. He accumulates wealth but, it would seem, cares nothing for common wealth; that may make him rich, but it also makes him the enemy of prosperity.

If the International Man is iconic, he would appear to be an icon of idiocy, in the classical sense of that word. Arendt puts it this way in The Human Condition: “a life spent in the privacy of ‘one’s own’ ([in Greek,] idion), outside the world of the common, is ‘idiotic’ by definition.”

What else should we call a person who sees bad actors taking control, institutions failing, society collapsing, and decides to get out while he still can? What would be his motto? Ask not what you can do for your country, but what you can grab for yourself?

More importantly, what would it take to go beyond gamma – to delta, let’s say, where you can apply yourself to meaningful work, and to building the next society?

The delta understands social collapse and institutional failure not simply as a crisis, but as an opportunity to create something new. The delta wards off doom by doing humble work, tinkering, fixing and reclaiming. As I conceive it, delta is all about tikkun — doing the difficult work of “world repair,” not throwing one’s hands up in despair. It takes imagination. Poets, painters and teachers can be deltas; they give us new models to work with. So can inventors and entrepreneurs. In fact, I would put social entrepreneurs and socially responsible investors at the forefront of the delta group. And delta is on the rise: B-corporations, which work to produce public benefits, have won legitimacy in seven states; legislation in pending in seven others.

Deltas work at a remove from the dysfunctional centers of power, on the edges of organizations, independently and within small groups, where they can experiment and learn from each other. The delta looks for alternatives to the destructive power dynamics of the alphas and the betas – flatter organizations, fair dealing, transparency and collaboration. If the gamma is entirely self-directed, even to the point of idiocy, the delta is other-directed, altruistic, a maker of community. Deltas stay networked, because they recognize the limits of the self, and know that our lives and our liberty take on meaning only with and in relation to others, no matter how much we may fantasize about going it alone.