Several years ago, after reading some of my writing, an elderly Chinese woman who had lived through Mao’s regime told me, “You would have been shot on the second day of the revolution.” I took this as a compliment. Though I am not an important person and therefore not a candidate for execution on the first day, my work seemed sufficiently provocative to her to set me before a firing squad on the second day. She confirmed this when I asked her, “Are you sure you don’t mean the third day?” She replied, “Yes. The second day.”
I now know who’ll be shot on the first day: insufficiently woke CEOs. In a now-deleted tweet, Twitter’s former CEO Dick Costolo said that business leaders refusing to inject political activism into their workplaces will be “the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution. I’ll happily provide video commentary.” He was responding to a blogpost by Brian Armstrong, CEO of the cryptocurrency firm Coinbase, arguing that developing good products should take priority over encouraging employees to air their political grievances or dedicating one’s company to a political mission. Costolo accused Armstrong of wanting to “separate society from business.”
Both men’s statements say much about the current state, and perils, of American business, and how much about being a CEO has changed.
The archetypical nineteenth-century businessman was efficient and worked hard. He built; he speculated; he bought and sold; he woke up with the thought of money and fell asleep with the same thought; and he became very rich. Yet he never concerned himself about whether his employees felt a sense of belonging or personal growth. His employees labored, and he paid them. Their personal thoughts and feelings remained their own.
Armstrong speaks like a 1950s Organization Man. He recognizes the primacy of profit, yet his attitude toward his employees suggests “people-mindedness” as much as “job-mindedness,” in stark contrast with the old businessman. He encourages his employees to work as a team. He proudly makes money, but he also sees himself as a morale-builder who helps workers fulfill themselves. Armstrong expresses paternalistic affection for his workers, while also expecting them to sacrifice “individual goals” (his words) for the company good. His message is classic 1950s company-speak.
Where the nineteenth-century businessman was harsh and distant, Armstrong expresses more concern for his workers’ souls. His intentions seem helpful and positive, but something is nevertheless intrusive in his appeal. Encouraging workers to find fulfillment in an organization risks having them dissolve their personalities into the companies they work for, like the confidential servants in aristocratic Europe, called lackeys, who merged their identities with those of their masters, basking in their glory. This servile attitude first emerged in the U.S. during the 1950s, among the clerks and salespeople who, for example, bragged how they worked “for Time” or “for IBM.” We can encounter this same sensibility among employees at Goldman Sachs, Google, or Harvard when they assume an air of grandeur because of the prestigious companies they work for. The lackey is not an ideal member of a democratic society, because he is not an independently minded individual and applies his obsession with work status to other aspects of life, making for a very stratified, class-conscious society.
Nonetheless, Armstrong seems like a responsible businessperson. He recognizes that business’s role is to make a useful product, earn money, and leave people to their own politics and creeds. Not so Costolo, who preaches social-justice ideology, and, like the most fervent commissar, suggests that no compartment in society should be walled off from politics.
One can never be sure if today’s CEOs support social justice merely as a PR ploy, though Costolo’s call for mass executions sounds earnest. Like an old Soviet ideologue, Costolo gives ideas contrary meaning, as when he criticizes Armstrong for not encouraging “lively debate” among his tech workers, though lively debate in tech increasingly means just the opposite: attend diversity seminars and rehearse canned sentiments or get fired. Praising debate when no such debate is actually permitted is like the old Communist game of calling one’s country a “democratic republic”—for example, the German Democratic Republic—to cover up the fact that it is not.
Costolo’s remarks represent something of a symbol of our time in that they pose a risk to society that we never saw coming. Like Armstrong, he belongs to the 1950s tradition of businesspeople who think beyond money and product. Yet he has turned his sensitivity toward other people’s feelings and attitudes into a kind of political weapon.
Americans have traditionally supported a division between business and the state because they feared the state. They feared government stripping them of their right to think differently, or their right not to think at all, and just to work and live and mind their own business. In our own day, though, business is increasingly the entity to fear—at least, businesses guided by CEOs who think it a martyr’s task to run a company; who talk incessantly about the public good, but with a censor’s spirit; who enjoy issuing public statements broadcasting their dissatisfaction with the world, while portraying moneymaking as some secret, shameful act, a plain necessity, but not the ostensible reason for going to the office; who call for a collective leap in consciousness—on their terms. All in the name of good employer-employee relations.
J. P. Morgan said, “I owe the public nothing,” and was hated in his day. He looks pretty good in retrospect.
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Vanity Fair