Sorry for skipping last week’s post. As I told you, I was in bed with the flu. That’s the bad news. The good news is that GOT is back! But I won’t be talking about that today either: that’s the bad news. But my brother came visiting from England and that’s the good news. My younger brother and I are very close in age (10 months apart) and we were flat-mates in another life so we are close and think alike about many things. But as we live so far away from each other we only meet about once a year. So it was very interesting to learn in an exciting conversation that he shares my views about some of the most controversial subjects, as the flawed usual way people speak about Capitalism and what is wrong with it. I spoke a bit about it here. At the same time, I recalled what is probably my favorite Coen Brothers’ movie: THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. It may be considered one of their minor works, but it’s one that says a lot to me. I’ll be using it to structure a few thoughts on Capitalism and this is the first part of that post.
So here’s the story, for those who haven’t watched it. Straight out of IMDB: When Waring Hudsucker, head of hugely successful Hudsucker Industries, commits suicide, his board of directors, led by Sidney Mussberger, comes up with a brilliant plan to make a lot of money: appoint a moron to run the company. When the stock falls low enough, Sidney and friends can buy it up for pennies on the dollar, take over the company, and restore its fortunes. They choose idealistic Norville Barnes, who just started in the mail room. Norville is whacky enough to drive any company to ruin, but soon, tough reporter Amy Archer smells a rat and begins an undercover investigation of Hudsucker Industries.
Let’s start with this: Norville Barnes, played by the brilliant Tim Robbins, is a young and naïve business-school graduate who comes to New York to make his fortune. We can see him looking for work and getting increasingly disenchanted: it seems for every interesting job opening announced there is an overwhelming sentence: ‘Experience Necessary’ or ‘Experienced’. Finally, he finds an advert in a paper (or the paper finds him – destiny and luck play a curious role in this movie) announcing a mailroom job, ‘No Experience Necessary’. It’s low pay and long hours.
The next time we see Norville, it’s his first day at Hudsucker Industries. It’s the mailroom. The Coen/Sam Raimi script describes it perfectly: «The hellish mailroom is criss-crossed by pipes that emit HISSING jets of STEAM. As he wheels a piled-high mail cart down the aisle, Norville is accompanied by an orientation AGENT who bellows at him over the clamor and roar of many men laboring in the bowels of a great corporation.»
The Orientation Agent screams at Norville as he gets flooded by other characters’ shouts, information, and responsibilities. The Agent shouts things like: «You punch in at 8:30 every morning except you punch in at 7:30 following a business holiday unless it’s a Monday and then you punch in at eight o’clock! You punch in at 7:45 whenever we work extended day and you punch out at the regular time unless you’ve worked through lunch. Punch in late and they dock ya!»
It is obviously impossible to follow everything Norville is supposed to do and all that he can do wrong. But he seems too enthusiastic to care. He is ambitious. He has plans. He has a design hidden in his shoe, a perfect circle he shows to his colleague proudly, explaining: «You know… For kids!» Norville’s colleague, sorting the mail, has been there for a long time: 48 years. «… Next year they move me up to parcels… If I’m lucky.» He says, not stopping his work. When Norville doesn’t know how to sort an envelope too big for its slot, the old sorter has the solution: «Well… if ya fold ’em, they fire ya… … I usually throw ’em out.»
But suddenly, an alarm sounds and the whole mailroom stops. Someone comes carrying a special delivery. It’s a Blue Letter. «It’s a blue letter… top, top level… confidential communication between the brass… usually bad news… they hate blue letters upstairs… Hate ’em!» Everybody is terrified of the Blue Letter. Of course, it’s Norville who’s chosen to carry it. He goes up to Vice-President Sidney Mussberger’s corner office. Mussberger is played by the wonderful Paul Newman. Norville’s delivery of the Blue Letter is a terrible disaster – but luckily for him, Mussberger is looking for the perfect clown, a patsy, a proxy, to assume the reigns as the CEO of Hudsucker Industries – and that is how Norville gets the job, he simply seems the worst person for it and that’s what Mussberger wants.
Now let me stop right here and think a little bit about all this.
As I said someplace else, I believe that we are slowly arriving at a political setting where we can assume satisfaction for macroeconomic and macropolitical decisions and solutions. In certain parts of the world, arguably the most center-leaning political countries as the Nordic in Europe, or New-Zealand, we are well off to an overall attitude that actually achieves social, political and economic progress in a satisfactory way. What we seem to miss is that this overall macroeconomic and macropolitical setting is systematically undermined almost everywhere by the remnants of an old foe: the aristocratic thinking that is still pervasive and corrosive within public and private organizations alike, the corruption dominating the microeconomic tissue everywhere.
This first few minutes of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY show us a bit of this thinking.
- Only aristocrats get easy opportunities: Even though Norville has a higher education, he’s nobody. He didn’t go to the right schools, didn’t know the right people, he is little people. And as such, his only possibility is to be fed to the machine through the bottom, the mailroom. Show me a country where this does not happen. Corruption and nepotism are widespread.
- Lower employees are mistreated: lower employees are not treated as people. This happens all over the world in all kinds of organizations. People are humiliated and abused in their workplaces in a way that you don’t see almost anywhere else in present society. People fear being fired almost as much as they fear divorce or death and disease. There are actually fairly widespread phenomena of work-related suicides and work-related murders. It’s insane! And yet, we accept this status quo as if there was something wrong with the people and not with the system or the organizations.
- The systems are so blind they are systematically boycotted: Not knowing what to do with an oversized envelope, the experienced employee will… lose it. He knows he can get fired for such a little thing, so he creates a rule to survive the absurdity of the system. And so, following the aristocratic arrogance of the Ancient Régime, the organizational aristocratic systems of today are flawed because they are blind.
- They are cultures of fear: lower employees fear their superiors, who in turn fear their superiors, who in turn fear the response of the masses. It’s almost like we are in the tyrannies of the past! Rules are enforced with carrots and whips as if we were rats in mazes. In the 18th century’s aristocratic environment, this didn’t end particularly well, and it won’t end well today.
- They are whimsical systems: if a high capitalistic aristocrat as Sidney Mossberger wants to install a patsy on the top of the corporation, he can. Why? Because he can do almost all he wants. He will be able to break the law, to destroy lives, to crush the environment, to be unethical and psychopathic – the system will protect him. We’ve seen this recently, with the 2008 crisis, with Donald Trump, with Exxon and BP, with all kinds of high aristocrats all over the world. They can do whatever they want – they will not be destroyed. The companies can be destroyed, employees be fired, people will lose their homes and their savings, small companies will be crushed. But aristocrats survive. And strive. Meritocracy, my friends, is a dream.
This doesn’t have to be this way. There are companies that don’t work in this manner – that incorporate democracy in their fabric and are extremely successful. But they are a minority. We have been blaming Capitalism for all the wrongdoing in the world, for all the inequality and all the misery. And it’s difficult to fight Capitalism because at the same time it brought so much good, it pulled so many from poverty and gave us so much over the years. What we are missing is that it’s not Capitalism itself that’s corrupt or corruptive. It’s Capitalistic Aristocracy. It’s the way organizations function and the way they incorporate the flaws of other centuries to favor certain individuals. We should not, we cannot, accept this. Let’s keep talking about it.