Capitalism and Corporatism
All My Sons, Big Business, Moral Responsibility
I recently saw the Arthur Miller play, All My Sons. It reminded me of how much Miller was in tune with so much of American culture.
The play revolves around Joe Keller, an entrepreneur, who owns a factory that shipped out cracked warplane cylinder heads during World War II. Twenty one pilots died in crashes as a result. His associate, Steve Deever, warned him of the defective engines, and Joe told him to seal the cracks. Deever tried to call him, not wanting to take sole responsibility for the shipment. Joe, later, claims that he had the flu and was not able to answer the call.
After a courtroom trial, Deever is sent to prison. Joe is exonerated in an appeal of his case. The rest of the play is about all the collateral damage Joe’s big lie has on his own family and the family of his associate.
What is fascinating about the play is that Miller understood so much about the sins of capitalism in American life and, for lack of a more damaging euphemism, the “entrepreneurial spirit.”
Keller lies, of course, to save himself. He later tries to rationalize his decision by claiming he did it for his family, particularly his one surviving son to whom he eventually wanted to hand over the factory.
The difference between Keller and the more modern CEOs during the 2008 Market Crash is that Keller, in the end, takes some moral responsibility and, ultimately punishes himself by committing suicide.
The Modern American corporate mentality, particularly blatant in the finance industry, seems to be far more detached from the real havoc it continues to effect in the twenty-first century. The Barney Madoffs of the world don’t seem to suffer any of the internalized guilt that drove many an ancient Japanese leader to commit seppuku after having been humiliated by defeat, a wrong decision, or an error in judgment.
Death of A Salesman, Human Disposability
In another Miller play, Death of Salesman, Willy Loman, the central character, is an aging salesman. It is clear, throughout the play, the Loman has become a lumbering, defeated, anonymous anachronism in the sales world. He pleads with his boss, Howard, to reduce his hours on the road. Howard eventually fires Willy, who, like Joe Keller, has no other alternative left but to kill himself.
Loman, in my judgment, is the classic example of our modern throw-away society. It is a well-known fact that lower-echelon workers over fifty are very vulnerable to lay-offs (redundancies in the UK).
Corporations and big businesses will often justify the layoffs by saying they are losing money and need to sell the company to another company or CEO, who comes in and “restructures” the company by bringing in his or her own buddies.
Or, if you’re HSBC, you will openly admit that the company needs to send out more profits to its shareholders (and, with a sleight of the hand, to pay more to its top CEOs). If you are not in a very top management position, you are much more vulnerable to lay-offs. But if you’re a golden-boy-or-girl CEO, you will be given a hefty golden parachute payoff so that you can retire to balmy Florida or buy that $1million+ condo in New York City.
Or, companies will move their plants to a country where wages are notoriously lower (“Lower overhead,” I believe, is the corporate-speak lingo).
If we’ve learned anything from the corporate world, disposability is one of its guiding principles. Willy Loman is no exception to that rule.
I’ve known many worker friends who find this out very fast when they are let go before they earn any vested rights to their pensions (if they have any pensions at all—so many people I know are adjunct teaching faculty with no benefits and whose incomes are based on credit or contact hours per class).
Profitability and the Luck of the Draw
One of the other issues I noticed in All My Sons is that the profit-motive often has a life of its own. Once profit is seen as a right, a privilege, and an obligation, it is very easy to slip into an ethos that the common-good requires profitability. And the capitalist cynics would say that any blip in the machine of that profitability is the natural effect of cruel inevitability (sometimes we call that being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” or the “luck of the draw”).
Capitalism, in the end, may appear to have a predictable inner logic. But, as anyone who observes the stock market knows, the algorithm-driven investment crowd consistently walks a tightrope of never knowing what global crisis will force the stock market to go south.
Just as we often have to find out the real news by listening to Trevor Noah, Larry Willmore, and Steve Colbert (all comedians), sometimes an engaging play, film, or novel can give us greater insights into what’s wrong with our culture.
Capitalism and the Rules of the Game
Arthur Miller, in my judgment, is no exception. As a result of seeing at least two of his plays, I learned a lot about the rules of the game in capitalism and corporatism. In the bullet-list below, I include what seem to be some core values of the business-world mentality, gleaned from the plays and from what I have personally learned as an old-timer:
- Profitability is often the highest common-core value of capitalism
- Disposability is one of the consequences of that profitability
- Individual worth, within the corporate world, is often measured by how much real or potential profit a worker can bring into a company.
- Moral responsibility for any collateral damage to society often never reaches the top management circles of the corporate world.
- Aging in the American work world is often observed as a liability, unless you are part of the corporate CEO inner circle; then you can sit on all kinds of boards as a highly-paid consultant or be given a hefty pension and benefits.
Just something to think about, my friends.