The Metaphysical Roots of the Bush culture

An article by Joseph Nocera in the NYT profiles the very deserved fall of Morgan Stanley’s CEO, Philip Purcell, as a case study in the image deflation of the tough CEO. The first graf of the thing caught LI’s eye:

“BACK in the 1980's, Fortune published a feature called "America's Toughest Bosses." Donald H. Rumsfeld made the list one year (he was running G. D. Searle). So did legendarily crusty executives like Robert Crandall of American Airlines ("has a towering temper and swears a lot"), Frank Lorenzo of Texas Air ("not trusted inside or outside the organization") and Harry E. Figgie Jr., chairman of the manufacturer Figgie International ("really abusive - the Steinbrenner of industry").”

This mention of Rumsfeld got us thinking about the divorce between competence and success that is an often noted aspect of the Bush administration and can be extended to the whole Bush culture. By this, we mean the media, the official opposition, Wall Street, etc., -- the pseudo-meritocracy that has descended on this country like the star Wormwood falling upon the freshwater of the world.

The current contretemps around the Downing Street Memo(s) gives us a nice little snapshot of this historic moment. Here we have the great panjandrums of the print press – the Washington Post, the New York Times – who crafted the shoddiest of fictions leading up to and into the war (think, for instance, of the headline story about a captured Iraqi scientist significantly pointing to spots of sand – proof positive of a fiendish WMD program in the best tradition of Spiderman villains) – stirring in their dinosaur juices to denounce the very idea that there is anything newsworthy about the memos, or John Conyers attempt to get Congress to address them. The Michael Kinsley op ed piece in the Post last week was perhaps the nadir of this meme: a man who works for a newspaper that headlined the Michael Jackson acquittal as though Jesus had once again cast aside the cerements, in the midst of a news frenzy about a blonde kidnapped on the island of Aruba, in the season of the Runaway Bride, is suddenly making the distinction between the “popularity” of a story and the news proper. Just because people are interested in the Downing Street memo(s) – he mentions receiving hundreds of emails per day about them – is no reason that the LA Times should stoop to reporting about them. Heavens! The news media has standards way too elevated to pick news stories on the basis of popularity alone. And now, this just in about Tom Cruise...

And so the NYT retains Judith Miller. And the Bush administration retains every official who predicted that the war would be a cakewalk, that the oil would pay for it, that the number of troops occupying the country was immaterial, etc. It punishes every official who made correct predictions – from the Generals who told the truth about the manpower cost of the occupation to the poor putz who tried to tell Congress that Bush’s drug pill industry welfare bill would cost one hundred billion more than the Administration said it would. And so the internal standard that would make certain failures punishable is broken. But at the same time, the exterior face of the administration is of maximal toughness. These are the elite. These are the ones who’ve passed the tests of the meritocracy.

Looking at the description of Morgan Stanley under Purcell, these are the features that stare out at one:

1.The insistence on loyalty.
2.The unscrupulous dealing with any perceived enemy.
3.The gradual corruption of all monitoring functions.
4.The gradual reduction of co-ordination to conspiracy.
5.The outstanding and persistent failure of the tough guy leadership to meet the minimal metrics of objective success, as measured by the market place.

Thinking about this, we turned to Georg Simmel’s notion of the triad.

Simmel was fascinated by secrets, by the slippage between coordinating activity and conspiracy, by the positive alienation effected by money. He divides the investigation of socialization into three areas: the individual, the aggregation of individuals (the group), and the conflict that may occur on both levels – individual against individual, group against group.

To our eyes, this may look like an imitation of Boltzmann’s statistical mechanics (the pop science ideas of thermodynamics were in circulation in Simmel’s day, and turn up diversely in Freud and in Henry Adams, as well – and I could no doubt extend that list). However, Simmel’s notion of the dyad and the triad has been undergoing something of a rediscovery in social network theory for the past ten years or so. We are going to translate a bit about the triad, and then, in our next post, delve a bit into the roots of the social resentment of objectivity, or the notion of the Judge-enemy.

The passage from Simmel comes after he gives examples of triads and their sometimes unexpected effects – for instance, the triad formed by the child and the parents. He then points to the disputes between laborers and capital in England are often settled before a non-partisan board:

“When the non-partisan holds up the claims and the reason of the one party before the other, they lose the tone of subjective passion that they usually draw out from the other side.

Here we see something function in a healthy way that is so often considered to be suspect: that a mental content [seelischen Inhalt]’s air of feeling within its primary bearer, usually weakens significantly within a second bearer to whom this content is transferred.
Thus sensations and arguments, that must first transit through many mediating person, are so often without effect, even if their objective content arrives wholly undistorted in the decisive instance; for there is, in the transference, a loss of emotional imponderabilia, which not only fill out insufficient material reasons, but even endow sufficient ones with the drive to practical realization.

This highly significant fact, at least for the development of purely mental influences, brings it about, in the simple case of a socially mediating third element, that the feeling-intonations that accompany some demand fall away from the content, suddenly, and just because it is being formulated by a third party and represented to another; and so the vicious circle can be avoided as the affair becomes intelligible to all: that circle which occurs when the emotional emphasis of the one calls out emotional emphasis in the other, which then reacts again on the first one, and so on, until there is no more limit.”