Business burble doesn’t beat real historical understanding

Corinne Maier’s far-sighted satirical take on noughties corporate culture has powerful lessons for our age of scandal, scamming and shallowness.

The Strahov public library in Prague.
The Strahov public library in Prague. Credit: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

File ‘business ethics,’ ‘growth strategy,’ and ‘corporate vision’ under increasingly confusing modern terminology that means precisely the opposite when put into practice. Prophets and poets, not multinational companies, have visions. Growth strategies tend to produce more growth strategies. The louder a company shouts about its ethics, the more, we assume, it’s trying to pull off something really nasty.

That’s one of the arguments put forward in Corinne Maier’s far-sighted monograph  Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay, first published in 2004. A former senior economist at the French electricity giant EDF, Maier became disillusioned with the invasion of corporate management-speak into every corner of the workplace. Sitting through endless seminars on fostering ‘motivation’ in the workforce and improving the ‘company culture,’ she reflected on why businesses couldn’t just get on with their primary functions. After all, an electricity company has a pretty straightforward task. Supply energy to customers at a cheap enough price that they’ll buy it, and in sufficient quantity that they don’t run out. If its employees don’t succeed in making that happen, they will face the sack. Or the company will lose money and everyone will be out of a job. Surely, motivation enough?

With hindsight, what Maier identified has led to some of the most destructive events in recent corporate history, partly inspired by the capacity of newspeak management burble to bewitch and bewilder company owners, investors, and the world’s media.

Crypto whizz kid and FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried championed a personal philosophy of abundance: ‘Seek out the opportunities with the biggest upside, not the ones which are safest.’ If you want a hoot, try Googling ‘Sam Bankman-Fried’s inspirational quotes’ — you’ll find pages of credulous interviews plus listicles of the ‘best ofs’ from Bankman-Fried. According to Bankman-Fried, risky business was the ‘altruistic thing’ to do. As the journalist Matt Levine wisely summarised, Bankman-Fried was implicitly trying to tell the world: ‘I’m in the Ponzi business and it’s pretty good.’ He had got high on his own supply. So high, in fact, that he didn’t pay attention to fundamental, boring questions. Does the product I’m selling have real value? What happens if investors get cold feet, especially in a turbulent global environment? What is my collateral if it all goes south?

Bankman-Fried’s eloquence — he is able to splurge out technical terms adroitly and climb up and down verbal ladders, all accompanied by his trademark jiggling of the knee — is in inverse proportion to any sense of depth, historical observation or intellectual context he conveys with it. He once claimed he thought the only information worth having could be condensed into ‘a six-paragraph blog post.’ It would have been far too much to expect him to reflect on the enormous and vivid literature of the history of financial bubbles.

In this sense, Bankman-Fried’s story is a footnote to a broader phenomenon. CEOs in shiny suits who make ethics their business. Electricity companies wanting to change the world. Crypto chancers, in ostentatiously scruffy shorts and T-shirts, who have us believe that Ponzi schemes are great, actually. Maier first observed it in the corporate world, but it is now vividly finding its way into every corner of modern life. We have a plethora of leaders in business and politics who convey their meaning in a similar vein to Bankman-Fried et al, devoid of wit, insight and depth: lacking the crucial capacity to carefully test assumptions against the examples of the past and to tease out what is new about the contemporary scene compared with what is age-old.

Having this capacity doesn’t require vast historical knowledge or a storied career in academia — it comes from a worldliness that can only be acquired through exposure to different kinds of stress and varied situations.

Europe’s post-war generation of politicians passed through virtually the same institutions as our present crop and had generally similar credentials. But perhaps the reason why they seem to loom, giant-like, over the contemporary scene is because so many of them had fought in one of the two World Wars. Of Britain’s nine Cold War-era prime ministers up to Margaret Thatcher, six had seen active service. Harold Wilson had volunteered for military service but was transferred into the Civil Service and made a major contribution to the war effort as an economic adviser to Churchill’s War Cabinet. The only true exception was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, PM for just less than a year, who had suffered with chronic illness throughout the war period.

I am not talking about any special insight into the general human condition but rather a particular kind of savviness. War presents so many varied administrative and logistical challenges at both a macro and a micro level. The officer can’t do without his batman. A command post is blind without accurate signalling.

Serving in the military meant mixing with people from all classes and from all over the country. In the comic film La Grande Vadrouille, one of the great films about the Second World War (released in 1966), resistance fighters, ordinary French citizens and even some nuns help three stranded English airmen (including a peerless Terry Thomas) escape the clutches of the Wehrmacht in a rather slapstick succession of adventures, armed only with pidgin French and a series of disguises. A house painter (Bourvil) and an orchestral maestro (Louis de Funès) get roped into the airmen’s attempt to get to the Free Zone in the south of France. Much of their banter consists of the conductor complaining about the painter’s common ways and muttering that they ‘come from different worlds.’ The painter just gets on with it, and occasionally tells the conductor to stop being such a wet blanket.

It’s a microcosm of the unconventional and intense demands that war presents. In the end, and against the odds, the painter and the conductor find a way of rubbing along and rescue each other from all kinds of scrapes, and the airmen escape to freedom.

I’m not suggesting that Sam Bankman-Fried might not have pursued his elaborate financial chicanery if he had fought in a war —after all, the British publisher Robert Maxwell, one of the greatest crooks in corporate history, was awarded the Military Cross.

Most of us are creatures of habit, and we spend our careers honing a particular skill. What wars do is force behaviour change simply because the situation demands it: you have no choice but to engage with new ways of thinking.

Many Cold War-era politicians hadn’t in fact, beyond war, done much else other than politics. They usually weren’t polymaths or especially well-travelled. But they had had one significant interlude from political life, and that’s all they needed to gain a broader perspective on current events.

We don’t have a critical mass of leaders in business and politics who have done more than one thing with their lives. And so we simply don’t have a critical mass of people who can expose the bad assumptions that feed into newspeak, who, like Corinne Maier, can say: ‘Hey, hold on a minute. What does that really mean?’ And without those bold voices, more and more of us will get scammed by the many bad actors who are out there waiting for us. We need help being vigilant against the Bankman-Fried personalities of this world.

Author

Alastair Benn