Christopher Brown is a gonzo cyberpunk writer who delves into the real-world story of Saddam Hussein's Frank Frazetta collection, but by day he's a high-powered lawyer who's worked in government and the private sector (it's the intersection of these two Browns that penned his outstanding, forthcoming debut novel, Tropic of Kansas, which you should pre-order right now).
In a new column, Brown uses Tropic of Kansas's corporate-presidency dystopia (an eerily prescient premise that predated Trump's bid for the presidency) as a springboard to look at the different roles that CEOs and presidents play, especially the outsider "organizational transformation" CEOs who swagger in with bold vision and leave behind ruin for the company, riches for themselves, and short-term gains for the investors who vaulted them into position.
CEOs rule over private realms where speech is not free, and the ideas of their subjects are the property of the sovereign. Their control over the things employees say and do extends outside the office, and even after the end of employment. In 21st century companies, those controls are commonly obtained through contracts originally designed by tech industry lawyers to protect ownership of the ideas that walk out the door every night inside employees’ heads. Like the contracts the Trump campaign and the transition team made its people sign — confidentiality agreements requiring staffers to keep secrets, with non-compete clauses prohibiting work for other campaigns, non-solicitation clauses that bar poaching of personnel to work for other causes, and non-disparagement clauses where staffers agree to never say anything bad about the campaign, the candidate, or even his family. Contracts like these are often enforced through private arbitrations and confidential settlements, as with the Trump campaign’s action last year to prevent a staffer from revealing embarrassing information to the press. Trump told the Washington Post that federal employees should sign similar agreements, and while it’s not yet clear the extent to which he has done so, you can see that background working in his new war on leaks.
The charismatic CEO model is ascendant in our politics despite having been discredited on Wall Street. Management scholars like Harvard’s Rakesh Khurana have cogently argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, outsider CEOs pursuing “organizational transformation” tend to leave the enterprise crippled, while enriching themselves and resisting all limits on their power. Writing in the age of Enron, Khurana attributed the rise of “savior CEOs” to business trends that sound a lot like what led to November 8 — declining growth that caused experienced professional managers to be seen as self-interested elites and fueled a new investor populism that focused on grandiose visions of change, and helped hype the markets to a bubble from whose burst we have never really recovered. By installing a change agent CEO to run our government, we choose a type that is anti-democratic, and whose destructive impulses often yield predictably damaging results. Maybe that was part of the point in November —a retributive electoral choice by globalization’s left-behinds against affluent urbanity.
You’re Fired — Democracy, Dystopia and the Cult of the CEO