3/21/21: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) — Unnatural Law of Corporations #poetry
Even though we are all part of the cold corporate set- up deep down under our skin we are all brothers (and sisters)
From this musical’s finale — Brotherhood of Man
The quoted line is written and delivered with heavy irony. How to Succeed is played for light hearted laughs, and is a tremendously popular property to this day — multiple Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the movie version was a box office and critical hit, and several revivals, tours and regional theater offerings have won cheers for decades and continue to do so. The story strikes a chord with people, but delivers its punch brightly — it’s all fun and games. The heart of darkness is presented as musical theater, and everything works out in the end. The show’s primary creator, Frank Loesser was a combination of poetic sensitivity and street smarts. Loesser was a bard and a striver. He wasn’t particularly bothered by man’s inhumanity to man, he took it as a given. He wanted to prove to his high brow family that he was a high brow composer. He failed. He was a hugely popular one. He wanted art and business acclaim. He won on the business front, and went as far in art as business would take him — which isn’t far enough. Business almost got Loesser to the Promised Land, but business always holds everything and everyone back in the end. Business is the supporting player that steals the movie. People start in business to get money to do other things — raise families, retire, travel, pursue their passions — but in the end, money always becomes the primary reason for being if you’re a businessman or woman. How to Succeed makes timeless, universal observations about life, but never goes far enough to transform anyone spiritually, including Frank Loesser. We treat each other like shit, ain’t it grand.
I worked for years in the cold corporate set – up, first with innocence —- I actually believed that people behaved in a fundamentally human way in business, and then subversively — I would do my job for the corporation, but my main focus was furthering my own project of becoming a writer. I worked in several sectors —- in marketing and sales in corporations, in corporate entertainment as an actor, improviser and writer, in corporate law firms as an attorney, and in corporate academia as a college professor. I can cheerfully report that all sectors of business that I wandered through are throughly devoid of humanity. My cheer comes from the fact that I no longer have to engage with any of them. In every corporate setting, no matter what the stated purpose of the business, which is usually pretty high – minded —- the purpose that is … the bosses uniformly lie, cheat, steal and condescend, and one’s peers and colleagues uniformly compete (never cooperate) in inhumane ways — slandering, insulting, humiliating … basically trying to destroy one another in the hopes that the other’s failure would lead to the competitor’s success.
Corporate culture is conformist culture. Corporations run on mind control. The owners want the employees to be at each other’s throats, they want the managers to be petty tyrants. They want every gender, race, ethnic or religious group, sexual preference or any other demographic grouping to struggle long and hard through tiny incremental changes to get a voice or seat at any corporate table. Worse still, all individuality — as much as they crow it as a virtue —- outside the box thinking, innovation blah, blah, blah — is severely punished. You better wear the uniform. You better dress the part, wear your hair the right way, “talk like we talk” — fit in. Corporations claim to be communities, but they are not. Communities are by defintion diverse — not only in terms of their sub -groups but in terms of the varying gifts, characters and personalities of the individuals who make up the community. Corporations are by defintion autocratic. Row in the same direction in a way the owners are comfortable with — or else.
I never worked for a corporate enterprise that produced an excellent product or provided an excellent service. Often the quality of the business’ output was purposefully compromised in order to make more money. I never worked in any corporate setting where anyone was in it for the good of the corporation. Everyone was out for themselves. How to Succeed plays this for laughs. None of the characters do any work. They spend all of their time scheming about how to get ahead and trying to get laid. That is the way it is.
You may be thinking — “oh no my corporation is very enlightened about so many of the criticisms that you mention. We have this program, and that initiative and we take it very seriously.” If you are thinking in that manner, you are a sap. A corporation will make a step toward humanity if they think it is in the corporation’s best interest — for public relations or to retain talented employees etc — but at the end of the day, all of your work to humanize the corporation will ultimately fail. For example, I worked at a school whose mission statement said that you can always do good, and always succeed financially in the process. What nonsense. You can sometimes win financially when you work for good, no question. But often good deeds require that you sacrifice money or power to achieve your noble ends. You can only have one primary goal. If your goal is excellence, then your life and work will put you on a path to excellence. You’ll get money as needed, but you will turn down a lot of money too. If your primary goal is money — you’ll be as good as you can, but when you have to abandon decency, you’ll do it for the bucks, and feel justified doing so.
Business is often credited for making America a great nation, but business has nothing to do with what makes this country great. Art, science, democracy and love are what is great about America —- business just holds us back.
Advocates of business are screaming SOCIALIST! or worse COMMUNIST! as they read this piece, but I am neither. I’m a HUMANIST. Business oriented Christians are screaming SECULAR HUMANIST but I am not that either. I see business as an offense against God —- I admit that I have a more sophisticated view of who and what God is than business oriented Christians. They think God rewards superior people with money. They think business is a morally superior activity. It’s a great con that they have pulled upon themselves — an air tight false rationalization. They get their money because they lie, cheat and steal for it., but get to believe that the cash is God’s grace delivered to them in thanks for their goodness. It makes no sense — but business is a whatever gets you through the night type of lifestyle.
Business is just a baby step away from crime. I met so many uncouth, ignorant, nasty and dangerous people in business. The only reason that business isn’t crime is lobbyists.
Why did I even participate in business? I thought that I had to do it. t was a matter of survival. I thought it was the only game in town. Writers aren’t born wise. Writers have to learn from experience, and they have a facility for communicating what they have learned. Where should I have gone? To the aforementioned art, science, democracy and love. We wouldn’t know Paradise if we didn’t suffer the Fall.
The previous paragraph is where I part ways with Frank Loesser. I want answers. He accepts things that I find unacceptable. I’ve never been a corporate man. I’ve always been true to myself. When the choice came down to me or the corporation, I won every time. No contest. Now I am in the process of fleshing out another way to live. I want to do my work in a proper community. I got married late in life. I didn’t do it because I was lonely. I wanted intimacy with another person. It’s been a very happy and productive ten years. Now I want closeness with a community. I had a teacher once who bemoaned the fact that people weren’t “brothers and sisters on a journey”. He was an old socialist. I think his socialism, and the socialism of many other people, was the product of a yearning.
I don’t think any economic ideology is the answer that I seek. I don’t think men and women are ultimately driven by economics.
Churches aren’t the answer either, because they are fundamentally corporate institutions. You don’t have community if everyone has to believe the same thing … and when you have buildings and salaries to maintain, you aren’t in the catacombs anymore … money becomes the primary focus.
Good people tend to practical realities, but don’t descend into greed and practice all of the other sins that greed leads them to …
Good people have hospitality for one another — they welcome the other into their hearts for who they are … they value the other … they don’t view the other as an instrument of use to be exploited … they don’t make demands on others that they can’t handle and condemn them to shame and failure … good people love one another …
Business shocks the conscience, so it puts its greatest effort into numbing the conscience. Corporations always put on a big show … I worked in sales and marketing, and in entertainment which is basically the same thing … and the job was to propagate a lie … the most puerile useless shit was always — and I knowingly make these generalizations — this is always true … the most puerile useless shit was packaged as having some spiritual or at least psychological benefit for the consumer. Corporate culture is based on lies … manufactured desires become manufactured needs become manufactured addictions … the goal is greed … the cover for the goal is “creating jobs” … whether the work product of those jobs is creative or destructive is never questioned.
In How to Succeed, the protagonist, J. Pierpont Finch climbs the corporate ladder and rises to the position of Chairman of the Board. In the entire Odyssey we never see what the corporation does for a living. It is quite funny. A meaningless journey to achieve meaningless success. Everyone is so engaged in the competition that no one bothers to wonder what they are doing.The corporate men and women are doing nothing, and this is the most unnatural aspect of the unnatural law of corporations.
Human beings need meaning, and we have to discover and create meaning ourselves. Corporations shelter us from being alive. We cling to the corporate skirts trading our freedom and dignity for promised security, and then we engage in psychologically violent hand to hand combat on each rung of the ladder in a constant state of anxiety … short changed of our cheap security at the price of betraying the divine impulses of a our hearts, minds and souls.
In all of my years in corporate settings, I felt that the organization was doing nothing of value, and that I was doing something wonderful. I still do. I wandered through corporate life, a stranger in a strange land … at home in myself … at sea in the workplace … writing symphonies while a soul-less battle raged around me … I found a perch when I was totally alone in my work and totally at peace … all the unpleasantness behind me with the exception of the occasional bad memory. Business scars everyone it touches. I am fortunate. I know that I am scarred. Everyone who has lived a life in business is bitter. The great success stories try to talk themselves and other people into how wonderful their experience has been, but it’s all forced. Everyone senses on some deep, often unacknowledged level that business disappointed them and abased their lives in very important ways. Fame and luxury items are piss poor justifications for a lifetime, and wind up being backdrops for boredom, hopelessness and nihilism … lives of quiet desperation in air conditioned nightmares … prostitutes servicing other prostitutes … deep down knowing what they are …
Situation wanted … position in service of the furtherance of art, science, democracy and love. Corporations need not apply.
Copyright 2021 Richard Thomas