Down in the Cruddy Muddy Deep

Libertarianwise, the 1967 movie How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has something for everybody.

I don’t mean that it offers any deep moral or political message; it certainly doesn’t. But on the one hand, its relentless skewering of the corporate ethos will be welcome to mutualists and agorists; as one Amazon reviewer puts it:

Although the business world has changed quite a bit since 1967, SUCCEED is so dead-on with its attack that even modern corporate leaders will be bloodied from the fray. The company is just large enough so that no one knows what is actually going on, leadership cries out for creative solutions then promptly fires anyone who shows a talent for it, and promotion doesn’t hinge so much upon ability as it does upon sucking up, backstabbing, and looking like you know what you’re doing.

And on the other hand, the chief protagonist – an unscrupulous boyish charmer who oozes his way up the corporate ladder through a combination of flattery, dissimulation, and betrayal despite having no actual qualifications for any of the jobs he’s given – is such a perfect avatar of Ayn Rand’s Peter Keating that even the Randians should enjoy it. (Incidentally, Rand’s portrayal of the business world in The Fountainhead seems so much closer to Kevin Carson’s vision than to George Reisman’s that it’s a wonder the orthodox Randians haven’t denounced her as an anticapitalist.)

A few clips:

1. Here’s the head of the mail room explaining the secret to surviving in the corporate culture:

2. Here’s the sycophantic, Keatingesque protagonist trying to schmooze his boss by pretending to share his alma mater and knitting habit:

(Sorry, can’t embed this one.)

3. Here’s the protagonist giving himself a narcissistic pep talk in the executive washroom:

4. And here’s the finale, where the protagonist, reformed from his backstabbing ways, nevertheless manages to put his reformation over as though it were one more con, suggesting that the distinction between sincerity and marketing has become blurred even introspectively:

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15 Responses to Down in the Cruddy Muddy Deep

  1. Roderick June 25, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    Notice, by the way, that the Top Boss in the fourth clip is played by the same actor as the mailroom head in the first clip.

    • MBH June 26, 2009 at 12:30 pm #

      Cool contrast: didn’t John Galt also play a janitor in the Taggart’s company?

      • Micheal Price July 3, 2009 at 7:45 am #

        Close it was a track walker. Basically the same status as a janitor but without the privilege of working indoors and safely.

        • MBH July 3, 2009 at 12:59 pm #

          Cool. What does a track walker do? (other than walk tracks)

        • Roderick July 3, 2009 at 1:25 pm #

          Same thing as a streetwalker, only on railroad tracks, I assume.

        • MBH July 3, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

          I wonder if anyone recognized a trackwalker whose face was without pain or guilt or fear. That would be one bad-ass looking bum.

  2. Roderick June 25, 2009 at 4:25 pm #

    I should also add that without the brilliant performance of the lead actor, Robert Morse — who manages to make his slimy puppy-dog protagonist likable and repellent at the same time — this would be a much less enjoyable movie.

  3. Anon73 June 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm #

    Somewhere I remember CS Lewis describing how hierarchy worked in hell, and it involved sucking up to ones superiors while ruthlessly dominating ones inferiors. I guess big business and big government are the same thing after all!

    • Matt June 25, 2009 at 8:14 pm #

      @Anon73: You’re thinking of The Screwtape Letters

  4. MBH June 25, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

    the distinction between sincerity and marketing has become blurred even introspectively.

    What is your moral assessment of such a character? I mean, this particular character is different from Keating in that Keating never reformed. He wanted to live vicariously through Roark the whole novel–“selfishness without a self.” This character shifts his end from himself to his species. He has a self, but it’s probably too broad for him to distinguish from anything. I would think that would set him up to see universal principles of ethics pretty clearly. And at that point, they could be internalized. Sure, at first he wouldn’t be able to distinguish between sincerity and marketing. But from there on out, if he were to own his actions and his life (in a Lockean sense), couldn’t he individuate in such a way that he would be able to distinguish sincerity from marketing? I’m no characterologist. But I’ve always wondered about these questions.

    • Roderick June 26, 2009 at 10:45 am #

      It’s worth noting that at the end of the movie the protagonist’s attention turns from the world of business to the world of politics — and that he clearly intends to game the latter in something like the way he gamed the former. Of course it’s humorously presented — I don’t want to give away the movie’s final scene, but it depicts a strategy that taken literally is just silly — but metaphorically it’s somewhat ominous.

      • MBH June 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm #

        Wow. That is ominous. I look very much forward to watching it.

      • MBH June 27, 2009 at 5:35 pm #

        Really good movie.

  5. Anna Morgenstern June 26, 2009 at 12:54 am #

    One thing that most “Objectivists”, as opposed to Rand herself, never understood I think is that there are more Jim Taggarts than Dagny Taggarts. More Peter Keatings than Howard Roarks out there in the world. In some sense she wrote her novels too late. The kind of people she lionized had already become nearly extinct on the level she was writing about.
    I think in terms of small, quasi-grey market businesses there might be a lot of Randian heroic types, but they don’t ever make it big because the fix is already in.

    • Aster June 26, 2009 at 5:48 pm #

      Which is why the new Randian businesspeople need to be agorists. I think we should do it, and do well doing it. It’s a better idea than bohemian starvation, which unfortunately is largely the current left-libertarian fashion.

      In any collapsing empire there are new classes arising. Why don’t we learn from the early modern bourgeoisie and start laying some material framework for a second series of liberal revolutions against the our corrupt elites? If they scorn the grey market, so too did the feudal lords scorn the burghers, and from rather similar reasons and fears. And we know who won. Only this time, let’s do it right and aim to write into the new constitution measures to prevent the formation of a second calcified capitalist class to replace the current regime. A platform of disestablishment of the corporate model and a principled refusal to replicate it in our own institutions prior to ‘the Revolution’ is a good first step.

      Successful social movements parallel real social interests which are not well served by the current system. Libertarians should seek out socioeconomic allies- not the rich, not the poor, not the middle class, but the independent, or those who would choose independence were they offered and shown a way, from all conventionally defined social levels. If the world we seek is indeed better and more functional, then even in adverse conditions our better models should be capable of some tangible success. Let’s test Carsonian mutualism. If IP represents the attempt of the old order to hold on to its outdated privileges by retarding the exchange of ideas and information; then in the internet we have our printing press, and this time it’s nearly as fast as thought.

      We have much talent here which is being cruelly wasted by a system which is blind to human excellence, in principle and in senseless accidental prejudice. That is a crime, but it is a crime that can work to our advantage in a world in which quality human capital is the most valuable thing on Earth, and the active human mind the scarcest resource. We need merely find quality entrepreneurs and organisers who can figure out what dish can be made with the ingredients at hand. Fortunately, unlike communists, left-libertarians have no need to feel guilt from the pursuit of wealth of self-interest. The self-confidence which derives from success would empower the cause and improve its temperament.

      For an inspiration:

      Absinthe, for instance, is difficult to find or import and absurdly overpriced (I ? absinthe). I know a left-libertarian who’s operated a gypsy cab service. There must be many other possibilities.

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