Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Alexander Fullerton: Chief Executive (1969)
Like Cameron Hawley’s corporate fictions, on which it is clearly modeled, Alexander Fullerton’s Chief Executive transforms the contradictions of corporate capitalism into narrative conflict. Fullerton’s novel is set within a world of executive conferences and board of directors meetings, and dramatizes the struggle for corporate control. Chief Executive describes Nicholas Morrell’s rise to the top of the managerial hierarchy of a shipbuilding corporation in the decades following WW II. Divided into three sections – “Forties,” “Fifties,” “Sixties” – the novel maps out the growth of American corporate capitalism during the postwar upturn, and pays particular attention to the increasingly international scope of the American economy. The narrative begins in the last years of the war, illustrating Morrell’s experiences as a lieutenant commander in the British Royal Navy, which foreshadow his later success in commanding the employees of a corporation. While having his ship repaired around New York City, Morrell meets Gil McLennan, a wealthy shipyard owner who, foreseeing America’s imminent rise to hegemony of the world economy, attempts to secure his economic position by making business contacts with important German prisoners-of-war. McLennan lectures Morrell: “This is the shape of industry in the future, Nick. International cooperation, big markets open to us all, bigger production, lower costs, bigger sales, bigger profits.” McLennan chose his last wife because her inheritance gave him the capital needed to take over the shipyard, and his next wife has a trust that is important for his later investment in overseas production (he refuses to distinguish fiancée from finance). Motivated by his impoverished childhood to seek money, Morrell, a British citizen, returns to America after the war with the hope of obtaining a management position in McLennan’s corporation. Morrell’s dream of moving straight into the gray-flannel-suit business class is quickly crushed by employment rejections, but he tenaciously gets his foot in the door by being assigned a job sweeping in the machine shop of the shipyards. Morrell notices that all of the machines have been Taylorized and automated, and therefore demand little of their operators: “Watching the movement of the operators, he was surprised to see that their jobs were really quite simple. The machines did the work they were set to do, and needed little more than to be fed and watched.” Morrell’s fatiguing job in waste disposal, however, has not been automated. He aims to change that, and in the process he redesigns the entire shop so that both production and disposal are taken care of by one cost-saving conveyor belt system. The novel makes it clear that Morrell’s plans exemplify not technical expertise (best left, as Morrell says, to the “engineers”) but entrepreneurial innovation, which is recognized by his immediate boss and becomes his “passport into management.” Leaping to the fifties and over Morrell’s quick movement up through middle management, the novel finds itself more comfortably set in the office towers and executive suites of the McLennan Corporation. Morrell, now a vice-president and member of “the hundred thousand a year class,” smartly sees the importance of moving “from single or small orders to mass production” for taking advantage of the enormous potential of new markets in the postwar era, and single-handedly guides a new pleasure boat division to success. At a certain point, Morrell can’t go any higher in the corporate hierarchy without taking the job of the president, McLennan, but he is eventually able to move up by moving overseas. When McLennan buys a large interest in a badly-run, largely government-owned, British shipyard, Morrell is shipped back to England as the executive vice-president, or “chief executive officer,” of the corporation that is formed from the merger, McLennan Ridgeway Limited. Cut to the sixties, and the narrative finds Morrell facing a conflict between individual vision and collective mediocrity straight from an Ayn Rand novel. When the decision was first made to take control of the shipyard, Morrell made it clear that complete control would be necessary: “We’d have to have a free hand to do whatever we damn well needed to get this concern looking something like a commercial enterprise instead of a benevolent trust.” But the final agreement leaves the ownership of the corporation’s stocks, and therefore control of the firm, split between the British government, McLennan, and a few other parties. As a result, the company’s board of directors consists mostly of incompetent members of the British aristocracy, who don’t appreciate the attention and recognition Morrell acquires as he transforms the business into a success. At one meeting, the president of the board of directors, Sir Charles Briscoe, admonishes Morrell: “We are a company, gentlemen, not an individual. We are McLennan Ridgeway Limited; we are not Nicholas Morrell Limited.” Morrell defends his contributions, responding: “I’ve taken this company off the scrap-heap and made it work. McLennan Ridgeway is a highly organized, expertly managed group with the finest equipment in the industry, a high return on capital investment and the longest order book in the business.” But the board of directors remains hostile, and its president, Briscoe, tries deceitfully to force Morrell to give up control of the corporation through blackmail. Although the novel proudly but rather clumsily shows off its tolerance towards Jews (unlike other executives, Morrell does not exclude Jewish managers from social outings), it unfortunately takes a homophobic turn when it figures the collective sameness of the board of directors and the socialist-leaning British government by turning the president of the board into a homosexual who has a personal relationship with an important government bureaucrat, and using the fact of that relationship as the basis of Morrell’s revenge. As the narrative progresses, Morrell’s personal identity becomes inseparable from the corporation. When asked why he continues to fight for the company, despite his wealth and options, he states: “McLennan Ridgeway hasn’t only been mine, its been me.” But as a British citizen working for an American firm operating in England, this complicated corporate identity reflects the increasing ability of capital to detach itself from its geographic roots and flow across national boundaries. When facing British criticism of American interference in England, Morrell praises America for the opportunities it has given him and expresses his contempt for what he considers the general mediocrity of English society, revealing perhaps a libertarian hatred of socialism. But he also faces criticisms from America when he steals military contracts from McLennan’s American-based shipyard. Even though they are “closely associated companies,” he refuses to restrain his company when in competition against the American firm. By the novel’s conclusion, Morrell has become a nationless subject, an embodiment of capital in an era of globalization, committed to pursuing profit wherever and however he can.