Playboys

The Gamesman: The New Corporate Leaders

by Michael Maccoby
Simon & Schuster, 285 pp., $8.95

Back in the 1920s, Charles Beard called America a “business civilization.” Is this still the case? Even today, most Americans spend their working lives in the employ of profit-making enterprises. Yet we lack anything like a literature on the subject. We have had no chroniclers like Balzac or Arnold Bennett. Dreiser’s Frank Cowperwood is memorable mainly for his personal problems; whereas Lewis’s Babbitt was a buffoon, and we saw Dodsworth only on holiday. About the only businessmen who can carry a plot are in advertising or entertainment. Our captains of steel, chemicals, finance are seldom very interesting people.

Even so, analysis of who succeeds in business can reveal a good deal about where our country is moving. Historical conditions dictate which kinds of people will fill the presiding positions. The period immediately after World War II required industrial efficiency to satisfy a demand for appliances. So men from manufacturing rose to the top. The two Wilsons—“Engine Charlie” at General Motors and “Electric Charlie” from General Electric—were typical. Stolid products of places like Penn State and Purdue, they were the corporate wing of the Eisenhower era.

In the Sixties, business began to get sexier. Manufacturing was well under control, or so at least we were told. So verbal facility came into favor. Executives became more talkative. A lot was said about professional management and the responsibilities of the modern corporation. Companies diversified and conglomerated. They even rechristened themselves so as to dissolve ties to a single product: Esmark, Tenneco, Amstar, Uniroyal. Executives became experts in “synergy,” an industrial gestalt which turned two and two into five. RCA, for example, had to be more than the sum of NBC, Hertz, Random House, Banquet Foods, and Coronet Carpets. The men who ran Textron moved easily among helicopters and hearing aids, watchbands and writing paper, snowmobiles and bathroom scales. Indeed, more money could be made from exotic price-earnings ratios than from marketing a better product. Since 1969, most of these companies have tumbled in the Fortune listings. Textron and Raytheon and Litton, TRW and LTV and FMC, had been more cooked up than their pronouncements suggested. Spokesmen for “synergy” no longer get invitations to business school seminars.

In The Gamesman, Michael Maccoby wants to tell us what will happen next. After several years in Mexico, where he studied the local villagers, he has diversified into corporate executives. But Maccoby is also a lay analyst, an apprentice of Erich Fromm. So his subject is really the corporate psyche, within the setting of the “corporate psychostructure.” He explains why he is better qualified, for example, than the late Oscar Lewis when it comes to the art of interviewing. “The process by which one becomes a psychoanalyst [entails] a long period of self-study…where his goal is to develop himself as the instrument of investigation,” he writes. “The psychoanalyst is sensitized [by a psychodynamic theory of character] to listen to contradictions between what is said or what is communicated by body movements, facial …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.