Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the third season finale of House of Lies, a shitstorm falls down on the consultancy firm Kaan & Associates. Marty and Jeannie (see picture) woke up together that morning, kissed and cuddled, then their cellphones began to ring: the FBI was in the company with a search warrant. With time, Jeannie realizes that Samantha (Rhea Seehorn, Whitney, Better Call Saul), her contact at the Department of Justice, used the confidential information she gave her, to put Kaan & Associates down and boost her own career. When Marty and Jeannie arrive at the office, they are forced to stay in a room. Only Clyde Oberholdt (Ben Schwartz, Parks and Recreation) and Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson, Sea Patrol), the biggest members of Marty and Jeannie’s consultancy pod, are authorized to leave that room and speak to the FBI agents. They come back with news:
CLYDE: Hey, guys. Um…
CLYDE: …We have some info.
DOUG: Uh, all right. You say it. I… No, I’ll say it. (Clears his throat) All right, you tell the first part…
MARTY: Will you guys fucking please?
CLYDE: We’re in the clear on DollaHyde. They came in looking for two sets of books they thought we had and they found absolutely nothing.
DOUG: Right, because we had nothing.That’s great. But-but, um, they-they did find some pretty incriminating paper on the Colossal Foods and Free Range deals.
CLYDE: Collusion, conspiracy…
CLYDE:…Now the CEO of Free Range wants to see you cooked in a vegan casserole.
MARTY: Who the fuck let the Feds in on this thing in the first place? I mean, how’d they even know about the two sets of books?
CLYDE: We have absolutely no idea.
DOUG: We’ve been searching. No idea.
MARTY: Jeannie, what did your friend at the DOJ say?
JEANNIE: Um… um… I told her about the books.
CLYDE: What do you mean you told her about the books?
JEANNIE: I mean I told her.
DOUG: Wait, what am I missing? Wh-What’s the play? Why?
JEANNIE: Because I wanted the DOJ gig, and I… offered her the DollaHyde books. But I never… After Lukas got killed, she… she just fucking did it! (Marty is astonished and hurt. He does not say a word) Can you guys give us a minute, please? (Clyde and Doug leave the room) I’ve never been an honest person, Marty. It’s… I just… Never seemed like a viable option.
MARTY (with tears in his eyes): It’s okay… It’s okay.
At the end of the final episode, Jeannie finds herself with “the keys of the kingdom” Kaan & Associates. She had negotiated her position of partner at Kaan & Associates thanks to that “collusion” and “conspiracy” that she had schemed with Marty. She betrayed Marty by involving Samantha, her contact at the DOJ, to confidential corporate issues. Samantha betrayed her by warning the FBI and causing a federal investigation of Kaan & Associates in order to boost her career. Samantha says to Jeannie: “You of all people should understand blind ambition“. The show is called “House of Lies“, it is about lying all the time in order to thrive in the business world. The series is an allegory of existing management consulting firms (McKinsey is called “Kinsley”, Goldman Sachs is “Goldwater”…) and it presents the job of management consultant as the art of “stealing your watch and telling you the time.” Indeed, the show is an adaptation of the book by former consultant Martin Kihn, “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time“. Apparently, if you do not lie in business, you will inevitably be eaten by sharks who do. So you do not want to be the fool with the pure hands (like one of those Dostoyevsky idiots who are ill at ease in their work environments and would never move up the career ladder), but you do not want to be the hard-hearted cynic either. Should you follow Socrates, who prefers to be unfairly treated, or Callicles, who’d rather treat unfairly?
Bel-Ami (1885) is Maupassant‘s (1850-1893) great novel about unlearning morals and ethics. It portrays Georges Duroy (called Bel-Ami by all his female admirers), a young and ambitious man, who has absolutely no qualms when it comes to cheating and lying for the benefit of his own success. Should we blame him for that? The question here is not whether it is good or bad to cheat in order to succeed. The question is whether dishonesty is a career accelerator and honesty, an impediment to career advancement. Success is a goal. It is the aim of every initiative. The characters in the French novels of the XIXth century wonder about social advancement in a naive manner (unlike their authors who tackle the question in a less naive manner). They represent failure and success at all costs. It is the case for Bel Ami, but also for Julien Sorel (The Red and The Black, Stendhal, 1830), Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert, 1869) and the ambitious Eugène de Rastignac (La Comédie Humaine, Honoré de Balzac, 1815-1848). Unlike Frédéric Moreau who ended up failing, Bel Ami (George Duroy) owes his rise to fame to his numerous scams and frauds. He is a mediocre person who dishonestly achieves success and does not feel guilty about it.
It was dark in the little suite of rooms in the Rue de Constantinople; for George Duroy and Clotilde de Marelle, having met at the door, had gone in at once, and she had said to him, without giving him time to open the Venetian blinds: “So you are going to marry Susan Walter?” He admitted it quietly, and added: “You didn’t know it?”
She exclaimed, standing before him, furious and indignant: “You are going to marry Susan Walter! That is too much! For three months you have been humbugging in order to hide that from me. Everyone knew it but me. It was my husband who told me of it.”
Duroy began to laugh, though somewhat confused all the same; and having placed his hat on a corner of the mantel-shelf, sat down in an armchair. She looked at him straight in the face, and said, in a low and irritated tone: “Ever since you left your wife you have been preparing this move, and you only kept me on as a mistress to fill up the interim nicely. What a rascal you are!”
He asked: “Why so? I had a wife who deceived me. I caught her, I obtained a divorce, and I am going to marry another. What could be simpler?”
She murmured, quivering: “Oh! how cunning and dangerous you are.”
He began to smile again. “Lord! Simpletons and fools are always dupes.”
But she continued to follow out her idea: “I ought to have guessed your nature from the beginning. But no, I could not believe that you would be such a bastard.”
He assumed an air of dignity, saying: “I beg of you to pay attention to the words you are making use of.”
His indignation revolted her. “What? You want me to put on kid gloves to talk to you now. You have behaved toward me like a scoundrel ever since I have known you, and you want to make out that I am not to tell you so. You deceive everyone; you take advantage of everyone; you filch money and enjoyment wherever you can, and you want me to treat you as an honest man!”
In his famous political treatise The Prince (early 16th century), the Italian diplomat Machiavelli (1469-1527) shows how to become a prince and how to remain one. In the chapter called “De his qui per scelera ad principatum pervenere” (“Concerning those who by wicked meanes have attaind to a Principality“), he speaks about conquests by “criminal virtue”, that are conquests in which the new prince secures his power through cruel, immoral deeds, such as the execution of political rivals. Machiavelli advises that a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all in one stroke, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign. In this way, his subjects will slowly forget his cruel deeds and his reputation can recover. Princes who fail to do this, who hesitate in their ruthlessness, find that their problems mushroom over time and they are forced to commit wicked deeds throughout their reign. Thus they continuously mar their reputations and alienate their people. Machiavelli takes the example of Agathocles of Syracuse. who called a meeting of the city’s elite after becoming Praetor of Syracuse. At his signal, his soldiers killed all the senators and the wealthiest citizens, completely destroying the old oligarchy. He declared himself ruler with no opposition. So secure was his power that he could afford to absent himself to go off on military campaigns in Africa. Machiavelli also cites the example of Oliverotto da Fermo:
“When the viands and all the other entertainments that are usual in such banquets were finished, Oliverotto artfully began certain grave discourses, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, and of their enterprises, to which discourse Giovanni and others answered; but he rose at once, saying that such matters ought to be discussed in a more private place, and he betook himself to a chamber, whither Giovanni and the rest of the citizens went in after him. No sooner were they seated than soldiers issued from secret places and slaughtered Giovanni and the rest.”
Machiavelli hails the “courage” and the “fortitude” of Agathocles while blaming his wicked deeds. Dishonesty seems to be an option to achieve power, but if you want to do this bad, you should at least do this right. Doesn’t the end justify the means?
George Orwell (1903-1950) wanted to believe that there was an elementary honesty that would be the privilege of the unprivileged classes. After deep field observations in the slums of London, Paris and Catalonia, after spending time with the miners of England, he developed his famous principle of “common decency” that implies that there is a moral code, a hereditary instinct for good, among the working classes. In other words, the poorer the more honest, a stance that can be accused of populism and anti-intellectualism. Well, if you consider the environment in which you evolve as honest, you do not deserve any special credit for being honest, do you? The happy few lambs (don’t get me wrong, lambs are not perfect) that have ever succeeded (/survived) as lambs in a land of wolves are the ones that get the full honors: Nelson Mandela who could have just turned a blind eye to racism and kept living a pretty good (successful) life instead of spending 27 years in jail ; Marcel Dassault who was one of the very few successful French industrials to stand up to the Germans during WW2 by refusing to take part in the Nazi war effort, causing him to serve a prison sentence in a concentration camp.
Some would define professional success as achieving success (a better position, a higher salary) without compromising oneself, by staying honest to oneself. Bel-Ami blames himself for nothing? Well, good for him! Success does not seem compatible with a guilty conscience anyway. However, success as an actual result (as an objective fact) seems to be facilitated by some dirty tricks. The one who cheats when playing poker clearly has more chances to win than the honest player.