Stalin, CEO

In a public lecture, Zizek once said that it is only under late capitalism that Stalinism has truly come into its own. It was kind of a throw-away remark that I don’t believe he has developed any further, but as I study more about Stalinism and about neoliberalism, I’m increasingly convinced that he’s right and that Stalin, CEO would be an awesome subversive “management theory” book.

Some shared features of Stalinism and our present economic regime:

  • A cult of personality surrounding “visionary leaders” (Stalin, contemporary CEOs)
  • Continual demand for increased productivity to meet fundamentally arbitrary goals (five-year plans, exceeding analyst expectations of performance)
  • Purges (Gulags, mass layoffs)
  • Unpredictable micromanagement (Stalin’s unexpected intervention into various controversies, habitual short-circuiting of chain of command in corporate environments)
  • Reliance on scapegoating (the leader gets all credit for achievements but underlings always take the blame for failures — “If only comrade Stalin knew!”)
  • Rule by slogan (Soviet propaganda, management-speak)
  • The demand to control all of life (“totalitarianism,” affective labor)

Am I missing anything, dear readers?

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24 Responses to “Stalin, CEO”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    Hypermasculinity.

  2. JP Stormcrow Says:

    This is great.
    Leadership succession.
    An extension to “rule by slogan” would be externally-directed propaganda/PR.

  3. hic rhodus Says:

    Stalin CEO… magnificent. My two cent:

    1. Ability to rabidly attack the stupidity of your opponents’ ideas and then publicly adopting them as your own profitable policies just a few months later.

    2. Ability to back down on unpopular official policies while simultaneously declaring them to be dizzying successes.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    On Twitter, @BrennanBreed says: What about Stalin’s dekulakization and the CEO-class push to destroy the middle class?

  5. chakira Says:

    Contemporary CEOs don’t shoot people into ditches because they are members of the fictitious Polish underground.
    Contemporary CEOs don’t force people to build a canal through the frozen Siberian wastes.
    Contemporary CEOs don’t run arctic death camps with <3 mos. life expectancy.
    Contemporary CEOs didn't shoot all the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn.
    Contemporary CEOs don't sentence people to exile without right of correspondance.
    Contemporary CEOs didn't make an alliance with Hitler.
    Contemporary CEOs don't defend rape as "ha[ving] fun with a woman or taking a few trifles"
    Contemporary CEOs didn't kill 1.1 Million prisoners of war
    Contemporary CEOs didn't kill 5 million Ukrainians by stealing their wheat and seed grain
    Contemporary CEOs didn't say they were "Dizzy with success" when their plan to kill women and children succeeded
    Contemporary CEOs didn't crush the Kulaks
    Contemporary CEOs didn't send the 400,000 Volga Germans to the Kazakh Gulag as collaborators

  6. Bill (@freenezwandring) Says:

    Squashing middle management is part of it. Under Stalin, local types were responsible for plan numbers that were totally unachievable. You say the numbers were arbitrary, which is true, but they also followed a clear pattern in that they were totally unrealistic. The people who made plan faked their numbers (Stalin as School Superintendent?). Those who didn’t, or were seen to have faked, were targeted as subversive (even incompetence was a form of subversion), labeled saboteurs, etc., and tried, usually then shot but not necessarily always.

    Per capita it was local types (local bosses, factory managers) and their hangers on who were the target of the terror in 36-9. Others were killed, too, but those people were killed at by far the highest rate.

    I have a friend who is a district manager for a large retailer. I won’t be surprised if it kills her, though I’ll definitely be sad.

  7. Alex Says:

    Mark Fisher came up with a similar line of thinking (dunno if he coined it) called “Market Stalinism”.

    http://www.full-stop.net/2011/06/07/blog/alex/deleted-scenes-mark-fisher/

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, the original Stalinism was imposed with an appalling level of highly visible violence. The current variant can put itself forward as the natural order of things (though it also relies on violence of a less immediately visible and legible sort). I believe this could be what’s meant by “coming into its own” — it operates much more smoothly and “naturally” under contemporary capitalist conditions than it could in war-ravaged Russia and Eastern Europe.

  9. chakira Says:

    Maybe you just live under a more benevolent regime where you won’t be immediately killed for say, a typo in a newspaper or refusing to collectivize your farm.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Obviously I do! I don’t mean to minimize the Stalinist atrocities at all. I don’t want to live under a Stalinist regime, nor would anyone here.

  11. Ben Says:

    Great title Adam. Perhaps it’s outside of your focus, but one of the most insidious aspects of contemporary management is that everyone is asked to manage things all of the time. Small example: think how much time one can spend managing one’s profile in Facebook or managing one’s iTunes playlists. Foucault discusses the rise of risk management as a means to minimize dangers that cannot be eliminated. Our lives escape from us so we manage them as best we can.

    Again, probably not apposite your interests here.

  12. JP Stormcrow Says:

    Potemkin village effect whenever anyone in upper management visits actual operations.

  13. ambzone Says:

    I’d echo the Mark Fisher recommendation.

  14. Someguy Says:

    Contemporary CEOs don’t shoot people into ditches because they are members of the fictitious Polish underground.
    They just “kill” (fire) people because they suspect they don’t vote the way they should.

    Contemporary CEOs don’t force people to build a canal through the frozen Siberian wastes.
    They just employ slave labor overseas.

    Contemporary CEOs don’t run arctic death camps with <3 mos. life expectancy.
    They just condemn swaths of the planet to be toxic waste dumps where those living there can expect shortened lives.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't shoot all the Polish intelligentsia at Katyn.
    They just screw us all by trying to debase climate science.

    Contemporary CEOs don't sentence people to exile without right of correspondance.
    They just tell you what you can and can't post on social media or say aloud where it could be repeated.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't make an alliance with Hitler.
    They just promote the state as serving the interests of the corporation, which is fascism.

    Contemporary CEOs don't defend rape as "ha[ving] fun with a woman or taking a few trifles"
    They just support the party that says "legitimate" rape doesn't result in pregnancy.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't kill 1.1 Million prisoners of war
    They just help deny basic health care and lobby against social services, killing far more people indirectly.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't kill 5 million Ukrainians by stealing their wheat and seed grain
    They just dictate what farmers can plant and sue them if they try to hold patented seed over 'till next year and help subsidize unhealthy processed foods over basic foodstuffs.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't say they were "Dizzy with success" when their plan to kill women and children succeeded
    They just thought they were "The Smartest Guys In The Room."

    Contemporary CEOs didn't crush the Kulaks
    They just get the government to send troops where they want to extract resources.

    Contemporary CEOs didn't send the 400,000 Volga Germans to the Kazakh Gulag as collaborators
    They just want everyone to work without health benefits, with minimal education, and in many cases without voting rights until they are of no use anymore and then die.

    Are you really serious that it all has to be a 1-to-1 thing rather than a metaphoric culture surrounding the modern CEO, or are you willing to admit that they often behave like megalomaniacs which results in less direct but no less evil results on innocent people?

  15. Owen Hatherley Says:

    Stalin is one thing, but there’s more than one, entirely serious, Mao-as-Business-Guru books – though it seems they’re more ‘learn from Mao how to talk to Chinese CEOs’ than ‘learn from Mao how to *be* a CEO’. A short step however.

  16. Robert Says:

    This is a good post, so long as we keep it in perspective. Stalin was a brute, murderer, and iron fisted ruler (and before all of that a seminarian.) Contemporary CEOs aren’t like Stalin in those ways.

    However, there is a level of compare/contrast we can do. While I still maintain (with a healthy amount of data on my side) that capitalism has made the world a better place, we need to be careful of its excesses. Thanks for the post for thought.

  17. Adam Kotsko Says:

    When corporations aren’t constrained by the rule of law, their behavior often gets close to “classic” Stalinism. We also have to factor in the fact that there are multiple CEOs — though when one corporation gains hegemony over others, the resulting power can seriously degrade people’s quality of life. Think of the effects of Walmart’s monomaniacal focus on “low prices” all the way down the supply chain. I have little doubt that if a corporation was allowed total free reign in a country like Stalin was, we would see similar levels of atrocity.

  18. Josh K-sky Says:

    STOP MAKING MARTIN AMIS CRY

  19. Phenomenologist Says:

    I don’t think it is productive to get into a debate about which kind of society is more “evil” by tallying up the atrocities. I think many would agree that both neoliberalism and Stalinism are bad.

    On scapegoating: CEOs in publicly traded firms are under enormous pressure to increase the company’s stock prices by any means necessary. If they do not perform up to expectations, they quite often get fired by the board – e.g. HP fired three CEOs in the last seven years, Kevin Rollins got canned by Dell. There’s a wealth of literature on this in economic sociology.

  20. Barry Freed Says:

    “Quantity has a quality all its own.” It certainly fits.

  21. Nicolai Says:

    In the same way capitalism replaced the direct physico-political slavery of feudalism with slavery of the labour market (i.e. to a great extend replacing direct / subjective violence with structural / systemic violence), the Stalin CEO replaces the “subjective” / direct / physical violence of traditional Stalinism with a structural / systemic coorporate Stalinism… I think your model makes sense.

    Btw. Badiou quotes Zizek in “The meaning of Sarkozy” for having said that Stalinism is the future of parliamentary democracy (p. 29)

  22. David Auerbach Says:

    To quote Hans Blumenberg: ‘What lies behind the proposition that the significant concepts of the modern doctrine of the state are secularized theological concepts is not so much a historical insight, as Carl Schmitt asserts when he explains that these concepts were “transferred from theology to political theory,” as it is *a dualistic typology of situations*. Consider, for example, the proposition that “the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver.” If this assertion were correct, then the other could not also hold, according to which after the failure of the Enlightenment the conservative counterrevolutionary writers attempted “to support the personal sovereignty of the monarch ideologically by means of analogies drawn from a theistic theology.” Analogies, after all, are precisely not transformations. If every metaphorical borrowing from the dynastic language treasures of theology were ‘secularization’ in the sense of transformation, then we would immediately stand before a mass of products of secularization that would have to be entitled “Romanticism.”’


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