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Mimesis on Wall Street

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It has been written and said many times that "success breeds success." It is often forgotten that it does not simply mean that successful people tend to have further successes. It goes well beyond that. In the social sense the meaning is that successful people tend to replicate. Yes, replicate! Sometimes this happens biologically, although the Bach family and a few others are the rare examples of the situation where individual native intelligence and talent are transferred "genetically." No, most replication is done not by procreation, but by social selection, both actively and passively. Social selection is a not-too-fancy way of saying that successful people choose as their associates and colleagues and politicians people like themselves. This does not mean they are choosing biological similarities, although this is not unknown and is particularly well-known in reverse where biological types are discriminated against, such as women, Blacks, various nationalities, etc. Successful people choose social likenesses of themselves, that is, people who act like they do and express themselves in the same terms. You can see this among children choosing up sides for schoolyard games. You can see this in colleges where faculty choose people like themselves, even down to the detail of holding the same opinions about various things. You can see it in industry, where sales people, for instance, tend to be a "type" quite different from the "accounting types" or the shop-floor "types." So, one kind of social selection takes place by deliberate choosing, and as I have said, sometimes prejudicially, sometimes imprudently, but always by big or little acts of volition on the part of the already successful person. Social selection also takes place by mimesis or emulation. In fact, the idea of heroes and heroism are based on the knowledge that individuals have a certain amount of "adaptability" that allows them to transform themselves into likenesses of the hero or the heroic and admired and successful person. Mimesis is often less concerned with the analytic than the holistic. Young boys learn about Tiger Woods, find a suitable stick and pretend to be a golf hero. The pretense often becomes something of an obsession and the transformation of the individual is on its way, whether the individual thinks much about every facet of personality and behavior of the model or not. Cultures are full of social selection mechanisms, not the least of which are colleges and universities like the Ivy League, well-known and prestigious corporations, and even political leanings and commitments. There many places in America where survival is dependent upon making the "expected choice" of politics. There are corporations where survival is dependent upon making the "directed choice" of politics. There are careers where success is entirely dependent upon acting a certain way, arrogantly, say, to assure the rest that you have "arrived." John Thane, lately of Merrill Lynch knows all about this. The process of identifying yourself through mimesis to then be deliberately chosen as a future financial mogul is one that begins in late childhood, becomes quite ingrained, and culminates (they say) sometime during college or in the first years of the career. You are given chances for success, chances to take risks, chances to fail, but if you are "successful" you are elected into the chosen group, and later you will elect others into the group, too. This is the situation we are facing right now. From Timothy Geithner in Treasury on down in government to the interns that will swarm out of colleges into a summer of government this year, from Vicram Pandit at Citicorp on down the line, from Kenneth Lewis at Bank of America, from thousands of similarly successful men and women on down the line to the hopefuls, yearning to swing a five iron at the most prestigious country clubs, we have a selection mechanism that could be described as optimally producing an endless succession of "successful" people. The only problems are that it takes a long time to adjust this assembly line when it is discovered that "success" is actually failure! There are many of us in the Liberal Arts who have said aloud, for instance, that the B-school system produces what might be termed a UL approved plug-in person, but not a smart plug. The so-called rise of the MBA in America just happens to coincide with the great 20th c. expansion of commerce and finance, which has just been brought to its knees with specific attention to the dismal lack of honesty, prudence, candor, and even intelligence among those practicing under the shingle of an MBA. Correcting the MBA by way of AACSB, the accrediting board for B-schools, will take more than a generation. And, before AACSB will do anything they have to be convinced that there was a fundamental failure ... and not just a bump-in-the-road cyclic phenomenon. And, those who are convinced must socially select people of a like mind to people the accrediting visit teams, and so on. Substantial change here will be very slow. This is just one example of the social mechanisms that support and define the social selection processes. Change will happen faster in corporations when the "fearless leaders of the past two decades" are discredited. The man who carried the "Jump! You f*ckers!" sign down Wall Street last fall, expressed perfectly how long it could take. It would be just a matter of seconds, if only these failures could pry open their windows and actually jump. In real life, however, the failed are still in charge and are fighting the increasingly powerful facts that they have failed. They are not going to give up their gold-plated five irons gracefully, you can bet. They are not going to give up Hudson National or Pebble Beach or any of the perks without a concerted fight. It will be concerted and vicious because although these people are formally competitive against one another in commerce and finance, they are the same kinds of people, and they know it. The people who replace them will be of "a same kind," as well. It should not have to be said, but I will anyway. After a generation or two of social selection to success the successful have established their sway over their politicians. In many ways they have chosen them in the same way they have chosen the up-and-coming in their own industries. Their politicians are just as much failures now as they are, and for the same reasons. And, of course, these politicians are not likely to give up their perks either. They will fight tooth and nail, tell lies like there is no tomorrow, and they will tacitly or deliberately side with the failed in industry and finance. They really have no other choice ... except to change. And, oh what a job is change, when you have to go all the way back to prep school to furl the bad habits and attitudes and begin flying different colors! What you are seeing now is a fight for interpretation of the facts. The formerly successful are trying to hold onto power and so are their politicians. All the people a sufficient distance below the manifestly "successful" are watching quietly with bated breath. They need to know how to act, whether to defend past practices and blame it all on a few rogues, or to abandon the past and strike out on a new path ... and with what moral and intellectual skills? There is a political stand a person could take that says: I know what went wrong, but I don't know if there are enough honest men to fix it, therefore, I am going to play this crisis incrementally. I am going to keep deliberate attention to the pressure that can be brought to bear, to the pain that the formerly successful can be required to endure, so that the greatest number of people on the assembly line for "success" see the need to change, so that the few really intelligent and really moral people at the top also change, once they see that their game is over. This stand says that the tipping point between restoration and change has not yet been reached. It will take a strong will to defend the facts against deliberate misinterpretation. It also understands that once the tipping point is reached there might be hell to pay! JB
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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