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P H I L O S O P H Y F O R B U S I N E S S ISSN 2043-0736
Issue number 71
23rd January 2012
I. 'Toward Corporate Preeminence: The Greatness of Corporate Soul' by
II. 'On the Right to be Greedy' by Geoffrey Klempner
III. Review of Carl Freedman 'The Age of Nixon: A study in cultural
power' by Rachel Browne
In the first of a projected series of three essays, Sean Jasso raises
the seemingly innocent question, is it enough for an enterprise or
corporation to be good, or good enough? His answer, controversially,
is a flat No. Inspired by Aristotle's vision of the great souled
man, Jasso argues that what motivates enterprise is the ideal of
greatness: to be the best. This is the point of competition and the
free market. One can see the rationale for this, even though there
are many businesses large and small that make a valuable contribution
to the economy knowing that they will never be top dog. There is still
excellence to strive for in the small details, in looking after your
customers or your work force to the best of your ability, remaining
vigilant over quality control.
The idea of not being content with 'good enough' was famously, or
infamously, expressed in the 'greed is good' slogan, put into the
mouth of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in the 1987 film Wall Street.
Today, political correspondents and TV pundits talk about the problem
of 'corporate greed', and the need restrain the alleged 'excesses' of
capitalism. But what is wrong with greed, exactly? Recent controversy
in the UK over bonuses paid to CEOs prompted me to look again at
something I wrote on greed in 2006 which, not altogether
unsurprisingly, did not reach the pages of P4B.
In her review of Carl Freedman's new book on Nixon, Rachel Browne
considers the portrait of a man motivated desperately to succeed at
all costs, and who reached the office of the Presidency despite an
unlikeable manner and serious character flaws. One can say that Nixon
was very far from being a man of Aristotelian virtue. Was he the man
for his time, in an age of social and political paranoia? If so, what
lessons can be learned today?
I. 'TOWARD CORPORATE PREEMINENCE: THE GREATNESS OF CORPORATE SOUL' BY
Introduction -- Why Greatness?
This first essay argues that every firm deeply rooted in mission and
entrepreneurship seeks greatness -- that is, transcendence toward
superiority in delivering value, benchmark competitiveness within and
beyond its industry, excellence in corporate accountability and,
ultimately, lasting relevance from its domestic to global reach. The
compulsion for the business enterprise to sustain excellence in
performance remains a paradigm of the market economy. Indeed, it is
competition that compels all economic organizations -- from the
multinational corporation to the household -- to permanently innovate
in order to remain viable to its many stakeholders. Why greatness?
This bold question guides the forthcoming essays through evidence and
discussion of two central pillars necessary for 21st century
greatness: corporate governance -- the system of values by which the
corporation guides its mission and manages risk; and globalization --
the philosophy of entrepreneurial reach for resources and markets
around the world. The overarching aim is to challenge both the
intellectual and practical authenticity of the corporation's purpose
in the 21st century and to strengthen our knowledge of the
requirements and consequences of the firm that ascends to preeminence
in 2020 and beyond.
In this installment, we begin with a discussion of the idea of
greatness at first to lay the philosophical foundation of the claim
that a firm's aspirations of surpassing merely good performance must
be imbued within the nucleus of the corporate culture and remain a
central driver of the firm's strategic vision. More practically, this
essay argues that greatness, driven by superior expertise, is in fact
within reach for all households, small businesses, multinational
corporations, government institutions and nations. Simply stated,
relentless commitment to hard work, practice, and perpetual endurance
are the nonnegotiable, overriding ingredients for any corporation to
move toward greatness. We discuss this seemingly simplistic, timeless
and learnable formula at the outset of the essay anchored on the
greatness of soul framework in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
The catalogue of best practices for competitive excellence is the
work of countless practitioners and academicians for much of the 20th
century. Our most current management theory is the product of the last
fifty, if not more recently, thirty years. The traditional MBA
curriculum is a perfect example of the theoretical disciplines that
serve as international standards of business and management practice
-- most of which have been shaped even more recently within the last
twenty years. Although not new disciplines by any measure two of the
more recent and influential phenomena to impact the management of the
business enterprise are the ideas of governance and globalization. The
remaining installments uphold Peter Drucker's assertion that the
business enterprise is a confluence of three dimensions -- 'an
economic institution; a human organization; and an embodiment of
values' (Ellsworth, p, ii). The values of the organization are
essentially the rules by which the organization makes decisions about
the right and wrong things to do and it is within the context of
corporate governance that these values take root. In the second
essay, we reflect on Archie Carroll's model of corporate
responsibility to guide the argument that superior governance is the
grounding en route to greatness.
With the reality of international markets and resource allocation
impacting business decisions more than ever before, the third essay
discusses the idea of globalization arguing that greatness cannot
escape the enduring practice of mastering the strategic issues
associated with globalization. In other words, even exceptional
local, regional and national organizations must not become complacent
to the imminent demands of global competition. Simply defined,
globalization is the global reach and consequences of worldwide
commerce. For the first time in history, it is no longer possible for
a business manager to be disconnected from global politics, economics
and culture. In essence, managers without passports are veering
toward irrelevance in a matter of time and managers who don't study
global opportunities will outright lose their effectiveness. In the
third installment, we reflect on Pankaj Ghemawat's model of global
value creation to support the argument that the greatness of the firm
is dependent on a cultivated global business model.
The consequences of business failure have become increasingly more
compounded over recent years with a wider stakeholder base
positioning their own success measures on the long-term
sustainability of the primary corporation. The ultimate aim here is
to provoke the entrepreneur, shareholder, manager, customer and the
many entities who have a claim in an organization's success --
whether a hospital, non-profit organization, a multinational
corporation or a small business -- to evaluate and innovate their
governance and global infrastructure. We conclude by introducing a
practical assessment tool designed to elicit answers to the hard
questions any astute stakeholder would require of the firm who
envisions a competitive position -- if not preeminent position --
well into the future.
Essay One -- The Idea of Greatness
Why aren't all corporations great? The simple truth is that greatness
requires clarity of vision beyond that of the tangible life of the
firm (we'll call this corporate perpetuity), coupled with a
discipline of relentless perseverance of refining the overall value
proposition and delivery method (we'll call this entrepreneurial
endurance), and, most importantly, a philosophical maturity rooted on
the foundation of greatness itself (we'll call this corporate soul). A
rich literature supports the pursuit of excellence from the array of
social, behavioral and management sciences that have shaped business
curricula for decades. We look to a different, more timeless and
rigorous science in the Aristotelian tradition of the great-souled
man arguing that preeminence is not simply a clever goal, but rather
the overarching end in and of itself.
We begin with a concise, analytical discussion of Aristotle's
Nicomachean Ethics -- the definitive work on the nature of excellence
by way of the virtuous life of the great-souled man. Written over 2300
years ago, Aristotle's Ethics is the groundwork for serious
scholarship dealing with the goodness of mankind. The Ethics
accomplishes several goals in one comprehensive study namely
introducing a careful analysis of what the ethical life actually is,
why it is a life worth pursuing, and how to implement the ethics into
practice. This theoretical foundation is complemented by Aristotle's
most recognized contribution to modern practitioners of ethics in the
framework of the doctrine of the mean whereby the individual in
pursuit of excellence has the free will to choose between two
extremes of a given virtue (NEII). For example, trustworthiness
remains a valiant virtue worthy of practice not only because the
extremes outside of the mean, boastfulness and self-deprecation,
offer choices that diminish the authenticity necessary for rational
decision making, but, more directly, truthfulness is paramount to
fair or symmetrical market exchanges. It is this choice that serves
our purpose in understanding greatness as the supreme aim for the
corporation seeking not simply honor or prestige, but more
importantly, lasting relevance measured by the integrity of character
of management decisions necessary to ensure the perpetual vitality of
The pathway to corporate perpetuity, accepting this to be the
ultimate aim of greatness, must be built on a foundation of lasting
endurance in all things pertaining to the life and output of the
enterprise -- we regard expertise as the source. Ericsson, et al,
assert that 'the journey to truly superior performance is neither for
the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine
expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful
self-assessment. There are no shortcuts' (p. 116). Though
technically possessing legal personhood and capable of far reaching
influence often by brand power alone, the simplified version of a
corporation is nothing more than people making decisions about risk
and opportunity. The big question guiding the decision makers of the
corporation is always what is the right thing to do? The moral
manager attends to the rightness of decisions on the absolute
knowledge of virtue imbued within his or her own cultivation and
practice of ethics. When personal ethics are aligned with corporate
ethics, not only is general management more effective, but strategic
management, the wisdom and practice of long-term decision making, can
be realized. Care must be taken to not veer toward a relative
interpretation of ethics as this diminishes the authenticity of
unconditional excellence. Excellence must first mean something
universal, in our case, the influence and permanence of the well
governed, global enterprise.
Corporate perpetuity is only possible with clarity of moral purpose
-- advanced by the ethics endowed by senior management and infused
deeply into the culture of the firm. Otherwise, the very fundamental
aspect of enterprise itself -- economic competition -- becomes
corrupted by short-term benefits at the cost of long-term success.
Wilson upholds, 'the fundamental ethical question to be asked of any
economic system is whether, taken as a whole and over the long-term,
it will encourage or discourage good conduct' (p. 139). Ethical
legitimacy speaks to Drucker's human and values dimensions ascribed
to the enterprise noted earlier. Drucker's third dimension upholds
the firm as an economic institution, advanced later in Carroll's
model in our discussion on governance, and developed here within the
framework of entrepreneurial endurance.
The political and economic system that best supports the idea of
greatness is emphatically capitalism. To be clear, capitalism must be
infused deeply and broadly within the social contract in which nations
and regions espouse a political philosophy and shape public policy
that values the freedom of the individual, understands the purpose of
market competition, and defends the empowerment of the ownership of
the means of economic production. These means include the access to
the ownership and management of land, labor, capital, resources,
knowledge and entrepreneurship. Much has been written in the defense
of and the assault on capitalism. As we move toward a broader
discussion on globalization and greatness in later essays, we will
see that capitalism serves as the political economic system not only
essential for corporate permanence, but also for national endurance.
As De Soto asserts in his now classic argument on capitalism,
'capitalism stands alone as the only feasible way to rationally
organize a modern economy. At this moment in history, no responsible
nation has a choice.' (p. 1). Greatness requires a tested
political economy where morality and legality uphold the benefits and
costs of risk without which the idea of greatness has no framework to
stand. Entrepreneurship is where we turn to understand how risk
furthers corporate mission.
The classic illustration of the entrepreneur is the person who, given
the freedom to do so, generates an idea to solve a problem, or to make
a system, product or service better. This vision to see the promise of
an idea and venture to risk time, resources, capital, and reputation
is driven by a variety of incentives ranging from the imminent need
to innovate or die in the marketplace, the fulfillment of one's
individual self-worth, the enhancement of personal and/or corporate
wealth, or simply the elimination of boredom from the status quo.
Fillis and Rentschler submit,
Entrepreneurship has three central underlying dimensions:
innovation, risk-taking and proactiveness. Innovation is
the manner in which the entrepreneur searches for new
opportunities or the way in which ideas are brought to a
profitable conclusion. The test of innovation lies in its
success in the marketplace of ideas, rather than in its
novelty alone. Risk-taking refers to the manner in which
innovation is embedded in the organization, society or
community. It also relates to the willingness of people to
commit significant resources to opportunities that are
calculated to succeed. Pro-activeness is concerned with
making things happen by perseverance, adaptability and by
breaking with the established ways of doing things.
Creativity involves a perceptual response to the
environment which may induce a high or low frequency of
creative endeavor (p. 50).
Entrepreneurial endurance, therefore, is the energy required of the
enterprise to adapt to the changing competitive external environment
coupled with the ongoing challenges and opportunities within the
internal organizational environment. Only with a determined
entrepreneurial soul -- or corporate soul as argued below -- does the
corporation have a fighting chance to flourish in its industry and win
lifelong loyalty of its stakeholders. In essence, when
entrepreneurship recedes corporate perpetuity fades.
First, let us understand the soul to be our inner source of moral
judgment. Where the mind stores our knowledge, the soul stores our
wisdom. As such, who is Aristotle's great-souled man and how does he
prescribe to characterize the path toward corporate greatness?
Faulkner contends that,
a man of such virtue is too noble to stoop, or to accept
the second best, especially in his own conduct. It is an
ornament of good character that is also an exalting order:
an ordering heightened by an awareness of the grand
activities such soul calls for and is owed (p. 20).
It is not to say that a life without excellence is not worthy of
admiration or support, or that a business enterprise that provides
only good value is unworthy of customer or investor loyalty. Rather,
preeminent value must be separate from good value if we are to
acknowledge that corporate perpetuity, and ultimately corporate
greatness, is worth the risk from the outset. Hurka argues that this
level of perfectionism, a close parallel to our greatness theme, is
'consistent with the view that [greatness] is an activity, [and must]
value the successful pursuit of goals beyond one's death' (p. 112).
Some absolutes begin to surface with the idea of greatness whereby
excellence has lasting impact beyond the conception and life of its
origin. We can reflect on great people and organizations, for
example, from the matriarchal grandmother whose legacy still inspires
well beyond her life or the corporation whose late founder still
shapes the very spirit of corporate culture so many generations later.
Aristotle's purpose of illustrating the idea of the greatness of soul
is, ultimately, to distinguish the promise of human flourishing as the
result of virtuous wisdom. Similarly, we cannot ignore the promise of
corporate flourishing as a benefactor of capitalism, as carefully
defined above, whereby the idea of corporate soul is central to
preeminence in the real world of economic competition. Great
organizations, therefore, understand greatness as a laudable
destination worthy of great risk and thus establish effective
management systems to align resources to meet such risk, ruled by
moral absolutes demanding excellence in conduct and performance.
Perhaps what truly distinguishes the great-souled corporation is not
only its perpetual influence in society, rather as Howland writes of
the greatness of soul, the willingness to save the organization as a
parent would save a child:
The noblest of deeds are those that merit the community's
highest tribute... these are in the first instance when the
community is saved. Great-souled men are most worthy of
honor because... they are considered to be the community's
greatest benefactors... For if there can be no deed more
important than the saving deed, it would seem that there
could be no virtue higher than the saving virtue (p. 42).
To be clear, the great-souled corporation, like the great-souled man,
seeks excellence in delivering competitive, lasting value for
excellence sake alone. This is unique to the lesser effort of
ambition or simply the pursuit of lofty goals. We have argued that
the wisdom of greatness is prerequisite to the advancement of
preeminence. Accordingly, the clarity of wisdom ascribed to corporate
perpetuity, entrepreneurial endurance and corporate soul firmly
positions our forthcoming discussions where we will turn to the ideas
of governance and globalization. The overarching aim of this series is
to provide practical wisdom to the artful practice of effective
management. Our applied assessment tool will offer answers to the
difficult questions on how and why corporate preeminence is not only
attainable, but resolute.
1. Ellsworth, Richard R. (2002) Leading with Purpose: The New
Corporate Realities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2. Broadie, S. & Rowe, C. (2002) Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics:
Translation, Introduction and commentary. Oxford: Oxford University
3. Ericsson, Anders K., Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely.
(2007) 'The Making of an Expert'. Harvard Business Review, June 7, 85
(7/8), pp. 114-121.
4. Wilson, James Q. On Character. (1991) Washington: D.C.: AIE Press.
5. De Soto, Hernando. (2000) The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism
Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York, NY: Basic
6. Fillis, Ian, and Ruth Rentschler. (2010) 'The Role of Creativity
in Entrepreneurship.' Journal of Enterprising Culture, 18 (1), pp.
7. Faulkner, Robert K. (2007) The Case for Greatness: Honorable
Ambition and its Critics. New Haven: CT: Yale University Press.
8. Hurka, Thomas. Perfectionism. (1993) Oxford, UK: Oxford University
9. Howland, Jacob. (2002) 'Aristotle's Great-Souled Man'. The
Review of Politics, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Winter), pp. 27-56.
(c) Sean Jasso 2012
Sean Jasso, PhD
Practitioner Faculty of Economics
Graziadio School of Business and Management
II. 'ON THE RIGHT TO BE GREEDY' BY GEOFFREY KLEMPNER
Greed has been in the news recently, not only in the UK where there
has been a furore over bonuses paid to company CEOs, sometimes
running to millions of Pounds, but also in the USA, where last week
Congress halted debate on two contested anti-online piracy bills, the
Protect IP Act (PIPA), and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), pending
the redrafting of the two bills to meet concerns raised by millions
of protesters, including Wikipedia who staged a 24 hour blackout.
Pirates are mixed bunch. There are undoubtedly many who would rather
profit at the expense of legitimate copyright holders than contribute
their own talents or expertise to the economy. That's greed. But there
are others whose primary motivation is not profit but rather to
'spread the wealth', as they put it, to set right unfair imbalances
created by capitalism in a Robin Hood spirit. In their view they are
combating what they see as 'greed'.
As long ago as 2006, I raised concerns about the bonus system
('Philosophy of Corporate Social Responsibility' Philosophy Pathways
Issue 27, 17th March 2006), when I wrote,
The best thing a board can do for its company is to abolish
the bonus system. So long as executives and managers have
their eyes fixed on their yearly bonus, any attempt at
developing a longer-term strategy is subverted and
Yet just two months earlier, there appears the following revealing
entry in my 'Glass House Philosopher' online notebook. To say that
greed is bad, when it's bad is just a tautology. Greed can be good
too. You want your lover to be greedy for you. Sometimes the virtue
is in excess, and vice in puritanical restraint. At least that's
something to consider before we all jump on the anti-greed bandwagon.
Monday, 16th January 2006
What is greed anyway?
In 1974, Jerry Cohen [the 'other' Jerry Cohen who lectured at
Birkbeck College, London] introduced me to The Right To Be Greedy:
Theses On The Practical Necessity Of Demanding Everything written
by an obscure collective based in the San Francisco Bay area calling
itself, 'For Ourselves: Council for Generalized Self-Management'. I
have no idea how many copies of the rather cheaply produced booklet
were printed. I picked up my copy from a bookshop in Camden Town,
Researching on the internet for Philosophy of A-Z, I found a web page
Bob Black's Preface to a 1983 reprint published by Loompanics
Unlimited. When I looked today, I couldn't find any reference to the
book on the Loompanics web site. It appears that the publisher is
going out of business, so if you want more information about the
reprint you should contact them as soon as possible.
Required reading for The Right To Be Greedy is Max Stirner The Ego
and His Own (Steven T Byington tr. Dover 1973), one time adopted
Bible of the far right, and the young Karl Marx's patchy but
brilliant 1844 Manuscripts. Marx bitterly attacked Stirner in The
German Ideology in a book length section with the ironic title,
'Saint Max'. No other thinker provoked such vicious diatribe from
Marx. Struggling with the virtually unreadable prose, one frankly
wonders for Marx's sanity. Stirner -- possibly one of the greatest
dilettante philosophers of all time -- really got under Marx's skin.
The immodest aim of The Right To Be Greedy is to reconcile egoism and
communism. The result is, by turns, paradoxical, comic, obscure. Every
so often one comes across a passage of breathtaking clarity, then the
idea is swamped once more in a morass of dialectical gobbledygook. I
loved that book. It was its sheer audacity that won me over. Here is
just a taster, from the opening paragraphs:
1. Greed in its fullest sense is the only possible basis of
2. The present forms of greed lose out, in the end, because
they turn out to be not greedy enough.
3. The repression of egoism can never totally succeed,
except as the destruction of human subjectivity, the
extinction of the human species itself, because egoism is
an essential moment of human subjectivity. Its repression
simply means that it returns in a hidden, duplicitous form.
If it cannot show itself in the open market, it will find
itself or create for itself a black market. If it is not
tolerated in transparent relations, the repressed self will
split into two; into a represented self, a personal
organization of appearances, a persona, and that which
cringes and plots behind this character-armour. The
repression of egoism, contrary to the dictates of every one
of the so-called 'Communists' (in opposition to Marx and
Engels), from Lenin right down to Mao, can never be the
basis of communist society.
Moreover, the repressive conception of 'communism' misses
precisely the whole point. It misses out on the validity of
the egoistic moment. This is true even in the inverted form
in which it emerges from an immanent critique of altruistic
ideology: if I die, the world dies for me. Without life, I
cannot love another. However, what it misses in 'theory' --
i.e., in its ideological representations -- it nonetheless
preserves in practice, and precisely with the help fo that
very ideology: its real basis is the egoism of the
state-capitalist bureaucracy. This ideology of
self-sacrifice serves admirably the task of extracting
surplus-labour from the proletariat.
The actual negation of narrow egoism is a matter of
transcendence ('aufhebung'), of the transition from a
narrow to a qualitatively expanded form of egoism. The
original self-expansion of egoism was identically the
demise of the primitive community. But its further
self-expansion will resolve itself into a community once
again. It is only when greed itself at last (or rather,
once again) beckons in the direction of community that the
direction will be taken. Here the ancient Christian truth
that no earthly force can withstand human greed rejoins us
on our side of the barricades.
(All italics in the original, footnotes omitted.)
In my view, the attempt by For Ourselves to incorporate Stirner into
marxism failed for one simple reason. To accept their thesis, you
ultimately have to accept the proposition that what human beings
really want, if we were allowed to be 'greedy' in the fullest, widest
sense, is Marx's utopian paradise of brotherly and sisterly love. It
ain't gonna happen, baby.
We can discuss why it 'ain't gonna happen'.
It's not just because narrow selfish greed is too powerful. If it
were then, one might think, in principle, it can be overcome through
seduction, the way the early Christians won converts to their cause.
It's not just because human beings are just not sufficiently lovable.
If it were, then there is always the hope that we can expand our
sympathies to see beneath the ugly exterior of human nature to the
beautiful soul beneath, again as the Christians believed.
It ain't gonna happen because, in the end, so long as we are persons,
each of us has to make this decision for him or herself. It can only
ever be a contingent fact that a human individual desires what For
Ourselves say we could desire, or would desire, or ought to desire,
in these or those circumstances. Whatever the circumstances, you have
to allow people the freedom to choose what you believe is for the
You can't force people to choose the better option, even in a society
of two. Throw two lonely souls together who you just know would make
the perfect love match. Yet it fails to happen because one, or the
other, lacks the necessary courage to make the commitment. Call it
the tragedy of the human condition.
Egoism can be overcome, through the ethics of dialogue. We do this
every day. But we also fail to do it every day just as often as we
succeed, and that is the point.
Even with the confident assurance of having the best ethical or
philosophical arguments on our side, politics, as opposed to ethics
or philosophy, is not just about having the best arguments. You can't
win the argument with everybody. Some people are just too dense to
see, or too addicted to their own pet theory, or unable to overcome
their blind spot -- there are a hundred and one explanations.
Politics is about making things happen that not everyone wants to
happen, about satisfying most of the people most of the time.
That is why I am a capitalist and not a socialist.
Where do we go from here? I said last time that capitalism needs to
be 'fixed'. It has to be fixed because there is nothing to replace
it. Seductive and charming as the idea may be, I cannot accept that
greed would be somehow OK, if only we were 'greedy enough'. That is
why I want to show why greed is not OK.
Then all I can do is leave people to make up their own minds.
[* For the complete original text to The Right To Be Greedy
I have made his text available on the internet pending
permission from the current copyright holder, and so long
as bandwidth restrictions allow.]
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2012
III. REVIEW OF CARL FREEDMAN 'THE AGE OF NIXON: A STUDY IN CULTURAL
POWER' BY RACHEL BROWNE
The Age of Nixon: A study in cultural power
Zero Books, 2012
By Carl Freedman
Carl Freedman is Professor of English at Louisiana State University
and has written on Marxist critical thinking, film and US electoral
Given this, the book is wide ranging in its references and use of
theory. It gives detailed information on key figures and events in
politics and economics and there is a substantial section on how the
American Republican President, Richard Nixon, has been represented by
novelists, film-makers and other artists.
The book should appeal to both academics and all those with a liking
for dead President-bashing. Freedman, writing from the left, has a
very low opinion of Nixon, but at the same time finds him intensely
interesting and is impressed by his leadership skills in a time of
Many of us are too young to recall the late 1960s: The assassinations
of both John Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the backdrop of the
Vietnam war which split Western society into those prepared to back a
bloody war against communism and those who were not; Americans
building bomb shelters in their gardens to counter a perceived threat
of nuclear attack, and race riots.
We could google 'Vietnam' or 'Richard Nixon' but will not, from this,
realise the very strong feelings aroused by communism, the racism of
the time and the nature of American sentiments of the age. As a
literature professor, Freedman can get this across. Freedman was very
aware of the age of Nixon and it has spurred him to research the age
thoroughly, especially Nixon, and the result is a highly detailed
historical book, evocative of the era.
Freedman claims his book is not primarily about Nixon, but about the
nature of American culture and that much can be illuminated about
this by looking at the period of power held by the Richard Nixon, in
the late 1960s and 1970s. Here, I shall concentrate on the complex
character of Nixon.
Freedman describes Nixon as 'cold, penetrating, analytical' and his
'success based on sheer studiousness... intrinsic intelligence'
Nixon rose to power against the odds. He was not a very good speaker
and had no warmth about him. Although he is generally held not to
have been a good speaker, his early speech, the 'Checkers speech' in
1952, is an exception and is held to one of the all time great
political speeches. It brought recognition. Freedman argues that it
doesn't reflect well on the US culture that Americans loved it and
that it drew deep sympathy and support for Nixon as a politician.
Freedman analyses the speech in terms of Nietzschean 'ressentiment'.
This is morality based on self-sacrifice and self-denial which is
'slave morality' and is the epitome of unfreedom, as opposed to the
freedom Nietzsche urged us to understand as being that of the
superman, who rises above the social belief system and creates his
own values. Nietzsche is said to have held that Christian morality,
along with the humility that goes with it, is hatred of all that is
free and noble, and Freedman shows that the Checkers speech was a
'masterpiece of ressentiment' (p.85). The speech was sentimental and
an example of self-abasement. In this most famous political speech,
Nixon referred to his dog (named Checkers, hence the name of the
speech) and the fact that his wife didn't own a fur coat. He proudly
played up a poverty stricken background, thus displaying, according
to Freedman, what Nietzsche would have taken to be Christian
moralistic arrogance. Sympathy for Nixon peeked after the Checkers
speech. Nixon had tapped in to the sentimentality of the American
In chapter 3, the book turns to further psychological aspects of
Nixon and Americans, when Freedman looks at Nixon's character in
relation to American society. To further illuminate Nixon's
character, Freedman draws on the Marxian idea of the petit
bourgeoisie, again Nietzschean ressentiment (as above), and Freud's
concept of the anal-erotic character. Freedman acknowledges that
Nixonites might find the latter analysis highly offensive, but it is
justified by his fitting interpretation. To Freedman, middle America
was also petit bourgeois and anally erotic during the Nixon period.
This seems harsh, but there are tones of humour in the book.
Nixon was ambitious, hard-working and is shown to have pursued his
own ends even if this meant betraying friends (Freedman wonders if
Nixon actually HAD friends) and associates. Although he seemed to
possess no obvious personal appeal, such was the force of support
behind him that in 1968 it was found that people voted for Nixon
himself rather than the policies of the Republican party. This seems
inexplicable without cultural interpretation. The core population of
America was supposedly united in ressentiment.
Freedman suggests that America is unlikely to give rise to the
morally free superman because of the conservative nature of Americans
themselves, as well as the generally conservative nature of culture
Culture is conservative because it is embedded socially and is
difficult to change. In this sense, culture is contrasted with
politics, economics, science and the military. We can more readily
change the political atmosphere by voting for another party, we can
change economic policies easily in the light of knowledge, and
science has a certain autonomy given that it is driven by bodies of
researchers and is propelled by new techniques.
Culture can't rapidly change and Nixon's attitudes appealed to those
who feared change in a time of great change within small elements of
American culture: This was racial equality, suspicion of
anti-communist sentiments of American politicians, the rise of the
hippie culture and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality. In his
1968 campaign Nixon was so against this sort of cultural change that
he seems to have won on what Freedman calls an 'anti-nigger' policy.
For me, today, this is staggering. Freedman claims that there is
still racism in parts of America, but it is not overt. It is rather
hypocritical, but this is an advance.
What is amazing is that these small cultural changes came at a time
when Nixon was in power as a conservative Republican. For Freedman,
though, racial equality, the acceptance of homosexuality, etc , are
mere elements of culture and American culture was, and remains,
fundamentally conservative. It was not rebellion against the
conservative Republican, because the small cultural changes were
calls for freedom. Nixon didn't facilitate this, and many found his
Nixon's background was classical Marxian petit bourgeoisie. His
parents were shop keepers, and were fairly successful. Nixon claimed
throughout his political career that he had personally experienced
poverty and Freedman claims that this was a lie -- like so many of
his public statements. Freedman goes on to say that it was the sort
of lie that showed 'gross ingratitude' to his parents, who worked
hard to 'shield their sons from poverty' (p.72). Given that Nixon was
a teenager during the depression, and Freedman claims that tramps
turned up on Nixon's doorstep because his mother was a soft touch, it
wouldn't really seem to be a lie that Nixon had personally experienced
poverty; it was just the poverty of others. It must have impacted on
Nonetheless, he was extremely intelligent. He won a full scholarship
to Harvard, but this was at a time when the family had huge medical
bills to care for Nixon's sick brother, so Nixon went to a local
college. Nixon later claimed that he didn't really care about this,
and commentators have claimed that this is a lie too. 'How could any
smart, hard-working, ambitious young man not care?' (p.73).
As Nixon was petit-bourgeoisie he apparently disliked the poor as
well as the rich, and may not have been telling another lie here.
Nixon's class fell between the rich and poor. Freedman says that
Nixon felt 'intense hatred' for the poor and this was publicly
expressed, although not in the Checkers speech. Falling between two
classes, the petit bourgeoisie felt they were classless and so
possessed a universal moral attitude. This would explain the power of
the Checkers speech. Nixon tapped into the ordinariness of the middle
man. The consequences of being petit bourgeois would seem to go hand
in hand with an attitude of ressentiment. Yet Nixon was the President.
The traits of the Freudian anal erotic are orderliness, parsimony and
obstinacy. These are traits are arguably to be found in profusion in
the petit bourgeoisie and middle America. Parsimony came out in
Nixon's private life as he accumulated wealth without spending it.
Obstinacy is to be expected in a politician because we expect a
steadiness in views and policy. Orderliness is seen in his studious
Whilst the anal erotic charge seems highly derogatory, Freedman is
also fair to Nixon at times. In applying Freudian theory he admits
that analysis is a therapeutic practice and sometimes the analyst
won't attain full understanding of a patient, so to glean information
from books, newspapers and television seems to him 'imprudent' (p.95).
So he looks at our ordinary understanding of this Freudian concept and
what was publicly known about Nixon in the light of American culture
and his discussion is highly persuasive as well as outrageous,
especially in these times when Freud is held to be wrong about the
influence of sexuality in human development.
Nixon was anti-communist, against negroes human rights, hippies and
homosexuality and was anti-Catholic. Privately it seems he was he was
anti-semitic, although publicly he had some valued Jewish advisers.
Although culturally conservative, and morally a bigot, as a
politician Nixon has been described as a liberal; Nixon's politics
were quite at odds with what we hear of his views and personality. He
was the only President to seriously enforce desegregation in schools.
He also 'lavishly' funded a program called 'war on cancer' and
introduced the Clean Air Act of 1970. He was the first President to
visit China. He ended the Vietnam war. He earned respect of
non-Republicans. Freedman says that during Nixon's term, more was
spent on domestic social programs than on the military. Nixon often
referred to himself to as a liberal and commentators have held him to
be so. But this yet again denigrates him according to Freedman's
'For liberalism, of its very nature abhors all dogma, all fixed
convictions, all first principles, all absolutes... liberalism
demands that everything must be questioned but that no definite
conclusions can be drawn' (p.151). There is a search for truth but it
leads nowhere. The liberal policy is argued to be empty and to lead to
nowhere, responding to cultural change with no fixed policy. Nixon is
characterised to act upon these lines personally.
As a person Nixon seemed to have fixed convictions but as a
politician he was culturally involved. When Nixon delivered the
Checkers speech, he bent to the nature of the American people, he
went on to hear the voice of cultural change and his own bigotry
didn't affect his policies. He was both corrupt and great. He put an
end to the Vietnam war and was the first US President to reach out to
China. He was both bigot and visionary.
The psychological study in this book is fascinating. What we see in
Nixon is a person able to rise above personal bigotry when it comes
to leadership, though indulging in it when it seemed politically
necessary. Perhaps as a liberal he was 'empty', but perhaps he was
going with the flow. What we seem to find is that there is no formula
for great leadership. It can emanate from a personality who is not
'great' but rather despicable.
The book is so richly informed by theory and history that a book
review cannot do it justice.
It is a thoroughly American book. Throughout, Freedman assumes we are
already familiar with quite a lot of American history as he makes
reference to events without fully explicating what these events were.
In the first chapter he mentions Watergate, but doesn't detail it.
Even I know this led to his forced resignation in the 1970s, but many
young non-Americans won't possess the background knowledge. This won't
actually detract from the interest of the book. As a Professor of
Literature, Freedman knows how to make an interesting character even
(c) Rachel Browne 2012