Supermanagerial Governance

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"In our view there is another way to understand the rise of the supermanager in terms of value (though in a rather unconventional sense) produced for the firm. The supermanager is neoliberalism’s governance mechanism, a way to negotiate and smooth over differences between sectors of power in society, just as the supermanager avant la lettre did so in Nazi Germany.

Supermanagers provide a very specific kind of governance needed in very specific kinds of regimes. The supermanager and their seemingly outsized share of national income is not merely a phenomenon of our own neoliberal era, from the Reagan/Thatcher “revolutions” to the Clinton/Blair era. It was a conspicuous feature of Nazi Germany (and although the data is thinner, it would seem 1920–’30s fascism in general). The most plausible explanation for this compensation draws not from any particularly radical theory of value, nor from moralistic parables about corruption, nor from fairy tales about superheroic capacities. The most plausible explanation is that supermanagers are paid for governance where the state has been redeployed elsewhere or, even, effectively dissolved.

One could think of this as a peculiar kind of rent extraction for the ability to shift seamlessly at the boundaries of these sectors — from one board, to another, from a corporation, to a foundation, to a university, to government, to a think tank and back again. One could think of this in a rather perverse way as real marginal added value, compensation for the difficult work of governance without a Rechtsstaat — without a rational, sovereign state, or with a receding or redistributed one. Seen in this light, the ability to provide political backing through connections is a highly remunerated component of this type of governance. What we think of today as the “revolving doors” between corporate offices, consultancies, government regulatory agencies, think tanks, media, etc. were part of everyday economic, political, and social life in Nazi Germany. The heightened and more powerful form of interlocking directorates commonly observed in advanced capitalist economies were, for the Nazis, highly formalized as powerful supervisory boards and chambers between sectors and firms. Firms who were heavily invested in the party before the Nazi takeover (only about one-seventh of total firms but, taking into account the size of firms, over half of the total German stock market) saw immediate gains of six to eight percent by mid-1933 already. Comparable levels of remuneration for direct political connection are found only in developing and advanced neoliberal states.

The parallel between the Nazi “revolution” in the 1930s and the neoliberal “revolution” in the 1980s and ’90s goes much further. The Nazis were also pioneers in what was then the uncharted economic waters of “privatization.” In the face of the Great Depression, states across the world — including the Social Democratic led Weimar Republic — nationalized key industries and, in some cases, like Germany, nearly the entirety of the financial sector. The Nazis — despite early propaganda indicating otherwise — were the unique exception. Not only did they avoid further nationalization but they innovated a process so idiosyncratic at the time that it required coining a German neologism: Reprivatisierung.

Quickly transferred into English as “reprivatization,” the phenomenon and its potentially salutary effects were observed by such notable organs of liberal economic thought as The Economist and mainstream outlets like Time magazine. Before Margaret Thatcher began the privatization of council housing and long before welfare reform was a twinkle in Bill Clinton’s eye, the Nazis were turning heavy industries, nearly the entirety of the financial and banking sector, and even some social services over to private hands and to new, innovative public/private hybrids. Even before this process was “enhanced” by “Aryanizing” previously Jewish held property, rates of privatization were as high the European average would become some 70 years later when neoliberal reforms began on the continent.

The resulting market concentration, the decrease of small businesses and the growth of monopolies and cartels in Nazi Germany are well documented. It’s no surprise that supermanagerial governance would go hand in hand with the consolidation of large industrial and financial interests, as the value it provides is enhanced when sectors and market power are concentrated. This is another interesting parallel between the Nazi era and our own. Today we find that antitrust and intellectual property laws have favored the concentration of market power in a handful of companies in key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, media and entertainment, not to mention the financial sector. And we find that unsurprisingly, today’s supermanagers thrive, in particular, in large, profitable firms. A recent study finds that during the period 1978–2012, a large share (two thirds) of wage earnings inequality was driven not just by the deepening of pay differentials (between those at the very top and the rest of workers) throughout all firms, but also by the emergence of higher-paying large, profitable firms." (!)