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Getting to Yes
The Architecture of a New Consensus
American industry--the whole capitalist system--lives in the shadow of a volcano. That volcano is public opinion. It is in eruption. Within an incredibly short time it will destroy business or it will save it. --PR man Carl Byoir, 19381
I am a revolutionary, as you may know.
--John S. Reed, CEO of Citicorp, 1992
Let Us Build Us a Bill Gates
It was the age of the focus group, of the vox populi transformed into flesh, descended to earth and holding forth majestically in poll results, in town hall meetings, in brand loyalty demographics, in e-mail bulletin boards, in website hits, in browser traffic. The people's voice was heard at last, their verdict printed in a full-color chart on page one. The CEO was down from his boardroom and taking questions at the empowerment seminar; the senator was pointing out a family farmer right there in the audience; the first lady was on a "listening tour," the anchorman was keeping an anxious eye on the chat-room. The president himself was "putting people first"; was getting down at a "people's inaugural"; was honoring our values at "town meetings"; was wandering among us in a humble tour bus; was proving his affection for us with heroic feats of consumption--an endless succession of Big Macs, apple pies entire.
For all that, the formalities of democracy seemed to hold little charm for We the People in the 1990s. Election turnouts dwindled through the decade, hitting another humiliating new low every couple of years. Any cynic could tell you the reason why: Politics had once again become a sport of kings, with "soft money" and corporate contributions, spun into the pure gold of TV advertising, purchasing results for the billionaires' favorites as effectively as had the simple payoffs of the age of boodle. For those who could show the money, to use one of the era's favorite expressions, there were vacancies in the Lincoln Bedroom, coffee klatches with the commander-in-chief, special subsidies of their very own. We voted less and less, and the much-discussed price tags of electoral victory soared like the NASDAQ.
Maybe the amounts our corporate friends were spending to court us should have been a source of national pride; maybe those massive sums constituted a sort of democratic triumph all by themselves. Certainly everything else that money touched in the nineties shined with a kind of populist glow. In the eighties, maybe, money had been an evil thing, a tool of demonic coke-snorting vanity, of hostile takeovers and S&L ripoffs. But something fundamental had changed since then, we were told: Our billionaires were no longer slave-driving martinets or pump-and-dump Wall Street manipulators. They were people's plutocrats, doing without tie and suit, chatting easily with the rank-and-file, building the new superstore just for us, seeing to it that the customer was served, wearing name tags on their work-shirts, pushing the stock prices up benevolently this time, making sure we all got to share in the profit-taking and that even the hindest hindmost got out with his or her percentage intact. These billionaires were autographing workers' hardhats out at the new plant in Coffeyville; they were stepping right up to the podium and reciting Beatles lyrics for the cameras; they were giddy with excitement; they were even allowing all people everywhere to enjoy life with them via their greatest gift of all--the World Wide Web. Maybe what our greatest popular social theorist, George Gilder, had said about them all those years ago was finally true: "It is the entrepreneurs who know the rules of the world and the laws of God."
Or maybe Gilder didn't go far enough. Stay tuned for a while longer and you would see the populist entrepreneurs portrayed as something not far removed from the Almighty Himself. In a 1998 commercial for IBM's Lotus division that danced across TV screens to the tune of REM's Nietzschean anthem, "I Am Superman," great throngs of humanity were shown going nobly about their business while a tiny caption asked, "Who is everywhere?" In the response, IBM identified itself both with the great People and the name of God as revealed to Moses: The words "I Am" scrawled roughly on a piece of cardboard and held aloft from amid the madding crowd. The questions continued, running down the list from omnipresence to omniscience and omnipotence--"Who is aware?," "Who is powerful?"--while the hallowed scenes of entrepreneurial achievement pulsated by: an American business district, a Chinese garment factory, a microchip assembly room, and, finally, the seat of divine judgment itself, the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. "I can do anything," sang a winsome computer voice.
If there was something breathtaking about the presumption of this particular bit of corporate autodeification, this conflation of God, IBM, and the People, there was also something remarkably normal about it. Americans had already made best-sellers of books like God Wants You to be Rich and Jesus, CEO. The paintings of Thomas Kincade, the decade's greatest master of kitsch (and a man who actually trademarked a description of himself--"painter of light"), freely mixed heavy-handed religious symbolism with the accoutrements of great wealth, plunking Bible references down alongside glowing mansions and colorful gazebos. "The Market's Will Be Done" was the title Tom Peters, guru of gurus, chose for a chapter of his best-selling 1992 management book, while techno-ecstatic Kevin Kelly, whose 1994 book, Out of Control, was a sustained effort to confuse divinity with technology, referred quite confidently to a list of New Economy pointers he had come up with as "The Nine Laws of God." The heavens seemed even closer as the decade progressed and the surly bonds of the "Old Economy" slipped away. The publisher of Fast Company, a magazine dealing in the apotheosis of the new breed of corporate leaders, described his publication in 1999 as "a religion"; one Morgan Stanley analyst was routinely referred to in print as "the Internet Goddess" (her "embrace" of a company was described by one magazine as "a laying on of hands"); a much-discussed online operation matched "angel" investors with thankful startups in a cyber-space called "Heaven"; ads for the GoTo search engine showed Muslims at prayer and suggested that such a "loyal following" could be yours as well were you to patronize their product; and advertisements for Ericsson cellphones insisted that the product conferred powers of omnipresence: "You Are Everywhere."
From the Hardcover edition.