Historian Jonathan Levy, AM’03, PhD’08, traces the rise of the modern corporation and the company man.
This May afternoon, Monday of seventh week, it pays to be in Cobb 319 a few minutes before 1:30, the official start time of Rise of the Modern Corporation. A quartet of early arrivals—like the class itself, an even split of undergrads and graduate students—is sharing homemade chocolate chip cookie bars from a large ziplock bag.
More of the class materializes, along with the professor, Jonathan Levy, AM’03, PhD’08. This is Levy’s first year on the UChicago faculty after seven years at Princeton. The author of Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America (Harvard University Press, 2012), Levy is set to publish his second book, Ages of American Capitalism (Random House), this year, and he is at work on a third, a history of US corporations. His new course is a survey of how the American corporation has evolved over the past two centuries. It touches on government regulation and corporate governance, workplace culture, globalization, and other topics.
Jonathan Levy. (Illustration by Allan Burch)
Levy is decidedly noncorporate today in a button-down shirt and jeans. All he carries are a pen, a notepad, and a paperback copy of today’s reading, White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) by C. Wright Mills.
Mills’s 1951 sociological treatise describes the business world after the transition from captains of industry to corporate managers. Unlike the 19th-century farmer or businessman in charge of his own destiny, “The twentieth-century white-collar man … is always somebody’s man, the corporation’s, the government’s, the army’s; and he is seen as the man who does not rise.” Mills invokes Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air (1939), and the “gallery of tortured and insecure creatures from the white-collar world” in J. B. Priestley’s 1930 novel Angel Pavement as exemplifying the cultural shift.
Levy says he wants to start by looking at White Collar as a “sociologic understanding of the corporation,” in contrast to the mostly political conception of the previous week’s reading, The Corporation in Modern Society, a 1959 collection of essays edited by economist Edward S. Mason. “There are many passages I could point to,” Levy says, lifting his copy of Mills, “but I won’t point to one in particular—although look at that. I just opened up my book randomly and on page 78, at the top, he says, ‘Yet, overall, the loose-jointed integration of liberal society is being replaced, especially in its war phases, by the more managed integration of a corporate-like society.’
“What is a ‘corporate-like society’?” Levy asks and leans back, hands in his front pockets.
“I think he thinks of it as bureaucratic,” says a male grad student. “There’s division and specialization of labor. Managers—managers upon managers upon managers, none of whom can make independent decisions.”
Levy asks if anyone can name a manager from 1950s or ’60s corporate America. Walter Reuther? No—labor leader, Levy says. Would Walt Disney count? Sure. Another student, however, quibbles that Disney actually owned a big part of the company. Robert McNamara? Levy thinks he’s better known as a politician than for his time at Ford Motor Company. “I’m just saying, there’s something to the anonymity,” Levy explains. “There’s something going on here that we don’t even know who these people were. We’ve heard of Rockefeller.”
The discussion roams as the class makes its way into the book. They hit on movement within corporate hierarchies (it’s mostly lateral), the definition of old middle class vs. new middle class, old entrepreneurs vs. new entrepreneurs (all agree Mills is fuzzy, if not downright slippery, on the socioeconomic-strata front), how to situate Mills with the more optimistic outlook on bureaucratic efficiency found in fourth week’s reading of Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery (1914), and where agency resides in this new world.
One of the undergrads names a favorite phrase from Mills’s book: organized irresponsibility. “I don’t think he thinks there’s agency with anyone,” he says. “Nobody has responsibility—but it’s somehow organized nonetheless. I think that’s the whole thing he’s trying to illustrate.”
Levy thinks he’s found the “money paragraph.” The gist is that in the 19th century “the victim knew he was being victimized, the misery and discontent of the powerless were explicit.” In the corporate 20th century, however, “Many whips are inside men, who do not know how they got there, or indeed that they are there. ... Power shifts from the visible to the invisible, from the known to the anonymous. And with rising material standards, exploitation becomes less material and more psychological.”
Levy looks up from the book. “Bleak,” he says. The cookie bars, which have been making their way around the table, have reached Levy just in time. He takes a reassuring bite.
“This is kind of anticipating the Foucauldian turn in political theory, where power is now seen as invisible,” a male student says. From there, more and more connections are drawn: The Matrix. Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Hobbes’s Leviathan. The first season of Mad Men.
A female student notes that Mills’s is the first book in the course to introduce women into corporate life. Together she and Levy describe how men, free of aristocracy and monarchy in the 19th century, had been able to forge their own paths in the world until they were absorbed into corporate hierarchies. But for women, Levy says, “the precise moment that they leave home, that they’re released from kind of household bonds of hierarchy and domination, they immediately enter into the new hierarchies of the corporate office place. There’s sort of no space in between whatsoever.”
The conversation moves on to the question of status versus money versus power, or as one undergrad puts it, why you probably won’t see UChicago grads welding wind turbines, even for $80,000 a year. Basically, in Mills’s view, it’s not entirely (if at all) about the Benjamins; it’s about your status in the hierarchy. And if your focus is on status, a young woman explains, “you’re always dominated by someone.”
Soon it’s 2:50. The cookie bars are gone but the discussion shows no signs of abating.
“Alright,” Levy jumps in, “so to be continued on Wednesday, okay?”
The University of Chicago’s founding benefactor, John D. Rockefeller, would have had difficulty warming to the reading list for Rise of the Modern Corporation (a history class cross listed in Law, Letters, and Society). It includes not only Ida Tarbell’s 1904 muckraking classic The History of the Standard Oil Company (Dover Publications, 1903) but the US Supreme Court’s 1911 decision in Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States.
Moving from the corporation’s “colonial origins to its present form as a major actor on the American, indeed, world stage,” the class also read Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (the 1819 decision limiting state authority over private contracts); Barbarians at the Gate: The Rise and Fall of RJR Nabisco (Harper Business, 2009) by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar; and Karen Ho’s Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009).
Final grades for the class were split equally between class attendance and participation; three reading responses—“an analysis, in your own voice, of questions or themes raised by the texts”—and a final paper.