Half Past Horizons of post-capitalism

Four Habits of Highly Succession People Dec 28, 2021

I've been watching Succession and enjoying untangling its meanings.

Others have pointed out that it serves as a sort of inoculation against both the allure of wealth — the show's designers (particularly the costume department) manage to make glamourous settings and conspicuous consumption feel overstuffed and emotionally flattened.

Similarly it gives the viewer a chance to directly experience the sense of awe in the presence of the extremely wealthy, but to experience that there's no intellectual, moral or talent basis for their power and privilege. Those qualities can be assets, but the main ingredients are ruthlessness and greed. As Alexander Skarsgård's tech billionaire character puts it, "analysis plus capital plus execution—f*-in' anyone could do that."

One of the ways close readers of the show break down the characters is by generation. Connor the overlooked Gen Xer, Kendall the try-hard nostalgic Xennial, Siobhan the Millenial girlboss, and Roman the shell-shocked Zoomer, all trying to get the Boomer patriarch to loosen his grip on power.

Beyond the high level of craft, no doubt generational conflict is one of the keys to the show's popularity.

But one lens I haven't seen yet is understanding each of the siblings as different ways that human beings align themselves with capital according to their capacities and personalities. A mostly-unnamed tension that animates the show is how each of the characters a required to set aside any values they might have when they get in the way of profits and power — which it is their fiduciary responsibility to maximize.

The show dissects the ways in which individuals adapt their strategies to meet their psychological needs and predispositions. The conceit of the show is that they all have suffered an abusive relationship with their diamond-hard personification of capital, the family patriarch Logan Roy. Each of their strategies circle the loveless void and need for validation at the core of their relationship with Logan.

But the void created by the relationship with capital isn't just a lack of love; it's an intellectual and moral void as well.

Kendall is a disruptor. Frenetic energy (often enhanced by recreational drugs) is how his personality and capactities align with capital. Rhetoric about technological synergies and forward-looking strategic moves keep his mind spinning frantically at the edge of the void. In the first two seasons, he is so subordinated to capital/his father that when when one of hundreds of employees he ruthlessly fires spits in his face, he doesn't even flinch. But later, the brief glimpses of his broader unpopularity make their way into his bubble, and clearly get to him. He embraces a self-ironizing rhetoric that embraces the hatred but obscures his intentions, conducting a sort of waltz between affected morality and nihilism around the rim of the dread-pit. Of all the characters, Kendall comes closest to directly touching the full intensity of the roiling despair.

Siobhan ("Shiv" for most of the show) embodies woke capital. The promise of under-defined reforms at some point in the future is both the emotional and political driver of her success, such as it is. She talks about "burning" down her father's right-wing TV network and enacting sweeping reforms at Waystar Royco. In practice, she uses her fluency in feminism to intimidate and silence a whistleblower, corner an adversary, and put a new coat of PR paint on a corporate behemoth where nothing has changed in the way of grave corporate abuses. While it's still possible to project some progressivism on to the character named after a homemade prison weapon, her values are only actionable to the extent that they increase shareholder value.

Roman is the sadist. It is implied several times in the show that Roman was abused as a child (at least in part by Logan), and he passes that down the line. It's not often said, but my sense is that the main reason CEOs are paid absurdly high salaries is less about training or talent, and more to ensure that they will always make the ruthless decisions that require them to disconnect from their humanity (e.g. firing thousands of people, skirting safety regulations just enough, etc). As such, taking pleasure in meting out pain is actually a very valuable asset in places where capital and power are concentrated. A secondary trait implicitly attributed to Roman's tragic background is his acute sense of what people want and how they think, making him useful as what he characteristically calls a "people sniffer" in service of his father.

Connor is the eccentric. At first glance, he appears to be the least useful to the corporation. He's a psychological mess, apparently ruined by the endless indulgences his money affords. Connor—the name apparently means "lover of wolves" in Gaelic—mostly opts out of corporate life, but emerges to make tone-deaf demands that seem perilously close to being met. Despite all this, he finds his sweet spot in politics, where he deploys his sense of entitlement to catalyze a small but enthusiastic base of right-wing "Con-heads". You can say that not much has come of it yet, but his name was actually in the mix for selection as a presidential candidate until cousin Greg (temporarily?) derailed it with a timely intervention. It's not longer a matter of speculation that capital has its uses for the overindulged oaf who can can connect with a crowd.

These are all people who have been formed by capital, and their existence at the confluence of huge amounts of it. They have been shaped by it, and emptied out by it. Another key to the show's success is that it notes the specific ways that they still have little fragments of their humanity in tact. These are monsters, but they never fully detach from their tender qualities. The show, to great effect, zooms in on their role as children who are seeking to love and be loved, despite having very few experiences that would give them a horizon for such a thing.

I'm not convinced that the show will inherently deliver any kind of enhanced understandings of the workings of capital to most of its audience. Indeed, for all its efforts to render its world in its unsavoury itchiness, it's more likely to spawn pseudo-ironic embrace among a new generation of climbers in the way that attempted satires Wall Street and Wolf of Wall Street did. "You're such a Shiv, but I think I'm more of a Roman," you can imagine young corporate lawyers telling each other over cocktails.(The fact that three of the main actors have recently appeared in TV ads gets us at least halfway there.)

Nonetheless, the way that the show's writers hew to how things actually work and closely observe their characters means that there's plenty of insight to be gained from it. Which is part of what makes it fun.

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