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The Marquis de Sade’s Executive MBA

The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management, Tom DeMarco’s 1997 novel, is not a good book. But it is, in its way, a miraculous object: it is, apparently, the first amalgamation of two of our modern world’s most powerful textual forms—the novel and the airport bookstore management tract. It seems like it shouldn’t exist, save perhaps as limp Marxist parody, or an errant data point on one of Franco Moretti’s maps and graphs of world literary history.

A bad book from 1997: why bother? The only justification, really, would be that DeMarco’s text illuminated something essential about contemporary capitalism that would otherwise remain hidden. And it does. The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management shines a light on our economic order’s sadomasochistic core.

We are familiar, perhaps over-familiar, with sadomasochistic fiction such as American Psycho, Fight Club, and 24. But what distinguishes The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management is its illumination of the role of sadist and masochistic fantasies—not in the psychopathologies of day traders, not in the hollow rituals of postmodern consumption and therapy, and not in the torture chambers of late-capitalist militarism—but in the world of industrial relations. DeMarco takes as his topic the exotic kink that permeates the halls of Harvard Business School.

DeMarco, setting out to emplot a tale of managerial learning, might have been expected to construct a straightforward novel about personnel managers and their struggles, bejazzling the story with select pearls of executive MBA wisdom. But instead, he weaves the unlikely story of Webster Tompkins, a won’t-play-by-the-rules nonconformist who is about to be downsized by an incompetently run multinational corporation. Tompkins is kidnapped by a fetching corporate spy (they will marry at the book’s end) and transported to the fictional ex-Soviet state of Morovia, where he is offered the opportunity to oversee a grand managerial experiment.

His captor explains:

“It’s not your problem, Webster, but your opportunity. Haven’t you ever in your life wanted to set up a controlled experiment in management? Have you never wondered what would happen if you ran not just one project to get a given piece of work done, but maybe three or four?” […]

Mr. Tompkins’ eyes got a faraway glaze. “A controlled experiment…. One project with lots of pressure and one with little and another project with almost none, all three charged with doing the exact same task. We could watch them to see which one finished first. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. We could set up one group with a staff that was too big, and another with a staff that was too small, and a third one that had just the right number as best I could guess it.” […]

He was getting into it now. “One staffed by people that have worked together before, pitted against another team staffed with strangers. Why, if we could do that…we could begin to investigate some of the great mysteries of management. We could actually begin to understand what makes projects tick.”

“It’s all yours, Webster. You have got all of Morovia to play with.”

Morovia, it turns out, has been purchased by a disgruntled venture capitalist and converted into a futuristic software firm. Under the threat of violence, massaged by generous compensation, Tompkins assumes the role of team-builder and project-manager-in-chief. What can account for this dream of headhunting-by-kidnapping and compulsion to perform latter-day Hawthorne experiments on the citizenry of a country-cum-corporation?

The closest parallel to The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management might well be the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom. Both were written in the uncertain aftermath of world-historical ruptures: the French Revolution in the case of the latter, and the “shareholder-value” variant in the case of the former. Both deal with the problem of Day II of the Revolution. How does humanity avoid a regime in which Aleister Crowley is elected ethicist-in-chief, and “do what thou wilt” becomes the whole of the law?

The excitement and anxiety engendered by such a prospect leads Sade and DeMarco to their respective narrative strategies, which they arrive at via the same literary device. Sade (whose perversions might well have drawn him to stories of nomadic sexcapades across continents) was drawn to domestic enclosures—aristocratic structures like castles and chateaux, bounded on all sides, in which experiments could be performed and knowledge produced. In Morovia, a similarly bounded experimental laboratory, Tompkins becomes a good Sadean protagonist, involved in complicated experiments into the nature of desire, motivation, obedience, and power.

Classical psychoanalysis viewed sadism and masochism as two possible consequences of the failure of paternal authority to establish itself in the child’s developing sense of the world. It comes as no surprise, then, that under capitalism—the historical form in which the paterfamilias and fatherly God give way to the forces of the market—sadistic and masochistic personality styles might flourish. “I like firing people,” candidate Mitt Romney averred on the campaign trail in 2012, miffed by the refusal of America to meet his raised open palm, extended in anticipation of an enthusiastic high-five.

Well before Michel Foucault, students of capitalist management recognized that the accumulation of knowledge about the working body serves both as a means of ratifying power relations, and as a magnet for many of the system’s most inhumane passions. The point in Sade, and indeed in most management literature, is to recreate a situation of total innocence, which will allow for a certain simultaneous summoning of the powers of both wonder and violence. The Sadean heroine “wants to know the name and function of everything she is allowed to see, touch, and smell.” She “acts like a child, eager to learn new words.”

So it is in The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management. Consider this passage, a dialogue between Tompkins and a management sage he encounters on Morovia’s streets. She tells him:

“If you think about which of your organs is active as you manage, the head doesn’t come into it much at all. Management is in the gut, in the heart, and in the soul.”

“It is?”

“It is.”

“The manager has to learn to trust her gut, lead from the heart and build soul into the team and into the organization…. You consider someone for a key position and he/ she looks fine on paper, but something tells you to keep on looking. That something is your gut. And then someone else comes along and a little voice inside you sings out ‘This is the guy!’ or ‘She’s the one! Grab her and put her in charge of the whole works and leave her alone.’ That’s the gut speaking. The best managers are the ones with the best guts. The key brain function a manager has to master is to learn when to trust her gut.”

“Uh huh.” Tompkins pondered. “That’s the gut. And the heart?”

“It’s your heart that people respond to. They don’t follow you because you’re clever or because you’re always right, but because they love you.” […]

Mr. Tompkins chewed that over for a moment.

Were it not for this bizarre appearance of “love,” this peculiar corporate eros, perhaps I would not have been impelled to read The Deadline: A Novel of Project Management as Sadean allegory. It is this question of the politics of “love” that drive both Sade and DeMarco to embed polemical tracts within their narratives. Sade knits a book-within-a-book (“Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans”) into Philosophy in the Bedroom. Similarly, De Marco builds his book around a text called “Mr. Tompkins Notebook,” a distillation, in point-form, of the hard-won managerial lessons of the Morovian experiment.

Of course, the juxtaposition of the banality of these insights (anyone who has ever killed fifteen minutes in the business section of a Hudson News could guess them just by free-associating), against the many cartoonishly evil acts of violence (real or threatened) that lead to their elaboration—even more than the prediction of nation-states mutating into corporate “centers of excellence,” a process that unfolds before our eyes—seems to contain De Marco’s most lucid, if unintended, analysis of capitalism’s essence.

What is more classically sadistic, after all, than a system in which, as Anatole France once wrote, “in its majestic equality…forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread”? Or, as the late Morgan Stanley analyst hedge fund analyst Barton Biggs put it in his 2006 book Hedgehogging: “We forget that Mr. Market is an ingenious sadist, and that he delights in torturing us in different ways.”