when the way is lost: lies, love and corporate culture in the informant
Walking out the Cinema Nouveau after seeing Steven Soderbergh’s new movie The Informant!, which tells the true- life story of Mark Whitacre and his role in the investigation into price fixing at ADM, I was suddenly aware of a crawling, itching sensation of dread. All at once, fearful thoughts about the past week at work came crowding in — struggles with financial reports to donors, attempts to develop new funding proposals, my own career plans and decisions — and it all seemed too much: doomed to fail, puny struggles in the uncaring eyes of the Powers that Be. In the car on the way home, my father — usually not someone given to complaint — started telling me about his hassles with his pension company. The date stamp on his ‘life certificate’, which he has to send them every year to keep the payments coming, had been wrong, and for weeks now he had been on the phone to faceless voices at the call centre, trying to convince the company he was still alive. I found it an unsettling story, an unwelcome reminder of how powerless we really are — we, the supposedly valued consumers at the centre of our present-day culture of money and consumption — when we lose our foothold in the distributed systems of process and information that undergird our lives.
It reminded me of a few lines from Lao Tsu which have been pinging around in my head for some time now. We don’t know who ‘Lao Tsu’ was. The name (Laozi, in the new orthography) apparently means simply ‘the old master’; ‘he’ may in any case not have been just one person: there might have been a whole line of old men (and women, I am sure). But the poems collected in the Tao te Ching, obscure and evocative, often seem uncannily resonant of lessons to be learned today. When the Way is lost, it says in Chapter 38, there is always goodness. When goodness is lost, there is love or kindness. When kindness is lost, there’s justice. And when justice is lost … well, then you’ve got HR and Customer Relations Management. Well, that’s not the way he put it – the text says ritual – but you get my drift: we’re in trouble. In my current job as manager in a small university-based research unit, I have been much concerned with thinking about the systems and processes that can make working life either rewarding, empowering, enjoyable, or a living hell. (And those worlds, let me tell you, can be a hair’s breadth apart.) Systems are important, all right, and so are procedures, and so are policies aimed at addressing gender discrimination, or racialized exclusion, or unfairness. But the more I do this work, the more I am convinced that it is the integrity of our relationships with one another and ourselves, the quality of attention that we can bring into the workplace that really makes the difference. I am not sure whether a policy research organization operating in today’s divided, disconnected world can ever manifest the Way that ‘Lao Tse spoke about. Even “Goodness” (real virtue, which does not seek to be recognised as such) seems improbable. But Kindness seems to me to be a minimum requirement, and you’d be surprised how hard that is. Well, not really. You are also a subject of present-day neoliberal capitalist bureaucracy — who isn’t? — so unless you are delusional, you’ve felt it too: that the rules and systems that regulate our lives in the present day world are not only impersonal and unfeeling, but dangerous too, and that underneath their rationality there is something deeply disconnected. Ritual and empty form, they rule our lives, and so, indeed we’re truly lost.
Which is what this film captures so beautifully. When I first thought about the bare bones of this story – a whistle-blower alerts the FBI about price-fixing in his company, but is then revealed to be involved in blatant fraud on his own account, and loses both himself and his FBI handlers in an ever-deepening tangle of lies and delusion — I wondered, what would the point of such a story be? It is indeed a strange and baffling tale, and Soderbergh’s movie accentuates its bizarreness. The cast lurch about from frame to frame in expensive suits, like so many earnest penguins, accompanied by chirpy instrumental jazz; changes of scene are announced in absurd purple day-glo 70s lettering: you cannot take this seriously. And the action’s just surreal: the seriousness of the characters themselves is continually undermined by the ludicrousness of what is happening, as the plot itself descends deeper and deeper into unreason. Over and over again, the movie repeats what is in essence the same gag: Whitacre, who’s until now assured his handlers that this time he’s really been telling them the whole truth, calmly and without warning reveals a whole new layer of larceny and lies, laying them on the table with naive confidence, like a deluded poker player triumphantly displaying a losing hand. And what we laugh at is the silent consternation evident in the carefully blank face of his handler, or his lawyer, as he watches his client self-destruct and leave them in the lurch. This is what the prosecution in the Selebi case must be feeling right now, as their star witness calmly destroys his own testimony. The film plays it for laughs: they sit slack jawed and goggle eyed, immobilised by horror as they watch their case fall apart before them. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny: though we laugh, it is with an undertone of discomfort. And no wonder. It’s a scary thing, getting lost in the layered realities of a pathological liar.
‘What was Mark Whitacre thinking?’ That’s how the movie’s official website frames it, and it’s a good question. Initially presenting as the unlikely hero in a story of white collar crime — a slightly geeky guy motivated by the wish to be the hero’ — he is slowly revealed to be a lunatic, a fabulist: all that is solid melts into air; you do not know what or whom to you believe; and you’re left wondering, with horrified fascination, what could be driving such spectacular self-destruction. Most accounts of the film explain it by referencing the facts of the actual story on which the movie is based. Whitacre was suffering from bipolar mood disorder, they say; and in any case, being an undercover snitch for the FBI would drive most people bats. And don’t you think that it is unjust that he got imprisoned for so long for stealing a paltry nine million dollars when AMD stole hundreds of millions?
Well, personally, I don’t think it that is a very satisfying explanation. For one thing, the real-world veracity of a story is actually one of its less interesting aspects when you consider it as a story. What matters in a story is how it is told, how the events cohere. That a particular thing actually happened is in a way neither here nor there; the question is what does it mean, what role does it play? And in this regard, when you look at what is actually shown on screen, the real-life explanation clearly does not hold. I am no clinician, but what we see on the screen is not a bipolar individual. Bipolar people may be grandiose, but they don’t act like this. This is something far more disconcerting and edgy. Whitacre’s steady stream of lies, his apparent lack of morals or shame, his utter disconnection from people around him, and, above all, his ceaseless projection of a confident, sincere exterior, in the teeth of all the facts and all shared realities: these are symptoms not of a mood disorder, but of a much more severe disturbance. I may be mistaken here, but I say unto you: DSM IV. Axis II. Cluster B. Check it out, and be afraid. And be very glad if you have not encountered this in your personal or working life. I am talking psychopathic, narcissistic, or borderline tendencies at the very least.
This is where I think the casting of Matt Damon is particularly brilliant. Matt Damon comes to us from the Bourne trilogy, the story par excellence of the Man Without a Self — the man who does not know who he is, and whose only means of survival is continuous, improvisatory dissembling. But while in the Bourne movies we are invited to identify with the hero — those films are structured so that we continually share his confusion and his burning, single-pointed desire to survive — The Informant! puts you in the shoes of those who have to deal with the mounting chaos of all the ever deepening pile of lies. If you have been around it, you will know how disorienting, how scary it is to encounter this kind of personality disorder, and how much chaos and confusion can be sown. The thing is not only that you are dealing with a disturbed or damaged person; it is that their essential malfunction is often disguised by ahigh degree of apparent competence, a persona of considerable force and conviction. But this mask is all there is. When it slips, you will find, not an ordinary vulnerable human being, but another mask, another cover story, an another impenetrable surface, presented with unflappable conviction. And it’s scary, because the trick is that we very soon start feeling we are the crazy ones: we find ourselves in a dizzying mirror-world where the ordinary rules of human behaviour and compassion simply do not apply.
In other words, it’s corporate culture. This, I think, is the real point of this film. For the most noticeable aspect of the film, other than the frightening comedy of Whitacre’s ever more surreal lies, is its relentless evocation of the banal surface of corporate life. Every frame is a picture of Guys in Suits, of bland hotel interiors, of boardrooms and golf courses. Every image is of a world which asks you to conform while never giving you any safety; a world in which there is no access to anything natural, spontaneous, unconditioned or real; a world in which your future depends on your fooling the system into thinking you are what you think it needs you to be. In one of the most evocative moments of the film, the soundtrack plays a long Aspergerish monoloue by Whitacre, a story in which one company executive notices another’s tie is the mirror image of his own, and then falls down dead. The visuals show us a long, still shot of one of the FBI operatives — a representative of one paranoid, conformist, conspiratorial organization sent to spy on representatives of another — crouching over a box of cornflakes, contemplating it like Rodin’s thinker: a shackled man, clutching a box of artificial food. The image captures an important aspect of the film: though this is a study of corporate power, no-one appears powerful. The men wear suits, but they are stripped of dignity; hunched; their bodies tense. Everyone in the film — cops, executives, secret agents, judges — leads a life subject entirely to impersonal, bureaucratic organisations; but even conformity cannot guarantee survival, for to depend on them is to depend on something entirely arbitrary, unreasoning, untrustworthy, baleful.
So how else to deal with such an irrational, baleful reality except by turning lying into a way of life? Marc Whitacre’s most poignant characteristic is his deluded desire to be the good guy, the guy in the white hat. Well who doesn’t want to be that? But the co-ordinates he has chosen, the values by which he lives, are those of corporate America. And the point about corporations is not so much that they are soulless or impersonal. We should be so lucky. Think about it: endlessly grandiose; obsessed with appearances; lacking any sense of interiority; no capacity for vulnerability; bereft of compassion; virtuous only when trying to conform with the auditable, measurable indicators of virtue; and with only the most tenuous relationship to truth. If companies were people, they’d be psychopaths. These are the masters we have created. No wonder sociopaths do so well in business. There’s a deadly synergy between such folks and the culture they inhabit. And this synergy is the secret of both Whitacre’s initial success and his eventual failure.
But failure kind of saves him. Most of us learn sooner or later that heroes exist only in stories; that we have to be learm to be the flawed, ordinary people we really are. Marc Whitacre’s tragedy is that for most of the film he is unable to make this shift: he can only try, over and over, with increasingly ornate fabulations, to be the hero he thinks he needs to be. By the end of the film it is unbearable to watch: we watch him soldier on, unstoppably, caught like a fish on his own hook of lies. Only one person is able to release him. His wife, who all along has been playing along with him, maddeningly supporting him in his insanity, softly says to him during one of his meetings, Darling, you have to stop this. It is a terrible, delicate moment. It is the only time love speaks in the film. I’m not sure whether it is goodness. But it is kindness. She dares, oh so gently, to speak the truth; and at last he can be liberated from his cage of lies.
To be like us: Vulnerable. Slightly pathetic. Slightly lost: and therefore not so lost.