Commentary Magazine


The Gamesman, by Michael Maccoby

The Managerial Elite

The Gamesman.
by Michael Maccoby.
Simon & Schuster. 285 pp. $7.95.

Michael Maccoby is a disciple of Erich Fromm, and in this book he applies Fromm’s hypotheses about the nature of modern life to an analysis of one segment of the American managerial elite. To Fromm, contemporary capitalist society is bad for the health; it produces human beings who fail to achieve their full, productive, “loving” potential and are alienated from themselves. Capitalism in Fromm’s view has created a number of character types, among them the “marketing” or “cybernetic” type, a completely lifeless “nonperson” who is making the world a “sum of lifeless artifacts.” Maccoby’s book is at least partly designed to provide empirical evidence for the existence of such character types.

Maccoby and his staff spent a good deal of time and money interviewing a group of managers drawn from dynamic, high-technology companies, administering and interpreting complete sets of Rorschachs and a detailed, “objective” questionnaire. His book displays all the trappings of contemporary social-science research. We do not, however, find in it Fromm’s exact character types. Maccoby’s portrait of the businessman is softer than Fromm’s. These managers, he was surprised to discover, are fairly “liberal” on many social issues, and many seem to him better integrated and more sensitive than some of his academic colleagues. Nevertheless, even the healthiest of them—so says Maccoby—is “alienated,” unable to realize his full potential and incapable of developing genuine, “socially-oriented,” “loving” relations. This alienation, in Maccoby’s view as in Fromm’s, is produced by capitalism and cannot be ended unless the “system” is fundamentally changed.

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As Maccoby outlines his argument, the character types produced by capitalism have changed as American business itself has changed over the years. The first in order of time is the “craftsman” of the 18th and 19th centuries, the traditional builder, farmer, or artisan. This person’s sense of self-worth derives from knowledge, skill, discipline, and self-reliance. His aim is to create something by mastering his material. Maccoby clearly likes this type, but feels he is a dying breed. Besides, while some craftsmen are genuinely democratic and “life-loving,” even the most mature of them have not developed a deep understanding of themselves or others.

The “jungle fighter,” Maccoby’s next type, is rather more unpleasant. These are the robber barons of post-Civil War America, driven by a lust for power. The jungle fighter’s pleasure lies in crushing his opponents. He wishes to be the only one at the top, and what he fears most is annihilation. Few of this increasingly outmoded type remain in the business world. Their counterparts in politics are Nixon, Johnson, and their ilk.

The third character type is the “company man.” Here, Maccoby is indebted to William Whyte’s 1950′s portrait of the “organization man.” This person is generally found in the middle-management ranks of the companies in Maccoby’s study. He is a bureaucrat whose only desire is a secure position in the firm. His worst fear is failure, and his fondest wish is for the approval of his superiors. He is a “hollow” man, without real goals of his own. His political counterpart is Ford or Eisenhower.

And finally we have the man of today and tomorrow, the “games man.” He is found among the managerial elite and is represented in public life by Kennedy or Kissinger. For this type, business (or politics) is a game. The emphasis is not on goals or social responsibility but on the joy of playing, winning, and constantly finding new options. The hero (or anti-hero) of The Sting, as played by Robert Red-ford, is the prototypical gamesman.

Gamesmen are not without virtues. They work well with people, they are not authoritarian, and in a sense they are “socially concerned.” But they lack a capacity for full development, and their lives remain one-dimensional:

The fatal danger for gamesmen is to be trapped in perpetual adolescence, never outgrowing the self-centered compulsion to score, never confronting their deep, deep boredom with life when it is not a game, never developing a sense of meaning that requires more of them and allows others to trust them.

An old and tiring gamesman is a pathetic figure, especially after he has lost a few contests, and with them his confidence. . . . His attitude has kept him from deep friendship and intimacy.

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What are we to make of this analysis? Once the social-science packaging is stripped away, is there anything in The Gamesman that lends it more credibility than Erich Fromm’s original formulations about modern man? Maccoby asserts that he administered a questionnaire containing 229 items to 250 people, yet he offers no systematic analysis of the results to demonstrate that his types do in fact exist, or that one can differentiate among them. Indeed, in the one instance where he does provide a table with some summary data, it is so sloppily presented as to be almost meaningless. His data supposedly show that about half of the managers questioned checked “anxiety” and “restlessness” as personal difficulties, but we have no way of knowing from his presentation whether they indicated that these were minor difficulties or major ones; clearly, in a questionnaire of this type, even reasonably healthy people would check anxiety as a minor difficulty.

In interpreting the Rorschach protocols, Maccoby decided to use a thematic analysis rather than to rely upon formal scores. This is legitimate, but it opens the way to considerable subjectivity. There is no evidence that the author made any attempt to have his analysis of the responses checked by someone who was not familiar with his hypotheses or the persons being studied—standard procedure in any study which relies on thematic interpretations.

Finally, only five of the 250 people interviewed are reported on. There is no way of ascertaining how many of Maccoby’s respondents really fit into which type, and we have only Maccoby’s word that these five are anything but isolated individuals resembling no one but themselves.

Maccoby’s extrapolations from his data are even flimsier than his analysis. He offers absolutely no substantiation for his contention that Kennedy and Kissinger were or are gamesmen (aside from a single quotation from Kissinger). Are we to believe that Kennedy displayed less commitment of the heart than Truman or FDR or Teddy Roosevelt? Why should we take Maccoby’s analysis more seriously than that of James David Barber, who, in The Presidential Character, and with rather more evidence, calls Kennedy an “active-positive” President, i.e., a genuinely productive person with a deep commitment to moral issues?

In the end, Maccoby’s typology is designed to serve a political-ideological position. Like Fromm, Maccoby assumes that a society of fully “loving” and “caring” people will spring into being once we change our present system of economic organization. His evaluation of his respondents is based on this vision. The fact that it is a vision widely shared in the culture of today, amounting in effect to a conventional wisdom, may account for the generally favorable reception this book has received, but it does not make Maccoby’s presumptuous analysis correct or his interpretation of reality a true one.

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