Imagine that you’re a Hollywood screenwriter, and you have this idea for a movie that would somehow bring the concept of the James-Bond-type-spy-saves-the-world-from-diabolical-evil-genius thriller into the 21st century. Given the grim realities of late-stage capitalism, you labor over your script to create an arch-nemesis that the audience will really hate — a multinational conglomerate with its slimy hands in just about everything.
It’s a given that your villainous firm (your script calls it simply “The Firm”) will advise the world’s absolutely worst dictators — helping Saudi Arabia’s autocrats identify dissidents, advising Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on running his brutal regime more efficiently, working closely with the state-run businesses and banks in repressive nations like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, even aiding Beijing to flex its expansionist muscles through building islands in the South China Sea.
But that sounds too plain vanilla in an increasingly corrupt world, so you spice things up. Your screenplay introduces The Firm as hosting a lavish party in a remote, exotic corner of China — literally, the other side of the world — with guests arriving on camels and feted in red-carpeted tents surrounded by sand dunes. The camera slowly pans back to reveal the soiree is just a few miles from a vast concentration camp where Chinese guards are cruelly mistreating thousands of Uyghur Muslim detainees.
Good stuff, you think — but what if you add a twist? The Firm also advised Purdue Phrama on how to “turbocharge” sales of its highly addictive and sometimes deadly opioid painkiller OxyContin, and how to blunt the emotional impact of grieving moms of overdose victims. Then, overcaffeinated after banging your keyboard for hours in a West Hollywood coffee shop, you write a crazy scene where The Firm’s consultants tell immigration honchos from Donald Trump’s ICE about their ideas for saving money by cutting back on food and basic health services for detained migrants, and the ICE agents are like, “Whoa, let’s have a little humanity here!”
In a world of comic-book superheroes and explosive car chases, your elevator pitch is laughed out of every major studio as unbelievable. You try to sputter an explanation — that everything in your script actually happened in real life, except the evil masterminds weren’t hiding in some inaccessible Arctic lair. This is the world’s most influential management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. — hiding in plain sight at their headquarters at Three World Trade Center in Manhattan, pulling the amoral levels of modern job-crushing capitalism.
In the last few years, McKinsey & Co.'s image as a go-to high-paying job option for the Ivy League’s best and brightest has morphed into something uniquely dark and sinister, as outstanding journalism from the New York Times and others has shed a light on arguably the world’s most secretive company, which never reveals its client list.
Nonetheless, the various scandals swirling around McKinsey have largely registered under the radar screen before last week, when journalists from ProPublica, publishing in the Times, exposed McKinsey’s work on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Two important things to note: a) it was the administration of Barack Obama that hired McKinsey for this task in 2015 and b) ICE officials under the Trump administration, justifiably pilloried for their cruel treatment of migrants, actually thought some of McKinsey’s ideas were inhumane.
ProPublica’s sources said McKinsey insisted ICE could and should save money by cutting back on food, medical services and basic supervision for detainees. They told the news org that McKinsey “focused solely on cutting costs and speeding up deportations — activities whose success could be measured in numbers — with little acknowledgment that these policies affected thousands of human beings.”
The report was startling not only for its revelations about what’s driving U.S. immigration policy, but also by holding up McKinsey & Co. as the avatar of 21st century hyper-capitalism that outsources jobs, casts aside older workers, and rewards overpriced CEOs — and contractors like themselves — who thwart rank-and-file employees from raises or humane working conditions. Many who read the piece reacted with rage, but it’s been interesting to see where that anger has been directed.
Pete Buttigieg, the Indiana mayor who’s jolted the political establishment by becoming a presidential front-runner, is suddenly under fire from reporters and Iowa voters asking questions about McKinsey and his brief stint working there as a young Harvard-educated Rhodes Scholar. In response, Buttigieg has criticized his former employer — calling the ProPublica revelations “disgusting” — yet still won’t answer questions about his own time there, explaining he’s tried unsuccessfully to get the firm to release him from a nondisclosure agreement, or NDA.
It kind of says something about who really holds the cards in America in 2019 when a man who conceivably could become “the leader of the free world” 13 months from now doesn’t have the clout to get the all-powerful, all-knowing McKinsey to sign off on his modest request. I’m not a huge Buttigieg fan — indeed, my last column was a harsh critique of his inadequate college affordability plan — and it’s fair to ask what working for McKinsey tells us about his worldview, but I also think on some level he’s being unfairly scapegoated. We go after Buttigieg on McKinsey because he’s accessible — on the campaign trail and eventually in the voting booth. The real villain in the McKinsey saga is McKinsey — but they are far out of our reach.
In the past, I’ve written about how the only real leverage in America’s corporatist oligarchy is not as a voter but as a consumer, that it’s Big Business that shuts down gun sales and sanctions anti-LGBTQ bigotry in response to citizens because our paralyzed government can’t. In my righteous fury after reading ProPublica’s expose on McKinsey, I saw that a few folks on Twitter were posting #BoycottMcKinsey. But … really? Yeah, I pledge I will never personally hire McKinsey to tell me how to save money at home by buying less dog food for Daisy and Bella.
This ain’t Chick-fil-A, which you can punish for its assorted crimes against humanity by denying yourself your favorite greasy chicken sandwich. Not only do consumers not interact with McKinsey, but it’s almost impossible to even learn who its largest clients are, and if you did and wanted to boycott those companies, you’d basically stop buying any and all products.
In conjunction with this piece, I tweeted a photo of McKinsey’s current global managing partner, Hong Kong-based Kevin Sneader. I argue that — since his company wanted detained migrants to get less food — it would be totally appropriate for food workers to deny him service. Last year, I posted that it was fitting and proper to protest the authoritarianism of Trump administration officials in public places like restaurants. That’s because our political and business elites are an untouchable class. These kind of gestures — consumer boycotts, face-to-face confrontation — are a kind of frontier justice that’s needed because conventional justice is unattainable.
In recent weeks, the so-called “cancel culture” has become the bete noire of the chattering classes. And sure, it’s not hard to find cases where “a mob mentality” on social media can get carried away, either in overreacting to minor offenses or in too harshly judging young everyday people for their youthful mistakes. But online shaming and boycotts emerged because the outlets for justice that we ought to have — legislatures and courtrooms that aren’t hopelessly biased toward the rich and powerful, or sanctions for corporations that are never punished because they’re “too big to fail” — are nowhere to be found.
Since the turn of millennium, no one has been held accountable for a bogus war in Iraq, for the U.S. government’s embrace of torture, for the greedy practices that crashed the world economy in 2008, or for the business practices — many of them devised by McKinsey & Co. — that have systematically destroyed the middle class. Meanwhile, calling out the abuses of the patriarchy and white supremacy hasn’t come close to ending either one. The absurd practices of McKinsey around ICE detentions, opioid abuse, Chinese totalitarianism or privatizing education aren’t exceptions, just extremes.
The reason that Americans are so mad is because we deserve to be mad. But that anger is a raging river that flows toward the paths of least resistance. In the American heartland, on the right, fury over the loss of jobs as recommended by amoral bean counters like McKinsey gets diverted — by demagogues like Trump or through a warped culture — towards immigrants or the poor. On the left, online crusaders cancel those things that can be canceled.
The stakes for our country, in the 2020 election and then going forward into the next decade, is whether we can figure out how to cancel the things that really matter — a system of warped capitalism that sees massive inequality as “an efficiency” and divides everyday people while denying that health care and education are basic human rights. Maybe then, diabolical global-domination firms like McKinsey & Co. can go back to being the stuff of Hollywood fiction.