If you are a business—and why wouldn’t you be?—then McKinsey and Company, “a global management consulting firm that serves a broad mix of private, public and social sector institutions” will help you make “significant and lasting improvements” to improve your performance and to achieve your goals. It might do this by advising you to systematically shortchange the customers of your insurance firm by unscrupulously denying or slow-walking claims, hiring bogus contractors, and using your bottomless legal resources to tie up angry claimants in years of fruitless, ruinous litigation. Or, it might assist you in utilizing family connections to a notoriously corrupt regime to win huge government contracts, all while laundering this activity through a contract with a state-owned utility that it happened to overcharge by nearly $75 million. Or it could play both sides of your bankruptcy filing without disclosing to any of the parties that it was taking money from all of the parties. Or it could turn your boring old gas company into Enron!
If, on the other hand, you are the business of being the murderous ruling monarchy of a repressive, fundamentalist petro-state, McKinsey and Company could help you by just sort of accidentally, surely, disclosing the identities of three of your most significant online critics, helping you to arrest one, kidnap another’s family, and shut down the Twitter account of the third.
The business of “global management consulting” has always existed in a realm of nebulous amorality. In a recent interview with Isaac Chotiner at Slate, Duff McDonald, a financial journalist who wrote a book on McKinsey, spelled it out neatly:
In their typical strategy work, they gave advice and made no representations about implementation. So if a strategy that McKinsey offered someone went horribly wrong on the implementation level, their response was always, “We have nothing to do with this. We simply gave them some ideas.”
The genealogy of this attitude—or this affect of having no attitude at all—dates to the birth of management consulting at the start of the last century, to the work of the former engineer, Frederick Winslow Taylor, who dreamed up the idea of “scientific management.” Taylor was himself an engineer, and like so many of our own contemporary gee-whiz tech boys, his “scientific” was less about a rigorous method of inquiry than about replacing “Should we?” with “Can we?” in a model universe free of social consequence.
Taylor was convinced that the vast majority of industrial laborers operated with “the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.” He rigorously mapped the repetitive movements and actions of each worker on production and assembly lines, and he created a system where large cadres of managers were employed to ensure that factory workers moved in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Through all the changes in markets and industries since the nineteen-teens, this totalitarian system has remained essentially unchanged and unquestioned by the managerial class. All that’s changed is that the technology of surveillance and control in an Amazon warehouse are more sophisticated than an imperious manager with a clipboard. Modern companies, regardless of industry or niche, almost universally strive to become, in business-world newspeak, “agile,” and they hire consultancies like McKinsey to help them overthrow the “The Old Paradigm: Organizations as Machines,” for “The New Paradigm: Organizations as Organisms.” But somehow the majority of workers in these mammoth amoebae remain little more than interchangeable automata.
The renewed media interest in McKinsey stems from its work for the Saudi ruling family, and it arose only because the grotesque murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a political media insider and all-around clubbable man, shocked the stunted conscience of our own professional ruling class in a way that the bombing of a school bus or the starvation of 13 million brown people never could. Among its endless menu of professional services, McKinsey engages in reputation management, compiling press hits and social media trends into cute graphics through which it tells big brands how popular they are and whether they’ll be more or less so tomorrow.
Both relatively small-time professional political grifters like Paul Manafort or Lanny Davis and global firms like McKinsey with hundreds of partners, thousands of employees, and billions in revenues play tiddlywinks with the world’s most violent and despicable people. So long as the regimes whose brands and reputations they manage confine themselves to domestic repression and regional proxy wars, the consensus among the people who matter is that this kind of consulting is itself a neutral service. They are not, after all, advising on how better to prosecute a war—that we know of—or selling their clients the bombs: that is the job of Lockheed Martin and the government of these United States.
Frankly, even actively collaborating with a dictatorial government to identify and disappear its critics seems to have raised few hackles at McKinsey when it actually happened, and the broader crackdown on media dissent in Saudi Arabia was hardly noted at all in the American government and press. While our media faintly giggles at the North Koreans as some kind of infant race ruled by a chubby kook and treats the powerless hereditary monarchy of the UK as a big-screen costume drama with a straight-to-Netflix cast, they tend to speak about various Gulf monarchies as if they are ordinary governments, especially Saudi Arabia, whose titular head is a demented gerontocrat and whose actual ruler is a thirty-something trust-fund dummy, a Jared Kushner with better fashions and a taste for blood.
But killing someone whom the ruling class considered, however tangentially, one of its own was an unforced error on the part of the Saudi’s boy-almost-king, and now its well-paid Washington interlocutors—its lobbyists and bagmen and reputation managers—are loudly pronouncing their misgivings and cancelling their public appearances in the Kingdom even as they plan to slide back in when the present heat is off. McKinsey pronounced itself “horrified” that its work to identify critics of the Saudi monarchy’s economic policies identified the critics of the Saudi monarchy’s economic policies. Meanwhile, the web page for its Riyadh office still proclaims: “Underpinning all our work is a deep commitment to nurture the next generation of Saudi leaders.” Of course, it took fifteen-odd guys to kill one journalist and disappear his body. Talk about “the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.”