The HDnet Films documentary has been out on DVD for some time. It’s about an hour 50 minutes of narrative plus sound and video clips; a lot of the video is stock footage illustrating the sound track rather than actual footage of the principals or events, but it holds together OK (it wavers between an audio documentary and slide show with a lot of video filler, and a video documentary). It’s divided like a feature article into sections or chapters with titles, a nice organisational touch; there’s good continuity from one chapter to another, with titles often referring back to an actual quote from a principal character in the preceding segment. (The chapters may correspond to those in the book of the same name; I haven’t read it so I wouldn’t know.) A pop music score accompanies each chapter, usually with humorous intent.
The narrative starts with the suicide of an Enron executive — the film-maker’s entry point into the story. Then comes a sketchy biography of Ken Lay, and so on into a fairly coherent chronology that weaves together the deregulation of energy markets, the stock market bubble of the late 90′s, the California “energy crisis” (artificial scarcity created by Enron traders to jack up prices), the California recall election and Ahnold’s installation as Governator, the Bush II election, and so on until the unravelling of the Enron scam and the arrests of Skilling, Lay, et al. Various interviewees include investment analysts (one of whom was fired for daring to suggest that Enron was unsound), lawyers, ex-employees of the company; the principals speak to us mostly from archival footage from the Enron investigations, and (bizarrely) from internal company videos — promotional videos, documents of shareholder meetings, and strange little internal PR video efforts intended at the time to be humorous.
It’s late and I didn’t take notes while watching, so this is just a quick review of a few things that jumped out at me. One is the obvious connection (which the film makers clearly emphasised) between the neocon/neolib/Chicago-school “market ideology” and the Enron fiasco. Much is made of the fanatical belief of the chief company officers in an Ayn Randian perversion of Darwinian theory. This “faith in markets” is ridiculed by several of the interviewees, particularly with regard to the deregulation of power supply in California which cost the state some $30B. The crypto-Darwinism did not stop with market theory; Skilling, one of the prime criminals in the case, turned the company’s internal personnel procedures into a kind of Survivor show by means of a review process which required 15 percent of the personnel to be rated as failures and fired, annually. The review process involved a component of voting by peers and colleagues, so that employees at Enron could be literally voted out of the company by their colleagues as part of the annual review process. One ex-employee after another alludes to the brutal, divisive atmosphere of cut-throat competition.
Another theme which the film-makers glossed over, touching on it as an eccentricity or colourful curiosity rather than as a major clue to the pathological behaviours of the Enron management caste, was the strongly gendered (masculinist) posturing of the upper echelon management. Skilling, for example, led “adventure trips” for friends and employees which consisted of a bunch of rich guys doing stupid and dangerous things to prove their masculinity to themselves and each other; injuries were common on these trips which were similar to hazings or ordeals (a frat club atmosphere). One of his managerial hitmen was obsessed with strippers and spent nearly every evening after work in a nearby strip club; company mythology says that he hired the strippers to come to his executive office for a private show. The language of the day traders as they discuss their extortion scheme for California is highly gendered and misogynist, and the tone of the gloating and bragging is unmistakably locker-room stuff. But the film-maker does not connect these dots.
The film-maker stays within the bounds of acceptable liberal discourse: at only one moment does a critique of capitalism ever raise its head — and that very timidly, by way of the music soundtrack rather than the narration or any interviewee. There is criticism of “corporate culture” and of those who “care about nothing but money,” and there is fairly strong criticism of freemarket absolutism; but there is of course no structural or analytical critique of capitalism — it is taken for granted like the masculinism that so clearly informs the sociopathy of many of these characters. However it’s made quite clear that the Enron scam could never have been perpetrated without the collusion of a double handful of allegedly reputable institutions — international investment banks, Andersen Accounting, and so on. Exposure and critique of Lay’s and Enron’s cosy relationship with the Bush family is fairly open and frank, but any connection with the secret Cheney Energy Task Force, the failed Afghan pipeline deal, or the Iraq invasion plan is never mentioned or suggested.
Reference is made to situational ethics and the Milgram Experiment, but not to the Stanford Prison Experiment which I would have thought also quite relevant. Gray Davis makes an unexpectedly sympathetic appearance — by comparison with the Messrs. Ripley of Enron in the starring roles, he seems almost human.
The documentary does a good job of positioning the Enron collapse in the context of other events — or rather, positioning other events in the context of the Enron collapse. It does not finish connecting the dots and put pirate capitalism in the context of diminishing returns on Enclosure and on resource extraction (liquidation); the finance capital shenanigans of the “smartest guys in the room” are presented as a “Greek tragedy” (the actual words of one interviewee) of overweening cleverness, hubris and greed (all true so far as it goes)… and as a failure of Republican deregulation-mania (a partisan touch there), rather than as — also –the inevitable flailing of overconcentrated capital seeking avenues for growth in the face of hard physical limits. However, though it falls short of radical analysis itself, it’s a treasure trove of quotes, video clips, and capsule histories that radical analysis can sift through and make use of. I give it about 3.5 stars out of five (or whatever metric we’re using this week on ‘Gramsci and Cabral Go to the Movies’)…