Return of the Titans: Succession and the Rebirth of Dynastic Capitalism

Return of the Titans: Succession and the Rebirth of Dynastic Capitalism

Family capitalism remains the dream of millions of wannabe and petty entrepreneurs. In Succession, it’s a seductive nightmare.

Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) with father Logan Roy (Brian Cox) on Succession (Peter Kramer/HBO)

Whenever he’s angry (which is often), whenever he wants to convey his contempt for someone in his vicinity (which is often), whenever he’s besieged (also frequently), whenever he wants to signal that he alone will be the decider (always)—in a word, whenever he feels the need to assert his essential existential position—Logan Roy tells the world to “fuck off.”

Logan is the anti-hero of the television series sensation Succession. He is the patriarch of a global business empire, Waystar Royco. Waystar does a bit of this and that, but its core business is mass media, mainly old-style print and TV, although as the series opens it is beginning to test the waters of social media and metadata gathering. The company’s editorial approach is decidedly right-wing and sensationalist; each episode of the second season opens with a newsflash from Waystar’s principal TV station telling viewers, “Gender fluid illegals may be entering the country twice.” This piece of hilarity and much else is probably meant to roughly parody Rupert Murdoch’s enterprises.

And not just Murdoch’s commercial undertakings, but his family as well. Logan is old, as is Rupert, and family members wait salivating in the wings. But the two families diverge at important points. Logan is the founding patriarch, Rupert a mere heir to the throne. Rupert may actually have an ideology, while for Logan right-wing histrionics are purely a marketing strategy; he’s a nihilist and narcissist, which may after all add up to the same thing. “Fuck off” is his politics.

More to the point, the Roy clan is sui generis. It may resemble dynasties past and present, but it exists in its own dramatic space. There it lives as archetype and caricature, half a satirical sendup, half an unspooling tragedy, of something very much in the American grain: family capitalism as a seductive nightmare.

Back to the Future

Succession succeeds, at least in part, because it is a fantastical version of a malignancy that has metastasized in our public life: the return of the titans. It compels our attention even if we don’t like what we see. Donald Trump is only the most conspicuous specimen of a whole new subspecies that includes people like the Waltons, the Sackler family, Sheldon Adelson, the Mercers, John Paulson, Steven Cohen, the Dursts, Murdoch and sons, and the Koch brothers. Like the Astors, Vanderbilts, Mellons, and Rockefellers of yesteryear, they may seem, often to themselves, like übermenschen, wealthy beyond imagining but also eminences and exemplars. Their economic throw-weight is considerable, as is their political influence; indeed, “influence” hardly captures their full-scale invasion of the political realm. And as Succession attests, they occupy a rare zone in our cultural id: the glamorously detestable.

Logan is drawn from the American museum of Napoleonic businessmen. Yet Logan is, historically speaking, surpassingly strange. Family-dynastic capitalism was a form peculiarly suited to the formative phase of industrial development in the nineteenth century—or so it had been assumed by economists and historians. It was supposed to have died out, giving way to the modern corporation, overseen by a cadre of faceless managers and “owned” by anonymous shareholders. The presumption has been that, under “managerial capitalism,” only a complex, specialized bureaucratic organization was up to the task of running the vast, technologically sophisticated systems of production and distribution that made modern economic life possible.

The recent return of the titans suggests that logic was flawed. Succession works because we know dynastic capitalism, once illuminated by the gaslight costume dramas of the original Gilded Age, stalks us today. It has become the vessel of a “fuck off” persuasion that discolors everyday life. That is also why Succession mesmerizes; it embodies the new normal of social engagement, which turns its rear end to all those who falter in our communal race to the top.

Dynastic capitalism has been and remains the dream of millions of wannabe and petty entrepreneurs. For them, family enterprise may be a way out of wage labor dependency, a form of liberation. Usually, those dynastic ambitions come to nothing. The small-scale family undertaking remains just that, providing the material wherewithal of modest familial independence and perhaps an inheritance (assuming it doesn’t go bankrupt), presided over by a (usually male) head of household. Dynastic capitalism is what happens when—through circumstance, skill, skullduggery, and luck—this bourgeois idyll morphs into something more imposing, toxic, and sociopathic.

Enter the Roys: the household from hell.

The Royco Inferno

Looked at as a psychodrama, Succession is a lurid portrait of parental abuse and self-abuse, of patriarchal tyranny, of childlike fear and trembling, and abortive efforts to overthrow the king. But the story is more than that because the family’s torment is inextricably bound up with its property—how it has been amassed, how it is to be deployed, who shall decide those matters as time marches on. In that way, Succession is faintly reminiscent of the nineteenth-century novel about the patrimonial family. There, marriage, property, patrilineal succession, and social position were the ground of intense emotional as well as social tension. Succession is too melodramatic, at times soap opera-like, to be taken as seriously as Balzac or Austen or Elliot, but its action evokes the behavior and familial dilemmas of real-life dynastic clans from the American industrial past.

Clan Roy consists of three sons and a daughter (a mutant quartet sharing their father’s knack for deviousness and distrust, but not his basal will to eviscerate the enemy), three serial wives (including the divorced mother of all but the oldest son, who lives in self-imposed exile in a baronial estate in the English countryside), a hapless dunderhead of a nephew, a pandering son-in-law, an estranged brother, and an outer ring of servitors and facilitators. They all share in the general oy vey as each member of the tribe and the company careens from one personal and corporate crisis to the next. They conspire, they betray, they surrender, they seek revenge. But they are not woebegone; their gloom is full of energy, vigorously self-destructive, and incessantly witty.

All the players, with one or two exceptions, are studies in both cruelty and cowardice. Kendall, the second son and heir apparent, is exemplary. He wants to take over for his aged and ailing father and has studied the old man’s art of the deal. He’s a recovering addict whose therapy consists of mimicking Logan’s adroitness at bullying, lying, and cold-blooded betrayal. He attempts multiple acts of Oedipal murder (we’re talking parricide by proxy war, not the real down and dirty), all of which fail. Yet, as much or more than any of his siblings, Kendall craves his father’s benediction; for sizeable stretches of the drama he turns himself into an automaton programmed to carry out Logan’s plans.

Like bullies everywhere, Logan’s family members are weak. All live in fear of him. They are also given to sudden bouts of sentimental concern, even weepiness, when he is stricken ill—lachrymose moments that seem absurd given Logan’s emotional distance and brutality. Logan knows the truth that his children will do what he wants out of “love, fear, whatever.” Their conspiracies against him always sputter out, disarmed by mutual distrust. Machiavellian intrigues, whether plotted against Logan or outside business rivals, are brilliantly conceived, but the centripetal flows of finance capital and/or the ramifications of family dysfunction conspire to undermine them.

As a brood, they believe in nothing. Rather than beliefs, they have inbred instincts. One is NRPI, which stands for “No real person involved.” They can only take seriously as human that handful of people who, like them, occupy Olympus. Everyone else is there to serve and otherwise remain invisible. This view of society is familiar enough nowadays, and has been during earlier gilded ages. It registers the remarkable capacity of life under capitalism to reinvent hierarchy even as it undercuts it, and under the right set of conditions to gut any sense of social obligation.

On the surface, they are sensualists—devotees of kinky sex, designer drugs, and hip-hop bacchanals. They inhabit what Henry James called a zone of “bottomless superficiality.” Yet beneath this living for the moment is a discordant undertone. The family is a perpetuity all are bonded to, even as each member tries to capture its aura for his or herself. It’s an inheritance and a cross to bear.

Connor, the eldest son, is a new age babbler and a kind of arrested adolescent. His quasi-religiosity, however addle-headed, is a dissent. Logan’s brother Ewan, who finds his demonic sibling repulsive, pronounces jeremiads about the day of reckoning to come. Yet when push comes to shove, Ewan will vote with the family to fend off attempts by outsiders to take over. Shiv, the sly, cynical, and scruple-free daughter of Logan, who is probably smarter than the rest of her blood relations, is ruthless enough to offer up her husband, Tom, as a suitable scapegoat for company criminality, yet sentimental enough to change her mind when he has second thoughts about their marriage. Tom tries to mimic the louche arrogance and moral abandon of his new brothers and wife but reveals himself finally as a prude. Logan, the Patriarch, is Job-like, prepared to sacrifice his son Kendall to oblivion (and perhaps some jail time) on the altar of his own outsized ego, but also to preserve the Waystar Royco patrimony. Kendall offers himself up for the slaughter, but at the moment of truth instead offers his father a Judas kiss.

The Roys aren’t monastic, but they do have a calling: to be killers. Some of them may demur or fail at it and have to live in the shade of their father’s contempt. But they all aspire to the icy psychic self-discipline that their calling demands. It echoes the worldly asceticism of capital accumulation’s zeitgeist.

Succession is far less about greed than it is about power. When Waystar zeroes in on a media start-up, for example, it’s big swinging dick time. Barrels of cash lubricate the deal, but it’s the mano-a-mano face-off between Kendall and the young company’s CEO that makes the scenes hum, culminating in the defenestration of the upstart, Waystar’s despoiling of the company, and the face-to-face firing of the whole staff. This savagery is an initiation ritual for the heir apparent; prove you’re a killer and worthy of bearing aloft someday the dynasty’s escutcheon.

If there is something tragic about the story of this malicious and discreditable family, it is precisely their universal failure to measure up. They are dead souls, afflicted at birth with a fatal amorality, fated to follow after the father but sickened by the effort. They are having a lifelong bad time having a good time. Even the musical score moves back and forth between highly charged hip-hop percussiveness and what its composer calls the “dark classical zone,” rather solemn and moving adagios from that moment when the baroque turned into the classical. It lends a somber basso profundo to a story that often seems a burlesque.

Then and Now

Those burlesque elements are reminiscent of the supercilious yesteryear of family-dynastic capitalism. During the Gilded Age, there was something both comical and deadly serious about the way nouveau industrial plutocrats strained at showing off their aristocratic bona fides. Newly enriched iron mongers, Wall Street speculators, railroad tycoons, coal mine owners, and their families assembled in lavish masquerade balls, dressed up as European or Far Eastern nobility; set up house in castles disassembled in France or England and reassembled stone by stone on Fifth Avenue; decorated their barouches with fabricated heraldic crests; cooked up fake genealogies as evidence of their medieval, blue-blooded ancestors; and married off their “dollar princess” daughters to the bankrupted younger sons of an Old World gentry in decline.

Performing aristocracy had a social function. It was meant to shore up the otherwise rather shallow claim—especially in a society awash in democratic sensibilities—that these overnight millionaires, who just yesterday had been ferryboat captains, cattle tenders, stock boys, circus hustlers, and conmen, composed an entitled ruling class. And they could be quite ruthless in defending their ascendancy against any who resisted their presumptions. But there was something ridiculous about these social charades; editorial writers, novelists, and cartoonists had a field day making fun of what they called “chip chop” or “shoddy” aristocrats. Still, the mass media of that time chronicled their doings obsessively. Every sexual peccadillo or financial scandal, every dynastic alliance sealed by marriage or rent asunder by divorce, all the sanguinary contests for inheritance and supremacy among second generation siblings, were catnip for readers.

Succession gives us some of that. There is, for example, something parodic about Connor naming his splendiferous western retreat “Austerlitz.” In a painfully risible scene set at a corporate retreat in an aged Hungarian fortress, Logan compels some out-of-favor attendees to masquerade as wild boars wrestling over an imaginary bone. This humiliation is called “Boar on the Floor.”

By and large, however, the Roys engage their appetites for what once was labeled conspicuous consumption inconspicuously, in private or even in secret, subterranean locales; it’s no longer really conspicuous because there’s no need to show off. That’s a clue to how things that seem the same have changed. Today, capital rules, whether under the mantle of liberal democracy or through an authoritarian ersatz populism. There are no challengers, no social class to mimic or look up to. Capital has nothing to prove.

Nor do the Roys. In a delicious set of scenes, Logan (and the whole Roy ensemble) confront the Brahmin matriarch (a Katherine Graham type) of a venerable family newspaper empire. Logan wants to buy her out. She is appalled, politely, by the Roys’ mercenary vulgarity and their indifference to the honor codes of the Fourth Estate. But she’s financially needy. Many such face-offs happen in Edith Wharton novels—Knickerbockers versus the Nouveau. The outcome there is often unresolved or tragic. In Succession, however, when this doyen of a vanishing order balks, holding out for ethical assurances, Logan tells her to “fuck off.” She folds. (Later on, the deal falls through thanks to a Waystar scandal so ugly no one could afford to be associated with it.) For Logan, her initial capitulation is an aphrodisiac. Capital is in command.

History’s Great U-Turn

Nowadays we think of capital as an abstraction. It seems like an airborne numerology of immense power and reach, hovering between virtual reality and mother earth. Where it touches down, we call it a corporation. The humans who inhabit it are functionaries, interchangeable parts of a finely reticulated machine. In our age of mega-mergers and acquisitions, we take for granted that corporations go in and out of existence with remarkable frequency, morphing into a shifting array of acronyms. They are carriers of great power, but without an organic attachment to distinct individuals or family lineages.

By comparison, the family-dynastic capitalist is an autocrat sitting atop an enterprise that is virtually indistinguishable from his life and legacy. Unlike the managerial functionary, dynasts remain attached not only to their kinship networks, but also often to religious convictions, regional loyalties, and more doctrinaire ideologies. Property and personality are fused.

The Roy family reminds us of these characteristics. Of even greater sociological significance, Succession signals a historical U-turn: family-dynastic capitalism, an early lifeform that corporate capitalism was supposed to have permanently supplanted, has reemerged. Its rebirth was prompted by the transformation of the economic landscape over the last seventy-five years and is indebted to the managerial capitalism that was supposed to be its gravedigger.

During this period, war, both hot and cold, incubated new industries and new companies in U.S. regions like Texas, California, and the Southwest. The Sun Belt’s countryside and burgeoning cities and suburbs wooed business to settle there. The region was an entrepreneurial paradise of no unions, low wages, free land, and tax abatements. The federal government fertilized the region’s industrial landscape with pipelines, agricultural subsidies, roadways, waterworks, and a network of defense and aerospace installations, along with incentives in the tax code. All of this served the needs of big business, but also acted as a hothouse for ancillary enterprises.

Always hospitable to small and medium sized undertakings, the service and retail sectors grew geometrically, opening up spots both for immigrants and the native born. Big-box retailers—often dynastically controlled—dominated the standardized mass market, but a myriad of niche subcultures and their inexhaustible desires were supplied by boutique lifestyle companies. By the end of the 1970s, 40 percent of service workers were employed by small firms with fewer than twenty employees. This tidal shift from manufacturing to service providers that characterized the second half of the last century gave new life to an old form.

The crisis that enveloped corporate America beginning in the early 1970s, when it faced robust competition from the recovered economies of Japan and Western Europe, also contributed to the revival of family capitalism. “Flexible capitalism,” the term used to describe the new system of de-centered corporations and casual labor markets (facilitated by information technology, with its great powers of coordination), opened up new frontiers of petty entrepreneurship. Indeed, the new era’s lean-and-mean business machine demanded it. Mega-corporations offloaded a range of functions once performed internally. Outsourcing, subcontracting, and licensing production, communication, distribution, marketing, and other activities to outside concerns considerably expanded the universe of small- and medium-sized business.

The financialization of the economy also drove the resurgence of dynastic capitalism. All sorts of boutique consulting, accounting, legal, research, software, and other essential functions nourished entrepreneurial ambitions in the orbit of the big banks. New frontiers, internet technology most spectacularly, were pioneered by young men and women on the make (even if the technologies they relied on and exploited were first of all the result of government research and development). Some have become the high-profile dynasts of today’s surveillance capitalism. Often, they partnered with and were financed by privately run venture capital firms and closely held hedge funds.

New business formations doubled and self-employment rose nearly 25 percent as American big business downsized. According to a Small Business Administration report, nearly 6 million new businesses were created during Bill Clinton’s eight years in office. Non-farm proprietorships rose 34 percent between 1992 and 2000.

This was a precariously positioned economic zone; the business failure rate between 2002 and 2006 (a prosperous time) was frighteningly high, especially among start-ups, whether in construction, retail or wholesale trade, or the finance sector. Core corporations continue to exercise enormous power. In Silicon Valley, for example, the biggest concerns vacuumed up hundreds of smaller ones (Google all by itself swallowed over a hundred by the end of that decade). Still, this was a prolonged breeding period for family capitalism.

Out of this ocean of commercial strivers arose a handful of “great men.” They tended to cluster in economic zones where entrée was easier, where upfront heavy capital investment was not a prerequisite, or where they could draw on ancestral accumulations, as Murdoch and Trump and the Koch brothers did. These firms showed up in real estate, entertainment, retail, high tech, and, like Waystar, in the media. Some, like Mark Zuckerberg (and Logan Roy), arranged for their enterprises to remain within the family even while “going public.” And some publicly traded companies went private, thanks to a buyout craze initiated by private equity firms (like Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital) seeking quick turnaround profits.

The largest family operations were no longer stodgy, technically antiquated outfits, narrowly dedicated to churning out single, time-tested products. Often, they became remarkably adept at responding to shifts in the market—as Kendall tries to push his father to become—and more diversified in what they made and sold. All made the necessary adjustments, as Waystar does, to allow them to thrive in a world of stock swaps, financial derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, and hedge fund speculation. Indeed, Logan has placed Waystar in dire financial jeopardy because he’s taken on insupportable debt to lubricate his grander ambitions, very much in keeping with the use of highly leveraged undertakings in our postindustrial, financialized economy.

Businessmen of State

Robber barons of old, and again today, assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of the country on how best to order its affairs. When the law got in their way, they had resort to kept politicians and jurists to do their bidding. Logan Roy does just that when Waystar’s more unseemly machinations surface, deploying his daughter Shiv—who carries on a brief flirtation with liberal politics—as a PR person for a Bernie Sanders caricature. It’s a ploy, which fails, to shore up daddy’s political defenses.

During the Gilded Age, few captains of industry (William Randolph Hearst is the most notable exception) fancied entering the political arena themselves. They left that to “their people” and stayed busy as economic predators. Today, by contrast, a host of self-made (or allegedly self-made) titans of business and finance have offered themselves up as legislators, governors, and even presidents, solely on the basis of their triumphs in the marketplace. They fund a dense network of thinks tanks, PACs, journals, endowed university chairs, lobbying groups, and policy shops to infuse the political system with their ideas and preferences. This is one indication of how intermeshed the state has become in the workings of the “private sector.”

In that sense, Logan is something of a throwback—he doesn’t seem to think of himself as a statesman in the wings waiting for his moment. But he shares a quality held by both his forbears and his real-life contemporaries: he likes to play God. It’s a habit that has returned with a vengeance in our own time.

The Koch brothers, the Walton tribe, the Coors family, Rupert Murdoch and sons, hedge fund honchos like John Paulson and Steven Cohen, the Mercer father-and-daughter duo, and the Trump clan all conform in one way or another to this historic profile. This resurgence of dynastic capitalism is changing the nation’s political chemistry. The new dynastic families, like the Vanderbilt, Astor, and Rockefeller tribes who came before them, are inordinately taken with their exalted place in the world. Take that together with America’s perennial love affair with business, and you have a formula for megalomania and mass seduction.

The romance of American capitalism makes Logan Roy an object of both fascination and revulsion, the magnetic center of an irresistible and sensual evil. The man from nowhere (Logan hails from miserably poor and abandoned circumstances in Dundee, Scotland) becomes a conquistador of business. Colossus rises, so the legend tells us, through the application of disciplined effort and self-denial, commercial cunning and foresight, a take-no-prisoners competitive instinct, and a gambler’s unflappability in the face of the unforgiving riskiness of the marketplace. Master all that, and you deserve to be a master of the universe.

Inside the colorless warrens of the counting house and factory workshop, a pedestrian preoccupation with profit and loss might be expected to smother the instincts we associate with the warrior, not to mention the tyrant. As Joseph Schumpeter once observed, “There is surely no trace of any mystic glamour” about the sober-minded bourgeois. He is not likely to “say boo to a goose.”

That’s what makes the creation of the titan so confounding, but also magical. As Schumpeter put it, he transforms himself into the sort of man who can “bend a nation to his will,” using his “extraordinary physical and nervous energy” to become “a leading man.” The experience of commercial conquest is so intoxicating that it breeds a willful arrogance and lust for absolute power. Call it the absolutism of self-righteous money. It can tell the world to fuck off.

Steve Fraser is a historian and writer. His latest book is Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property:  Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History (Verso).