Doing Business with Tyrants

How can people enjoy a corporate retreat knowing they are near a vast indoctrination camp for ethnic Uighurs? Lawrence Davidson analyzes capitalist conditioning in response to a New York Times article about McKinsey & Co.

By Lawrence Davidson

 On the front page of The New York Times of Dec. 16, 2018, above the fold, there is a long article entitled Turning Tyranny into a Client.” It tells how the management, and a good part of the staff, of McKinsey & Co., a worldwide management firm, goes about the business of burnishing the reputations and increasing the wealth of some of the nastiest tyrants on the planet. Simultaneously, the company publicly claims to be creating “tens of thousands of jobs, improving lives, providing education” and generally “making a positive difference to the businesses and communities” which engage their services. How much of these claims are simply a cover for making huge profits by facilitating corruption is one of the things the article explores. 

This scenario is not an unusual one. Most large corporate structures dealing internationally find themselves assisting tyrannical governments and their corrupt leaders—it is just a matter of degree. McKinsey & Co., for their part, may be into it big time. 

Indeed, there is further aspect to this story, and it is introduced through the article’s description of this McKinsey & Co.’s 2018 retreat. Here it is: “hundreds of the company’s consultants frolicked in the desert, riding camels over sand dunes and mingling in tents linked by red carpets.” And where was this occurring? In “Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city in China’s far west.” Kashgar is also a place that is “experiencing a major humanitarian crisis. About four miles from where the McKinsey consultants discussed their work, which includes advising some of China’s most important state-owned companies, a sprawling internment camp had sprung up to hold thousands of ethnic Uighurs—part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people.” 

Not Bothered by Political Backdrop

As far as the NYT’s reporters could tell, the “frolicking” company consultants were not bothered by this “political backdrop” to their otherwise “Disney-like adventure.” Obviously this speaks to a collective mindset wherein ethical awareness has been rationalized away. I think this situation deserves a closer analysis. 

Kashgar, ancient Silk Road city in far west of China. (Wikimedia)

Why would “hundreds of the company’s consultants” apparently be immune to the horrors within, if you will, an easy camel’s ride from their retreat? More generally, why apparently would they be indifferent to the corruption their employer, and themselves, may well be facilitating?

Here are some possible parts to the answer:

Capitalist Culture

Consider that the pervasive economic environment in the West, from which most of the consultants come from or were educated, is one of increasingly unregulated capitalism. Their educations equated success with the procuring of “a good job.” That is certainly what college nowadays is all about—to get the highest-paying starting job one’s career choice can offer. We acquire this definition of success from the cultural agents all around us: from our parents, our peers, our business, political and social leaders, and from the media. Thus almost all of us are set up from birth to be potential McKinsey employees. 

Linguistic Environment.

Given our economic culture, no one should be surprised that the language the consultants, and the rest of us, presently speak is “a late-capitalist language.” This language “narrows our conceptual horizons” and thereby “makes it more difficult to conceive alternative ways of organizing our economy and society.” If you would like to learn how this works, I recommend a new book by John Patrick Leary, “Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.” 

One recent example of this language problem arose when General Motors announced in November 2018 the imminent laying off of more than 14,000 workers. The CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, explained the move in the following words: “The actions we are taking today continues our transformation to be highly agile, resilient, and profitable, while giving us the flexibility to invest in the future.” The ruination of 14,000 lives becomes a prerequisite for an “investment in the future” and testimony of growing agility and resilience. Her language paints reprobate behavior as economic virtue. Actually, there is an echo of the Ford Pinto scandal here. In that case, the ability to prevent deaths caused by a recognizedly dangerous auto gas tank design was ignored. Later, the decision was justified in the language of cost-benefit analysis. 

Lack of Education in Ethics

This sort of reasoning is not unexpected. Thus, there is nothing in present Western education to contest the language that rationalizes this sort of thinking. In other words, there is a lack of ethical standards that, in practice, call into question the capitalist worldview of someone like Mary Barra. So, you can find business courses galore in higher education, but

Marvin Bower, “founder of modern-day McKinsey and its corporate culture,” according to Wikipedia. (McKinsey & Co.)

ethics courses are rare—and even when you can find them they do not necessarily address themselves to market practices. In the lower grades and high school the subject of ethics, like sex, is thought to be an inappropriate one for the classroom. We are supposed to pick up our ethics from our parents and/or religion. That means acquiring ethical standards is catch-as-catch-can. But learning to think in terms of, and navigate in, a capitalist world is the sine qua non of success.

Group Pressure

We are communal animals, and most of us assimilate into a series of groups as we age. Our workplace community is one of these. The process of assimilation to such groups, especially when there is no countervailing influence (such as a union) creates the box outside of which we rarely look. Thus, “normal” cultural behavior is group behavior. 

This is probably what is going on with the many of the McKinsey consultants. The longer they stay with the company, the more they assimilate into its culture, which, as we have seen, takes a strong rationalizing stand that its employees are helping their clients to develop along progressive lines. The NYT article quotes Calvert W. Jones, a University of Maryland professor, who “crisscrossed the Gulf monarchies in the Middle East as part of her research evaluating the work of management consultants.” She explains the McKinsey consultants’ behavior this way: “In the beginning, the best of them want to help, want to do real research, provide data and expert opinions. But after initially speaking their minds [about questionable behavior] … they gradually stop. They engage in the art of not speaking truth to power. They self-censor, exaggerate successes and downplay their own misgivings due to the incentive structures they face.” For those who buy into McKinsey’s cultural box, ethical standards are ultimately derived from company’s rationalizations.

The McKinsey consultants remind me of professional soldiers or diplomats, or any of us who serve an authority on which our livelihood depends. You must often learn the proper rationalizations to explain away, to yourself and others, the consequences of your behavior. Too much independent thinking, too much questioning of orders and you’re out. 

However, once you have merged your standards with those of the institution, once its image is your image, you are safe—safe in your faith in the rationalizations that now guide your working life. At that point you can frolic almost anywhere with a “good conscience.” 

Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.

34 comments for “Doing Business with Tyrants

  1. Marko
    January 13, 2019 at 01:38

    A critique of the McKinsey cabal could have been crafted easily enough without mentioning the Uighur camp. In fact , to me it seems an odd contortion to use such a debatable and tangential angle to bolster the case against McKinsey , when plenty of other examples of their unprincipled behavior exists. Is this a sneaky way to insert a bit of support for the more-and-more popular “China-China-China !!” narrative into the alt-media ? I don’t know , in fact I suspect not , but at first glance it was unsettling for me nonetheless.

  2. Brian James
    January 12, 2019 at 16:42

    January 10, 2019 The Silver Bullet to Stop the Corporate State Pillage
    Every year a certain number of our soldiers decide they’d rather not be involved in shooting people they don’t know so that ExxonMobil can have more oil or Lockheed Martin can make more cash or MSNBC / Fox News can give their hosts topics for their upcoming poetry books. Basically, these soldiers do something horrifying, something terrible, something often called “treasonous” … They — wait for it — think for themselves!

  3. mike k
    January 11, 2019 at 18:05

    For a different view of this situation that highlights US interference:

  4. Nick S.
    January 11, 2019 at 17:58

    Very disappointing to see Consortium News, in my opinion one of the premier fighters of propaganda today, publish a story that repeats unproven and dubious reports about concentration camps for Uighurs in China. Why even republish this pedestrian “analysis”? Don’t get swept up in the US govt’s drive to war with China by parroting State Dept. talking points about the poor Muslims that are being oppressed by big, bad China. Maybe they need us to bring them some freedom!

  5. Jonathan Witt
    January 11, 2019 at 03:58

    The notion that up to a million Chinese Uighurs have been interned in camps has been often repeated in the western media. The problem is that there is not a shred of evidence to support it. In fact, it appears to be part of a deliberate disinformation campaign, as detailed by by project gray zone here:

    • January 11, 2019 at 13:29

      More accurately, shreds of independent evidence exist, but nothing to justify the numbers. Some repressions occur in every country with problems, real or perceived, for example, Muslim in USA were targeted byFBI and other agencies who recruit them into government concocted “terrorist plots”, target being usually poor, cognitively impaired, enticed by gifts etc., and then they got huge sentences, so our agencies could chalked successes in the fight with terrorism. Other targets included a person posting translations of al-Qaeda texts available on the internet in Arabic, and got 20 year sentence. Some foreign commission could view it as repressions.

      One can surmise that Communist authorities in China do more than Americans in USA, but from there to ANY kind of numbers we need something more solid than shreds. To give one example, when SAA waged an ultimately successful campaign against enclaves near Jordan that were controlled by opposition forces, 250 thousands refugees materialized on Jordanian border, only to de-materialize within weeks.

    • rosemerry
      January 11, 2019 at 14:51

      I,too, wondered why the good people of McKinsey needed to go so far to do their improvement of lives-even helping our mortal enemies, it would seem in this Huawei age.

  6. bardamu
    January 11, 2019 at 02:44

    Davidson offers some interesting reflections, but I find myself most drawn to what is not here. It is fairly evident why Americans (as a collective generalization) do not respond perceptively when we enter a tyranny: we don’t find it much different than home.

    Someone will say, “But that’s not the same,” and indeed I do not mean that it is all the same; tyrannies are different, one from the other. But there is not that sort of difference wherein “the USA” or “the West” or “the wealthy nations” are in one group, and “the tyrannies” are in another.

    For openers, it should not be news to readers of Robert Parry that many tyrannical actions abroad are made in conjunction with or in response to American operations. So if an Asian leader kills without trial members of a drug cartel and possibly some innocents, surely that is tyranny. But he is also very likely killing American intelligence associates and assets in a situation in which he is in many ways outgunned. In such a situation, where does one locate the capital or genesis of those tyrannical acts?

    Further, the US has recently and presumably still does operate a gulag of torture sites. It has recently brought a torturer and supervisor of torture home to run the CIA. I cannot imagine that is good news for many people. Barack Obama very pointedly advertised and normalized murder by fiat of American citizens–American murder of non-citizens being apparently already fairly normalized, at least within the United States.

    And then, while there is still some tendency that American citizens tell each other that we are somehow protected or enriched by the apparatus of all this imperial terror, the gap between rich and poor has returned to that of the Guilded Age of the Industrial Revolution, with most of the characteristics that I do recall myself regarding dismissively as “third world.”

    When I first traveled abroad as a young man, I was shocked and saddened to see women, particularly, begging on the street. I had never seen such a thing in all of my tender life within the United States, and I wondered at the desperation and systemic corruption that could create a situation in which these people could not be taken in by someone.

    Within a few years, the Reagan administration dumped men and women in the neighborhood outside my doorstep–dropped them not only homeless, but withdrawing cold turkey from a wide range of medications. Women would lay on the sidewalk or in cars that they had opened and scream all night. It is a peculiar scream that I have seldom heard otherwise because the fatigue of screaming so for hours forced them to draw breath between each fresh scream, and because the scream would sometimes trail off into a gutteral moan as the air prematurely left their lungs. The latter sound is a little like the yells of men being raped in prison. It would go on all night.

    These days, I see women and men begging pretty much every time I go to the grocery store, though I am no longer in an area that draws them. People tell each other that they are faking, but I did spend some time on the streets myself abroad, and it does not take much expertise to look at a person’s chapped face and guess how many days or weeks that person has slept outdoors.

    Of course, in this last we are talking about poverty, which is not strictly tyranny in itself. But what relationship does American opinion have to the outcome of American elections, after the lobbies and the parties and the hired press have had done with it all? Would the term “representation” not suggest that policies that the population favors were applied, at least in the main?

    No, it is a far greater shock for workers who come to the United States to recognize the tyranny here, and its extent.

    • January 11, 2019 at 17:53

      Yes and I don’t see anyway out of the mess, Amerika has become, anytime soon!

  7. Pft
    January 10, 2019 at 20:00

    Yup. Mans turning from laws of a higher power than man and morality and turning to Corporate Technocrats who are constrained only by mans law, which legalizes immoral acts , has led to today

    Tens of millions voted for one of the least ethical Presidents ever, a man who lies constantly, treats women poorly, has zero empathy and has friends and associates who should make your skin crawl.

    Looking for tyranny one need look no futher than in the mirror. 2 million in prison, many for non violent crimes, mostly minorities. Another 3 million who cant vote because they are on probation or parole. 1 million Native Americans on reservations (we dont call them internment camps). 15% of the population in poverty, half million homeless, and 1/3 living near-poverty, and 1/2 of the population without 500 dollars to spend in an emergency .

    • michael
      January 11, 2019 at 06:06

      Agree with everything you state, but you imply there was a choice.
      However those who voted against Hillary, voted against the Establishment, the people who had created the America you describe, the status quo, the police state, and the corporate economic hit men (described in this article) to steal from other countries. And Hillary of course chortled at the anal bayoneting of Gaddafi and the fall of Libya, the greatest nation in Africa, and worked her “magic” in Central America and the Ukraine as well as in the Mideast and North Africa. And as Wikileaks showed she subverted democracy in the US, by disenfranchising Bernie Sanders and his supporters. So America had a choice between a control freak Establishment psychopath who feels “America has never stopped being great” and, as the richest country in the world, is the best country in the world and an outsider, narcissistic Mafioso who was chosen (as in “Springtime for Hitler”) as the most likely failure as her foil. Trump is not the cause of the problems in America, he is just the culmination of a very corrupt and amoral political, bureaucratic and corporate Establishment.

    • Skip Scott
      January 11, 2019 at 08:16

      Living in Arizona for over 30 years, I have some Native American friends. They are not forced to live on the reservation, they choose to live there and attempt to retain their culture. A good friend of mine is married to a Navajo, and they live in Chandler. She often visits her family in Leupp, and attends tribal get-togethers. I am not saying we haven’t committed many injustices, but Native Americans are not interred on the reservations. I saw a great T-shirt for sale on the Apache Reservation. It had a picture of Geronimo and his band of warriors, and underneath it said “Fighting Terrorism since 1492”.

  8. C. Kent
    January 10, 2019 at 19:49

    I can call bs on this article simply because nowhere does it state the Chinese side of the case for the supposed the acts of which it is accused. That level of omission is what you do because you are preaching to a choir, and while I can carry a tune I don’t just sing along. I don’t join lynch mobs even if the guy deserves it, adopt others bogeymen to be agreeable, nor can I overlook the odor of a failed smell test. My bs detector does not fall asleep because I may be on the side of the bullshitter. Call me picky if you need more explanation.

    The Chinese may be operating something as vile as Abu Graib or Guantanamo for Uighurs, or be treating them as though they are driving while Black in Baltimore. If so, the point deserves better than this anti-capitalist kumbaya glazed donut. I chanted “democracy for the economy” in demonstrations back in 1975 and never bought that college is about a paycheck. I’ve read the NYT for 45 years, and I’m qualified to say it’s certainly no authority on issues where certain powers that be may have the ear of an editor. Case against China as presented here dismissed, for lack of evidence.

    • harpo kondriak
      January 11, 2019 at 23:12

      Good call. I read this wondering if this was really Lawrence Davidson, but then it’s been a while since I’ve see one of his columns.

  9. Tekyo Pantzov
    January 10, 2019 at 19:16

    Doing business with tyrants.
    That reminds me of when John Esposito, of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding (ACMU) at Georgetown University, attended the 1st international Conference on the Muslim Ummah at the Sabahattin Zaim University in Istabul from October 8-10, 2017, together with Richard Falk, University of California in Santa Barbara, at a time when Turkish president for life Erdo?an had either jailed, killed or purged virtually every free-thinking member of Turkish academia, leaving only his Islamist allies. The conference was chaired by the director of the Center for Islam and Global Affairs at Sabahattin Zaim University, Sami Al-Arian, a former board member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The conference provided a platform to denounce the evils of European (but not Arab, Turkish, or Persian) colonialism and compare Israel to Apartheid South Africa. Sponsors includes the emirate of Qatar, together with Turkey the main backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.

  10. Carlton West
    January 10, 2019 at 18:24

    More China-bashing cant and hypocrisy. Give it a rest.

  11. Robert
    January 10, 2019 at 14:38

    No small number of Uighur jihadists are fighting against Assad in Syria, and will pose a problem for China if/when they return. Within China, Uighur jihadists/separatists have accepted the assistance of Al Qaeda in terrorist actions against the Chinese. I would also suspect that the US State Department has discrete tentacles among Uighur separatists in China, fomenting arrest.

  12. John McCarthy
    January 10, 2019 at 14:17

    According to the highly reliable Gray Zone Project, the claims of 1 Million Uighurs in Chinese Reeducation Camps are false.

    • C. Kent
      January 10, 2019 at 19:51

      Good one, nice work.

  13. MichaelWme
    January 10, 2019 at 12:34

    I heard Xi explain that China is a strict Communist nation, where Chinese Communism means that all prices and control of industries are determined by the Market. I trust Marx and Lenin would have approved.

  14. mike k
    January 10, 2019 at 07:31

    “…part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people.”

    This contention has been cited as an example of US anti-Chinese propaganda. No proof of it’s authenticity has appeared, to my knowledge.

  15. John
    January 10, 2019 at 07:01

    When Jello Biafra ran for mayor of San Fransisco, one if his proposals was to require all business people in the downtown area between 8am and 5 PM to wear clown suits.

    Some people took that as a joke, but I think it would actually solve a real problem. It would prevent anyone from thinking there was something respectable about being a business person.

    • Skip Scott
      January 10, 2019 at 11:30

      A friend of mine in High School talked of running for mayor on the platform that he would make all the police wear coonskin hats and carry muskets.

      • Danny
        January 10, 2019 at 18:04

        two words: Ice Town

      • C. Kent
        January 10, 2019 at 19:06

        I was a wiseass in HS too, and I’ve always understood that men in uniforms of authority are trouble. f. Now that I have many decades experience, I can point out that your friend would need his own cadre of even nastier police to enforce his wiseass idea. The most dangerous of all totalitarians is the mob.

    January 10, 2019 at 06:32

    The Corporate Criminals involved in this Corporate Crime Wave need to be prosecuted–held responsible for the consequences of their behavior–in particular USGOVT. war criminals in office after WW2 like the Truman and Bush administrations —the big banks in 2008 and 2009 bailed out by Obama and now the Trump administration— TYRANTS ALL.

      January 10, 2019 at 16:47


  17. Tom Kath
    January 9, 2019 at 23:33

    ETHICS, VALUES, are fine words, and I agree that the Western value system needs urgent recalibrating or a new direction, or fundamental basis. It cannot be addressed by tinkering with who has the best opportunities to take unfair advantage of their fellow man.
    I keep saying that “The American Dream” is unethical, immoral.
    So few currently can honestly contemplate foregoing this potential opportunity.

    It may be still 10 years away, but I see the possibility that the BITCOIN phenomenon may ultimately bring this shift to personal accountability, verified proof of work, and consistency. (It first still needs to overcome the old “get rich quick” speculation perspective)

  18. Stephen Morrell
    January 9, 2019 at 23:05

    While business ethics is certainly an oxymoron, the more likely hypothesis has been ignored in this piece: that the ‘re-education camp’ doesn’t exist. See this expose of the source of that canard:

  19. anon
    January 9, 2019 at 22:06

    That the NYT laments this supposed contrast, while falsely propagandizing that a million Uighurs are locked in internment camps (other sources state that there are several thousand militants in “re-education camps”) shows that their intent is not to expose hypocrisy, but to exemplify it. The US has long been inciting Muslims in western China to rebel as a proxy force of those tyrants. If there is tyranny to oppose, we may be sure that the NYT will be backing it as democracy in action.

  20. Bob Van Noy
    January 9, 2019 at 21:21

    Something very perversive happened to higher education, amongst the classic Departments of History, Mathematics, Science, and Language studies, there appeared, The Business School. Most of the students on campus looked like students but the Business Students looked like Business People. Soon came a new advanced degree, MBA. These business oriented schools became self-contained with little interest in the studies of the past, they focused on how to manage Big Business and Grow that Business. Growth was the essence of Business, ethics and human concern were not a high priority. The essence of this concept was brilliantly portrayed in the series “Mad Men”…

    I’ve often wondered if the Powell Memorandum was responsible. Here’s a link…

    • Bob Van Noy
      January 9, 2019 at 21:57
    • Sam F
      January 9, 2019 at 22:18

      Yes, the outfit of The Boss intimidates many to live within the tribal narrative, and suppose that stuffed suits might be respectable. The formal disguise has ancient precedents. It is the hypocritical business bully who rises to bribe (or become) the right-wing politician, to encircle and infect the unprotected institutions of democracy. Western civilization is upon a cross of gold.

  21. January 9, 2019 at 17:21

    “Business ethics” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

    CEOs successful in business are often sociopaths, successful precisely because they lack empathy, not in spite of it.

    America celebrates white collar criminals. Gangsters in suits. Dick Cheney after 9/11. Goldman Sachs after the Great Recession of 2008. We raise Americans with no ethics and moral values to the top of our food chain, don’t we? Weapons of war. Bank robbers.

    Look no farther than the putative president. Trump reached the pinnacle of world power by treating human beings as objects, tools only useful for his status. Trump has never felt empathy in his life, and for this we reward him as none other

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