Succession — A Portrait of Capitalism

Kendall and Marcia speaking. Sourced from: (https://www.architecturaldigest.com/search?q=succession)

“Look, you can’t put a value on a human life, except in our case, you rather precisely can because when trading opens tomorrow, we’re gonna drop like a stone.”

— Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong), Succession, Season 1: Shit Show at the Fuck Factory.

The pursuit of wealth at the highest echelon of capital power conditions one, above all else, to dominate.

Through a story based loosely on contemporary capital titans, director Jesse Armstrong illustrates modern American capitalism through the relationships and social interactions of power, domination, and what Thorstein Veblen would call “barbarism” in Theory of the Leisure Class. Succession’s characters and story arc are deliberately designed to fit within the canon of capital theorists such as Thorstein Veblen, Joseph Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek.

The emotionally isolated characters fight for dominance amongst themselves, leveraging their claim to capital to beat each other out—royal feuds. These feuds create financial and legal casualties in the corporate world but pale in comparison to the middle-class lives and livelihoods destroyed in the process. Kendall says early in the first season of Succession that “the socio-economic health of multiple continents is dependent on [Logan’s] well-being,” to say that the consequences of Logan’s potential death would be so large that it outweighs any sacrifices made to keep him alive—a king in his own right.

Kendall’s inability to see the game of predator and prey through the weeds of corporate technocracy shows Logan that the only way to weed out who’s worthy of his throne is a test. And the most appropriate test is war. To see who can slay him. Not literally, but in the corporate capital battlefield—to take the reins with bloody hands from the bloody hands that left them. Kendall feels the pressure of expectation to fill his fathers' shoes, yet he fails to understand the criteria. He must unlearn the idealistic lie of meritocracy and replace it with an understanding of how to kill to stay ahead. This fundamental shift changes Kendall. But Armstrong means this to say that anyone with this power—the power to shape and shift the tectonic plates of our capital world with our choice of words—undergoes that fundamental shift.

Greg, the goofy, leaching cousin, slowly learns this game of leverage and domination. He grows to make himself useful. Or more accurately, dangerous to fuck over. When he steals important documents, Kendall responds, “you little Machiavellian fuck. I see you, Greg. I like it.”

Greg and Kendall. (Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/06/arts/television/succession-nicholas-braun.html)

When Roman reacts to the rocket explosion in Season 1, not only is it a prime expression of the show's most slimily animated character, but it shows clearly what consequences matter and what don’t in the Logan Roy-dominated realm. Through Roman’s character decisions, Armstrong tells us that the game, for people like Roman, is not about money. It’s about where one stands in the hierarchy of power and how one can maneuver within it. Roman makes it clear that in this game, there’s no room for a loose notion of moral conscience.

Connor, the older, thicker-headed brother, has an encounter with Gil, a Bernie Sanders type running for president. Connor strikes a conversation with Gil, rattling off the talking points he had in his head: “Socialism, wow, I got a big problem with you and everything you stand for, my friend… listen I look at you and I see Weimar, I see hyperinflation. I mean I look at your face and, no offense, but I see dead babies.”

Connor’s mentality is directly inspired by Fredrick Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.” That is to say that a 21st-century character that we, the viewers, believe to represent modern-day conservative politics, believes that socialism conjures images of Weimar, hyperinflation, and dead babies would have Hayek jumping for joy.

Conor and Roman. (Source: Unknown)

The purpose of Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” was to respond to the wave of support for central government planning of the New Deal era, saying that it inevitably would lead to authoritarianism as seen in many European nations and a welfare state that eats itself. Connor’s visceral reaction to a socialist figure, even in a fictional show, proves that Hayek’s set of correlations with “greater good” top-down planning, and their dire inevitabilities, are strong to this day. Through our familiarity with Connor’s character, it’s clear that Hayek’s ideas have had a major legacy in the political consciousness of the US. Hayek is famous for arguing the following:

“It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now — independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to volunteer cooperation with one’s neighbors — are essentially those on which that of an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good.”

In other words, Hayek believed socialism, and any kind of do-good, centralized collectivism, was wishful thinking and would have led to a regression from democracy, freedom, and liberty—the factors that give us a quality of life. Any such social, political, or economic structure would lead to authoritarianism and economic serfdom, reminiscent of feudal-era Europe.

Logan and team on a hunting vacation in an austrian fortress (sourced from: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/search?q=succession)

Jesse Armstrong chose the English feudal palace as a backdrop for more than a few episodes, not by coincidence. He makes a statement that capitalism (not just socialism, like Connor and Hayek think) with all its legal inner-workings of share buyouts, board seat politics, and legal compliance, still holds its feudal roots as a game of superior and subordinate, predator and prey, master and slave. Such inner-workings of the modern capitalist system are meant for, and can only be wielded to their full potential by the predators. In feudal Europe, it was kings, their princes vying for the throne, knights paid well for their dirty work, and peasants, inanimate. In 2022 New York City, its billionaire entrepreneurs, their offspring vying for their claim to capital, executive boards to do and coordinate the dirty work, and again, pedestrians, inanimate. Given that the structure and code of capital today was originated largely as a response to feudalism hundreds of years ago, it’s no shock that the internal politics of families with royal amounts of capital seem to mirror ancient royal feuds.

Armstrong puts the cherry on top of this parallel in a second season episode: The family and close company friends go on a hunting retreat to a feudal castle in the rolling hills of an eastern European land. During a dinner party, Logan has a little too much to drink and makes his family and dinner guests crawl on the floor like pigs, yelling, “boar on the floor.”

Nicholas Britell’s Succession theme music swells as Kendall delivers formal documentation for a hostile takeover of Waystar to his father. Kendall thinks he’s doing shrewd business while his siblings squabble, but on the inside, he’s petrified of his father, just like them. And it proves fatal to his plans. At that moment, he proved he still hadn’t broken from the dominant-subservient relationship he had with his father — Logan, the king, Kendall, his prince.

Although Kendall has an immense amount of power in his own right, Logan’s coercive power––his ability to leverage whatever he can, business or personal––dominates Kendall entirely. Corporate Ken, Ivy-league “good boy,” and tireless worker, slaves away on paperwork and legal specifics in order to do his duty in the corporate machine of Waystar. Although immensely wealthy, Kendal is unaware, sheltered for the purpose of serving Logan’s capital power—a cog in the machine. And when it comes down to it, happy to be a lapdog as long as he keeps his vacation home.

This dynamic would spark an engaging dialogue with Thorstein Veblen. Veblen would examine the relationship of Logan and Kendal as an important distinction within mental labor in the modern age: financial knowledge and tech knowledge, something that Karl Marx had overlooked. Veblen elaborates in his book, Absentee Ownership:

“The financier, the captain of solvency, displaced the captain of industry to become the paramount factor in business. So that while the technician is now, and increasingly, the paramount factor in technology, he is by no means master of the industrial system or of the economic system.”

Financial forces that rely on and perpetuate capitalism have an interest in keeping technocrats subservient, whether experts in engineering or in legal and logistical functionality. The financiers control industry and pay the technicians handsomely enough so they disregard the system of “higher barbarian” capitalism.

The scene referenced above, the scene where Kendal proposes the hostile takeover to Logan, is particularly pivotal in that it shows Armstrong understands higher barbarian capitalism.

The scene is set as such: Kendall, the technocrat, attempts to get a seat at the “financier” table by timidly presenting Logan with a buyout offer:

Kendall and Logan. (Source: https://succession.fandom.com/wiki/Kendall_Roy)

KENDALL: It’s — it’s — a proposal, to buy Waystar for $140 a share. We’re asking you to come to the table — open the books.

LOGAN: Ugh?

KENDALL: It’s great value for shareholders.

LOGAN: Huh?

KENDALL: Yeah. There it is, I’m not going to get into feelings.

LOGAN: It’s — this is — a — fucking bear-hug?

KENDALL: That’s right

Kendall offers the letter. If Logan will take it, maybe he can go?

LOGAN: Guh.

KENDALL: Well, fine. We have the financing. Let’s see what everyone thinks. Let’s keep it professional. You know, it’s just the situation that has arisen and you’re very tough and so am I, as your son, so, I think this is just the way it has to be with us.

Logan just looks at him. Won’t take the envelope.

KENDALL (CONT’D): We know several major investors are in favor. We go public with the letter tomorrow. So then we’ll have to see — to see — what the arbs make of it?

Logan looks at him.

LOGAN: Who?

KENDALL: It’s me and Stewy. And Sandy.

Logan flashes his eyes, shakes his head.

KENDALL: He’s some of the cash so. I’m not sorry for what I’m doing which is — correct, but I am sorry for how it makes you feel.

Logan doesn’t react — it’s a lot of information to take on board and he’s not mentally prepared for his defenses. He refuses to react: it’s scary to see.

He is in new territory and feels any reaction may betray him. He’s so emotionally overloaded he shuts down.

KENDALL (CONT’D): I’m sorry it had to be now. It was out of my hands. External factors.

He puts the letter down. Maybe somewhere slightly damp and the envelope starts to absorb water. Kendall picks it up again.

KENDALL (CONT’D): Here.

LOGAN No. Fuck off (scrambled) I haven’t got pants on!

Logan takes it and throws it in the toilet.

LOGAN (CONT’D): Do you even know what you’re doing this for?

KENDALL: I — ideas. I have — wanted to do things.

LOGAN: Uh-huh?

KENDALL: To save the business and and and do — do things that are —

LOGAN: You can’t even fucking say it.

KENDALL: I can say it (then) Do, some, good, things.

LOGAN: ‘Do good things’ (then) Be a fucking nurse.

Logan laughs.

Kendall exits through the bedroom

Marcia, right afterward in the bathroom.

Logan is fishing in the toilet for the letter. Pulling it open.

LOGAN: Gerri! Where’s Gerri? Where’s Karl?

MARCIA: Karl’s in New York, Logan what is it? (re: the toilet bowl) Get out of there!

LOGAN: I need Gerri, I need Karl. I need —

MARCIA: What is it?

LOGAN: Bear hug, then they’ll go — it’ll — a, hostile. It makes sense. It fits.

MARCIA: Today?

LOGAN: I don’t know. (opening the wet and tattered paper) I don’t fucking know. It’s not a good position I am in.

He rests on the bed or on the side of the bath. Marcia can see him wobbling.

LOGAN (CONT’D): If he has financing and major shareholders? And — I’m here. By tomorrow? I need — I need a lot of things I don’t have —

MARCIA: You’re alright. It’s okay, Logan. Take a breath.

Logan acted threatening enough to scare Kendall to where he could barely speak, despite making a well-thought-out and threatening move. When all was said and done, Logan was petrified… But he couldn’t dare reveal that to Kendall — everything is a piece on the chessboard, even emotions.

The contrast between Kendall and Logan’s behavior in this revealing and intense moment shows that of a killer in Logan and a subservient son in Kendall, a technocrat unaware of the whole board and comfortable deflecting the workings of the world to “external factors.”

Joseph Schumpeter, prominent capital theorist, would place this scene in conversation with his theory of capitalism as a “process of creative destruction”.

In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter emphasizes the importance of what drives and motivates the entrepreneur to adapt himself and his business to survival. His argument states that capitalism is chaotic, saying that “in the process of creative destruction, many firms have to perish that nevertheless would be able to live on vigorously and usefully if they could weather a particular storm.” What he eludes to is that a titan of industry is passionate and willing to defend his business and his ideas for his own interests, and ultimately his family’s interests and legacy. However, Schumpeter would argue that Logan wouldn’t be able to say “boo to a goose” regarding his ability to do battle in the realm of politics. Capitalism needs monopolistic practices to survive. These practices, he argues, need lawful protection in the form of contract law, property ownership law, and intellectual property law so that the entrepreneur doesn’t undermine himself.

Yet in the entrepreneur’s relinquishing of power to the bureaucrat, the passion to grow, expand, and fight for the company dies at the corporate board of dispassionate non-owner decision-makers who, at the end of the day, care more about lining their pockets than growing the business. Schumpeter thus sees capitalism as doomed to fail given that neither wielder of capital is incentivized to compensate for their pitfalls. We see isolated versions of this in select real-life: Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple shortly before the board took over and ran the company into the ground (for a short while before bringing him back). Bill Gates brilliantly led Microsoft as the first-ever software company and felt compelled to step down as CEO when the company faced legal headwinds and was too large to be wielded by its single founder: a visionary, passionate, and genius in software. But Gates did not see himself competent enough as a legal, corporate manager needed to head the ship in the seas of mega-cap companies’ legal maneuverings. In the aftermath, the company saw a serious decline due to substandard software products and lost legal battles.

However, Schumpeter's theory doesn’t quite play out in absolute terms in both real life and Succession. Microsoft eventually figured out how to win as the software industry matured and their legal and business aptitude grew. And, of course, Steve Jobs went off to start Pixar before the Apple’s board begged him to return to Apple to save it from its floundering peril. To top it off, Jobs returned with the ground-breaking invention of the iPod.

Gil and Logan chat. (Source: HBOMax)

Armstrong, as a keen listener to the world around him, questions the absolute weakness of a capital titan that Schumpeter theorized. Gil and Logan have a chat that shows Logan as surprisingly sharp when it comes to politics and law. So sharp, in fact, that it shocks Gil, expecting him to be a cavalier, hot-headed titan of industry.

Gil forgets that Logan is unique. Logan is not just the captain of any company. He’s the captain of an entertainment/news conglomerate, putting him on a different path of conditioning than Schumpeter predicts in the industrial context of which he writes. The media titan deals with the abstract political, legal, and psychological nature of the product or service they provide. Veblen would argue that a titan such as Logan, as a media genius, would be well versed in the practice of political, legal, and behavioral persuasion.

Logan at work in the Hamptons. (Source: Unknown).

Furthermore, Veblen understood the salesman to be the focal point of modern finance capitalism. Waystar Royco and their broadcasting branch, ATN, are well versed in selling news, politics, and opinions. In the scene referenced, Gil leaves the conversation shocked with how relatable Logan was, and the audience doesn’t know whether to believe what Logan said or not. We’re left with genuine feelings and thoughts from Logan, but we’re aware that the time and place for those thoughts were entirely strategic––the purpose, of course, to manipulate Gil. But what Gil was most shocked by was how effective and aware he was of their interaction as a political one, not a casual one. Gil expected to encounter the titan of industry whose lack of self-awareness and dogmatic mentality made him predictable and revealing, yet Logan threw him a curveball with his ability to relate and persuade, masking his underlying motives with genuineness, something Gil would have expected from his political rivals, not Logan.

Veblen would agree that capitalism has been shaped by the influences of European feudal domination and “barbarism,” and would see this story as an accurate depiction of capitalism in those terms. Additionally, Veblen would find realistic Logan’s character as a master salesman. Salesmanship, to Veblen, is the backbone of the “country-town community of businessmen”. This “community” is reliant on the salesman’s ability to, not produce things, but rather raise expectations to get others to buy products for their future value. A value that someone else will pay in the future. To buy into a get-rich-quick dream: selling something for nothing.

Logan, as the head of a media conglomerate and owner of ATN, the Fox News of this fictional world, is the captain of an operation of selling people on ideas and politics. When it comes to the realm of business, with the help of financial technicians like Gerri, he can cover up billions in debt and sell shareholders on the expectations of what is essentially that “something for nothing,” single-handedly keeping the business afloat with his choice of words. Even more importantly, Logan knows that in the long run, he can’t name Kendall as his successor because of the implications it has on shareholders and stock value.

Schumpeter would point to this as the beginning of how corporate and absentee capitalism takes over from the passionate and driven businessman, ultimately leading to the death of productive capitalism. He prophesizes the end of capital by saying “dematerialized, defunctionalized, and absentee ownership does not impress and call forth moral allegiance as the vital form of property did. Eventually, there will be nobody left who really cares to stand for it”. Although Schumpeter is right that it leads to corporate capitalism, he is wrong in that the birth of liberal capitalism from feudalism “broke not only the barriers that impeded its progress but also flying buttresses that prevented its collapse”. In other words, he is wrong that the invigored entrepreneur would eventually, through his own doing, lose control. Living in today's American capital world, we know this to be wrong. Veblen sees how Logan maintains power through his ability to internalize the process of creative destruction: to adapt.

In the Season 2 finale, Logan gets a call from a cohort of shareholders that tell him that if he wants to keep Waystar’s stock price and reputation afloat, he needs to take the fall for a scandal and step down. Logan agrees to do this, but it hangs on how. Logan knows it can’t be a peaceful transfer because of how trusting the shareholders are in Logan’s ability to manipulate and dominate his opponents. The successor can’t be a passive and calculating corporate shill. The transfer of power must be a slaying. Logan sees Kendall, and all of his offspring, like petulant children that don’t understand the consequences of their own actions and, especially for Kendall, the full scope of options he has in the field of capital battle. Yet, by the same token, he sees Kendall as the most serious candidate for his succession if he can prove himself a killer: someone who understands how to play dirty without getting dirty.

Logan understands that any technocrat can orchestrate a hostile takeover the way Kendall did. It’s legal, impersonal, and passionless. This battlefield is one Logan can ascend with a vicious approach, leveraging moneyed and personal capital to win. An approach defined by ruthless backstabbing, complex financial and interpersonal leveraging, and ultimately moral sacrifice. But at the end of Season 2, Kendall demonstrates that he not only can play dirty. He can play bloody, finally demonstrating his ability to kill to gain shareholder confidence and take the reins with bloody hands from the bloody hands that left them. Veblen would see this game of strategic barbarism as crucial to the survival of capitalism and exactly the type of modern finance capitalism that he theorized as American capitalism’s defining factor. The conflicted smile on Logan’s face when he sees Kendall crucifying the Waystar patriarch, himself, in front of the press, says it all.

Logan reigning over Kendall. (Source: https://succession.fandom.com/wiki/Logan_Roy)

Jesse Armstrong constructs the world of Succession on the foundation laid by Friedrich Hayek, Joseph Schumpeter, and Thorstein Veblen. A foundation that not only informed his story but our reality.

“You’re not a killer, Kendall. You have to be a killer.”

— Logan Roy, Succession, Season 2: Episode 10, to Kendall.

“My father is a malignant presence. A bully and a liar. And this is the day his reign ends.”

— Kendall Roy, Succession, Season 2: Episode 10, in front of the press.

… A declaration of war against his father.

Sources

Armstrong, Jesse, et al. Succession Season 1 Episode 10, Nobody Is Ever Missing. 2017. Sourdough Productions, HBO.

Hayek, F. A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, 1944.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. CAPITALISM, SOCIALISM, AND DEMOCRACY. Wilde. Publications, 1942.

Succession (2018) Episode Scripts. Unpublished Script. Retrieved from https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/episode_scripts.php?tv-show=succession-2018.

Armstrong, Jesse. Succession Season 1 Episode 10, Nobody Is Ever Missing. 2017. Sourdough Productions, HBO.

Marx, Karl, & Kamenka, Eugene. The Portable Karl Marx. 1988. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Veblen, Thorstein. Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times. The Case of America. 1923. New York: The Viking Press.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class; A Economic Study of Institutions. 1899. Random House.

Note: Please message me if you have or know of the sources to the photos listed with an unknown source.

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Vassar College ’20. Sabre Fencer. Focus in Urban Studies and Economics. Passionate for film and finance. Content & Marketing. Active investor since 2015

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Graeme Mills

Graeme Mills

Vassar College ’20. Sabre Fencer. Focus in Urban Studies and Economics. Passionate for film and finance. Content & Marketing. Active investor since 2015

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