The airliner banked gently to the right, obtaining a smooth and steady line above the ocean of cloud beneath them. They moved quietly over the “breadbasket” of America—the great Midwest and its fathomless plains of cornfield and soy and cereals—on its way to St. Louis, Missouri. Karl and Erica sat beside each other, both pecking away at their laptops. Erica’s face was a frieze of brutal concentration, her fingers a series of knives stabbing the MacBook Pro repeatedly. Karl was gentler on his machine, largely because he had nothing to do. He was simply scanning emails with a look of grave concern in order to impress Erica, or at least avoid a perception of apathy. His work had been done. The deck was ready: the numbers had been dropped in, the graphs built, the charts assembled. Monsanto would be pleased.
He wanted to sleep, to read a magazine or gaze absently out the window of the aircraft—at the blazing blue canvas and its optical depth. But that was not practical, nor was it profitable. He would wait until Erica shut down her computer before he did the same. You had to mimic the leader—that was the rule of corporate life. Like a monkey in a circus, one must ape and parrot and emulate the monomaniacal movements of the CEO. Karl was a young marketing manager at Pearl Agency, a Chicago land public relations firm that serviced agribusiness giant Monsanto, the chief supplier of pesticides to the farmers that plied the soil below. But Erica was the Chief Executive of Pearl. She reported to Europe and nowhere else. Together, with a few other agency stragglers in the back of the jet, they were headed for the Monsanto headquarters at Creve Coeur, Missouri, a bit west of St. Louis, to present a public relations platform for a new Genetically Modified seed (GM). The Monsanto technology in that tiny seed was worth billions—and Pearl, with Karl’s help, was after its cut.
“Karl!” Erica announced, jolting Karl from his faux concentration. She slapped her laptop closed.
“I’d like to talk to you about your future at Pearl.”
“My future? Okay,” Karl replied. “I love meaningless speculation.”
“Very funny. Now, you know that Lucille has been terminated?”
“Lucille? No, I had no idea. What did—“
“It’s not what she did, Karl, it’s what she didn’t do. It’s not what she was, but what she was not.”
“What wasn’t she?”
“She wasn’t a virago, Karl. She wasn’t a leader, a guerilla fighter, a go-getter. We need a corporate Che in that position, not a milquetoast compromiser. She was soft.”
“What do you mean? That she couldn’t handle the client?”
“The client. Me. James. In her position, you have to be able to deal with strong personalities. She simply wasn’t up to the task.”
“Okay. Fair enough,” Karl said, then, after a moment’s reflection, “Do you think I have a strong personality?”
“Well, Karl, let me put it this way: you’re at a cross-roads, whether you realize it or not. You can go right, which is the path of the proud, the confident, the guiltless, the alphas. People who recognize that sometimes you have to slash employee benefits, crush unions and lay off ten thousand workers in one go.”
“Why would you do that?”
“So you could rehire them in Vietnam at a tenth of the cost. I know what you’re thinking. Vietnam is a shithole, unsuited for good-hearted American workers. But I’m talking about hiring Vietnamese, Karl. The unemployed. The shiftless. Thousands of migrant farmers barely subsisting on poor-yielding rice, coffee field monocultures destined for infertility as soon as Starbucks sates its appetite for cheap Arabica.”
“Are we still talking about my future?”
“Yes. Don’t worry, I’m not transferring you to Saigon. It’s a metaphor. What I’m saying is, you’re at a cross-roads. To the right, the pitiless path of the corporate conqueror. Sounds high flown, I know, but the truth is that there are still victors and the vanquished. It’s just that the victors no longer slit each other’s throats with long knives and bayonets. We do it with spreadsheets and impenetrably obtuse strategy decks. With big ideas and sudden change orders. Conquest is a state of mind, Karl.”
“I see. At least I think I do. What’s the path to the left?”
“The left? The left?” Erica looked at Karl gravely. “To the left is the road to financial ruin. To the left is quitting your job because of some principled objection to selling toxic pesticides to farmers. To the left is thinking about chemical runoff until you want to slit your wrists. To the left is going to work for a well-intentioned but utterly misguided non-profit and never making six figures as long as you live.”
“Well, I don’t think I’d necessarily want to work for a non—“
“How old are you, Karl?”
“Precisely. You’re already over the proverbial hill. Physically, I mean. No more scoring with hot young co-eds by dint of your muscular good looks. Trust me, it’s all downhill after thirty. I’ve been fighting fine lines for twenty years now, and it only gets tougher. Point being, if your glowing youth doesn’t get you laid anymore, what will?”
“Exactly. Money. Youth needs nothing, but age needs money. How much will you make shilling environmentalism for that nonprofit? Oh, it may be romantic at first light. The heady egotism of a small group of enlightened reformers fighting to save the planet from ecocide, from the destructive schemes of obtuse profiteers. You might even find yourself dating a fellow freedom fighter, some lithe idealist with great tits and a superficial veneer of cynicism to mask her naivety.”
“I’m not planning to desert for a nonprofit.”
“Spare me your tired denials. After you work a couple of years on the Monsanto account, everyone thinks of leaving to change the world. Did you see the marches last weekend? I know you did. Hundreds of cities in fifty countries? I’m sure you’ve got friends railing against the evil empire in the park on Saturdays. Biotech is a magnet for disgruntled young progressives.”
“I’m not that young.”
“Young enough to be utopian. In any case, let’s set the scene: you and your lissome idealist shack up in some musty studio with your old guitar propped in the corner and her heirloom seed jars sitting in the window. At first it’s downright dreamy. You spend nights passionately debating the evils of GMO agribusiness and how—as bad as it is—it is but a symptom of a larger social malaise: one in which we are all impotent wage slaves with no revolutionary spirit, who accept their fate like a Guantanamo prisoner accepts his daily gruel. The fact that we let corporate agribusiness stampede our feeble protests, threaten the planet’s biodiversity and contaminate human feed stocks is just symptomatic of this resigned American attitude.”
“Why a guitar?”
“It’s a metaphor of your recalcitrant refusal to recognize that technology has won the battle against art, that profit has won the war against people.”
“Always a reversible state of affairs.”
“That’s what you think. That’s what you and your perky titted twenty-something talk about into the wee hours. You drain carafes of wine, pots of coffee, and end most nights with furious lovemaking fueled by your common passion. You each secretly contemplate raising a brood of little reactionaries, fiercely loyal humanists well versed in Rousseau and Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins and other enlightened atheists.”
“Doesn’t sound like a bad fate so far,” Karl smiled at Erica, who laughed lightly, as though they were discussing a trivial expense report faux pas. The stewardess, a bedraggled blonde with faded color in her cheeks and a watery blue gaze, asked them if she could offer them some peanuts, cookies or a drink.
“Peanuts. Gin and tonic,” Erica announced, gazing up at the exhausted sky waitress with a false and fragile smile.
“Peanuts. Coke Zero,” Karl said, and tried to display a face of genuine gratitude, but he felt as though his face could only reflect the same life-weary gaze of the stewardess. Authenticity was increasingly hard to come by, he had recently noticed.
“Where were we?” Karl asked Erica. “I think I was about to lob a Molotov cocktail at a biotech lab.”
“Funny. Actually, you just finished another bout of fevered lovemaking with your free-range bride. Okay, fast forward three years. The bloom is off. You’ve spent the better part of your waking life canvassing for volunteers, lobbying for funds, launching ballot initiatives. At the end of three years, you’ve achieved a few minor wins. Established a few regional CSAs, popularized heirloom usage, etcetera. But you lost big when you fought to change the Codex Alimentarius.”
“Codex Alimentarius? What’s that, the ten commandments of food production?”
“Close. It’s the constitution of international food standards. Your nonprofit wanted to add an amendment calling for all nations to add GMO information to food labels. You thought, with a formidable array of organic organizations, consumer activist groups, and wacky left-wing scientific associations, you had formed a powerful front to force the FDA to push for label updates.”
“But—I was taken out by a Monsanto sniper?”
“No. They would never be so crass. What happens is Proctor & Gamble organizes a consortium of multinationals to put pressure on the FDA to drop any thoughts of actually asking for GMO labels at the next Codex convention. The amendment you and your girlfriend have fought so hard for—between bouts of ferocious lovemaking—doesn’t even make it to the convention floor. In fact, the FDA goes to great lengths to prove that there is no meaningful difference between the GMO vegetable and the organic vegetable, and thus no need for redundant labels. Lots of countries agree.”
“So now I lob a grenade at the seed laboratory?”
“No, you’re a liberal and liberals are soft. If you were some kind of anti-climate activist who thought global warming was a hoax perpetuated by leftist academics, then I could see some wanton destruction, but not in your case.”
“So I slump back to my studio and weep in my girlfriend’s lap?”
“Basically. You commiserate with each other for a few days and then go back to work, slowly getting involved in the next project—there are a million injustices to choose from, after all. But something about one of you changes. Maybe it’s her. Maybe it’s you. Let’s say it’s her. Something snaps in her when you lose the fight for legal recognition. It quietly dawns on her that the system is unchangeable, or at least unfixable in her lifetime, a lifetime she had once hoped to spend raising children, doing good works, and enjoying romantic exchanges with some lantern-jawed mandarin of the legal, financial or medical trades. None of this has materialized, and she is now 35. The clock is ticking.”
“Ah, biology rears its ugly head.”
“Exactly, Karl. She considers her potential future with you. She recognizes in your eyes the fire of a committed radical, a tireless advocate for the underclass, the kind of monomaniac who will never forsake his cause. She can clearly envision your future life: a never-ending struggle against impossible odds, subjected to heavy-handed police actions, perfectly coordinated nonviolent protests ruined by the violent outbursts of just a few fringe thugs. Or to put it in Shakespearian terms, she sees a life subjected to “the law’s delay, the insolence of office, the proud man’s contumely.” At the thought of it she is overcome with a tremendous weariness.”
“And this weariness, I take it, is not sexually induced?”
“No, funny man, it isn’t. In fact, your sex life takes a turn for the worse. You find your idealistic soulmate strangely soulless in the sack. Sex feels rote. Some days she says she’s headachy, and others she stays up all night reading on couch—outwaiting you, basically. And then one day, after another futile effort—perhaps a pointless sit-in at the local cotton gin—she explodes and tells you that you’re living a fantasy, that things will never improve in any way but incrementally. She says she’s tired of living like a criminal, dodging police units, foraging for Groupon discounts, endlessly rehearsing the same old grudges against the corporate overlords. She just wants to live a normal life like everybody else. To have a house of her own, a couple of kids, some money in the bank, and summer trips to the shore. As your heart sinks, she tells you with no small degree of venom that, “there will never be a revolution, Karl, no matter how much you visualize it.” And that’s it. It’s over. She leaves, marries some corporate lawyer—the ultimate betrayal by your standards. And you find yourself alone, living in some squalid studio, eating Chef Boyardee—no more lovingly prepared whole wheat pasta with grated mizithra and soda bread. Now it’s just you and your increasingly untenable dreams of universal justice. Your bank account is empty, your eyes a little crow-footed, and your teeth stained with a thousand infusions of cheap coffee. This is it, Karl. Your crucible. Do you truly want to take down GM agribusiness more than anything else in the world? Or, like your fled fiancé, do you really just want a normal life, like everyone else?”
“My God, Erica, I feel like slitting my wrists.”
“Exactly. That’s what I said. That’s where you’ll end up if you take that path. If you go left.”
“So this is the reason I should work for Monsanto?”
“Or for Halliburton or Proctor & Gamble or Goldman Sachs. Any evil multinational will do. You have to think of your self, your family, your future, your children. You want to punish GM producers? Don’t buy their fucking tomatoes, but don’t squander your life fighting a battle you can’t win. You’ve got an expiration date, but corporations never die.”
“Well,” Karl exhaled. “Thanks for the uplifting sentiments. You can certainly cast a stark vision, I’ll give you that.”
“Just think about it. That’s all I ask. Think about the fact that you’re plugged into a billion dollar machine called biotechnology. It’s like somebody put an ATM in your front yard. Think about the money, Karl. The money—will never stop flowing. Learn the business and you’ll always make a more than comfortable living.”
“My pleasure, Karl.”
As Karl turned to the window, he could see along the horizon the studded fixtures of St. Louis emerging from the haze. They would be on the ground in 30 minutes.