what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The disease of managerialism

One of the reasons I blog is that I see myself very much as “a child of my times”; someone who felt in the early 1960s the power of what economics, sociology and managerialism had to offer the world and therefore switched his university studies from French and German to economics and politics; someone who got into positions of power and influence in government and advanced the mission of managerialism; who now sees not just the mistakes this new belief system have led us into but the unforgiveable hubris and arrogance of the new rationalists of the mid 20th century; and who wants to warn the younger generation of the Faustian bargain our generation struck.
My post a year ago today looked back on the grip social sciences took on our minds in the 1960s
For the past 4 years or so the discipline of economics has been under severe attack – but somehow its more powerful sibling (managerialism) has managed to evade critical popular attention. A year ago today I picked out one book which spilled the beans on the new religion. Its title was A very short,fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations which I view as far more explosive than The Communist Manifesto. I did my best to give a summary -
  • "imagine a world where the thing which dominated it (God; the Party) was written about in one of three ways. One was like a bible, very heavy and orthodox. The second was amusing and readable but didn’t tell you anything you couldn’t think for yourself. The third seemed to say some things you wouldn’t think yourself and suggested flaws in the Bible but you couldn’t understand it because it was so obscurely written. Such is the literature of organisations - in which we live our lives and yet are served by only Textbooks; pop management; and unreadable scholarly books or articles".
  • Writers on organisations belong to one of two schools – those who believe "there exists an observable, objective organisational reality which exists independent of organisation theory (OT). The task of OT is to uncover this reality and discover the laws by which it operates – and perhaps then to predict if not control future events. They tend to favour quantitative research. These are the positivists. Then there is a second camp which denies this scientific view – they might be called constructivists or relativists since, for them, organisational reality is constructed by people in organisations and by organisation theory”.
  • The history of organisation theory you find in textbooks generally starts with the concept of "bureaucracy” as defined by Weber and with that of "scientific management” as set out by FW Taylor - both of whom were active in a 25 year period from the late 1880s to the end of the first world war, one as a (legal) academic in Prussia, the other as an engineer and early consultant in American steel mills in Pennsylvania.
  • Weber was curious about the various motives there have been over history and societies for obedience. Why exactly have we accepted the authority of those with power? His answer gave us a typology of authority we still use today – "traditional", "charismatic" and what he called "rational-legal” which he saw developing in his time. A system of (fair) rules which made arbitrary (privileging) behaviour difficult. But this was an "ideal type” (ie a model) – not necessarily a precise description or prescription. Indeed studies from the mid 1950s showed just how much informal power there was in bureacracies.
  • Taylor worked in an industry where it was normal for workers to organise their own work; and where owners tended to be Presbyterean and workers catholic immigrants. Taylor reckoned there was a lot of slacking going on – and applied a "scientific” approach to devise standards and measures of performance (time and motion) as well as "scientific” selection of workers and a strict separation of workers and managers.
  • This caused strong reactions not only amongst workers but from many owners and only survived thanks to the production needs of the First World War
  • The "evacuation of meaning” from work was intensified by Fordism.
  • the "human resource” approach to management which followed was not the fundamental break which the textbooks portray but rather a cleverer legitimisation of management power – as was the cultural management (and TQM) of the latter part of the 20th century.
  • Although managers call the shots, their organisational fashions always fail – because of unintended effects
  • Business schools do not produce better managers – but rather  breed legitimisation; self-confidence; a shared world-view and a common (mystifying) language
  • One quote perhaps captures the author's (Chris Grey's) argument - 
For all the talk about new paradigms, contemporary organisation theory and management method remain remarkably unchanged from their classical roots….because the underlying philosophy of instrumental rationality and control remains firmly in the ascendant
In the 1970s we had people like Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire exposing the emptiness of the doctrines which sustained the power of education and health systems. We now desperately need people like this to help us tear apart the arbitrary assumptions which sustain the legitimacy of the new priests of technocracy. Daniel Dorling's recent book Injustice - why social inequality persists is exceptional because he tries to identify and then challenge the belief systems which sustain our present inequities.
There are hundreds of thousands of academics receiving public money to teach and research so-called social "sciences" in universities and public institutions. The vast majority of them, whether they realise it or not, have been part of a large brain-washing exercise. A few of them only have broken ranks - not just the economists I have mentioned but those (generally American) sociologists who, for a few years, have been advocating what they call "public sociologies". Michael Burrawoy has been one of the main protagonists. Noone, however, should be under any illusions about the difficulties of making an intellectual challenge on this field of management and organisation studies in which so many brains, reputations and careers are now entrenched

In the same month last year I also traced the history of the critique of economic growth and consumerism.

Finally this important article on Social housing in Scotland which show how even one of the last bastions of social democracy has been infected by the neo-liberalist disease.

The painting is, of course, an Honore Daumier - The Mountebank Musicians


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