Sunday, 11 January 2009

A Stray Thought on Politics and Management

I do like Simon Caulkin, the Observer's Management writer. He is bright, committed, well-read in his subject and almost totally impervious to the beguiling sirens of management bullshit. This week, however, he makes an explicitly political judgment :

"As a class, ever since the separation of ownership and management in the 19th century, managers have always occupied a neutral position at the heart of the enterprise - neither labour nor capital, but charged with combining the two for the benefit of both the company and society itself.

Everything changed in the 1980s, however, with the advent of Reagan, Thatcher and Chicago School economists who preached the alignment of management with shareholders in the name of "efficiency". In effect, "efficiency" came to mean short-term earnings to the detriment of long-term organisation-building; what was touted as "wealth creation" was actually "wealth capture", from suppliers, clients and employees as well as competitors, on the grandest scale since the robber barons. Its purest expression was private equity."

It would be all too easy to rip into the assumption that management is somehow ‘neutral’ in the struggle between labour and capital. Of course it isn’t – if it was management wouldn’t measure success by profits and dividends.

But let’s not get hung up on the terminology intrinsic to different world views because, stripped of this default assumption, there is something in the idea behind his phraseology. I do think ‘organisationally based’ representatives of capital can often be more attentive to the social ecology necessary to ensure long term business growth than the disembodied concerns of pure finance capital. & that social ecology undoubtedly includes both suppliers, customers, regulators and even employees. This, surely, is another way of thinking about the debate around 'embeddedness' which the economic sociologists are so keen on.

There's an intellectual space here which a wise and forward thinking political left might seek to colonise. A space where concepts of social solidarity - remember Orwell said the basic purpose of socialism was 'human brotherhood' (sic) -could be intertwined with alternative notions of 'efficiency'; a space where at least some of the holders of the technical skills necessary to co-ordinating complex organisations might even be partially won over to the idea of greater workplace democracy. A space, if you like, where the idea of socialism might once again attempt to start being about the future and not the past.

The trick, however, would be to find this space without succumbing to the illusions of 40 years ago and the potential for the 'white hot heat of the technological revolution'.

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