Monday, March 14, 2005

Management gurus

In One Market Under God, Thomas Frank raises an interesting point about the evolution of management theory. Citing the rising tide of critiques of Taylorism in management literature, he argues that scientific management, while maximizing profit across the board for industry, raised two ideological problems for corporate interests. The first was that its repressive totalitarian implementation lent itself well to labor organizer's critiques and helped union recruitment. The mechanisms of exploitation were simply too overt, unmistakable to even the most resolutely quietistic working-class stooge (Wal-Mart employees voting against unionization being perhaps the exceptions). The second is that top-down management schemes suggested that central control and command did make things more efficient (as opposed to something more like the chaos of competing interests in a marketplace). If central commmand worked, then government intervention had an ideological basis that profiteers were unwilling to admit. Thus the apologists of management literature set out to give scientific management a makeover. As Frank points out, management theory almost never affords new techniques, it always serves to legitimize those which already exist, and those that exist always serve the same function -- to "manage" labor by masking the manner in which it's exploited. That is where "human relations" departments come from, they manage the relationship between employer and employee in order to make that relation best serve capital. So they confuse you about your benefits packages, discourage your using your vacation days, perform all sorts of harassing inquiries ostensibly to demonstrate they care about employees but really reminding employees that they are being carefully watched, proliferate all sorts of euphemistic jargon, and so on and so on. They are agents of distortion and confusion, not unlike real estate brokers and used-car salesmen.

Management tracts have recently been called upon to justify worker insecurity in the face of downsizing and outsourcing and other stock-price-inflation tactics employed by options-rich CEOs. Hence the success of Who Moved My Cheese? which is quite possibly the most moronic book ever taken seriously by adults, and that includes the Harry Potter series, Dr. Seuss, and The Tao of Pooh, which reads like Moses Mainomides in comparison to the idiocy contained in Cheese. The core point of Cheese is that a worker must be flexible in this day and age. No repsonsibility is assigned for the chronic instability of the economy. It's simply presented as a natural condition, as God's work in his unfathomable wisdom. No longer sufficient to ask, How high? when told to jump, Cheese encourages workers to just start jumping like crazy, whether or not they have been asked. It pushes meek sycophancy and misplaced self-flagellation to new extremes and expects no worker to protest or sense irony in being compared to a helpless rat trapped pointlessly in a maze while its masters move its food around for no other reason than to see how obediant the rat will be.

No one should make the mistake of taking management theory seriously. (In fact, Frank ran a pretty severe risk by immersing himself in them to criticize them. Repeated exposure is wont to corrupt your thinking process and infect your language with insidious jargon and passive-voice sentence constructions) In practice it serves as a palliative for those undertaking corrupt business practices, a salve to managerial consciences when money no longer works (as if that day ever comes). The only question worth pondering, perhaps, is the degree to which these gurus are believers in their own bullshit.

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