Saturday, 28 December 2013

1914 and 2014

There is beginning to be a large amount of media attention given to the approaching centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This led me over the Christmas holidays to re-read Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth where she recounts her experience as a volunteer nurse in that war, during which her fiancé, her beloved brother, and many of her friends were killed. One of the striking things in her account is how readily those men went to their fates. Indeed not just readily but happily, relishing their chance to serve. A hundred years ago, in Britain and many other places, it was self-evident that the verities of Church, Nation and Empire were immutable. Now that seems, to most of us, not just misguided and wrong, but silly and absurd – and deadly. It is hard, now, to see the First World War as anything but a pointless slaughter.

That’s not so surprising. In the past they thought their realities solid. Now we see that they were not. So what, then, of those things that we ourselves take as being solid reality? Isn’t one lesson of history to be sceptical about these? It may seem bathetic to shift from talking of war and death to talking about work organizations, but death is present in these, too, sometimes literally as I wrote about in my post on suicide. An excellent new book by Nancy Harding – On Being at Work – talks about how “organizations … murder the selves that might have been” (p.175), meaning that they seek to make us into “zombie-machines” who are less than human, negating our potentials. If that sounds bleak, then read Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming’s recent book Dead Man Working for a real New Year boost. What both of these books have in common is an understanding of the way that even – no, not even, especially – the kind of humanized, fun workplaces of modern capitalism suck the life out of us by demanding not just our labour but the commitment of our very selves. Something similar, though less nihilistically expressed, is present in the discussion in my book of the post-bureaucratic workplace.

What’s the link with 1914? It’s two-fold. Firstly, in both cases there is a willing embrace of the sacrificing our literal or metaphorical lives. In the workplaces described by Harding and by Cederström and Fleming the tragedy is not that we are forced to be zombies, it is that we accept and welcome it, just like Vera Brittain’s contemporaries accepted and welcomed their assigned fate. Secondly, this is orchestrated through a set of supposedly immutable verities – in the case of the contemporary workplace these might include ideas of the necessity of a ‘global competitive race’, of the implacable reality of ‘the market’, and that ‘change is the only constant’ and so on.
But if we can accept that the solid realities of the past were not what they seemed, then we must accept that the same applies to the solid realities of the present.  We do not need to wait for historians to pass judgment.

Happy New Year!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Happy birthday?

So this blog is just about exactly one year old, reflecting the fact that the third edition is also a year old. It is ‘fairly interesting’ to look at the site statistics. So far there have been 3367 visits (390 in the last month), although there is no way of telling whether this represents a small number of people looking at it several times, or a larger number of less frequent visitors.  The most viewed post is the one about Thatcher’s death and legacy. The top 10 country breakdown is:

United Kingdom
United States

But what is more surprising is to see occasional visitors from far flung places: this week, Aruba.

Anyway, there has been another birthday this week, namely my own 49th anniversary (or, as a colleague rather depressingly put it, I am now entering my 50th year). I am becoming more and more grumpy as I get older – in fact, I realise that somewhere along the line I have turned into my father. My current pet hate is people walking around looking at their mobiles, requiring others to jump out of the way to avoid a collision.

Another peeve is more directly related to the book where, on p.131, I talk about the free labour that customers perform when dialling up call centres through automated telephone systems, sometimes even paying for the privilege. Something very similar is becoming more and more common in shops, where increasingly the checkouts are self-service. Thus we scan our goods, bag them and pay without the need for a checkout operator. This is presented as an extension of choice, but the choice is limited by the fact that there are fewer and fewer staffed tills with longer and longer queues as a result.

Yesterday I was standing in one such queue, with most of the self-service tills unused, a sign in itself that, as a matter of choice, many people, not just me, prefer not to use them. My particular dislike is the way that the recorded voice barks aggressively at you – for example ‘foreign item in bagging area’ or ‘item not scanned’ or ‘return to bagging area’, the last of which I don’t even understand.  I half expect to hear it say, like a bossy schoolteacher, ‘you’re only letting yourself down’ or ‘I’m not angry, just disappointed’.
As we queued, a member of the shop staff kept reminding us that we could use these tills and, like all good English people, we pretended we could not hear, or that the message was for someone else. But after being told this two or three times I muttered ‘I hate those things’. It obviously came out louder than I had intended, because suddenly everyone in the queue started pitching in and complaining about the fact that they had staff standing around telling us to go self-service, whilst all but one of the manual tills was closed.

Of course it was not the fault of the staff – they were simply doing what they had been told to do. But the sad thing about that is that eventually, perhaps, we will all be duly accultured to serve ourselves and the expectation of being served by a human being will become, to use the term that has been applied to smoking, ‘de-normalised’. All the manned tills will disappear (and, with them, even the chimera of ‘choice’). And almost all of the staff will be out a job as we become their replacements, labouring unpaid, belaboured for our faults by the pitiless shouts of the automatic overseer. It depresses me to think that we will probably not even notice or, worse, will celebrate it as a new found freedom.
Or perhaps we will be found to be such unsatisfactory workers that the recorded voice will tire of us and announce that we, too, have been sacked. Or perhaps bagged. Or perhaps, even, ‘returned to the bagging area’ for re-programming.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Norman Geras (1943-2013)

I recently learned of the death of Norman Geras, whose obituary is here.

Norman was a pivotal influence on me, intellectually and politically. In the book (pp. 11-12) I mention how as an undergraduate at Manchester University in the 1980s I switched from studying Economics to studying Political Philosophy. Norman taught me 'Modern Political Philosophy' and introduced me to the works of Marx and Weber amongst other authors. He subsequently encouraged me to do a PhD and at that time we had many conversations and arguments.

He was a big man in all senses of the word: physically imposing, intellectually forceful. But he was incredibly generous to me - generous with his time, generous in relation to my naivety - and he taught me, both in classes and outside, both in content and approach, much that I still live with. It is no exaggeration to say that, had it not been for him, I would never have become an academic; there would have been no book for this blog; and so no blog of this book.

I am sure that for him the encounters we had were entirely ephemeral, but for me they were formative. These kind of things are the invisible part of academic careers and of teaching, but they are so important. Unmeasured by quality assurance systems, unknown in performance evaluations, these are the invisible 'gift relationships' of teaching.

When I knew him, Norman was one of the most important and original thinkers about Marx and Marxists. His books on Marx and Human Nature and on Rosa Luxemburg remain classics. In more recent years he became associated with the Euston Manifesto group with which I vehemently disagreed. But I will never forget or cease to be grateful for what he taught and gave me - freely but preciously - when I was his student, why, over 25 years ago now.

Dealing with disaster

The catastrophe of the Philippines typhoon has, like all disasters in the media age, been played out on our TV screens nightly*. That it is a natural catastrophe sharpens and simplifies our moral sense of it, perhaps because unlike those associated with war, such as in Syria, it is more easily understood as something where we can take sides. That is, we can readily empathise with, and side with, those who have had their lives destroyed because the causes of that destruction seem random and so there is no fault attached to them. Of course that is also true of the refugees from the war in Syria but the war itself is something that seems for many of us morally ambiguous and complex, and its solutions intractable. A natural disaster invites an emotionally and morally more simple response. Around the edges (climate change, governmental response) there is a politics, but its core seems to be, to use that peculiarly quaint term from insurance policies, an ‘Act of God’.

I happen to have a Philippino neighbour, who was much moved by the fact that the British people have this week donated some £33M** to the relief effort and that the British government have sent military resources to assist it. Thinking about this I was struck by something. When a major catastrophe strikes, the assistance is delivered bureaucratically and via command-and-control organizations. The UK relief effort was co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the very name of which straightforwardly speaks its purpose and bespeaks of a kind of bureaucratic traditionalism (a ‘committee’ no less, not even a task force), whilst the military response is delivered by the most traditional of hierarchies.

What is notably absent in such situations is any recourse to networked organizations, values and vision workshops, key performance indicators, quality assurance mechanisms, charismatic leadership or anything else from the sorry lexicon of contemporary managerialism. When something serious happens, we simply don’t need or want these things. But if this is so, perhaps we don’t need or want them at all?

In the same way that natural catastrophes clarify our emotional and moral priorities, perhaps they also serve to clarify our organizational ones?

* I notice that this week there has been a Philippino reader of this blog. Good wishes to you.
** By contrast the first two days of the DEC Appeal for Syria raised £3.4M and has to date raised £23M.

Friday, 1 November 2013

More on power

This issue of how to organize electricity generation and supply is a pressing and controversial one across the globe, from Turkey to Nigeria to India to the USA, and it is at the top of the political agenda in the UK, where the cost of electricity is a hot issue. I heard the government’s energy minister, Ed Davey, interviewed the other day and he was talking about all sorts of complicated measures he had in mind to make the energy market work, including a state-funded network of advisors, state rebates for the most vulnerable and so on. And of course his central idea is about switching between providers - but that is absurd because the big energy companies offer more or less the same prices and because what is the best deal when you sign up will, possibly within a few hours, be a poor deal - and yet typically you are locked into it. Or, if not, then you have to engage in constant market scanning and switching. This is an aspect of the paradox of choice, discussed in the book (p.75).

All these absurd gyrations arise from the refusal to acknowledge a basic truth - electricity supply is a textbook natural monopoly and, as such, the most efficient way to run it is through state provision. That refusal exists as much in the opposition Labour Party, which has proposed a price freeze, as in the government.  It's pointless to blame the electricity companies - the scope they have to compete in the way that, say, supermarkets do is virtually nil, even if they were minded to (and why should they be - as Adam Smith observed long ago, markets do not work on the basis of charity or, as we might nowadays say, social responsibility and we should not expect them to). That comparison is an instructive one: no one thinks that to make the supermarkets be competitive we have to have community advisors, rebates for the poor, complicated rules about switching, statutory requirements to offer the best deal and a government regulator because (whatever one thinks of supermarkets) all that consumers have to do if they are not satisfied is do their next shop somewhere else. With many caveats it more or less works as a market.

This week, the big six electricity suppliers were called to the British parliament, accused of price fixing, because they all more or less simultaneously announce more or less similar price rises. Their defence was that their price rises were because almost all their costs – the wholesale electricity price and taxes – are beyond their control. But if we turn that round, it also means that they cannot compete on price. So what else might they compete on? In most markets it would be product quality and product innovation, but that too is impossible: electricity is just electricity, so there is no way of offering ‘really good electricity’. For the same reason, they can’t even compete on brand image: no one would think there was something especially worthwhile about electricity from, say, E-On as opposed to EDF, would they?

So electricity (like other utilities such as gas and water) simply does not and cannot a function as a competitive market. By pretending otherwise we have to bear all the costs of an entirely ineffective regulatory system in order to pay both in supply and - as mentioned in my previous post - in generation often state owned companies of other countries to deliver the chimerical benefits of privatization and competition.

Thus, to use an over-used phrase, there is a huge elephant in the room that no mainstream British politician will talk about: the whole thing needs to be re-nationalised. And, curiously, given politicians unwillingness to talk about it, this is supported by 69% of the British electorate.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Power at any cost

It was announced today that a new nuclear energy plant is to be built in Britain, a development described by the government as ‘historic’. Well, it is historic but perhaps not in ways that give any great cause for celebration. It is the first time that a nuclear power station has been built in Britain not by the government but by private investors, principally state-owned companies in China and France. It is an extraordinary irony that the privatization of British electricity generation – on the basis of the supposed virtues of the private sector – has ended up with paying overseas public companies to do what used to be done by the British state. It is nevertheless underwritten by the British state: there is no risk for the investors both in the specific sense that they are guaranteed a future revenue stream set at twice the level of present prices and in the more diffuse sense that, ultimately, the state will be responsible for ensuring power supplies come what may.

The deal resembles the PFI deals extensively used for public investment in Britain and elsewhere over recent decades. In these, present private investment is paid for by guaranteed long-term future expensive payments from the public purse. Notionally risk is transferred from the state but that is indeed notional since, when public services are at stake, the risk ends up back with the government, as happened for example with the London Underground. PFI has been widely criticised for its poor value.

It is difficult to overstate the folly of these kinds of deals, and not just financially. Thinking about energy in particular (but also transport, healthcare etc.) the idea that key, strategic, services can so casually be handed over by governments is breath taking. With PFI it could be understood as an infatuation with the private sector in line with neo-liberal ideology. But in the case of the new power station there is not even that explanation. Instead, it actually shows the bankruptcy – literally – of that ideology, because it shows that the shrivelled neo-liberal state has no option other than to bribe the state-owned companies of other countries to do what it no longer has the skills or the capital to do itself – whatever the cost.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Marxism today

The biggest news story in the UK this week has been the row over the publication by the Daily Mail newspaper of a vitriolic attack on the father of Ed Miliband, the leader of the British Labour party. Ralph Miliband, who died in 1994, was an eminent Marxist political theorist. Indeed I remember having to study his classic book – The State in a Capitalist Society – in detail when I was an undergraduate student of politics. Ralph Miliband was a Jewish refugee who fled to Britain to escape the Nazis, and subsequently served in the Royal Navy. Thus one of the most controversial aspects of the Mail’s article was that it ran under the headline ‘The Man who Hated Britain’ – this based on a decontextualized and misinterpreted quotation from his diary, written when he was seventeen years old. The article has been roundly criticised not just by Ed Miliband and his party, but by many senior figures on the political Right, and appears to be unpopular with the public, including Mail readers, as well. In particular, the idea that Ralph Miliband ‘hated Britain’, despite having served in its armed forces, was particularly controversial.

But apart from the issue of patriotism, the Mail’s attack, written in intemperate language, was premised on the idea that because Ralph Miliband had been a Marxist he was therefore an apologist for Stalinist Communism and that his son had inherited these ideas. That Ralph Miliband had been a harsh critic of Stalinism was ignored; as was the fact that his son manifestly embraces none of the politics of Marxism, still less of the Soviet Union.  It was in this sense an attempt to smear Ed Miliband as a left-wing extremist, an almost laughable proposition. However, the spiteful nastiness of the terms used makes it to my mind not laughable but quite disgusting.

There is much that could be, and has been, said about this episode, but one question it provoked in me was how much traction do accusations of Marxism have these days anyway? The piece read like something from the Cold War era, when western politicians and journalists conjured up frequent ‘reds under the beds’ scare stories. But it is almost a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall fell and, in Britain certainly, there is little if any organized far Left movement. But by the same token, I wonder what, for students in particular, it can mean when they come across Marxist ideas in their studies?

In organization studies, as in social science more generally, there is a sizeable literature which is Marxist or, at least, influenced by or reacting to Marxism. This is most obviously so in Labour Process Analysis and within some forms of Critical Theory. Concepts such as alienation, labour power, surplus value and so on derive from Marxism and have a particular place within organization studies because they pertain directly to the workplace. I could imagine some students thinking that this is just outmoded old nonsense that we don’t need to bother with, but if so then I think that is wrong.

First of all, it’s not really the case that social science theories get superseded by newer, better theories – although it is surely true that fashions change so that Marxism, and many other theories, are currently much less fashionable than in the past. But secondly, and perhaps relatedly, the impact of Marxism on social science has been so deep that it is very difficult to understand many other approaches without understanding the implicit and explicit relationships that they have with Marxism. Perhaps a partial analogy would be with the study of English literature or the history of art where it is hard to understand many novels and paintings without having a good working knowledge of the Bible. From that point of view, though, the issue isn’t one of ‘belief’ – to have scriptural knowledge does not imply or require being a Christian.

That analogy certainly helps to avoid the most egregious error – exhibited by the Daily Mail – that Marxist analysis is inseparable from Stalinist practice. One can certainly use concepts from Marxism without having a commitment to Marxist politics and, moreover, just as there are almost endless ways of being a Christian so too are there endless ways of being a Marxist – Stalinism being perhaps the least defensible as many Marxists, including Ralph Miliband, have argued.  That is not to say that there are no political implications of Marxist analysis of organizations or that they shouldn’t be discussed. But the point I would make is that there are political implications of any form of organizational analysis – indeed probably the central message of the book is that this is so, and that the main problem of mainstream organizational analysis is to ignore this. For example, when organizations are studied via the lens of neo-classical economic conceptions of efficiency this is by no means politically neutral. For that matter, organization studies makes plentiful use of Weberian analysis (which again takes many forms) yet this hardly requires that we sign up to Max Weber’s politics (which moved from nationalism to social democracy, and were both influential and not without controversy as Joshua Derman's recent book discusses).  In this sense, Marxism is not a special case.

So I hope that I am right that, for younger people at least, the capacity of the Mail’s assault on Ralph Miliband founders on the obsolescence of its Cold War logic. But by the same token, I hope that the welcome demise of the Soviet Union does not lead those same people to conclude that the Marxist analysis of organizations has nothing of interest or importance to say to them.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Not measuring up

On Tuesday I gave a talk in Paris to a group of business leaders. The topic was secrecy in organizations, which is something I am researching at the moment.  In the discussion session which followed – in a mixture of French and English and, probably, Franglais, so something may have got lost in translation – I was asked the following question: how do you measure secrecy?
There’s no easy answer to that, if indeed there is an answer at all, and much would depend on what is meant by secrecy anyway. But it was an interesting question because it is one which is very commonly asked, not just in relation to secrecy of course, but in relation to organizational issues of all kinds. To respond that it is difficult or impossible invariably provokes, as on this occasion, a disappointment. But what lies behind the demand for measurement?

The obvious answer, I suppose, is something like clarity or certainty; a desire for the tangible and the real. The irony, though, is that measurement almost always provokes heated debates. For a couple of examples, take some stories from today’s news.  An IPCC report makes ‘with 95% confidence’ predictions about global temperature change. But immediately it is published the figures are pored over and differentially interpreted by those on different sides of the debate about climate changes, its causes, and the responses to be made. Meanwhile, in the UK, the opposition Labour Party have proposed a cap on energy bills to which the immediate response has been to point out that in fact UK energy costs are amongst the lowest in Europe. But is that the relevant figure? Or should it be the cost relative to income, or the change over a given time period (and, if so, which time period)? Or should it differentiate between the proportion of the charge that goes to the energy companies and that which goes in tax? As these examples show, measurement does not result in clarity, but perhaps even the opposite: the provision of a measurement provokes a demand for more measurements, which in turn provoke further demands and debates.

In such debates two things are immediately obvious. One is that measurement cannot be separated from meaning: numbers never ‘speak for themselves’, but are susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. They depend on meaning which cannot itself be measured. The very choice of what we measure is dependent on some prior judgement that that is the thing which is meaningful. The second, closely related, thing is that this meaning is a matter of political contestation, and the meanings which prevail are an outcome of power. That is most plain in overtly political stories such as those just mentioned. But it is no less the case in supposedly apolitical contexts such as accounting within organizations, where what is supposedly neutral and ‘independent’ measuring inevitably rests upon interpretative meaning and power – something long recognized by critical accounting researchers.
In the third edition of my book, there are more statistics that in the previous editions and that is because in the new chapter five (where almost all these statistics occur), there is a more overt focus on politics and economics. So, for example, I give figures on things like executive pay and corporate tax avoidance. And the aim here, too, is to seek to advance particular meanings and particular politics. That is to say, measurement is a form of rhetoric: an attempt to persuade by controlling meaning and so to exercise power. But the important thing to note is that this is unavoidable. The question ‘how do you measure that’ is itself a form of rhetoric which is a challenge from the questioner. If, as in my talk on Tuesday, you fail to answer it then the implication, at least, is that you are talking about something meaningless.

The potential stigma of ‘not measuring’ exercises a powerful hold within organization studies which, in its mainstream incarnation, is infatuated with measurement. It is even more evident within economics, which has shifted wholesale from its roots in 19th century political economy to being dominated by ever more abstruse mathematical modelling. (Deirdre McCloskey's book, The Rhetoric of Economics is great on this*). But because measurement always opens up new terrains of contestation about meaning (as in the examples above) this is a doomed enterprise. Indeed, economics, especially since the financial crisis, is increasingly criticised for being precisely because of its abstraction from reality – a criticism which is again a form of rhetoric that tries to position its opponent as meaningless.

Thus we should not approach this issue in terms of the presence or absence of measurement, but always consider what this presence or absence betokens. In other words, we should see questions of meaning and power as the primary ones and then consider what role measurement plays in the attempt to corral meaning and exercise power. I know this because in a survey 100% of those asked agreed with me. But now I suppose you will want to know the sample size.
* And note how throwing in a reference to a 'great' book is another rhetorically forceful way of justifying a point. Here meaning is claimed on the basis of an appeal to authority rather than to a measurement. There is no way of standing outside rhetoric in this sense: indeed commenting upon my own rhetorical devices is a way of advancing the argument I am making. And so is commenting upon my commenting ....

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Suicide and organizations

I’ve come across two thought-provoking articles today, and the thoughts they provoked were not pleasant. One is a piece in The Guardian by Seamus Milne about the growth of ‘zero-hours contracts’ in the UK. With such contracts, workers are on standby to work, but with no guarantee of any actual work, and therefore payment, eventuating. In many cases, the contract forbids the person from working for anyone else either. Hailed by neo-liberals as an example of ‘flexible employment’, it is clear that all the flexibility is on the part of the worker. The consequent insecurity is obvious – no guaranteed income from week to week for a start, no pension or fringe benefits, no prospect of buying a home, difficult to sustain a family – in short, the full weight of the new insecurity I wrote about here a couple of months ago. And, although Milne does not make this connection, increasingly, there is little or no safety net, with recent clampdowns on benefits for the disabled in particular leading to a spate of suicides and an even greater upsurge in suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, as I noted in my book (p.117), suicide rates in Greece have risen alarmingly since 2009 (and the rise has continued since I wrote that)  and there can be little doubt that the cause of this is the social and psychological dislocation caused by the economic crisis.

Suicidal desperation is at the heart of Jenny Chan’s recently published paper entitled ‘A Suicide Survivor: The Life of a Chinese Worker’ in New Technology, Work and Employment. Unusually for an academic article, this is a powerfully written paper and it recounts the life of a Chinese worker who attempted suicide, apparently a growing trend.  We often here of the rise of the knowledge economy and new organizational forms which stress creativity and freedom, but the hidden heart of this economy is what Chan describes as “a production model apparently based on classic Taylorism” (p.88). The intense discipline of life on the line of an outsourcing company producing Apple's i-phones is described in chilling detail, culminating thus: “The accumulated effects of endless assembly line toil, punishing work schedules, harsh factory discipline, a friendless dormitory and, rejection from managers and administrators, compounded by the company’s failure to provide her with income, and then her inability to make contact with friends and family, were the immediate circumstances of her attempted suicide. Her testimony reveals how she was overwhelmed, ‘I was so desperate that my mind went blank’. At 8 a.m. on March 17, Yu jumped from the fourth floor of her dormitory building in despair. After 12 days in a coma, she awoke to find that her body had become half paralysed. She is now confined to a bed or a wheelchair” (p. 91). It is not just in harsh factory conditions that work-related suicides are found. For example, in 2008 and 2009 there was a wave of suicides amongst employees of France Telecom, with many leaving notes blaming work pressures in an organization undergoing massive restructuring.

Suicide is undoubtedly the most powerful and extreme act of the powerless and desperate, a complex response to, and creator, of trauma and its causes are equally complex, and varied. One part of its power is to make it almost undiscussable and, certainly, one should never draw glib conclusions from and about suicides. But, equally, as Salford University academics Jo Milner and Ian Cummins note (and give links to further research on), the links between suicide levels and social and economic conditions are well-established, and have been since at least the publication of Emile Durkheim’s  1897 book, Suicide. So it would certainly be glib to consign suicide to the realms of individual psychology. If we have global economic systems and associated organizational systems of work and welfare which engender suicide then we (including and perhaps especially those of us whose profession is the study of organizations) should not be shy of saying so. Terms like flexibility, welfare reform, global supply chain efficiency and organizational restructuring sound neutral and unexceptionable. What lies behind them may be horror.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Not smoking

In 2008 I published an article, with Jo Brewis, about workplace bans on smoking. It’s an interesting organizational issue. If the proverbial Martian visited a workplace in, say, 1980 and again today, one of the most noticeable things would be how cigarette smoke had disappeared between the two visits (and how smokers’ huddles outside the workplace had appeared). Smoking bans are also an organizational issue in that they are justified in terms of protecting workers from ‘passive smoking’ – so that although most public debate has been about the effects on leisure places like bars, the rationale is that these leisure places are in fact the work places of bar staff.

In our article, we suggested that the modern scientific and medical discourses of anti-smoking (i.e. that it is bad for smokers’ health and, supposedly, for non-smokers) were better understood as an inflection of a much more longstanding moral discourse about smoking and smokers: that ‘smoking is bad’ and ‘smoking is bad for your health’ were interlinked in complex ways. Historically, moral disdain for smoking long predates issues of health (see Ian Gately's book for detail). To give just a couple of examples: Murad the Cruel , ruler of the Ottoman Empire 1623-1640, had at least 25,000 suspected smokers put to death, whilst at about the same time in Persia those caught selling tobacco had molten lead poured down their throats; and in the 1920s employees of the Ford Motor Company were subjected to night time raids on their homes to check whether they were smoking – if so they had their wages docked or in some cases were sacked. Nor are smoking bans new: some German, Italian and American States had them in the mid-19th Century. The more contemporary hatred of smoking stems in part from its equation with death at a time of secularism. Given widespread acceptance that there is no afterlife, there seems to be a kind of fantasy that if only one does the right things, then death can be abolished at least for long enough until a cure is found. Smokers are an affront to this fantasy, and that is why no condemnation is strong enough for their presumption.

Five years on, this is more obvious than ever. Anti-smoking activists are seeking to expunge all references to, and images of, smoking, in ways that we predicted in the article. Because although at the time the avowed aim was simply a workplace ban, as Jo and I said in our article this coded a much more expansive ambition, which the UK’s former Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson revealed in 2007 to be the “complete de-normalization of smoking”. Of course the dangers of smoking are not in dispute. Those of secondary or passive smoking are rather more contentious, even though forming the basis of the smoking bans. But now anti-smoking activists condemn third hand smoking – the supposed dangers of smelling the clothes of someone who has recently smoked; and even fourth hand smoking – the idea that contact with a non-smoker who has had contact with a smoker is dangerous. At the same time, these activists have successfully pushed for images of cigarettes in films and cartoons to be expunged and for cigarette packets to be hidden from public view, with the current battle line being over plain packaging. The aim of these latter moves, ostensibly, is to discourage young people from taking up smoking even though the most basic knowledge of teenage psychology tells us that making something so taboo that it must be hidden away is to make it more attractive. But of course that justification is just, so to speak, a smokescreen. The real aim is to make smoking, which is perfectly legal in almost all countries in the world, well, de-normalized. The ultimate goal, presumably, is to make it illegal – a strategy which has, of course, worked very well with other drugs!

All this has now taken a remarkable new twist. In the wake of the smoking bans in many countries, more and more people have taken to ‘vaping’ – using electronic or e-cigarettes, which deliver a nicotine hit to their user but emit only harmless water vapour. One might expect anti-smoking activists to approve – these devices, after all, reduce cigarette usage. In fact, they object most vehemently. Which led to an interesting experience I had last week. Standing on my local First Capital Connect (FCC) train station platform I heard the now familiar announcement that smoking was forbidden. This, by the way, is on open-air platforms which are not, under UK legislation, obliged to ban smoking since they are not 'enclosed public places'. But let’s forget that lost battle and focus on the less familiar part of the announcement, which continued by saying that this included the use of electronic cigarettes. Intrigued, I checked the FCC website and it emerged that this ban on e-cigarettes had been introduced on 30th May 2013 “because they can unsettle other passengers and cause people to think that smoking real cigarettes is allowed”. It is difficult to imagine how e-cigarettes could ‘unsettle’ anyone. One wonders how many sensitive souls have complained to FCC, or if anyone has actually been duped by others’ use of e-cigarettes. In fact I wrote them an email asking, but their reply just repeated their policy without answering these questions.

In any case, it is an interesting principle that ‘unsettling behaviour’ should be banned, and we might wonder what its legal basis is. The answer may be alarming. In a statement FCC explained “that a bylaw, dealing with ‘unacceptable behaviour’, allowed it to ban the devices. The legislation states: ‘No person shall molest or wilfully interfere with the comfort or convenience of any person on the railway’”. I am sure that we can all think of things – mobile phone use, say, or i-pad gaming - that fall into this category rather more readily than e-cigarettes (indeed, the toilets on most FCC trains I have travelled on seem hardly conducive to 'comfort and convenience'). As a matter of fact, has even one person’s ‘comfort or convenience’ been interfered with by e-cigarettes? I also asked them that when I emailed them, but there was no answer.

The second part of FCC’s justification is that the British Medical Association wants e-cigarettes to be included in the smoking ban . This is a different issue, to do with whether they are harmful to those using them, as opposed to whether those seeing their use might be “unsettled”. It is a live debate and the clamour of the anti-smoking lobby to ban or regulate e-cigarettes is gathering pace. Thus, France is planning to ban their use in public, but not in private which is strange if the reason is supposed to be that they are dangerous to their users. But, at the moment, there is no such ban in place in the UK and it seems odd that FCC would introduce such a ban on its premises on the basis of the position of a particular lobbying group. Odd, indeed, that FCC should seek to concern itself with the still-disputed health effects of its customers’ habits. For, remember, no one, including FCC, is suggesting that e-cigarettes harm anyone else: ostensibly, the only question is whether they may harm their users, for which there is no evidence, as yet anyway. So what next? Will FCC require its customers to conform to other BMA campaigns, on diet and exercise for example?
Smokers still constitute at least 20% of the UK adult population (and, by the way, they contribute about four times in tax what they additionally cost the National Health Service). Perhaps a million UK adults use e-cigarettes. They, too, are amongst the customers of FCC. So what is going on? The key issue here is the idea that e-cigarettes might be “unsettling”: we have gone from a ban on cigarettes to a ban on things that ‘look like’ cigarettes, reflecting precisely the way that the anti-smoking movement has moved far away from anything remotely to do with science or rationality. Smoking at work is now banned but so too is not-smoking not at work, and this enforced not by government legislation but by the whimsical diktat of a commercial organization.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The History of Office Life

Media coverage of organizational issues is not great. Yes, every news bulletin gives the obligatory reading of the day's exchange rate and stock index level, and big corporate events and scandals get a look in. But there is very little about daily work life, even though this is, arguably, a matter of greater public interest. Even rarer is an interest in organizations from an historical perspective.

So we should be grateful for the new BBC Radio 4 series, The History of Office Life, presented by FT journalist Lucy Kellaway. Broadcast in ten episodes of 15 minutes each, starting last Monday, it perhaps struggles to cover so broad a subject in such a compressed format. Still, two hours of national broadcasting time is not to be sniffed at, and each episode contains within it a few gems. See here for a review of the first week's episodes.

And I will declare an interest: the next episode, on the rise of management, to be broadcast on Monday 29th July at 13.45 UK time features me as does the episode on recent trends in office life, to be broadcast on Friday 2nd August at 13.45 UK time. What I will say I have little idea, as it will be a few moments edited from a long interview. So this is not a recommendation ...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Spirit of 45

In a previous post I made reference to Ken Loach’s latest film, The Spirit of 45, without, I must admit, having seen it, only having read some reviews. Loach is an important and, in the UK, a rare film director, committed to socialism and to socialist art. Land and Freedom, his 1995 depiction of the Spanish Civil War, is, I think, one of the most significant political films of recent decades. It recounts the utopian promise of the POUM militia during the Spanish Civil War, which combined internationalism and gender equality with economic collectivism. And it recounts the betrayal of this dream by Stalinist Communism leading to the eventual victory of Fascism. In many ways the defeat of the POUM marked a terminal point in the history - to date, at least - of a certain strand of non-statist left-wing theory and practice. It was a political tragedy, the effects of which are still playing out in Europe and beyond. But the film is also a moving love story. That love is most evident in the complex relationship between the central, narrating, character, Dave Carr, a working class Liverpudlian who has come to Spain to fight fascism, and Blanca, a Spanish fighter in the POUM. Loach depicts the tenderness and ferocity of their love skilfully and movingly. But there is also a love, no less profound for not being sexual, between the various members of the POUM unit.
The complexities of love – in this case that between brothers – and its intersection with politics can also be found in another of Loach’s greatest films, The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). The setting for this harrowing film is the struggle for Irish independence and the subsequent splintering of the movement. As in Land and Freedom there is at the heart of the film a struggle between idealism and compromise articulated through human relationships. These two films form just part of Loach’s prodigious output over the last 50 years – a remarkable body of work.

So I came to The Spirit of 1945 with very high – maybe too high – expectations and ended up feeling a bit disappointed. Politically, I agree with pretty much everything Loach is trying to say. The Labour reconstruction of post-war Britain with its emphasis on socialism, the common good and policies of nationalisation and public welfare provision – and this in the face of far more difficult economic circumstances than now -  is, absolutely, an inspirational model for the present time. But I thought that the connections and lessons between that time and now were too weakly drawn.
For me, the problem was the rushed attempt to explain what Thatcherism had done. It’s not that Loach is wrong about this but it made the film less hard-hitting (and especially, perhaps, for those watching it for whom the Thatcher era is itself an historical memory) than if there had been more direct comparisons with today. It would have been better to go from 1945-51 to today. For example, on nationalised electricity, some explicit comparison with the nonsense of ‘customer choice’ now – requiring endless calls to call centres to ‘achieve’ a best rate that promptly becomes anything but. Or, on railways, focussing not just on the accidents that followed privatization but on the massive rises in fares and of public subsidies to the private companies (far greater than nationalised  British Rail ever received) that are happening right now. There were occasional moments (e.g. the brief discussion of contracting out of hospital cleaning) where this was achieved, but in general I felt that the ‘now and then’ linkage could have been much sharper. In some ways, I felt the whole thing would have worked better as a Loach drama than as a documentary, for example depicting a family in 1945 and the grandchildren of the same family now.

I also disliked the very traditional and I think sentimental emphasis on the idea that what is needed (and will come) is just for the working class to realise its strength (in Marxist terms, to move from being a ‘class in itself’ to a ‘class for itself’), and the accompanying idea that the problem with Labour is that it has become too middle class. On the one hand, the 1945 administration (its leader, Clement Attlee, being a good example) were often middle-class. On the other hand, in Britain (and elsewhere) now, it is the middle class who are being systematically destroyed by ‘austerity’ economics and politics. I don’t think that positioning things in terms of working vs middle class is true either to ‘the spirit of 45’, which was about a sense of a national collective project, or to the current crisis which (as the film suggests) requires a national collective project in opposition to and defiance of a global elite: that is the real division, not that between what are after all – to put it in Marxist terms - just segments of those who have nothing but their labour to sell.
With all those criticisms made, this is a rare and valuable film. Just to see the way that in 1945 socialism was quite openly and unapologetically spoken of, at a time when the present British Labour Party is scared to even mention the word, or to articulate any policy that is a cigarette-paper away from the neo-liberal consensus is refreshing. By coincidence (I think) I have also recently been re-reading Denis Healey’s autobiography The Time of My Life (1989). Healey, whose career culminated in being Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1970s, would be considered to be on the right of the Labour Party at that time although by today's standards his brand of moderate social democracy seems radical so far has the political ground shifted since then. His political career started with an unsuccessful attempt to become a Labour MP in 1945, and his views – like those of a whole generation of politicians of both Left and Right – had been formed by the experience of Fascism and the Second World War (Healey himself was a beach master at the Anzio Landings in 1944). His account both of the 1945 election and of the political consensus it formed very much echoes Loach's film: the determination that the sacrifice of the war would provide the foundations for a better society. The experience of war provided both a moral case for such a society but also pointed to the tools of collective endeavour and central planning that would deliver it.

In that context, it’s instructive to make the comparison between that age of austerity and our own. In the post-1945 period austerity – symbolised by the rationing that continued until 1953 – meant collective sacrifice in order to build the collective good. What it means now is collective (albeit unequal) sacrifice in order to sell off the common good – via the final privatizations of what remains of the collective health and welfare provision of the post-war period. Invoking the language of austerity in order to pervert its original meaning is both clever and disgusting. I’m struck by the way that the wartime slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has in the last few years become ubiquitous in Britain and yet, somehow, its meaning has changed from collective stoicism to dumb acquiescence, a kind of resigned acceptance that, to use that iconic Thatcherite phrase, there is no alternative.
Loach’s The Spirit of 45 has the merit of reminding us that there was, and there still is, an alternative.

Friday, 28 June 2013

The New Barons

It seems as if almost daily the malign consequences of the New Public Management (NPM) that has informed public sector reform in many countries for the last 30 years are being exposed. In the UK, one recent high profile example is the Francis report into the failings of the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust which can be read as an indictment of the kind of ‘tick box’ procedural managerialism inaugurated by NPM. But NPM, with its proceduralism, audits and managerial controls has increasingly morphed into something else, a more post-bureaucratic understanding of public management. Here, the emphasis is less on procedures and audits and more on freeing inspirational leaders to innovate and enact ‘radical change’.

Of course these things are linked. NPM always had several meanings, including the relentless praise of ‘enterprise’ in public services. Post-bureaucracy is a similarly flexible term, and the two fit together in all sorts of ways, as this article by Leslie Budd of the Open University explains. Still, the post-bureaucratic accent of contemporary public management has a certain distinctiveness in part as a reaction to what was, ironically, the explosion of ‘red tape’ associated with the supposedly anti-bureaucratic NPM.

I talk at length about post-bureaucracy  in the book, especially in chapter 4, and a recent case has called to mind one of the points made there. I suggest (p. 86) that the embrace of post-bureaucracy carries with it huge risks because, freed of all those irritating rules and procedures it is just as likely that managers will act with recklessness and little or nothing will curtail them. In fact, I might have gone further, and pointed out that corruption and fraud, as well as recklessness, are made more likely in such situations, as Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang argues.

The case that reminded me of this was that of the head teacher of an ‘academy school’ in the UK who has resigned following multiple accusations of financial impropriety, including allegations about the way she employed family members. The allegations are particularly interesting if we consider how Weberian bureaucracy is in part to do with the avoidance of nepotism, of corruption and, indeed, the links between the two.  This was a head teacher who had been lionized by successive politicians as the epitome of what the new style public servants should be: dynamic, innovative leaders.

Now the allegations are just that – there have been no criminal proceedings – but they fit into a wider sense of a managerial or leadership cadre in both the private and public sectors which is out of control, treating their organizations as their own individual fiefdoms rather than things for which they have a duty of stewardship. I have myself seen such behaviour, for it is as prevalent in universities as anywhere else.

The danger is that such episodes are seen as a series of individual scandals or, if put together, a sign of some inevitable decline in moral standards and the probity of public life feeding what is beginning to be seen as a crisis of trust in leadership. But they are neither: they are systemically linked by a particular approach, or set of approaches, to the management of organizations. It is in part, at least in origin, a consequence of the new capitalism I discuss in the book, of the neo-liberal revolution that has literally or metaphorically marketised so many areas of economic and social life. But it is more complex than that, and is more linked to the ideas about ‘neo-mercantilism’ I talked about in my post of January 9 2013. For what we have is a new managerial class which has little to do with the ‘market’ in any recognizable sense and is closer to a kind of baronial oligarchy in which there is little organizational constraint on how its members may act. In these circumstances, the only constraints become the extra-organizational ones of the law, at which point they become publically known scandals. But their origin is not some mysterious, and still less inevitable, decline in moral virtue. It lies in the dismantling of organizational controls under the chimerical doctrine of post-bureaucratisation.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Our new insecurity

Last week I was interviewed for a new ten-part BBC Radio 4 series about the changing nature of office life (I don’t have a link for this, but the first part will be broadcast on 22nd July at 13.45 GMT+1). One of the questions I was asked was about the famous 1950s book The Organization Man by W.H. Whyte. It was a book which spawned a phrase – ‘organization man’ – and which was a kind of nostalgic lament for a time before corporate hierarchies, a lament for individualism.

But, as I said in the interview, from a present day perspective 1950s organization man is something about which we might now feel nostalgic. The basic deal of the post-war settlement was one of security. In exchange for a perhaps rather stultifying work life, organization man was offered lifetime employment in a company rooted in his community and which provided a pension and a place in the world. It was the workplace equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The consequences of lost security were born home on me this week by two things, one personal, the other impersonal. Personally, I talked to a friend in Denmark who had lost his management job and feared for what would happen to him and his family now. Yes, that is in Denmark, one of the homelands of the social democratic settlement – but he was scared. Impersonally, I saw the report from the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies which showed how real living standards in the UK have fallen dramatically in the last five years, since the financial crisis.

What is going on in Europe is an extraordinary experiment of a sort that has never occurred before, and work organizations are at its heart. The historic compromise between capital, labour and the state is being eviscerated. The most obvious effects of that are on the unskilled working class, the disabled and the unemployable, with their benefits being drastically cut. But what is now emerging is that what were hitherto the secure middle class are also seeing huge reductions in their economic position and their security. Moreover, the previous expectation that their children would be better off than them is being confounded.

This is the inevitable consequence of globalized neo-liberalism, which ultimately levels down wages and conditions of employment to the lowest possible level. Although in Europe  its electoral support was predicated upon the votes of the middle-class, its agenda was always about the interests of a tiny handful of individuals and corporations. There’s nothing new about societies being run for and by small elites, of course. But this is the first time in human history where a settled middle-class, underpinned by a welfare state, is being so drastically damaged (except, perhaps, for the 1920s German inflation – and we know where that led – and, anyway, there was no comparable welfare state). There's an excellent article on this. These are people who vote, who pay taxes, who support mainstream political parties, and who have an expectation that ‘the system’ will take care of them.

The consequences are tragic for individuals, but very interesting for political commentators. Europe in the 20th Century responded to Communism by differentiating the potentially revolutionary working class from the incorporated middle-class. The working class now have nowhere to go, and certainly nowhere revolutionary. The middle-class are being disincorporated – first by corporations, now by the State. The fallout from this will determine how we in Europe live in the coming decades.

It won't be pretty.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Thatcher then and now

As I discuss in the book (pp.108-109), it’s impossible to understand contemporary organizations without knowing something about neo-liberalism and, within the history of neo-liberalism Margaret Thatcher and the UK governments in the 1980s  occupy a pivotal place. So it is not surprising that Thatcher’s death this week has provoked a massive debate and attracted attention not just in the UK but around the world.

In the few days since her death, so much has been written about her legacy that it seems almost pointless to say more. The leitmotif of the coverage has been to highlight has she was and still is a ‘divisive’ figure, yet even that statement has proved divisive, with Thatcher’s supporters saying that to describe her in this way is to denigrate her. The Right seems to want to claim Thatcher as a kind of national icon and hero, but for many British people she will never be that, and attempts to pretend otherwise are nakedly ideological.

For me, as for many, Thatcher was a hate-figure in the 1980s and, at the time, I would have imagined that when she died I would be celebrating in the way that some in Britain have. In the event, I don’t feel like doing so and I think this is because it is really Thatcherism which I loathe and that is far from being dead. In retrospect, as with all political phenomena, the role of individuals looks smaller than it did at the time. Thatcher rode a particular tide that developed from the 1970s and which occurred not just in the UK. She may have inflected it in particular ways, she may have symbolised it, but she did not create it and, had she never been born, I suspect that similar things would have happened under someone else’s leadership. That said, even now I feel sickened by the recollection of her description of striking miners and trade unionists in general as “the enemy within”, a term connoting those who sympathised with and collaborated with the Nazis.

What is clear is that in the UK and elsewhere we continue to live with the effects of Thatcherism. The British Left has never recovered from it and continues, at least in the Labour Party, to accept the broad terms of her analysis of the primacy of markets, in particular. The ‘New’ in New Labour meant exactly this, and the New Labour governments of 1997-2010 enthusiastically followed through on her analysis with the wide scale subcontracting of public services to private providers, a process not continuing under the Coalition government.

More broadly, it is now clear that the global financial crisis and consequent economic crisis since 2007 is rooted in the policy decisions of the 1980s and here the Thatcherite deregulation of financial markets was of huge significance not just for the UK but for the world. Whilst the political right is justified in saying that Thatcherism was transformational, what they do not yet recognize is that it failed. It failed in more particular ways, too. Thatcher’s vision of the future was rooted in her ideas about the past, seeking a return to what she called the ‘Victorian Values’ of thrift, hard work and enterprise. It was a highly romanticised and partial view of Victorianism, of course, but the irony is that what she actually created, particularly through financial deregulation, was the opposite. The economy she left was predicated upon massive indebtedness as a credit-fuelled, hedonistic consumer boom ran out of control.

In some basic way, Thatcher failed to understand how capitalist economies actually work, and especially the role of the state within them. Both de-industrialization and industrial renewal requite state management and investment. That could have been achieved in Britain in the 1980s when massive North Sea oil revenues could have been used to manage a transition from the old industries to the new. Instead, they were squandered on tax cuts and paying for the mass unemployment that Thatcherism created. Her belief – still held by current Tories – that the private sector would spontaneously regenerate the economy proved quite illusory. That is not surprising as, outside of the pages of an introductory economics textbook, the state and private capital are symbiotic. Thatcher simply saw the state as parasitic. That, coupled with her messianic hatred of trade unionism, laid waste to large parts of Britain outside the South-East of England.

Beyond its economic legacy, Thatcherism did a pervasive damage to almost all forms of collective solidarity, both as an idea and in terms of institutions. Although part of the ideological narrative of Thatcherism was and is that it rescued a failing country from its 1970s decline, there is actually plenty of evidence that Britain was more prosperous, more cohesive and happier then than now. Moreover, as Ken Loach’s recent film The Spirit of 45 suggests, Thatcherism eviscerated much of the collective solidarity than re-built post-war Britain.

Anyway, it would be possible to write endlessly on this. And that is perhaps the most important point: all of this still matters, because it is about what is happening now, not just or even mainly about what happened then. Next week there will be a huge ceremonial funeral, ostensibly carrying a message that Thatcher was a great national figure who stands above ideology. But the final irony would be to imagine that the funeral of this most ideologically motivated figure is, or could be, anything but ideological. The funeral will be part of the political right’s ongoing attempt to insist that, in one of Thatcher’s most famous phrases, ‘there is no alternative’. She, and they, are wrong.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Thinking about immigration

A comment on my last post – yay, a comment! thank you! – reminds me that I was going to come back to the issue of immigration. It’s a good time to do so from a UK perspective as David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has just made a speech promising to ‘get tough’ on immigration. That is of no great interest in itself since it’s timing is mainly motivated by the rise of the anti-immigration, anti-EU UKIP Party, whilst its content is mainly a re-assertion of existing policy (e.g. restrictions on immigrants’ access to benefits) or a response to virtually non-existent problems (e.g. ‘health tourism’). Its wider significance is that, unsurprisingly in a time of what is, in effect, if not in formal definition, a global economic depression anti-immigration sentiment has risen. In the UK this is still relatively benign compared with, say, Greece, where the growth of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has seen increasing levels of violence against immigrants.

It’s worth recalling why this topic is relevant to the study of organizations and the answer, of course, is that most migration is connected with movements of labour. It is hardly surprising, then, that the business community is, generally, in favour of immigration either as a way of increasing the pool of labour from which it can choose skilled workers or as a way of depressing wages (although the effects of immigration of wage rates is not clear cut). In this way it leads to schisms in both the traditional right and the traditional left. For the right, it opens up the contradiction between social traditionalism and free-market economics. For the left, the contradiction between internationalism and the protection of national working-class constituencies. Thus, in the UK, the Conservative policy of an immigration cap has been vociferously criticised by the City of London. On the other hand, the previous Labour government policy of not restricting immigration from new East European entrants to the EU became an issue in the last election, symbolised by the ‘bigot gate’ controversy.

In some ways, there is nothing new in all this. Although it is often said by opponents of immigration that it used to be fine but has now become ‘uncontrolled’ and is having adverse consequences for employment, social cohesion, housing, overcrowding and so on, I can recall in the 1970s exactly the same kinds of arguments being made. In other words, in precisely the period that is now seen as a time of immigration not being a problem it was, in fact, constituted as a problem. The lesson, I think, is that – leaving aside the out and out racists – problems of one sort (e.g. lack of housing) are ascribed to something else: immigration. In fact, there is no more reason why population growth by immigration causes any more problems that population growth by indigenous fertility. What would actually be a serious problem for Western countries, given historically declining fertility rates and an ageing population, would be a lack of immigration.

What is bizarre is that a much more obvious source of complaint would be the migration of capital, both in the sense of the globalized ownership of what were hitherto national or even regional companies; and the propensity of such companies to shift production and employment around the globe. For example, in the UK, it has just been announced that Sea and Air Rescue (one of whose employees is no less than Prince William, the heir to the British throne) is to be sub-contracted to a US company. Unlike labour migration, capital migration has had very definite effects upon the employment prospects of Europeans and yet is commonly regarded as a simply ‘natural’ event, rather than an outcome of policy. Any criticism of that policy is derided as protectionism. By contrast, immigration is commonly regarded as the ‘unnatural’ consequence of policy decisions and defence of those decisions is derided as being ‘elitist’, even treasonous.

The failure of mainstream politics is not, then, one of not ‘listening’ to the ‘legitimate concerns’ of the population: it is of failing to spell out the meaning and consequences of the globalization that they champion – the Right through dishonesty, the Left through cowardice. Into the space they have left is inserted a populism which is at best platitudinous and at worst violent.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Talking about immigration

It has become an established meme of the political right that 'we are not allowed to discuss immigration' but of course nothing could be further from the truth. The papers are filled daily with their thoughts on the subject, and in the most unpleasant of terms. Actually, what is virtually undiscussed in not the international mobility of labour but that of capital (as discussed in the book, pp 106-107). Somehow there seems to be the idea that the latter is 'just' inevitable globalization and that it can proceed without any movements of population, which are deemed to be a 'problem'.

I will post in more detail about this soon, but for now I wanted to share a thought-provoking article written by James Koranyi, a brilliant young historian at Durham University, who is an expert on the cultural history of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, in which he discusses the longstanding British historical fascination with and and fear of Romania, in particular (and linking with the horsemeat scandal, discussed in my last post).

To see an example of what he means by the demonization of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants, have a look at this recent piece in the Daily Mail. Look particularly at the pictures, which, frankly, reminded me of the cartoons in Der Sturmer, the Nazi propaganda leaflet.

Also worth reading is this piece in today's Guardian newspaper, looking at contrasting attitudes to Indian and Romanian immigration.

As I say, more to follow - but I was struck by the coincidence of timing of these three pieces, so wanted to share them whilst they are still fresh.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Beef with efficiency

The current horsemeat in frozen beef meals scandal is an interesting illustration of the issues around what constitutes efficiency which I discuss at several points in the book. The story reflects many different dimensions of this. The way that a hugely complex globalized supply chain has developed reflects one particular, dominant, understanding of organizational efficiency: driving down costs by all means possible. That presents some serious problems even leaving aside the use of horsemeat, such as the unappetising use of mechanically recovered meat products. Thus, even if our microwaveable lasagne only contained beef, we might be rather horrified to see just what that really consisted of, as this selection of charming images allows us to do. But this is what ‘efficient’ use of carcasses means in the dominant understanding. Passing off horsemeat as beef, of course, represents something beyond this ‘normal’ efficiency, because it involves fraud and misrepresentation. But it is only the extension of the same logic. For the suppliers and producers involved it is, precisely, efficient.

To prevent such frauds, and to control the adulteration of foodstuffs in general, requires state regulation, and such regulation is one of the earliest examples of regulation of the free market. This becomes much more complex in extended global supply chains which span national jurisdictions, another of the ways that politics has not caught up with economics as I said in an earlier post about tax avoidance. But it also makes it bizarre that, in the UK, recent years have seen a reduction of food inspectors. Of course this, too, is ‘efficient’ with respect to government budgets, ‘removing the burden of red tape’ from businesses, and ‘getting value for money’ for the taxpayer. In other ways it is grossly inefficient. For a little more paid in tax, the supermarkets and food brands now suffering a catastrophic collapse of confidence in their products - and maze of expensive legal actions - could have had an ‘efficient’ system of inspection.

Then, beyond this, there is you and me, the consumer. Unwilling to spend our time buying ingredients and cooking them, we find it more efficient to buy packaged up meals for the microwave. Worldwide, consumption of ready meals increased by about 10% in volume 2010-2011. And not only do we want it quick, we want it cheap. Efficient? Perhaps not, considering the very high amounts of salt and fat that some of these meals contain. So maybe the time we saved on cooking will turn out to be dwarfed by the time we end up spending in hospital. There will be plenty of time on the cardiac ward to ponder the meaning of efficiency.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A maximum wage?

The Chief Executive of Barclays Bank UK has announced today that he will waive his annual bonus, which could have been worth as much as £2.75M. He will not suffer huge hardship, as his basic salary amounts to £1.1M. What are we supposed to make of this? Should he be applauded for his forbearance? Or should we, as I believe, ask why it might be imagined that he was entitled to this extraodinary sum in the first place? In the book I document the way that the gap between average wages and top pay has grown massively over recent decades, and actually use the example of Barclays Bank (p.116) where the ratio between average pay and top pay grew from 14.5 to 75 between 1979 and 2011.

I don't have any problem with the existence of pay differentials, and I don't have any doubt that the job of CEOs of big companies such as Barclays is a difficult and demanding one. But I don't believe that any job, and any level of skill, is so great as to be worth so much more than someone else's job and skill. There are only so many hours in the day and only so much ability that any one person can have. Let's also clear out of the way two common arguments. It is not the case that these stratospheric payments are a reward for performance because as, again, I document in the book (p.123) executive pay has increased even as share price has fallen. Nor is what is at stake here simply the operation of a free market for talent: these payments are fixed by remuneration committees staffed by a merry-go-round of the same people who receive such exorbitant rewards.

Does anyone actually believe that in the period that senior executive pay has shot so far away from average wages the competence, performance and scarcity of those executives has increased? Was, say, Barclays, so much better run in 2011 than it was in 1979? No. As I said in my previous post on this blog, in a different context, this has been an outbreak of dumb luck not an upsurge of collective talent. Would these companies be so much worse run by someone paid, say, a miserly £500,000? And, in any case, irrespective of what they deserve, how much money does anyone actually need? Meanwhile, some 80% of the world's population subsists on $10 a day or less.

This is not the 'politics of envy' to use a rather hackneyed trope of those who defend such gross inequalities. And, given the relatively small number of people who earn these kinds of sums, it is not that reducing their rewards would enable any great increase in the wealth of others. No, the issue is about the terrible damage done to organizations and to society as a whole by such inequality, which tears apart the social fabric by so polarising life's experiences and chances both now and for generations to come. Actually the politics of envy is more in evidence in the repeated claims that those on welfare are living it up at taxpayers' expense, another socially divisive development. In the book (p.118) I quote official UK government statistics showing that benefit fraud in 2010 totalled £22M. In 2009, the world's top hedge fund manager earned £2.5billion.

In many countries now, including the US and the UK, there is a minimum wage. We need to adopt proposals that have been around for a while now for a maximum wage, too, fixing a maximum ratio between the lowest and the highest paid. Like all radical ideas, such as the debt jubilee, this looks impossible from within the prism of conventional wisdom and of course such proposals are greeted with critical scrutiny as if the arrangements that we actually have have arisen because they were first proposed then scrutinised and then adopted. In any case conventional wisdom has failed. The world we became accustomed to over the last few decades is manifestly broken. It won't be fixed by a few CEOs waiving their bonuses.