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.