Sunday, 5 January 2014

History matters

No sooner had I posted some thoughts about the First World War than Michael Gove, the British Education Secretary, popped up with his own. In an article in the right-wing British newspaper the Daily Mail (see my recent post to understand where this paper is coming from) he denounced “Left-wing academics” for “belittling true British heroes”. Instead, he offered his own interpretation of it as “a just war” because “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified”. Of course this kind of simplistic analysis wouldn’t even pass muster in a high school project, and unfortunately for Gove his opposite number, Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt happens to be a professional historian by background, and issued a sharp rejoinder. Even more unfortunately, Gove chose to position his arguments against one of the most popular British comedy shows - Blackadder Goes Forth, set in, and satirizing, WW1 - and has also been attacked today by one of its most popular actors.

The way that we remember history is not, in any case, likely to be much affected by the pronouncements of politicians – collective memory simply doesn’t work that way. But the fact that politicians might seek to fight over historical interpretation tells us how important those interpretations are. There’s a line in George Orwell’s novel 1984 to the effect that ‘he who controls the past controls the future’ and it is this that is at stake. Gove’s jingoistic rant is not primarily about the past, it’s about trying to advance a present day agenda. Most directly, it’s a coded way of talking about Germany and the EU; more diffusely about trying to resurrect the pieties of nationalism. In other words, history matters – not just, or even primarily, because of the past but because, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur elegantly put it ‘cultures recreate themselves by telling stories about their own past’.
In a very minor way that was brought home to me the other day when I was watching a documentary about the BBC music show ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1979. I was watching it because this was the music of my teenage years, but embedded throughout the programme was a narrative about how trade unions were a destructive, reprehensible force. In a general way, the music of the year was set against images of strikes and the election of Thatcher; in a specific way the BBC was depicted as engaging in restrictive, fuddy-duddy practices because of union controls. Of course this wasn’t a programme ‘about’ political history, it was a programme about pop music ‘in the past’. But embedded in it was, precisely, a political history.

Management and organization studies has a very similar relationship with history. On the one hand, it is the most ahistoric of disciplines. There is very little in the way of detailed scholarship on the history of management and organizations or on managerial and organizational thought (it’s true that there is a research sub-genre of business history, but it is not very connected to either the mainstream of the discipline, nor very present in the teaching curriculum). Students tend to be very impatient of case studies that are not of the moment. In this they have wiling accomplices in their teachers, who, as Paul Adler argues in his introduction to an indispensable Handbook have disconnected themselves from classic thought in the field. That is even reflected in the referencing patterns of journal articles. On the other hand, almost everything written about management and organizations is replete with history, albeit of the crudest and most unexamined sort. It is full of what I refer to in the book as “cartoon concepts” (p.104), especially as regards bureaucracy (old, discredited) and post-bureaucracy (new, shiny), but also in terms of its na├»ve story of an unfolding enlightenment from scientific management (old, nasty) to human relations (new, nice).

This kind of implicit, unexamined history serves – like Gove’s newspaper article – to pursue a particular agenda, primarily that current organizational developments are both inevitable and right. On the other hand, the neglect of history serves to pursue another agenda, primarily that organizations are completely decontextualized and unrelated to the world around them. Almost everything about the historiography of management and organization studies is unsatisfactory either in commission or omission. It remains the great unexplored territory of the subject. At least when someone like Gove pontificates about history it can be seen and understood that this matters for what we do now and in the future. In organization studies that has still to be seen and understood.


  1. Dear Chris
    In "History Matters" you demonstrate with some force that history certainly does matter even in your own academic discipline.
    I know a history teacher who used the final episode of Black Adder as a regular teaching aid, even if it was as an end of term Christmas treat. Gove v Hunt, no contest unless Hunt is neutered by his front bench role. I wonder how WW1 will play out in the election campaign?

  2. Dear John
    Thanks for your comment. It's interesting to see how the debate has gone on since I posted, In particular, Max Hastings, again in the DM, has castigated Hunt for 'politicising' the debate - as if Gove talking about left-wing academics were somehow apolitical. I don't think that this will matter in any specific way in the election campaign - but the background ideological noise from such debates probably plays into electoral politics. But not necessarily in a predictable way.

  3. Thank you Chris. Very interesting. It will be important to see which discourse steals the show during the orgy of centennial commemorations of the start of something that arguably marked the end of Europeans claiming the monopoly over 'civilization'. Clearly Gove, in his ignorance and fake patriotism, casts it as a 'just war' against militarism and aggression, the kind of discourse that we have seen bring great calamities to people in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I think that it will be interesting to note two more discourses as they seek the limelight. The first says that was is a tragic and terrible thing that brings horrors to all and creates no winners. This is fundamentally the discourse of Homer in the Iliad, a tragic view. The other is, I suppose, what we would call the political/class perspective, in which imperial powers competing for global hegemony draw the masses of workers (betrayed by their leaders and suffering from false nationalist consciousness) into their imperialist contexts.