Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The end of the end of history

The ongoing crisis in Ukraine serves as a reminder of the ways – some na├»ve, some triumphalist – that the collapse of the Soviet Union was misunderstood in the West.  For some, it represented, simply, a victory in the Cold War precisely as if that had been a war in the conventional sense, with a determinate winner and loser. More grandiosely, as in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, it represented the universalization of western liberal democracy as having displaced and superseded all other political forms. At all events, the temptation was to see a period of history as being ‘over and done with’ and a new era as having emerged. But, of course, history is never like that.

The rapidity with which the post-Soviet space was re-negotiated and the consequent expansions of NATO and the EU eastwards made it hard for those in the West to understand how catastrophic it seemed to some, perhaps many, in Russia and elsewhere – it is this sentiment which Putin speaks of and to. Similarly rapid was the post-soviet economic transformation which, in the 1990s, witnessed a scale of neo-liberalization that was unprecedented. The consequences of that, too, are now in evidence, in particular in terms of the dominance of Russian oligarchs whose wealth is largely traceable to the mass privatizations of the 1990s.

It is difficult to disentangle the relationships between the Cold War and the study of management and organizations. As James March’s (2007) overview of the history of organization studies suggests, much of the basic knowledge in the subject is to a remarkable extent a Cold War artefact in the sense that its heyday in the US in the 1950s and 1960s was both formed within and was a response to Cold War concerns – game theory being an obvious example. More diffusely, management in particular was seen as part and parcel of Western economic dominance and, indeed, one of the features of post-soviet neo-liberalization was the sudden explosion of teaching of western management techniques in those countries. Thus in March’s account, organization studies in this post-1991 period could be understood in terms of “the triumph of the markets”.

In international relations, Ukraine perhaps symbolises (although, of course, not uniquely) a clear end to that initial period of post-Soviet history in that any idea of a uni-polar world is manifestly no longer sustainable, as the evaporation of the territorial guarantees given to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Agreement shows. If it is right that organization studies (like other intellectual endeavours) in some measure reflects, is shaped by and, of course, contributes to the broader geo-political terrain within which it operates we might expect a more ‘multi-polar’ discipline to be in the process of emerging. If that is so, then perhaps we would expect not so much a proliferation of ways of understanding organizations (that has long been the case) but increased interest in the multiplicity of ways of organizing. All of which is a long-winded prelude to saying that in the book (p.119) I refer to one example of such interest as being a then unpublished work which has since come out. It is The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization (2014) and I would recommend it to anyone interested in thinking more about the rich variety of possibilities for organization that are available to us once we realise that, indeed, history did not end in 1991.


Fukuyama, F. (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
March J. (2007) ‘The Study of Organizations and Organizing since 1945’, Organization Studies 28 (1): 9-19.
Parker, M., Cheney, G., Fournier, V. & Land, C. (eds.) (2014) The Routledge Companion to Alternative Organization. London, Routledge.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Reflections on power

I have been re-reading George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four which I refer to in the book (pp.71-2). This I think is a particularly incisive fictionalization of organization, more particularly totalitarian political organization, and I suppose that no novel, except perhaps Kafka’s The Trial, has so insinuated itself into popular consciousness of ‘organization theory’.

The theme of totalitarianism is a tantalising one when thinking about organizations, because such arrangements seem to represent ‘limit cases’ – both exaggerating but also illustrating ‘normal’ organizations. But this understanding seems flawed if we take Zygmunt Bauman’s analysis of the Holocaust (discussed in the book, p.23) seriously. For this implies not that totalitarianism or, more specifically, the organization of the holocaust was an anomaly but that it was an expression of a pre-existing and omnipresent tendency within modernity. Bauman’s analysis seeks to draw a continuity between modern and ‘holocaustic’ modes of the social, and, within that, modern and holocaustic modes of, specifically, organization are central. For the capacity to organize genocide industrially seems to be central to Bauman’s thesis that the Holocaust was a modern phenomenon. Specifically, it represented the ultimate triumph of instrumental rationality – the deployment of morally blind means towards horrific ends. So we can say that for organization theorists, the organization of the Holocaust should not represent a ‘limit case’ or a perversion but rather a crucial moment in the elaboration of organization.

But considering totalitarianism in terms of instrumental rationality, as Bauman’s thesis might urge us to do, is inadequate because of the particular theorisation of power which it embodies. Within instrumentalism, power has a particular meaning – as a means achieve ends. However totalitarianism entails something even worse. Theorisations of power have traditionally specified either where power comes from or what power leads to. The idea that power comes from somewhere is most manifest in the well known bedrock of organization theory: French and Raven’s bases of power. So power comes from possession of certain resources or capacities (coercion, reward, position, knowledge, personality/charisma), and there are numerous articulations of basically the same idea. The idea that power goes somewhere is present in all the various ways that power is linked to interests. Here power is used to serve some purpose – the pursuit of interests (sectoral, class, gender etc). In another variation, an interest-based theory of power might see it as flowing from interests as well as being directed towards the furtherance of interests.

What is different about totalitarian/Orwellian notions of power? This is the crucial point. Here, power is conceived of as neither coming from nor aimed towards anything other than itself. In other words, power is an end in itself. In Nineteen Eight-Four:

“Power is not a means, it is an end … the object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” (Orwell, 1949:  264)

And this was prescient if we consider Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s extraordinary analysis* of ‘moral life in the concentration camps’, which I urge you to read if you have not done so, where he says that:

“The aim of power is power; the enjoyment it offers is not of the material sort” (Todorov, 2000: 184)

Now, if we regard totalitarianism as a limit case, then this is not of general interest. But if as Bauman suggests it is an immanent, rather than an atypical, case then it is of huge interest. I think that this is so, and one way it is revealed is in the motivation of the archetypal chief executive or political leader:

Q: What motivates you?

A: I love the feeling that I can make a difference

Is this not the everyday equivalent of the totalitarian case: the point of power is (the sensation of) power itself? This sensation of power is only realizable if another feels and experiences your power, whether through happiness and pleasure or, as in the concentration camps, through pain and suffering. Clearly this contains the familiar irony (described most elaborately in Hegel’s master-slave dialectic) that the powerful are dependent upon others for their power. Revealingly, Todorov reports that the most vicious treatment was meted out to those who did not quickly enough show submission. This suggests that the full sensation of power is only possible where resistance is both met and overcome. He also remarks that this desire for power seems insatiable in that it was endlessly repeated with new entrants to the camps. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien makes a similar point when torturing Winston Smith – both that the same scene will endlessly be played out and that the image of the future is ‘a boot stamping on the human face forever’. There is no end to power in two senses: it has no purpose and it’s work is never finished.

The poet W. H. Auden wrote, in his 1939 Epitaph on a Tyrant, as follows:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

It is a damning indictment of those who use power, instrumentally, in pursuit of an ideal. But it is also a terrible reminder of the narcissism of power; of what happens when power has no object but itself: and when he cried the little children died.


*Todorov, T. (2000). Facing the Extreme. Moral Life in the Concentration Camps. London: Phoenix.