Tuesday, 27 December 2016

New times?

This blog, at least, is now living in new times since regular readers will have seen that there has been a complete revamp of the site design, to reflect the new edition of my book. As well as the new imagery to match the fourth edition cover there are new sidebars showing followers (and do click on the follow button if you would like to), numbers of readers, a listing of the most read posts, a new search facility, a cloud of post labels and enhanced buttons at the end of each post to share on social media. Plus, there is now a new title: a fairly interesting and completely free blog about organizations.

On a rather grander scale, there seems to be an emerging consensus that we are living in new times, with 2016 having marked the end of the hegemony of global free market ideology – what I call the new capitalism in my book – that has held sway since the 1970s. Beyond, but associated with, that are notions from commentators on the left and on the right of a post-liberal era, a post-truth era, an age of anger  or an age of populism.

This analysis, born largely of the votes for Trump and Brexit, is tempting, and it’s one which to some extent I share. But I think there is a need for caution, too. In my book I discuss (pp. 93-95) reasons for scepticism about claims of the new era of globalization, and there are similar reasons for scepticism about its demise.

In relation to Trump’s victory I’ve pointed to the fact that he received support from many who were by no means the losers from globalization, and also to the continuity of many of his policies with those of the traditional free market right. That has subsequently been underscored by many of his appointments at least four of whom are alumni of investment bank Goldman Sachs, the high priests of the globalist order. Is this really a rupture with the elite establishment or with the neo-liberal hegemony? Similarly, if the Brexit vote was a rejection of globalization then the news hasn’t reached Brexiter ministers like Liam Fox who take it to be an endorsement of “the glorious joys of free trade”.

Perhaps what is in prospect is a sell-out of the voters and, for sure, it is clear that those who voted Trump or Brexit in anticipation of an end to globalization and free market economics are in for a very nasty shock. But I think that what is more to the point is that the votes in question had enormously mixed motivations, and they cannot be read as the neat story that commentators are developing as the new political truth.

In relation to Brexit, I have read or heard in conversation all kinds of reasons for voting to leave the EU. These have included a belief that heavy industry would return (which is closest to the anti-globalization narrative); hostility to immigration (which might in part be seen as part of anti-globalization sentiment, but which certainly pre-dates the neo-liberal period) including non-EU immigration (which would not be affected by the vote); a desire to give the government a good kicking; the idea that it would be interesting to see what happened; the belief that the remain side would win anyway so it was just a protest vote; the hope that it would mean more money for the NHS (presumably based on the Leave campaign’s headline slogan); the sense that ‘things aren’t going to well’ so it’s time for a change; the belief it was a vote against ‘austerity economics’ and so on and so on.

I don’t necessarily mean by this that those who voted leave had any worse reasons for doing so than those who voted remain (for example, I heard one remain voter explaining that he did so in the (erroneous) belief that that English football teams would not be able to play in Europe if we left the EU). The point is rather that the heterogeneous motivations to vote leave do not give licence to a homogenized analysis and explanation of the outcome of the vote.

To put it another way, both the Trump and the Brexit votes were very close; and in the US case, Trump actually lost the popular vote. So the outcomes could easily have been completely different, and if Clinton had narrowly won, and Remain had won 52-48 instead of the other way around, then commentators would be oh-so-wisely saying ‘when it came to it, people voted for the status quo’. Yet the politics and sociology of the vote would have been virtually identical: a few percentage points the other way. In those circumstances, we would be saying ‘nothing has changed’; as it is, we are saying ‘everything has changed’.

Those few percentage points matter hugely, of course, in terms of practicalities. Trump’s election and Brexit will have major consequences in the US, the UK, and around the world. But those consequences flow not from a seismic shift in society but from the way that a whole agglomeration of voting decisions can in certain voting systems have an effect. We mistake effect for cause if we imagine that the outcome of those particular and peculiar voting systems has a single meaning that adds up to the proposition that we are suddenly living in new times.

History does have patterns, which stand out sharp and clear, almost as banalities, in long retrospect; close up and immediate ascriptions of historical change are – almost inevitably – mistaken. Perhaps we should not be too impatient for meaning. The actress Carrie Fisher who died today aged 60 provided the quote that I used to introduce the chapter on contemporary capitalism in the second edition of my book: “instant gratification takes too long”. We may or may not be living in ‘new times’: time will tell.

Happy New Year.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Cyber insecurity

In the new edition of my book I mention (p.25) cyber security as an example of how organizational rules are often flouted, leading to risky behaviour such as inadequate passwords or clicking on links that contain malware.

This is a microcosm of a much wider set of issues which have been brought to the fore this week with the news that Yahoo suffered a cyber-attack which may have compromised the personal data of more than a billion user accounts. This is the latest of a string of high profile cases involving companies including Tesco Bank, mobile phone company TalkTalk, and infidelity dating site Ashley Madison.

Such cases are themselves a microcosm of an even wider set of issues around online frauds and scams. Today, UK consumer groups have criticised inadequate protection against bank transfer frauds where people are conned into making payments they are expecting to make to a legitimate recipient but which are diverted to a scammer.

It is for most of us a daily experience to receive emails that purport to come from banks or other organizations (‘phishing’), or from someone in our email contact list supposedly robbed whilst abroad and in need of our funds(the ‘sad news scam’), as well as the older scam of the message about money to be transferred if the victim first transfers a smaller sum (the ‘Nigeria 419 scam’ and variants). In all cases what is being sought is money, data, or the installation of malware which will allow these to be collected, with ‘ransomware’ being an increasingly common, and nasty, version. There are also numerous scams that are initiated by phone. Common examples include the bogus call from ‘Microsoft’ leading to remote control of your computer and/or demands for money to remove viruses.

It’s easy to think that only the extremely gullible are taken in by any of these things, but some of them are very convincing and the forms they take change, so it is easy to be caught out. Moreover, as new technologies emerge, such as contactless card payments, new possibilities for theft are created. The massively increased use mobile devices also creates new scams, and the immediacy of a mobile (compared with, say, an email on your PC) makes an instant, unconsidered response that much more likely. Plus the emergent ‘internet of things’ makes cyber security even more challenging.

Like any other crime, there are a mixture of personal, corporate and regulatory issues that may offer protection from or redress for cyber-crime. I like to think (but don’t we all?) that I am reasonably savvy about cyber security, partly because I worked on a research project about it recently. But what I find irritating is how we are increasingly pushed into exposing ourselves to the risk. Personally, I have never signed up for internet banking and I never use contactless card payment, but that has become more and more difficult to sustain. Telephone, let alone branch, banking is increasingly difficult, and banks seem amazed when people refuse to bank online. In shops, I have had contactless payments taken without consent. And, beyond that, I’ve recently had a couple of experiences where my bank has contacted me on a withheld number asking for security information in order to progress queries. They were, in fact, genuine calls, but I think it would have been easy for a fraudster to mimic them.

More generally, it’s all but impossible to live off-line to any great extent nowadays, or not without a huge amount of inconvenience. But the practices of organizations capitalise on this. Every single commercial and state organizations you deal with demands personal data – often way beyond what is needed for the transaction in question. The privacy policies of these organizations are far too complex to understand, and refusing to sign up to them renders it effectively impossible to access a huge swathe of services. Then again, I have never (knowingly) signed up to Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin, but I nevertheless get endless emails from each of these, and unsubscribing has no effect. Equally, I always tick the ‘no’ options on communications from internet sites I buy from, but often get communications nonetheless and often find that unsubscribing from these makes no difference.

So although we are bombarded with advice about how to protect ourselves from cybercrime and internet marketing, the reality is that there is relatively little that we, as individuals, can do. And the things we might consider, such as single password sites for multiple accounts, can make us more insecure as they concentrate sensitive data in one place.

Insecurity is endemic to the human condition – existentially, psychologically, socially, economically we are insecure. Today, we have to add a new insecurity, virtual or cyber insecurity, in which we may be bullied, blackmailed, lose at best our money and at worst our identity.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Rise of the robots

The de-skilling thesis associated with Harry Braverman’s classic work of labour process analysis, Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) is a staple of organizational sociology (see p.36 of my book). I suppose, though, that it has come to be seen as rather dated in part, perhaps, because its Marxist framework was deemed obsolete when the Berlin Wall fell and the ‘end of history’ was proclaimed. Well, history has turned out not to be over and the triumph of globalised free-market capitalism that seemed to be the only game in town in the last three decades now faces challenge in all directions.

Equally, the de-skilling thesis, rooted in the analysis of Taylorism, came to seem outdated in the supposed shiny new world of knowledge work, empowerment, the war for talent and post-bureaucracy. And, in parallel, labour process analysis within organizational sociology got shunted to the side lines by glitzy postmodernism and the plethora of weird and wonderful theories that came in its wake, so that even work itself seemed to become marginal to organizational sociology and, in fact, to sociology itself.

All this millennialism is now itself coming to seem very dated. In particular, public debate is beginning to recognize that there are very profound and far-reaching transformations of work occurring due to a new wave of technological change associated with robotics and expert systems. These now have a greater capacity than ever before to replace both human manual labour but also professional and knowledge work. It is this replacement of labour with cheaper, more productive, more predictable and more controllable machines which, of course, was at the heart of Braverman’s de-skilling thesis.

Thus, for example, earlier this year it was reported that Foxconn, which supplies Apple and Samsung, had replaced 60,000 of its workers with robots; and last week Capita, the outsourcing firm, announced its intention to replace 2000 of its staff with robots. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – who is increasingly showing himself to be more thoughtful and effective than the politicians who are supposed to provide society’s leadership – made a major speech last week predicting the automation of 15 million jobs in the UK. For OECD countries as a whole 57% of jobs are predicted to be automated by 2020, reaching far into occupations previously thought to be immune to automation, because of the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

One way of approaching this issue is by reference to an early critique of Braverman’s de-skilling thesis, namely Andrew Friedman’s Industry and Labour (1977). The argument, to put it in its simplest form, was that what Braverman saw as a single, linear trend was not that, because it applied only to peripheral, low-skill, perhaps non-unionised, workers. Core workers, by contrast, retained responsible autonomy by virtue of their skills and bargaining power. From that perspective, we could say that the combination of the erosion of trade unionism and, crucially, the new technological possibilities of robotics and AI mean that the 'core' is now very rapidly decomposing. Thus the scope for de-skilling is much extended and Braverman's de-skilling thesis has a new lease of life.

If this is correct, the consequences are very far-reaching. The hollowing out of the middle-class and the deindustrialization of the developed world have already had significant political effects, most obviously in the election of Donald Trump. Continued automation can only accelerate this and, crucially, it renders ineffective the protectionist ‘America First’ solution Trump proposes. For that proposal is predicated on the idea that the flight of US jobs to cheaper labour countries like China can be reversed. But the threat of automation is not the replacement of expensive labour with cheap labour, but of labour with machines. Thus Chinese jobs are just as vulnerable as American jobs – more so, in fact, with some 77% of Chinese jobs thought to be at risk by 2020.

If this wholesale transformation of work occurs, it will very soon present massive political challenges and the need for completely new forms of social organization. At the moment, work is central to economic activity. If that ceases to be so, what happens to those whose work is no longer needed. That has moral and social implications: are they just to rot and die? But it also has economic implications: who will buy the products of robots if no one has an income from work? In this context, the movement for a citizens’ income, also known as a Universal Basic Income (UBI), paid unconditionally to every member of society is likely to become central to political discussion. In fact, after writing this post I learned that, just today, Prince Edward Island, a Province of Canada, has decided to trial a UBI scheme and, also today, the BBC has launched a UBI information resource.

So I sense that we are at the cusp of something important, and something which shows, moreover, the deep interconnections between work, organizations and politics which are so central to the kind of analysis I urge in my book. If so it is vital that the political decisions needed are made quickly: if they do not match or even anticipate what is happening in work organizations the consequences could be catastrophic, with mass unemployment on a scale never before seen.

Braverman, H. (1974) Labour and Monopoly Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Friedman, A. (1977) Industry and Labour. Class Struggle at Work and Monopoly Capitalism. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Four by four

Our topic today is not four wheel drive vehicles, but rather the fact that this blog is now four years old and also that today sees the publication of the fourth edition of the book. In the preface to the new edition I write about the various ways that the book has been received and I won’t repeat that here, except to say that for me the blog and the book have become increasingly intertwined. It is beginning to feel as if the book develops an unfolding life of its own as I write the blog, whilst this new edition incorporates numerous examples and idea drawn from the blog posts in the intervening years.

Writing this blog has become something of a labour of love. I try to make sure that, unlike some blogs, there are frequent and regular postings – normally one a week – so that there is always something fresh on offer. I also try to include in each post copious links to a wide variety of media sources and, to a lesser extent, academic works. I don’t know how many readers follow these links but at any rate I feel better-informed as a result of digging around to find them. Typically, I think of a topic on Friday morning, ponder it during the day and write the post on Friday evening (yes, my life really is that exciting). Most posts take two to three hours to research and write.

Each year since its launch I have provided an annual update of the readership statistics, and in this last year these have seen a large upsurge, especially in the last few months. The year-on-year readership figures are:

Year 1: 3367 (all time: 3367; last month of year: 390)
Year 2: 3688 (7055; 390)
Year 3: 10,745 (17,800; 985)
Year 4:  24,282 (42,082; 6376)

The international profile of the readership has stayed about the same, but the biggest increase has come in US readership which has quadrupled in the last year, whereas UK readership has doubled. Thus all-time page views by country are:

United States
United Kingdom

All this is very gratifying, but I would love to know more about who is reading and what they think: there are very few comments left on the posts, so do consider leaving one to let me know.

The last year has seen huge shifts in the geo-political landscape, with the Brexit vote in the UK and more recently the result of the American presidential election. Neither of these things had happened when the text of the fourth edition was finalised, making the blog especially important in keeping things updated, especially as regards chapter five which is where most of the overtly geo-political discussion takes place.

In the run up to the EU Referendum I wrote several posts on the topic. But with the consequences of the vote being likely to take several years and to involve numerous twists and turns, I made the decision to create a new Brexit blog. This reflected my own passionate involvement in this issue, but a recognition that it could swamp this blog, which has and will continue to have a much wider remit and also a different, more opinionated, writing style. But I do hope that those who read this blog and who share my own interest in Brexit will go regularly to the new blog, which is also frequently updated.

So far as this blog is concerned, my aim is to continue to range over a wide canvas that takes in anything and everything that is relevant to organizations, responding to the main news stories and occasionally, things that are happening in my life. Looking back over the last year, topics have ranged from chocolate to dentistry, the rise of Uber to the fall of British Home Stores, press freedom in Turkey to espionage fiction, steel tariffs to the frustrations of air travel, public sector pay to The Waltons. There is even a short story about leadership.

The point being, I suppose, that in writing about anything and everything that is relevant to organizations it becomes clear that anything and everything is relevant to organizations. That is, indeed, my view of organization studies (which I also sometimes post about) but, of course, it’s also the case that it is great fun to try to write sharply, concisely and, I hope, sometimes provocatively about anything under the sun. I expect to continue in the same vein in the coming year. I fear there is sure to be plenty more political turmoil, but hopefully there will be time for some lighter topics, too, such as death which, I see, is the tag of eight previous posts. I hope that those, apparently many, people who regularly read this blog will continue to do so, and that it is as enjoyable to read as it is to write.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Reflections on failure

It has become a truism of at least some parts of the research literature on leadership that to focus on successful leaders is to neglect the importance of the other side of leadership, namely followership (see Uhl-Bien et al, 2014 for a summary). Less discussed, so far as I know, is the other side of success, namely failure.

This thought was prompted by the US Presidential election result, where much attention has focussed on Trump’s success but less on Clinton’s failure. What does it feel like to fail, especially when coming so close to success? A clue may be in Hillary Clinton’s exhausted-looking appearance since the election and her statement that since her defeat that there have been times when “she never wanted to leave the house again”.

It is generally the case that when leaders – whether in politics or business – fail they disappear from public view. They don’t want to be seen and we, apparently, do not wish to see them (perhaps especially if we were their followers, as if their shame has become ours). And whatever prior success they may have had, their names become forever associated with, and their lives defined by, the failure with which their careers ended.

I suppose there are some exceptions to this. Leadership theory seems always sooner or later (usually sooner) to mention Churchill, and he is an example of someone who came back from failure and isolation to lead wartime Britain. Or, to take another stock icon, this time from business, Steve Jobs having been forced out of Apple in 1985 came back in 1997 to successfully lead the company again. But such cases are rare, I think. In general, once they’re gone, they’re gone.

The stigma of failure is profound. There are many books about successful leaders, very few about those who fail even though these might yield more valuable insights. Or, if the maxim that “all political careers end in failure” is true then perhaps success and failure are not the opposites that one might suppose. But the issue is wider than that of leaders. In the US Presidential election (as with Brexit) much was made of how the result reflected the vote of those who had lost out from and been left behind by globalization. I’ve written elsewhere about my scepticism of this explanation, but acknowledged that it is partially true. And to the extent that it is true, it must partly be to do with the anger induced by failure.

For to have ‘lost out’ and ‘been left behind’ is surely a deeply hurtful experience. In the US, where the ideology that anyone can be a success ('from the log cabin to the White House') is especially strong, being a loser is galling. In a more general way, the idea that was at the core of the western liberal post-war settlement that if you ‘worked hard and did the right thing’ security and success were available makes it humiliating if you have done these things and yet find yourself a failure. All of this becomes even more humiliating if, every hour of the day, you see media images of the rich and successful, and adverts for a lifestyle that you can never have.

Of course there is no automatic association between failure and humiliation. But when winners take all, and are lauded as they do so, and failure is absolute and stigmatic it is very likely also to be humiliating. Humiliation is a complex and powerful emotion, which may provoke hatred of oneself and/or of others, anger and violence in both inter-personal (Walker & Knauer, 2011) and political (Fattah & Fierke, 2009) relations. One way it may be assuaged is, indeed, a matter of leadership. As Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If had it, both triumph and disaster are imposters. The etymological twin of humiliation is humility. Perhaps if the successful exhibited more humility, failure would be less humiliating?


Fattah, K., & Fierke, K. M. (2009), ‘A clash of emotions: The politics of humiliation and political violence in the Middle East’, European Journal of International Relations, 15, 1: 67-93.
Uhl-Bien, M., Riggio, R. E., Lowe, K. B., & Carsten, M. K. (2014), ‘Followership theory: A review and research agenda’, The Leadership Quarterly 25, 1: 83-104.
Walker, J., & Knauer, V. (2011), ‘Humiliation, self-esteem and violence’, Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 22, 5: 724-741.

Friday, 11 November 2016

What will Trump's victory mean?

I wrote in my last post about the possibility of Donald Trump being elected. Now that it has happened, I want to share some preliminary thoughts about what it means. Of course, much is unknown. Trump is an unpredictable character anyway, and in any case all politicians find that their freedom of action is more curtailed than either they or their electors expect.

In my book I frame much of the analysis of contemporary organizations in terms of ‘the new capitalism’, meaning the neo-liberalized, globalizing form of capitalism that has been dominant since the 1970s, especially in the US and the UK. I also (nevertheless) record scepticism about ‘epochalism’ (p.104), but with that caveat it is at least possible that we are witnessing a significant shift away from the new capitalism.

What is distinctive about Trump, as the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle wrote today, is that he is both socially and economically illiberal. That, Kettle argues, has not been true of recent US presidents: they have been illiberal in one or other meaning, or in neither, but not in both.

Trump’s social illiberalism is what made his campaign so controversial and divisive. But it is his economic illiberalism that is truly remarkable amongst, especially, Republicans. He appears to be hostile to the global free trade system that defined the new capitalism. He has promised to reverse the offshoring of US jobs, to punish US companies that relocate abroad and to impose high tariffs on, especially, Chinese imports. It seems highly likely that he will abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the TTIP negotiations with the EU, and if not scrap then comprehensively re-negotiate NAFTA.

These policies, which I have described as nationalist populism, are, like many forms of nationalist populism, similar to left-wing economic programmes. Equally, Trump’s ambitions to create jobs through national infrastructure projects are akin to neo-Keynesian economics (although likely to be funded by foreign investors rather than state investment and so in that sense understandable as a form of privatization, and somewhat at odds with Trump's 'America First' rhetoric).

These are potentially profound shifts, then, but as a counter to epochal thinking, it should be recalled that other parts of his economic agenda, most notably (probably) holding down the minimum wage, cutting corporation and other taxes and financial deregulation, are part of the familiar repertoire of the political right. Moreover, Trump’s calling card that he can run the country as if it were a business and his embrace and embodiment of macho leadership also suggest continuity rather than abandonment of many aspects of new capitalism.

If aspects of Trump’s rejection of economic liberalism have a leftist tinge to them, it’s important to recognize that their nationalism means that they do not offer any general relief from the consequences of globalization. It is in fact questionable whether they can even deliver this for the people of the US. Globalization may simply be too far advanced for that to be possible: it is highly unlikely that the American rust belt will be re-industrialised. At all events, Trump’s nationalism (like Brexit) marks a retreat from the multi-lateral, global governance that offers to best hope of taming and regulating global capitalism, with climate change agreement the most likely early casualty.

Trump is also likely to reverse Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy. That is apparent in relation to the points mentioned above about TPP and tariffs against China, but also to the likelihood of his administration taking a relaxed view about Chinese sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and agnosticism on the issue of Taiwan. This links with the wider foreign policy aspect of Trump’s presidency, which appears to entail significant withdrawal from global leadership. Some of that leadership has, of course, been highly damaging and other parts of it ineffective. Nevertheless, Trump’s apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin (it’s no coincidence that the Russian Parliament applauded the result: Trump’s election, like Brexit, represent major foreign policy boosts for Russia) and lukewarm support for NATO could be highly de-stabilising for, especially, the Baltic States and the Balkans. This could have potentially devastating consequences, both for those regions and for the wider world, making anything and everything else that Trump’s presidency may mean completely trivial.

Going back to economic issues, I’ve depicted Trump’s election, like Brexit, as triumphs for nationalist populism. But they also represent a huge threat for it. Nationalist populism operates primarily as a vehicle of protest against the establishment. But when it is victorious it itself becomes the establishment and has to take responsibility for the policies it espouses. So what happens if (and, in my view, when) those policies fail? One possibility is that its supporters realise the error of their ways and return to liberalism and social democracy. Another, far more likely, outcome is that those supporters conclude that their leaders have been thwarted by the establishment or, even, that they have betrayed them. The reaction will be to turn even more harshly against perceived enemies: immigrants, liberals, democracy itself. And to seek and support even more extreme leaders. Many people around the world are scared about what Trump’s success means: the greater fear is what his failure will mean.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Trumping rationality

This week will see the outcome of the US Presidential election, with the possibility of the victory of Donald Trump. If this occurs it will have profound consequences not just for the USA but for the world. It is hardly worth me adding to the many voices that view the prospect of a bombastic, ignorant, vicious narcissist in the White House with alarm.

But whether or not he is elected, Trump’s popularity has a significance as part of the wider rise of a nationalist populism (very evident in Brexit Britain) which can be read as the illegitimate offspring of four decades of neo-liberal globalization. Those decades, as I argue in chapter five of my book, are both the condition and consequence of much contemporary organizational practice. A key theme of nationalist populism is an angry backlash against the loss of secure employment and against immigration, both of which can be ascribed to globalization.

Hence Trump rails against NAFTA, just as Brexiters rail against the EU. At the same time, the very evident crisis of neo-liberalism that has been ongoing since 2008 has not only born down hard on employment and public spending but also opened up a profound sense of injustice and inequality. Allied with this is the idea that powerful elites – corporate, financial, political and intellectual – are profiting at the expense of and unaccountable to the people.

Something like this has become a fairly standard analysis of nationalist populism from the liberal-left (and elements of the right as well), and it clearly captures something of what is going on. However, I feel increasingly unpersuaded by it, for several reasons. Not least because under the guise of understanding, it exhibits a kind of patronizing liberal guilt: ‘those poor little people, left behind by neo-liberal globalization, of course they are angry’. That patronizes because it absolves nationalist populists from responsibility for their choices and actions. There is no reason why their reaction has to be one of vicious denigration of immigrants, for example. Nor is there any reason why it should lead to making choices which will not improve, but worsen, the lot of the left behind.

The liberal-left are often associated – by nationalist populists especially, as it happens – with ‘political correctness’, but there is a new political correctness associated with nationalist populism in which it is unsayable to call out stupidity. Because to do so is just another sign of elitism. We are ‘the people’, and you cannot question the ‘will of the people’ or you are ‘the enemy of the people’. But we are all people, and we are all equally capable of stupidity, and all equally challengeable as to the basis of what we do and think. There are not special rules for those people who proclaim themselves, and only themselves, as ‘the people’.

Nor does it make much sense to think that nationalist populism is confined to those left behind by globalization. In the US (and the UK) it seems as if something like half the electorate is willing to vote for nationalist populism. So many of them are well to do and by no means ‘left behind’ (for some fascinating data on this, see this report showing that Trump’s supporters are actually better off than most Americans). Equally, the other half of the population can hardly be described as ‘the elite’ – or if it can, that’s a hell of a big elite. And in both the US and the UK the populist leaders are themselves very obviously members of the elite, Donald Trump being an obvious example with his inherited wealth and massive business empire.

Beyond all that, nationalist populism long precedes neo-liberal globalization. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate in the 1964 Presidential contest, with whom Trump is often compared is an obvious example. So is McCarthyism, perhaps the most shameful element of Twentieth century US history. Both these comparators relate to the period of post-war US prosperity and progress whose loss is supposed to account for the nationalist populism of Trump. Going further back we can see in the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh very similar political positions. In the UK, it can be seen in Powellism and Thatcherism.

So nationalist populism has long been with us, and whatever the failings of neo-liberal globalization we should not hesitate to say that it is the wrong answer, even if to the right question. But that proposition runs into trouble for a reason which is perhaps new. The philosophical underpinnings of right and wrong answers have been substantially battered by the intellectual climate of postmodernism that is more or less coterminous with neo-liberalism. That is to say, the critique of rationality that has dominated recent decades of intellectual debate has found an unhappy partner in the ‘post-truth’ politics of nationalist populism. So evidence, expertise and rational debate can themselves be dismissed as just another way that ‘the elite’ tries to put one over on ‘the people’. It is a rich and bitter irony that the rarefied intellectual salons of 1970s Paris are being channelled to the American Rust Belt and the former mining towns of Britain. The more bitter since those Parisian salons were also where the Enlightenment was in some part born, and which had so profound a part in the formation and constitution of the United States.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Uber good news

After my last rather gloomy post, today there is some good news. I’ve posted elsewhere about the rise of uberfication and the gig economy, and also about how this links to supposed ‘self-employment’, which is really employment shorn of any protections. (I do not write about this in the current edition of the book, but it will be covered in the fourth edition, which comes out next month).

Today, the company after which the phenomenon was named, taxi app firm Uber, was subject to a significant ruling by a UK employment tribunal. Specifically, Uber was told that it cannot treat its drivers as self-employed, and must pay them the national living wage and holiday pay, and possibly even pensions. The ruling (which is likely to be appealed against by Uber) will, if it stands, have significant implications for other companies operating the same or similar business models. As the lawyer representing the drivers who brought the case (with the support of the GMB union) said:

“This is a ground-breaking decision. It will impact not just on the thousands of Uber drivers working in this country, but on all workers in the so-called gig economy whose employers wrongly classify them as self-employed and deny them the rights to which they are entitled.”

This ruling comes at a significant time, politically. In both the EU Referendum (and for those interested in Brexit, do take a look at my Brexit blog tracing developments) and, even more, the US presidential race, the issue of how changing work practices erode security has been an issue. More widely, this connects with the political consequences of globalization and the hollowing out of middle class employment.

Of course, even on minimum wage and protection terms, employment remains a far cry from the post-war social democratic model of secure employment with a social welfare net. Even so, the ruling suggests that the direction of travel need not inevitably be downwards, and that globalization and technology are not forces of nature but may be corralled by politics and legislation. As I argue throughout my book, what happens in organizations is not pre-ordained but is an outcome of the choices we, collectively, make about how to live.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Prisoners of austerity

A couple of years ago I had some spare money and decided to donate it to a charity. There are so many charities that command out attention – all of them worthy, but some more fashionable than others. So I thought that I would try to seek out as unpopular a cause as possible and did an internet search on just that. The result (and I wonder if you can guess it?) was a charity that supports ex-prisoners into work, for example by paying for training, or travel fares to job interviews. Whether this is truly the most unpopular charity I don’t know – it might come up on a search engine just by having those words somewhere on its website – but it seemed plausible and I donated accordingly.

I was thinking about this because of the news this week of a murder in Pentonville prison. Violence in prisons is getting worse and the connection with my charity search is that, I suppose, most of us don’t really care. Of all of the problems and injustices in the world somehow those that befall criminals bother us least. After all, they are the dregs of society so at best why should we care and at worst they probably deserve it, right?

Wrong, I think. We sentence criminals, quite properly, to the punishment decreed by the courts. That may include incarceration, but it doesn’t include being subject to violence up to an including murder. And as so often, the dictates of morality and those of practicality are linked: if our prisons are brutally violent not only is that morally repugnant it also makes the chances of rehabilitation remote.

Prison violence – including violence against staff - is rising for a simple reason: funding cuts and consequent understaffing. Austerity economics has a cheery make-do-and-mend, belt-tightening sound to it, but the reality after several years of cuts is stark and is happening right across the piece. Sometimes the consequences are direct: roads fall into disrepair, libraries close, the court system clogs up or the armed forces can’t fulfil the basic requirement of protecting the nation. Other times the consequences are indirect: social care provision disappears creating ‘bed-blocking’ in hospitals. In fact, the problems of prison violence are in part due to the inadequacy of (in particular mental) health services.

For years it has been a truism that you can’t solve public service problems by ‘throwing money at them’ – the alternative always being reorganization, subcontracting and privatization – which easily mutates into the absurdity that money doesn’t matter at all. The consequence is that, for a while, things hold together. Savings can be made, a bit; people working in services can work harder, a bit; cuts can be made, a bit. But, gradually, the public sphere breaks down. I think that that is where we are getting to now in the UK – a spreading paralysis and crisis in every area of public life.

At the root of all this is a dishonesty. The small-state political Right could say that the government should get out of huge swathes of public provision and cut public spending accordingly. Or the social democratic Left could say that government must deliver public provision and raise taxes accordingly. Instead, we have lived for decades with the pretence that we can both have extensive public provision and have spending and/or tax cuts. That pretence has now run out of steam, and the choice will have to be faced up to, unless slow decline and periodic scandal are to continue.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wells Fargo farrago

The unfolding scandal at US bank Wells Fargo, one of the most historic organizations in the USA, is an interesting illustration of the perils of managerial target-setting (see p. 30 of book). What seems to have happened is that sales staff were under such pressure to meet sales targets that they simply invented new bank and credit card accounts – and not just here and there: as many as two million bogus accounts were created.

But this story is also interesting in showing that such perverse incentives are not just an arcane matter of organizational theory. The scandal led to the company having to pay out on a $185 million lawsuit, and the resignation this week of its Chairman and CEO, John Stumpf. And it shows the weakness of corporate whistle blower legislation.

Target setting lies at the heart of many organizational failures and scandals in recent years, whether that be the British NHS or mortgage lenders’ payment protection policies. There is little sign that the lessons of these have been learned. A huge scandal in waiting is the UK deregulation of pensions, which allows people to draw down and spend or invest their pension pot on the advice of salespeople working, of course, to sales targets. Watch this space for what will undoubtedly result in the coming years: pensioners in poverty because they have blown their savings under the paradoxical dogma of 'choice'.

Targets encapsulate the core issue of formal and substantive rationality in organizations (pp. 21-25) because they prioritise the former over the latter. Formal rationality valorises target setting as a means of control; substantive rationality valorises ethical conduct. The irony is that the former is seen as hard-headed business logic whilst the latter is seen as fluffy ethical stuff but, as Wells Fargo shows, that is a false logic. Had Wells Fargo been more substantively rational, it would not face its current problems.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Flying too high?

In my book I talk a lot about issues around bureaucracy and post-bureaucracy, and make the point (p.86) that for all that post-bureaucracy arguably allows freedom and innovation it necessarily entails additional risks when the checks and procedures of bureaucracy are done away with.

The British education system has been a particular site for the application of the idea that the shackles of bureaucracy should be thrown off and head teachers – or school leaders as they are more likely to be called within post-bureaucratic discourse – given freedom from rules. Indeed ‘academy schools’ and ‘free schools’ – exempt from the national curriculum and from local authority control – have been a flagship policy since 2010. It is therefore unsurprising that schools have become vulnerable to malpractice. If you strip away controls it does not make malpractice inevitable, but it increases the likelihood that it will occur.

In a post on this blog back in June 2013 I drew attention to the case of a head teacher who was at that time accused of (and in 2014 admitted) misconduct in the form of abuse of funds. This case was significant because she had hitherto been lauded as an outstanding head teacher, headed an academy school, and was widely praised by politicians including Tony Blair.

I'm returning to this theme following the news that on 30 September another free school head, again the subject of Prime Ministerial praise (this time from David Cameron), has been jailed for fraud, along with two other staff members. I wondered if there was a pattern in this and I think there is. An internet search of ‘head teacher fraud’ throws up an enormous number of cases. Some of them do not result in criminal trials (being rather professional malpractice cases), and some which go to trial do not result in convictions – but even in these cases there is evidence of lax accounting and monitoring. Not all of the cases are about money – many seem to be about employing family members who should not have been employed, the kind of nepotism that Weberian bureaucracy stamps out. Many of the cases involve academy and free schools.

It’s important to keep monitoring such cases because the effects of public policy are long term, and it is therefore easy to view them as isolated events rather than systemic changes. There is of course a need for caution here. I do not know whether fraud and malpractice amongst head teachers is more frequent than before schools were given more freedom from central and local government and control. I don’t recall there being so many cases in the past, but that is only an impression. Moreover, the fact that many of the schools involved are free schools or academy schools might just reflect the fact that so many schools now have this status. Nevertheless, the recurring theme in many of the cases is the way that the head teachers involved were able to treat their schools and budgets as personal possessions rather than acting as public custodians, and that I think does reflect the lack of the ‘ethics of due process’ that Paul du Gay (2000) argues are the hallmark of bureaucracy (see p.24-25 of the book).

But I wonder if there is not something else, related but slightly different, going on here. In the specific cases referenced above the head teachers involved had been regarded as exemplary and had attracted high level praise, awards and adulation. In another case, an “inspirational super head” knighted for his services to education (though subsequently stripped of his award) admitted false accounting and in 2013 received a suspended prison sentence.

Is it possible that somehow these things are linked? That those who are lauded are somehow given licence by themselves and by others to behave as they wish, to be above and beyond the normal rules? That is to say, the issue is not just the suspension of bureaucratic, organizational rules of conduct but a kind of Icarus complex (these are related, since, in Weberian terms, the erosion of rational-legal authority and the rise of charismatic authority are linked). Immune, apparently, from the earth-bound constraints, these high-flying leaders - super heads, no less! - fly too close to the sun and crash. I haven’t mentioned the names of the individuals in these cases because, if that analysis is right, the fault lies not so much, or not simply, with those individuals as with those of us who adulate them.

Du Gay, P. (2000) In Praise of Bureaucracy. London: Sage.