You wouldn’t know it from the appalling technocratic style of business speak, but business management theory has existential consequences, meaning that how we choose to organize labour affects the primary struggle we’re all engaged in as lone persons in the wilderness of nature. The scientistic flavour of modern business discourse conceals the fact that modern business doesn't advance a radically creative, progressive agenda, but models our social structures on the primitive pecking order. Humanists are incapable of stemming the tide of this antihuman conservatism, because they're not awed by their struggle's existential stakes.
Scientific Management Theory
Scientific Management Theory
Work was transformed from the medieval period to the modern one, as the guild’s form of craftsmanship was replaced by the scientific management of workforces. Some centuries ago in Europe and elsewhere, master craftsmen would practice and protect the secrets of their trade, whether it was carpentry, masonry, textiles or the like, hiring apprentices to keep those secrets alive in the next generation. These closely-guarded techniques were considered arts or mysteries, and so this division between insiders and outsiders took on religious significance. The insiders had esoteric knowledge of how to improve God’s earth, and in Europe, at least, craftsmanship was tolerated as something other than a blasphemous attempt to compete with God’s running of the natural order. The Church could tolerate the crafts, because of the ambiguity of the Christian myth of redemption after the Fall. We’re meant to be godlike, if not fully divine, and although the heavens were made perfect by God, freewheeling humans and the fallen angels ruined this particular planet, and so terrestrial conditions can be either further degraded or improved. Although Christian commonsense would dictate that craftsmanship (the attempt to excel at projects of intelligent design) is implicitly satanic in establishing so-called masters as rival creators and in challenging the natural order—even without any devilry inherited from the fallen angels themselves—the Church’s unmatched talent for compromise enabled the craftsmen to rationalize their business with a narrative of Christian enlightenment. According to this narrative, the kingdom of heaven won’t descend from above, but will be constructed from below by the faithful. Craftsmen restore a piece of Eden when they excel at their work, as long as they appreciate that their techniques must remain secret not only for the profane reason that workers inevitably compete to stay in business, but in view of their conviction that all human labour occurs in this mythical context of a spiritual war between good and evil.
Associations of craftsmen evolved into guilds which formalized the advancement from apprentice to journeyman to master and grandmaster, and which jealously guarded not only their trade secrets but the rights of their artisans, functioning thus as proto-unions in the absence of an all-powerful nation state. Eventually, medieval guilds suffered the fate of all large organizations, becoming corrupt in their rent-seeking, that is, in their unproductive extraction of wealth. Again, the rationale for the rigid and secretive standardization of techniques was that they were generally considered tactics in a spiritual war. Deviating from tradition could mean succumbing to demonic temptation and arrogance, in which case the cosmic scale would tip and instead of working on God’s behalf to restore the divine order, a craftsman would be undermining that order in service to the insane and evil forces of chaos. But the unearthing of ancient Greek works in the Renaissance led Europeans to recognize the depths of ignorance into which they’d fallen. The little bird of Renaissance scholarship of Greek literary texts had whispered into the ear of the Christian world that its myths were so many distractions from the horrific reality of its situation: there wasn’t progress towards a heavenly kingdom but a slump, from the collapse of the Roman Empire, which had carried on the excellence of Classical Greece, to the subsequent Christian theocracies. Humiliated by this discovery, the early modern power elites took up the challenge of rebuilding secular society, which required boundless skepticism about the Christian nursery rhymes that had allowed Europeans to slumber through what they came to call the Dark Age before the age of true enlightenment by Reason in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Secular enlightenment encompassed not just the familiar scientific process of understanding nature, but the quasi-prescriptive business of regulating social relations. Thus was born scientific management, the theory credited to Frederick Winslow Taylor in the late nineteenth century, whose mission is still pursued by the theorists that adapted his principles to the automated industries which made strict Taylorism obsolete. Taylor’s mission was to make business more efficient by maximizing workers’ productivity. This was achieved by a managerial class that functioned like a bureaucracy of social engineers whose expertise was in improving their business’s workflows. Instead of the craftsman’s secret tradition, there was an open, scientific sharing of universal (empirical, mathematical) knowledge among experts; instead of a religious context of work, there was a narrow, secular one of happiness through economic success; but most importantly, in place of an advancement of rank from apprentice to master, there was a reduction of all labourers to cogs in what Lewis Mumford called the megamachine.
Taylor’s rationalist interpretation of how to manage work was at odds with the more humanistic one that would later compensate for the former’s shortcomings. After all, scientific management proceeds by measuring and thus objectifying the workforce and the workflow, since the managers need to gather data to assess whether their standards are being met. Objectified workers were treated literally as machines that could be replaced or dispensed with to increase productivity. Whereas Taylor hadn’t envisioned the automation of labour by actual robots, his ideas foreshadowed that eventuality as well as offshoring and the disappearance of jobs altogether as productivity was optimized not just by the scientific managing of human workers but by applying scientific knowledge in the building of machines that made human labour itself outclassed. As workers revolted against these and other results of scientific management, through unions, subversion of the managerial class, and even Luddite destruction of technology, the managers put on the humanistic face of management theory to accustom workers to the modern reality. For example, businesses instituted human resource departments to coopt worker frustration, providing the illusion that a revolt against the system is possible, that a worker’s insights are valuable to the managers. Instead, the medieval religious dichotomy between insider tradesmen and outsiders who lacked the know-how to usher in God’s kingdom through artistry had evolved into the technocratic version of the same theme, into that between the technoscientific managerial class and the duped labour force that was bound to be replaced by machines. Even as workers were transferring their knowledge into the very tools that were depriving them of their jobs, they could complain to the personnel of human resources about their petty squabbles with coworkers or about some failure of political correctness in the office. The managers thereby co-opt worker resentment and the socialist spirit of revolting against the dehumanizing systems of modern business.
According to Matthew Stewart, author of The Management Myth: Debunking Modern Business Philosophy, the rigged debate between rationalists and humanists is the main theme of that philosophy. As he puts it in an earlier article, “you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists. The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient! The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about! And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group.” The rationalist defends hierarchies in management, since she assumes that while workers may have expertise in their line of work, they’re not typically adept at the science of management itself and are therefore ill-equipped to optimize their efforts without guidance from the meta-professionals. By contrast, the humanist says that hierarchies are liable to dehumanize the workers and that holistic, egalitarian systems are the more sustainable business arrangements. In One Market Under God, Thomas Frank shows how humanist rhetoric in business tends to be so much propaganda on behalf of the managerial class and specifically of the top one percent of business elites who reap almost all of the economic benefits of the modern systems.
The Existential Stakes of Business Management
The problem isn’t just that humanistic management theory neutralizes worker or consumer resentment, by stage-managing an atmosphere of constant revolution against top-down hierarchies in the workplace. The deeper problem is that even genuine humanists aren’t likely to appreciate the stakes. They’ll insist on fair treatment even of unskilled workers, owing to the equal dignity of all individuals, and they’ll warn that hierarchical organizations concentrate power and thus tend to corrupt the leaders (think of the jazz hands at the Occupy Wall St movement), but they’ll seldom realize that any social organization that’s structure would deviate from the so-called scientifically managed kind would be virtually miraculous.
With or without scientific analysis, nature’s method of managing social groups tends to degrade even our most experimental social structures. Recall, for example, the case of soviet communism’s having succumbed to social gravity to become the familiar sort of corrupt, dictatorial regime resembling the dominance hierarchies that litter the animal kingdom. The pecking order is the default form of social organization. The pragmatic Law of Oligarchy and the genetic drive towards selfishness, which makes animals too weak to resist the temptations of power, help prevent the emergence of any form of social collectivity which transcends the biological dynamic in which a minority of alphas rule a herd of beta followers and cast out the omegas. A dominance hierarchy is evidently the most stable means of distributing resources among creatures that are compelled to live together.
All scientific management theory does, then, is allow the primitive dynamics to overcome group members by precluding any creative alternative, through the group’s scientific objectification. The managers merely reduce their workers to natural objects and so ignore the emergent properties that make for their personhood and thus for their potential to resist natural tendencies through willpower, creative genius, or existential rebellion. Once measured and downgraded as cogs in the social machine, no ideals are left to guide work but those which are presupposed, namely efficiency, productivity, and other capitalistic goals which invariably increase economic inequality and thus benefit the managerial class, that is, the more or less sociopathic alphas who rule the modern dominance hierarchies. The managers, or at least the highest ones who control the lower-class managers, aren’t themselves objectified in any scientific plan to conduct the business. They’re above the law, the exceptions that prove the rule. For example, their financial compensation isn’t tied to their performance, since they miraculously fail upward: the worse their performance as CEOs, the more quickly they’re rewarded with a new offer to head an even larger company, with even more obscene bonuses and stock options. This is because the alphas are the gods who make the rules without being subject to them. Theistic narratives are only dim reflections of the biological reality that continues to inspire them. The goal of worker productivity, then, isn’t itself scientifically justified, but presupposed by the godlike alphas who intelligently design businesses without being part of their created world. As the mythical God transcends his creation while stooping now and again to intervene in it, so too the alpha managers program their organizations to benefit them indirectly, by installing economic rationalizations that tend to enrich themselves at the expense of their disposable worker class.
Of course, business leaders aren’t actually divine; instead, they function as avatars of undead natural processes. Pseudoscientific business and economic jargon is like a magic spell that breaks down our defenses and allows the untamed practices of the wilderness to reconstitute themselves in the heart of human societies, which are supposed to be the vanguards of our existential resistance to the universe’s appalling impersonality. Consistent objectification would eliminate from business discourse not just progressive ideals of fairness or dignity or revolt against plutocratic tyranny, but the technocratic goals of efficiency and optimized workflow. All that a genuine scientist or social engineer would be entitled to say about work is that workers have some desires which can be fulfilled in this or that way. The technocrat could then predict that under certain conditions, the workers will prefer this or that means of achieving their goals. Such an analysis has no prescriptive force whatsoever; for example, it doesn’t laud a system that prioritizes the goals of its minority of rulers. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, by the fact that modern businesses are preoccupied with maximizing worker productivity even to the point of replacing human workers with robots, which again benefits the same minority of managers. This isn’t science so much as a step in a neo-pagan worship of nature. Objectified workers are those who are ideologically disarmed in their existential struggle against the impersonal forces that elevate a minority to subjugate the majority, regardless of the injustices entailed.
We see “rational” management in action in the EU Commission’s handling of the crisis of Greek debt. As shown by Robert Kuttner’s book, Debtor’s Prison: The Politics of Austerity versus Possibility, the Commission’s permanent conservative bureaucracy works with hypocritical German political leaders whose mystique of Vulcan-like rationality is only a sham. The hallmark of rationality is consistency, the willingness to live or to die by the rule of logic. But as Kuttner points out,
The fact that Germany’s war debt was written off by the victorious Allies in 1948 has vanished from the national memory. There is no compassion for the fact that Europe suffered an economic drag before the collapse in part because of Germany’s lavish subsidies of its own eastern states. Nor is there any comprehension of the double standard reflected in the €2 trillion forgiven the former East Germany but the massive resistance against aid to fellow EU members. Germany, having tightened its own belt to help fellow Germans, is feeling self-righteous and willing to run roughshod over its neighbors…
In effect, without the broad consent or understanding of the European public, a huge amount of sovereignty has been transferred from nation-states to EU officials, who are beyond direct democratic accountability—and that authority is being used to enforce a perverse economic strategy…
Though the EU was once a citadel of managed capitalism, both the Brussels ideology and the personal preferences of senior Commission officials today defer to markets. Europe’s proud member states are now in the situation of supplicant Third World countries.
Worse than that, as pointed out here, “Germany has also benefited from the fixed exchange rate that the Euro effectively secures between itself and its major European markets. This means that its export boom was not offset by a rise in its own currency.” David Dayen explains:
Germany doesn’t maintain a solid manufacturing base simply because of its industriousness and pluck. It operates with the benefit of an undervalued currency, blended to incorporate poorer countries like Greece.
This makes German goods artificially cheaper on the world market, boosting its economy at the expense of its Eurozone partners. Italy has had virtually no growth since the euro’s initiation in 1999. Spain and Portugal have not prospered. France is moving toward stall speed. So it’s not unreasonable to see the substantial debt Greece owes directly to Germany as recompense for all the money the German economy has been making off of Greece’s inclusion in the euro.
Economic austerity in Europe has less to do with the iron cage of economic rationality than with the animalistic struggle for dominance between European power elites. The purpose of austerity isn’t to follow the dictates of any scientific theory, but to use the veneer of objectification to conceal a reversion to the barbaric master-slave relationship found in every pecking order. Kuttner’s subtitle captures the main point, which is that politics (a primitive power struggle) rather than logic is now dictating economic policy in Europe.
Humanistic management theory opposes not merely the logic or particular theories of scientific management, since the rationality is a smokescreen. The point of modern management theory isn’t to prove how best to organize a business, since such objectified business ventures depend on prescientific judgments, including the self-serving values of the power elites to whom the business theorists cater with their coded obfuscations. Obviously, when considering whether a workflow is optimized, the question arises as to whose interest the enhanced business serves in the long run. In practice, those companies that market analysts praise for being most efficient tend to be the ones whose stocks benefit from the attention only long enough for the insiders to cash out, leaving the companies to plunge into bankruptcy. After all, the unsustainable tinkering at the behest of the scientific managers actually serves the narrower goal of enriching the managerial class. By contrast, the bloated, humanistic companies provide a high quality of life to the workforce. But the “logic” of globalization is that such European, Canadian, or American companies will fail in competition with more “streamlined,” which is to say biologically wild companies such as those in Mexico, Brazil, India, or China. Scientific management theory calls for rigid hierarchies because its presupposed, nonscientific vision is to widen social inequality, to impose jungle law (the pecking order) on societies so that the only gods that have ever existed, the alpha rulers, might live again as they thrived in empires of yore. Attending to the logic of “scientific” theories of business thus entirely misses the point and inadvertently reaffirms the upper class’s right to rule by proving that even the rebels against the gods can be mesmerized by the gods’ magic.
What economic humanism neglects is the struggle’s existential scope. At stake isn’t a sterile debate about utility or optimization or even the worker’s right to happiness or self-determination. The issue, rather, is the quasi-Gnostic one of whether, in figurative terms, a light from beyond might be sustained in the belly of the beast. Can a higher form of life sustain itself in the cosmos, in this case by distinguishing its mode of collectivity, to marshal the opponents against nature’s monstrosity? Have we the artistic energy and integrity to see the mission of human history through to its tragic end, to live according to our story of the brief emergence of an anomalous, unnatural domain filled with intelligent design, meaning, value, and purpose? Will we continue to create ways of life that testify to our outsider status in the universe, to our personhood and thus to our overall omega depth, being those cursed by reason to know that all living things are doomed? Will natural selection’s indifference to the vessels for genes continue to backfire, by means of the exaptation of reason and autonomy which enable the promethean, satanic struggle against our appalling true god? Or will we prove ourselves unworthy of the quest for tragic heroism? Will we allow the undead god to enter through the back door of our sanctuaries, aided by the traitorous and lunatic alphas who side with our cosmic jailers, with the powers and principalities as long as those natural forces enrich them? Can we summon the artistic vision to build heaven on earth in the form of an unnatural habitat that displaces the wilderness rather than channeling its blind and indifferent energies in our societies?
These are the questions which form no part of humanistic management theory, demonstrating that such theory is, as suspected, yet more smoke screen for the coming of the whirlwind, for the hollowing out of enlightened cultures. The lack of existential dimension to economic humanism allows neoliberals like Obama or Hillary Clinton to pass as progressives. What liberals need isn’t any lame, feminized call for “fairness” in the marketplace. Instead, progressives should remind everyone that as humanists they address humankind, as such, speaking for the personal qualities that set us apart from animals as the anomalies that can swim against the natural tide. The conservatives, then, who are opposed to progress, that is, to the sustaining of original social structures or other artificialities which are the miracles hiding in plain sight, are antihuman, which is to say naturalists in the strict sense, meaning that they seek to recapture the genie in the bottle, returning us to the state of nature. Conservatives oppose the flight from nature because they worship the jungle, the desert, the wasteland of outer space, finding in the quantum chaos that underlies the wilderness their god’s monstrous facade.
The humanistic response to specious rationality about how to maximize efficiency and profits in some business enterprise isn’t to pit feminine values of equality against the masculine one of the master-slave relation. The battle between the sexes isn’t what’s really at stake. The struggle is existential: again, will humankind as such continue to exist? Will the undead god be the sole creative force or will we honour the emergence of a form of counter-creation? Will there continue to be knights of unnatural artistry, guarding our creative works from the noise of undead processes? Humanism in management means inculcating disgust for the cliché of dominance hierarchies! Whether one form of social organization works better than another at achieving the conventional goals of increasing efficiency, growing the company, maximizing shareholder profit and the like is irrelevant. Those issues are sideshows distracting us from the cancer eating away at our potential for transcending the world’s maddening indifference to any ideal. Humanists should ignore the philosophical goals taken for granted by those who prosper in the prevailing, “rationally-managed” business environment. The focus should be on the dream of creating a way of living together that facilitates our ability to serve as guardians of a refuge from the zombie horde.