Monday, August 11, 2008

Managing without democracy

I once shared a platform at a conference with John Quayle, author of the important out-of-print history of British Anarchism, The Slow Burning Fuse. I always remember him describing the proliferation of management training courses as "the final defeat of the organised working class". I felt then that it was undue pessimism on his part. Increasingly, I have a nasty suspicion that he is right, perhaps except for that dreadful word, "final".

Of one thing I am certain. Managerialism in both theory and practice is not just an exercise in gratuitous violence against the English Language, but, by reducing a workforce to objects to be managed, is also a system of domination, opposed to any meaningful workplace democracy. It offers an ideological chimera of efficiency but the reality is something different. Mike Rylance captured the dysfunction of an absence of democracy in his picture of Vichy governance in his book on French Rugby League, which I posted on below. Does this sound familiar? It does to me.

Vichy was a time of opportunism – where the ambitious could succeed beyond their limitations and, in the absence of a proper democratic framework, could act with impunity. Similarly those with friends in high places could exert a disproportionate influence.

New Labour's proliferation of bureaucracy, targets and the audit culture has often been commented on. Less is made of it as an anti-democratic choice. Nonetheless, that is exactly what a process of marketisation and managerialism is. And it is certainly a defeat.


Dr Hiding Pup said...

But employees also have the final vote in the workplace: they can leave, quit, retire. It's difficult, of course, especially when one has financial obligations to mortgages, families and holidays abroad, and so many never exercise that real choice. But, then again, many people never vote in elections either - go figure.

Mike said...

At my last company, the department's workers were divided into four groups, without their knowledge, ranging from those who were regarded as likely to do more if offered incentives, to those who were regarded as hopeless. Selection was arbitrary; the first group were probably more politically able, and better at shifting the blame.

Using 'performance-related pay', those in the first group received higher than average pay rises, while those in the last group received no pay rises - irrespective of performance or whether objectives were met.

Those in the last group were then placed on 'performance management', in the hope of driving them out of the company, to be replaced by new graduates. There was additional harrassment such as disciplinary actions, again brought without explanation or justification. Once a name was on the hit list, it stayed on the list. Finally, everyone on the hit list was made redundant.

That was the only management performed by the department's managers. All responsibility for delivering products and meeting deadlines was pushed onto the employees on the lowest rungs, probably those on the hit list.

Hence, the abysmal state of British industry.