The literature of business and organizational management over the last three decades might seem like a strange starting point for developing a much larger critique of capitalism, especially in our present era, where critiques of capitalism are on the brink of utter extinction. The term ‘capitalism’ is no longer even invoked by sociologists, philosophers, journalists, politicians, or economists in part due to the end of really existing socialism and the Cold War. In the theoretical literature, the end of invoking capitalism in critical parlance (sociology, philosophy, etc.) is in part due to the rise of Althusserian structuralism, which sought to:
“superimpose a scientistic vision of the social world constituted by structures, inhabited by laws, and propelled by ‘forces’ that escape the consciousness of social actors; and history itself follows a course that does not directly depend on the volition of human beings subject to it” (Pg. X)
In the over 600 page tome, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Boltanski begins the project of unearthing the spirit of capitalism over the last three decades (160’s – 1990’s) by showing the dynamic interplay between what he refers to as the ‘critique’ of capitalism (social and artistic), which occurs in four different crises:
1. When capitalism becomes a source of disenchantment and inauthenticity of objects, persons, emotions.
2. When capitalism becomes a source of oppression inasmuch as it is opposed to the freedom and autonomy of human beings. This is two-fold, as a form of domination over markets in fixing prices and designating desirable human beings, and secondly in a form of subordination involved in the condition of wage-labor (enterprise discipline, close monitoring of bosses, and supervision by means of regulations and procedures).
3. When capitalism becomes a source of poverty among workers and exploited third world subjects.
4. When capitalism becomes a source of opportunism and egoism on behalf of the managers of capitalist accumulation.
The two forms of critique that Boltanski identifies he terms ‘artistic’ and ‘social’: artistic critique of capitalism foregrounds the loss of meaning that capitalism portends. It seeks to show how commodification loses something authentic; this critique is summed up by the likes of Baudelaire, the Beat Movement, Proust, and others. The social critique is inspired by the socialists, starting with Marx, and it seeks to draw on the egoism of private interests, and the growing poverty of the working classes, the critique of exploitation.
The artistic critique presents itself as a radical challenge to the basic values and options that capitalism presents. It is a rejection of the disenchantment that rationalization and commodification engender in the human being and in social relations amongst human beings (1 and 2). The social critique seeks to break up the inequality through breaking up the individual interests (3 and 4).
Both forms of critique work in a dynamic way to compel capitalism to strengthen the mechanisms of justice it contains, and to refer to certain types of the common good in whose service it claims to be placed. At the same time, critique can often displace itself more rapidly – that is to say, alter the nature of the key tests in order to evade the critique to which it is subject.
What is most new and most innovative about The New Spirit of Capitalism is its understanding of this dialectical interplay between critique and its absorption into its changing dynamics itself. The best example of this absorption is the ways that management discourse has absorbed the May 1968 values of protest towards capitalism into its answer for workers adjusting to the loss of authenticity in the workplace.
All of the character traits that are most coveted by neo-management discourse are in direct response to May 1968: spontaneity, visionary intuition, multitasking, openness to others, availability, creativity, sensitivity to differences, etc.
In the first section of the book, a powerful critique of management literature is presented as the key to unlocking the spirit of capitalism over the last three decades (1980’s to the present). Management discourse attaches its proscriptions to how the firm ought to be fulfilling the common good of society, to personal security and aspirations, and to a whole set of normative procedures. Further, it is tied to a set of literary and spiritual sources such as Buddhism, Plato, and moral philosophy writ large. Management literature are books of advice and edification concerning the conduct of business or the ‘family economy.’ Management discourse started with Benjamin Franklin’s books for American entreprenuers, Those that would be rich, and Advice to a young tradesman.
The management discourse of the 1960’s argued that the cadre of managers and leaders that were recruited from the leading business schools were forced to show that their firms contributed to a sense of the common god – to something beyond mere profit accumulation. But profit proved to not be a very inspiring goal (Pg. 63). Work must be a site for creating “shared meaning, shared goals, where everyone can simultaneously develop their personal autonomy and contribute to the collective project.. this need to give a spirit to wage labor – a spirit to capitalism, a meaning began in the 1960’s.
The solution to the main problems of the 1960’s management discourse was decentralization, meritocracy, and management by objectives. It wants to end arbitrariness and subjective idiosyncratic procedures in management and replace it with objective means by which to assess performance and advancement. It sought to extinguish the role that social relationships play in career advancement. It sought to create a completely new appraisal system that was objective and based on a meritocratic system – and one that was in many ways in contradistinction to the Soviet bloc.
Collectively, this literature of the 1960’s aimed at the liberation of the educated and elite cadres to ore effectively manage within a bureaucratic system. The 1990’s was to present itself as a continuation of this process.
The 1990’s: towards a model of the firm as network:
The liberation of the worker is focused on liberating wage earners, as well as senior management, or what Boltanski refers to as “cadres.” This was done by the rejection of hierarchy, and a change in order to ordered relations, which is tied to a larger revolution of the view of the human in the workforce, as one who does not want to be ordered about, one who does not perform well under hierarchy.
To adapt to the changing conditions of post Cold War globalization, firms took on the form of a lean firm composed of nodes of teams working on projects intent on customer satisfaction and a general mobilization of workers thanks to their leaders vision. This form was partially drawn from Toyota – based on subcontracting all things that are not core parts of its business. Teams are small, ore inventive, more specialized, and there real employer is the customer – and they have a coordinator, not a boss.
In many ways, the initial derailing of the hierarchy from the 1960’s management discourse found its eventual realization in the 1990’s with the birth of the firm as a network – a move that is at its core designed to eliminate hierarchy. In fact the thorny problem still exists, that firms still exist. The role of the coach also emerges in 1990’s management discourse, a figure who is responsible for challenging all members of the team to reach their fullest potential, these are the people typically responsible for training. Cadre transferred to manager in the 1990’s. thus management came to be contrasted with administration, to distinguish effective employment of people’s abilities from a rational processing of objects and figures. Managers do not seek to supervise or give orders, they are team leaders, catalysts, visionaries, coaches, sources of inspiration. Or “business athletes” as Rosabeth Moss Kanter called them in the early 1990’s. Managers assert themselves in terms of their skills, charisma, and they are effective insofar as they have a network of personal relations, they help the team grown by their ability to let other people shine. They derive their authority by their personal quality, and not by any status or title. The three new figures that arose in the 1990’s include the coach, manager, and the expert.
The focus of management discourse in the 1990’s is to control the uncontrollable networks. The only solution is to develop processes whereby workers control themselves. This means transferring constraints from external mechanisms onto internal dispositions. This means creating conditions to enjoy the work and find pleasure in participating in it. This shift can be observed in the change in Taylorist factory workers becoming shareholders in the company, in doing self-evaluations, and for blue collar workers they are supposed to come out less alienated now that they are wholly responsible for the outcome of a piece of a product. All of this goes to create the conditions for a contractually free relationship between equals whereby the worker is contractually bound to the boss, but not dominated by the boss. Neo-management discourse puts great emphasis on trust as the operative condition for the well run functioning of the network team.
The two most dominant questions that plagued management discourse in the 1990’s was anti-authoritarianism and an obsession with flexibility and the ability to react to radically changing conditions, largely ushered in due to technological changes.
The change in forms of mobilization: The 1960’s: the exhilaration of progress and job security
The neo management discourse authors lack both a sense of justice as their 1960’s counterparts insisted upon, as well as a sense of security. Security cannot be found easily outside of the hierarchical cadre unit that has been replaced by a series of projects. Hence people don’t make a career but pass from a series of projects. In the process of being recognized for succeeding in a certain project, the person hopes then to be called upon for other projects – the key concept is one’s employability. One of the key reasons that the 1960’s management discourse was able to provide such grounded security is because it was able to justify its allegiance to the welfare state in the larger context of the Cold War, whereby the managers took on a role that was in tandem with the state to protect freedom through the firm, because the firm’s long-term maintenance was tied to the success of a civilizational battle. The rise of business ethics is related to the simultaneous rise in how to control the manager that has no allegiance to the firm. Management discourse has sought to find ways to harness trust and self control mechanisms that depends on a set of internalized controls, but the discourse struggles to develop strategies to counter this tendency.
“The new model proposes that we are to receive genuine autonomy based on self-knowledge and personal fulfillment, not the false autonomy framed by career paths, job descriptions, and systems of sanctions-rewards” (90).
Because of its incompleteness at the level of justice and security, the neo-management discourse does not have the mobilizing power as its 1960’s discourse was able to harness. Overall, the neo-management discourse seems to repond to demands for authenticity and freedom, which have historically been articulated in interrelated fashion by what we have called the ‘artistic critique’ and that it sets to one side the issues of egotism and inequalities traditionally combined in the social critique.