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Managers: Neoliberalism’s executioners?

Posted on: August 6, 2020

By Gerald Hanlon

In work, as in life, differences between rhetoric and reality are revealing. If work is fundamental to the dignity of a person (according to The Pope), then perhaps indignity is now a fundamental characteristic of work. My book, The Dark Side of Management – A Secret History of Management Theory, examines how managers have acted as neoliberalism’s executioners in ensuring that contemporary workers exist in a precarious world without control, democracy or power.

In assessing the managerial role in contemporary society, it’s important to look at a number of tools and techniques:

  1. Management Speak: the language used in and around business can often be empty with the result that employees sink into a black hole of Orwellian Newspeak, distracted by visions of going forward, reaching out and drilling down whilst their human resources division acts as a “conduit for a higher-up and incontestable power.”
  2. Data: in an era of big data and small privacy, managers can conjure convincing quantitative stories to convince employees that there is no alternative. But data is malleable to those with ownership. Even the father of big data in management, Frederick Taylor “fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success.
  3. ”Therapy: managers and businesses are often hailed as “enablers”. Both Frederick Winslow Taylor and later Peter Drucker posited management as the productive role which allows labourers to find their level (whatever that might be). Furthermore, Elton Mayo saw management as a form of therapy which allows the “irrational” worker to achieve wellbeing. Conventional management wisdom holds that employees achieve meaning through work, though Maslow claimed this is achieved through the active generation of ‘creative insecurity’ and indeed anxiety.

So, management as neoliberal therapy redeems us and makes us human.  If we would only follow our leaders, their enlightened management would allow us achieve health.  This vision of management as freedom again echoes Orwell. By shining a light on the dark side of management, we can see its utility as an extension of control to a core white male population. This echoes earlier global elite efforts to extend control over “other” groups in society, such as children, women, colonised peoples, and non-whites.

As the transformation to a knowledge-based economy has failed to emancipate employees, a new “platform capitalism” conjures a future with the management elite shrinking as they are replaced by technology. This is perhaps management’s ultimate achievement – rendering even itself redundant. Welcome to The Dark Side of Management – a history of violence which, like a track from The Dark Side of The Moon originates from an illusion of choice where in fact there is none.

Gerard Hanlon is Professor of Organizational Sociology at Queen Mary University of London, UK. As well as this book, he has recently co-authored a chapter (“On the impossibility of business ethics”) to The Routledge Companion to Ethics, Politics and Organizations.