Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance

January 26, 2012

All mighty historical upheavals are crises of belief and ideas. The present splitting open of neoliberal capitalism is no exception. What happens when an economic system and its political order reach their terminus is that governments will try anything, at whatever human cost, to retain the old system, fighting to the end and at other people's expense to retrieve a familiar world.

These are our circumstances today. Robert Locke and John-Christopher Spender's exemplary little book - written by insiders who got out in order to blow the gaff on all those inside who still believe the old banger can be kept on the road - provides us with a missing history. It is the history of how US and, much later, UK universities were suborned by the all-American belief that there may be invented a metric technology for the enhancement of everybody's personal wealth - and if that isn't a satisfactory meaning to give to life, what is? Eggs will be broken in making this omelette, but hell, that's evolution for you. If you're fit enough, you'll survive.

Locke and Spender find the origins of this bracing ideology a long way back in the making of that old enemy, the American Dream. But it was the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who taught us that for an ideology to be a living force, it will have three attributes: data, which is to say certain fixed beliefs about the nature of the world; precepts, for the ordering of conduct in light of these beliefs; and finally, institutions, which embody belief and action in structures of what seem to be practical rationalities.

Business rushed to power along the vectors of the post- war boom when the US bent its vast productive energies and mammoth wartime profits to the restoration of a world economy. Colossal sums were disbursed by successive governments on operational research for the winning of the Cold War. Locke and Spender, in a gripping narrative, show how US universities, impelled by the torque of political power upon scientific knowledge, built themselves gorgeous intellectual cathedrals for the apotheosis of "business" (Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather, a great work of art if ever there was one, dramatises the deep penetration of that idea, even into the gangster sensibility).

The business schools, led by the old comrades at Harvard University and the Wharton Business School, raced away and reproduced. They already had their prophets - F.W. Taylor, James Burnham (odd that our authors don't seem to know George Orwell's essay on Burnham, predicting in 1946 much of what they document today) - and lapped up the belief of the new leaders that only what is measurable is factual, that numbers, not judgement, must guide decisions, and that mathematical modelling will lead all human societies, but especially their business professors, to the land of plenty and the universality of rational choices.

No sooner was this conceptual victory won than it began to go wrong. Giddily bemused by their detestation of anything smacking of socialism, US business graduates ignored and vilified the working practices of German and Japanese companies precisely while the celebrated "economic miracle" of those countries' post-war revival gradually bankrupted General Motors and Chrysler. Locke and Spender turn this, in their calm, severe way, into a thrilling tragi-comedy. They show plainly how American hubris denied the force of culture and of ethics. Great heavens, German companies not only have employees and trade unionists on their supervisory boards but they also help set salary limits.

In a dignified climax, the authors guide readers through the great crash of 2008, handing down just and earnest sentence on the reckless piracy that transformed itself into a ratified intellectual protocol in the financial industry.

This is by now a familiar argument in this country, but the authors make a new and telling contribution in the responsibility they convincingly put upon universities for so readily fawning at the altars of money, circling them with a devout liturgy and a glossy, stout and self-satisfied order of postulants.

Their concluding remedies are doubtless right and necessary: remoralise the discipline, recover a public conscience, name crime and wickedness for what they are. But what will it take to do these things? It will take a Reformation.

The systems of thought that Locke and Spender chronicle with a Chomskyan bite and fervour are deeply embedded in UK universities. Impact, students as consumers, operationalised outcomes, efficiency savings and all that hateful gibberish all are upon us, gobbling up an ancient patrimony. As the poet said: "Say not the struggle nought availeth..." Interested parties may write in to this magazine to complete the quotation, but only when they have earned it.

Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance

By Robert R. Locke and J. C. Spender. Zed Books. 240pp, £60.00 and £12.99. ISBN 9781780320724 and 20717. Published 8 September 2011

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