Is There an Art of Management?

Ann Larson’s recent essay declares that rhetoric and composition is dead. Its death, for Larson, accompanies the slow but certain demise of “the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers.” Larson’s analysis dovetails with recent discussion about neoliberalism and the academic library. What has killed rhetoric and composition, on Larson’s analysis — by which she means, killed its progressive, critical potential as a discourse and a site for emancipatory pedagogy — is an insistence, by some of those rallying to its banner, on securing disciplinary, i.e., professional, status. As Larson argues, this insistence has tended to co-opt and eclipse the struggle for fair working conditions for the majority of those who teach composition. That silent majority is, of course, the adjunct instructors, who typically lack the time to publish, the funds to attend conferences, etc. — in short, the means to assert a professional identity on their own behalf. Larson and others are right to remind us — in a reminder that pertains to librarians no less than scholars of rhetoric and composition — that those who work for a wage, regardless of their titles or credentials or the color of their collars, are workers. What this means, in an age of ramifying exploitation across all sectors of the economy, is that the tension between solidarity and professionalism — or between, on the one hand, an ethics of work and service and reciprocity; and on the other, an identity that appeals to expertise — admits of no reconciliation. As critics of a Marxist bent have long maintained, the tension is a conflict at the level of ideology.


In those terms, the conflict hangs on a basic contradiction in the logic of the professional/managerial class: the trick whereby a certain class of wage-laborer is led to misprize the real drift of its interests. Although made up of workers, the managerial class identifies instead with the interests of the capitalist class, for which it serves as the harrow of surplus value. (Larson: “manager-elites […] have been positioned by upper management to add a veneer of professionalism and a dose of cooperation-disguised-as-reform to the labor exploitation machine.”) I think this perspective is useful as long as we understand “ideology” to refer, in the last instance, not to the cold terms of a conceptual analysis (exactly the sort of thing proffered by experts, including Marxist ones), but to the habits and practices of people. People produce and reproduce ideology, the way a rusty hinge makes noise, in their attempts to wring meaning from the abstraction of bureaucratic and economic structures. It is the latter perspective that Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello adopt in The New Spirit of Capitalism. Boltanski and Chiapello pose the question of how people justify to themselves and others the dominant economic and social order. In other words, how do we abide the renewed violence of appropriation in the capitalist state — as expressed in the dismantling of trade unions and welfare programs, the unchecked rise of the bankster class, the spreading tentacles of private debt, and the precipitously growing chasm between the wealth of the few and the fear and trembling of the masses? And what’s more, how do we come to accept this violence as the natural order of things?

The context for this question is what some have called precarity — but whatever you call it, the condition has become part of the psychic terrain of modern work. If one does not actually occupy a precarious position in the labor-force, one faces, at least on a gut-level, the threat of it. We read about it; we watch affecting short films about it; probably we know people whom it has struck a glancing blow or a deep wound. Occupational contingency can be said to occupy the worker. Far from being a bastion against these trends, as we often pretend it is, academia is in the vanguard: witness the steady erosion of tenured positions and the steep rise in adjunct labor, which makes of teaching a kind of especially poorly paid piece-work; see also the outsourcing of non-academic (and even academic) functions and services. Only superficially is this a matter of “reducing costs.” If that were so, how should we explain the recent dramatic bloom of university administrative positions — representing, by some estimates, an increase of 60% over 15 years?

By their own accounts, this flowering of administrators serves a new vision for the educational enterprise. This vision regards the traditional arrangements of the academy — organized around a pedagogical intimacy that makes of teaching and research a nearly inviolate zone of professional autonomy, a shared Socratic solitude, a vestal vocation — as hopelessly old-school. By the lights of this new vision, teaching and research are only species of the productive process. As such, they can — indeed, should — be as responsive to the demands of economic and bureaucratic rationality as the manufacture of vacuum cleaners or microchips or cars. Or more accurately, as an agent in the “knowledge economy,” the university as firm must capitalize on the intangible nature of its product. What I mean is this. The treatment of knowledge as product signifies the abstraction (as surplus-value) of the last possession of the worker to remain concretely her own: her know-how. The “knowledge worker,” then, occupies a position analogous to that of the worker on the assembly line, except at one further remove toward the fantastic horizon of capital: where the worker on the line stands to be replaced by a machine, the knowledge worker stands to replaced by an even emptier (i.e., more devalued) version of herself. Here lies the significance of adjunctification: the teacher, as worker, isn’t paid to know anything — not even how to teach. She serves the bureaucracy on which she depends as merely a means of content delivery, her remuneration being only the bare minimum necessary (if that) for reproducing her labor-power; and should she quit, should she fall ill, should the wear and tear of a job with high affective involvement and no stability reduce her “effectiveness” past a certain point, her place will be filled by another from the reserve army of the precariously employed.

The foregoing analysis is far from complete. It could be said that the Socratic vision of the university is ideological, too — and that the rosiness of such nostalgia serves well the administrative vision, which purveys not one product, but two: instrumental knowledge and the savoir faire of a cultural elite. In the post-War, post-New-Deal boom, the joint possession of those things bound members of the nascent professional-managerial class. But above all, this class came to stake its identity on one accomplishment: the mastery of abstraction. We might say that its Deucalion was Frederick Taylor, who taught the capitalist how to reduce his dependence on the know-how of workers by the application of a sufficiently schematic production process. (Frederick Taylor, of whom Peter Drucker intoned, “he looked at work, and saw that it was all wrong.”) The skill of the workers is no longer necessary; the essential ingredient, henceforth, is the competence of the manager. Of course, the manager’s competence belongs to a different order from that of the workers, because his pertains to the schematic organization of production, and because a significant portion of the workers’ sometime knowledge has been reified in machinery. Enter the golden age of management. But as the capitalist class in the industrialized world learns further to abstract its interests from the scene of production — moving factories overseas, outsourcing, conglomerating — the managerial class absorbs more and more members, until the white-collar worker becomes a figure of hardly any distinction, and the terrain of “middle management” covers Middle Earth.

By the standards of that golden age, As Boltanski and Chiapello show, a comfortable career now eludes most managerial professionals. The stultification that should purchase the security of such a career — Max Weber’s iron cage — has become less of a fixture of the cognitive environment than a feature in an ensemble of affects, affects which oscillate between hope and fear, revolving around a more or less tacit core of despair. The regime of precarity has eroded the professional/managerial class from within. The erosion forces those of us nominally within its ranks to a recognition: being outside of the iron cage has never guaranteed greater freedom. For the cage is an interface between two varieties of being unfree (“security” and “insecurity” being their names).

Boltanski and Chiapello argue that disenchantment with the iron cage inspired the present spirit of capitalism, and they aim to show how expressions of the desire for autonomy at work — expressions shared, during the 1960’s and 70’s, by students and workers, foremen and secretaries, homemakers and professors — became, in subsequent decades, co-opted by managerial discourse. This discourse has sought to justify, in the name of autonomy and a decentered workplace, a diffusion of the structure of regular employment, a diffusion whose end result, of course, entails greater insecurity for everyone. Thus capitalism absorbs its own critique — responding, for instance, to attacks on the hierarchy of the office with the device of the self-managed team, the latter being a device that proves useful for promoting competitiveness and self-policing — or to calls for more accommodating schedules, with part-time positions and contract work. Perhaps this thesis is overly reductive, and perhaps it resists generalization from the authors’ test case (France). Nonetheless, Boltanski and Chiapello’s description of the “new spirit” of capitalism seems apt on a number of points. They describe its ethos as “projective”: a term meant to encapsulate the emphasis on flexibility over stability, the preference for ad-hoc forms of (re)organization over abiding structures, and the tendency to maximize short-term goals or profits at the expense of sustainability. As a member of this milieu, the managerial professional lacks a stable body of expert knowledge; rather, his is the knack for finessing the contours and constraints of a diverse array of projects, for being always ready to shift course, for keeping his eyes on the prize and his pace two steps ahead of his competitors.

As betokened by the slide into cliche, such a person’s expertise is nearly reducible to the shell of the concept itself. A truly “expert” inhabitant of projective capitalism is expert precisely in justifying his own position, i.e., the prerogatives of his expertise. At its negative extreme, this person becomes what Boltanski and Chiapello refer to as “the networker.” The networker keeps nimbly above the rift within his own class by a kind of tightrope act; he escapes falling into the trap of precarity only by moving constantly from one position to another:

Take a networker participating in a collective endeavor, with access to resources and comparatively exempt from bureaucratic forms of supervision. He has given up the idea of a career, knows that the mechanism he is participating in is temporary, and in consequently not unaware that he will have to switch activities in the not too distant future. (p. 359)

As the authors note, the mobility of the networker comes at a price — a price paid by his associates and co-workers:

For him, a good strategy consists not […] in sharing information and links with his team and benefiting the centre he depends on. Quite the reverse: it consists in exploiting the resources he has access to, and acquiring a social capital that will give him an advantage over the team’s other members. Essentially, what is gained in this process is time. Thanks to his mobility, the networker steals a march on potential rivals — that is to say, collaborators and friends in many cases — and publicizes something original (product, idea, text, etc.) that is henceforth associated with his name and person.

The networker is the person who most fully embodies the ideology of the professional-managerial class, since he (or she) undoubtedly believes in his (or her) superiority: i.e., believes that the good credit one accumulates is purely a function of personal merit, rather that owing anything to the contribution of others. On this egoistic view, the networker is confirmed in his belief in the merit of his person by his ability to obtain a series of better and better positions — an ability that depends on credit for accomplishments that properly belongs to others. A specular relation, characteristic of narcissism, and one that pushes Weber’s idea of the identity of the office with the official to its logically absurd extreme. Identification with the position becomes an identification with the position’s prerogatives, to the exclusion of the bureaucratic structure that these prerogatives are supposed, in principle, to uphold. Glad-handing his way to the top, the networker behaves as though the organization profits by the glow of his own accomplishments. Yet the hallucinogenic fog of capital accumulation today, which permeates not only the market but the organization itself with competitiveness and gamesmanship, is not conducive to the such a person’s keeping one job for long. And if the qualities that make someone a good networker have to do with networking — building alliances, cultivating relationships — it is hard to see how those qualities could benefit an organization, absent their possessor. Unless I am mistaken, reputation is not like scent; it is not something you can smear around.

The networker is a caricature. But in Boltanski and Chiapello’s book he is drawn to good purpose: to put us in mind of an ethical tendency within the spirit of capitalism. The underlying imperative — toward mobility — has become not only commonplace but normative. In academia, at least, the mobility of managerial professionals is almost as striking as their proliferation. In hiring a new administrator, the fact of a candidate’s having held a variety of positions of relatively short tenure does not generally seem to be held against her; in fact, it seems to strike a positive chord. It has become the sign of someone with “connections” and “experience.”

The bitter fruit of this tendency falls, as the authors explain, on those who stay put. Those who have given years or decades of their lives to an organization, often in the pursuit of a narrow occupation — cataloging books, or shelving them, or teaching French, or making rounds among the sick, or tending the grounds. This sort of pursuit might once have had the merit, however immaterial, of being called “mastering a skill.” Now, in addition to the neglect of human potential that such jobs may entail, and on top of the poor pay and general lack of esteem, the people engaged in such pursuits are more likely than ever to suffer the indignity of being told that their work is “no longer necessary.” I sometimes try to imagine what that’s like. It is hard to conjure the acute trauma that the telling must sometimes occasion. To be told that you have done a poor job is one thing; that is commensurable with palliative narratives of self-improvement, or of bucking the system, or of just not giving a f—. To be told that what you know how to do no longer matters — that is like being told that you are lost, or that you have been lost, without your knowing it.

The networker, in Boltanski and Chiapello’s apt analogy, is a performance artist. Against this tendency, which capital awakens in us, what does it take to cultivate the arts of solidarity? Part of the challenge, I think, lies in the retrograde status of those arts today. The apologists for capital have a near monopoly on culture’s reservoir of fantasy and mythopoesis with respect to futurity, utopia, and apocalypse. If you disagree, only look to Hollywood: now we are building a better robot, now entrepreneurs secure their property against the hungry and disenfranchised dead. In these visions, we are dancers to the perpetuum mobile of capital, which is the music of money changing hands; in these visions, abstract and fungible as capital itself, we perform a kind of trance in which the horizon of the future becomes that place where “all that is solid melts into air.”

Against these visions of world-making abstractive power, let us take up the retrograde. I do not mean a nostalgic hankering for some pre-Fordist golden age. I mean, rather, to praise and acknowledge all those whose toil belongs to time. Those who work in order to make time pass — who have custody of the present tense — in whom the sediment of the past enters the circuits of nerves and blood, muscles and bone, eyes and hands, lungs and language, to become, again and again, the stuff out of which the commons sustains itself. I mean to contemplate, in company with Aristotle, the concept of being under the aspect of labor, the labor that makes the potential real. To this contemplation, work is productive of more than merely capital — capital being but one kind of relation, the privileging of which conceals the full range of our potential as beings. Work produces all relations, all the richness and diversity that there is on earth, or that there has been. To this richness and diversity the science of management remains as poor in its way as the science of medieval theology was to the cosmos, a cosmos imagined under the aegis of an apologetics in the service of clerical privilege. And for those of us who are employed, in part, to profess an apology for our institutions, our disciplines, our cantle of relative security and prosperity in a darkening world: may the always insecure billowing of solidarity visit us, too. And may those who have the art be willing to teach us…may it not be too late. That would be more than we deserve; there would be, in that, a kind of grace.

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