Saturday 1 October 2011

Managerialism, Conviviality and Technology (A revised version)

The opponents of ‘managerialism’ do not necessarily oppose ‘management’: only anarchists might object to the idea that some sort of regulation or control of institutions is necessary. Managerialism is distinct from ‘management’ in the sense that managerialism is a particular ideology of management. It is an ideology which states that the regulatory functions of management are common and similar techniques can be effective whether applied to a telecommunications business, a university or a hospital. However, in its ‘strong’ form, managerialism asserts its position as the only effective ideology of management. In this way, managerialism presents what Bhaskar (1979) calls a TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) formation: in effect we are told, "either accept the tenets of the ideology of managerialism, or face economic and social collapse"

There are two questions here:
  1.  How is the ideology of managerialism distinct from the more general principles of organisation and management?
  2. How does the TINA formation of managerialism arise to make managerialism unassailable in the management of institutions?
Managerialism isn’t new. However, the extent to which it dominates most large-scale social institutions – particularly health and education – is. Orwell would have recognised this managerialism as having the same characteristics as his dystopian world presented in Nineteen Eighty-four (2008). Conversely, many academics and managers in education, or doctors in the health system recognise Orwell’s description in the increasing degree of ‘newspeak’ jargon within their institutions, tied often to increasing specialisation and demarcation within practice and discourse. At the same time, the increasing inability to critique the foundations of academic practice, government policy, and sometimes even research practice testifies to what looks suspiciously like ‘doublethink’. An example can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre's (2009) recent critique of the culture of modern research universities, where the concept of 'universe' - fundamental to university - becomes lost in a haze of specialised disciplines: in MacIntyre's view, "The contemporary research university is, therefore, by and large a place in which certain questions go unasked or rather, if they are asked, it is only by individuals and in settings such that as few as possible hear them being asked".

According to Orwell’s fictional author of "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchic Collectivism", which explains to Winston Smith the functioning of the Party and the political organisation of the world in Nineteen Eighty-four, the machinations of the state, including newspeak, doublethink and the ever-present war with Eurasia or Eastasia was to ensure that the party member...
"is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. The discontents produced by his bare, unsatisfying life are deliberately turned outwards and dissipated by such devices as the Two Minutes Hate..."

Orwell’s ‘managerialism’ is the institutionalised creation of anxiety. This resonates I believe with the sociological analysis of modernity presented by Beck in his ‘Risk Society’ (1991). Beck considers that modern society manufactures and distributes ‘risk’, the individual experience of which is anxiety:
"The driving force in the class society can be summarized in the phrase: I am hungry! The movement set in motion by the risk society, on the other hand, is expressed in the statement: I am afraid! Instead of common interest through need, modern society represents common interest through anxiety"

In the large institutions of state, the risks have multiplied in ways that suggest that Beck is right. Not just increasing threats of litigation, but new anxieties concerning compliance with ever-emerging standards of practice, fulfilling ever-changing funding formulae, coping with increasingly detailed audit procedures, and so on. Every new such managerial intervention creates disruption in current practices and inevitably anxiety in individuals. Managerialism is the institutionalised creation of risks.

But managerialism is seen to be effective across a range of contexts. This is because it is individuals who become anxious, and managerialism’s risks are always ultimately threats to continued employment and career progression: “if I don’t comply with this new rule, I will lose my job”. Consequently, the individual reacts. But managerialism at its worst manipulates individual insecurities in cruel ways which only through the guile and cunning of clever higher-level risk management avoids the accusation of ‘victimisation’.

In order to understand the success of managerialism in its manipulation, it is important to understand the extent to which biology and psychology render the individual susceptible to this sort of manipulation. In essence, managerialism is a very successful manipulation of the outer-worlds of individuals which have deep and predictable consequences on their inner-worlds. Psychology and Sociology have a variety of different theoretical approaches which can help to unpick the mechanisms involved. Harré’s ‘Positioning Theory’ (1999), for example, would argue that the inner-world ‘storyline’ of an individual is partly constituted by the outer-world ‘positioning’ produced by the communications of others and normative social conditions. Looking deeper at the specific aspects of identity, Bowlby (1969) would focus on the attachment relationships between individuals and the systemic balance of control systems between the inner-world of the individual and the outer-world of meaningful attachments which are frequently undermined through the actions of managerialism. In a related way, Winnicott (1971) might focus on the relation between individual identity and practices, objects and play - also subject to continual managerial intervention. In essence, the continual disruption of the relationship between inner and outer worlds is an assault on the identity of individuals.

But focus on attachments, creativity and practice suggest that there might be an alternative to managerialism. Children with strong attachments in families, friends and schools usually thrive where those who have experienced family or social attachment problems struggle. A secure balance between inner and outer-worlds that is brought about through strong attachments to people, objects and practices gives rise to the capability to manage the risks that managerialism (and the modern world in general) presents. But by definition, an environment which at once supports rich capability and strong attachments is not an environment of isolated individuals beset by personal anxieties: where attachments and capabilities are strongest, society is at its most convivial. For Illich (1971), such situations are the epitome of dignified humanity.

But managerialism seeks to disrupt and sometimes sever individual attachments to one another. It has found ways of leveraging technology to help it to do this. It has found in the internet radical ways of rationalising and organising individualised risk, asserting ‘realities’ which are not ontologically grounded. It has exploited the resulting alienation to further its risk-produced manipulations. As Beck argues, the economy also appears to be organised in this way: as such, individuals seem helpless in the face of these forces. The mechanism of 'risk' is that they are deprived of ways of being together because their attachments are subject to managerialism's interference. Not least the individuals who work or study in modern higher education - particularly in the risk-laden environment of rising fees and economic uncertainty.

But technology has a surprising knack of upsetting the applecart. Enthusiastic technologists have always sought to fly beneath the radar of institutional systems. The teachers who in the 1980s enthused a generation of children by bringing their newly-acquired personal computers into the classroom saw this: for a moment, everything seemed possible. As Illich explains, every new technical innovation has had this sort of moment. To many teachers in the mid 1990s, the web represented the closest thing to realising Illich’s ‘learning webs’ that he thought would bring about ‘deschooling’. Even after managerialism had effectively colonised the web by the early 2000s with restrictions and firewalls, new ‘Web Services’ enabled the connecting of the functionalities of different systems together in ways which would once again create new possibilities for doing things that were once unimaginable: the resulting blogs, wikis and social networking sites characterise the web as we now know it. Of course, the cycle is that corporate managerialism consumes most of these ideas, using them to find new ways of producing risk for individuals in the form of the big global social network enterprises: the increasing global power of corporations like Google and Facebook only serve to shift the locus of risk-creation. But might there be a special case where this does not happen?

Managerialism relies on the anxiety of the individual. In a convivial environment, the capability of individuals to manage the anxieties that managerialism throws at it is increased. But a convivial environment means the capacity to form attachments, to play and create. The online text-based environments we currently know cannot support this. For all the talk of ‘friends’ on Facebook and other social media, online social engagement amounts to strategic manipulation of social connections through selective public communications. But the next wave of technology will have different affordances.

The speed of internet connections is increasingly allowing for rich interactive and real-time social engagements. Driven by new technical developments like HTML5 and WebSockets (, new capabilities are emerging to create direct communication protocols between web pages without necessarily interfering with any high-level institutional barriers. The affordance of much richer real-time communications enables those communications to be served and managed not by corporate or institutional services, but by ordinary individuals: setting-up a real-time communications server will become as easy as setting up a blog.

The experiments of Konrad Lorenz (1973) in establishing 'relationships' between new-born geese and inanimate 'mother' figures suggests something in the regulatory biological wiring which connects outer-world to inner-world. As our technological sophistication makes it possible for rich real-time interactions online, the ability to ‘imprint’ or (as Bowlby would have it) ‘attach’ to people and objects through technology remains an important question. Given rich attachments and new kinds of online activity, the central question is whether convivial environments for play, creativity and identity-construction can be established online. If the technology can genuinely support environments for rich attachments, then the risk culture of managerialism is undermined: the collective that looks after each other is more immune to individual risk manipulation than the fragmented social landscape we all-too-often see around us. We might ask, in the face of convivial self-organisation, will managerialism cease to coerce behaviour through the creation of risks, or merely find new ways to disrupt attachments and assail identity? Our hope might be that instead of the coercing of behaviour, the coordination of social organisation might instead embrace the inherent value-pluralism of convivial society through the coordination of creative activity rather than the manufacture of risk.

Beck, U (1992) The Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity Sage
Bhaskar, R (1979) A Possibility of Naturalism Sage
Bowlby, J (1969) Attachment. Attachment and Loss vol 1 Basic Books
Harré, R; Langenhov, L (1999) Positioning Theory: Moral contexts of intentional action Wiley-Blackwell
Illich, I (1971) Tools for Conviviality Marion Boyars
Orwell, G (2008) Nineteen Eighty-Four Penguin
Macintyre, A (2009) God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition Continuum
Winnicott, D (1971) Playing with Reality Routledge

No comments: