The Liberal Management class and the logic of capital

Work, in the closing chapters of an industrialised country, might be cleaner for many and workers might enjoy more health and safety legislation, but it is not without its problems.

You’ve probably been to one of those meetings with a manager or line manager where you’re told about all the things the company does which, strictly speaking, they don’t have to do, but they do do because that’s the business model based on fairness they aspire to emulate.

Trade unions are a distraction, because the workplace has fairness all covered; they haven’t read Ford on his model of productivity and prosperity, Ayn Rand is relegated to the “whacky” division, and Pinochet wasn’t so up on his Pinot Noir. This capitalism is old hat.

They’ve read a few reports by The Work Foundation during the two and a half years they were at business school, and have an unspoilt copy of Zen Habits back at their pad in Holland Park, and they’ve realised that, rather than rules and regulations being the key to a good business, actually happiness increases productivity and does wonders for team spirit.

They don’t wear ties because they had a boss once who wore a tie, and he ran himself to the ground, things are easier now, so much so that his (or her) top three shirt buttons are undone, and (s)he’s leaning on the radiator while addressing your team – where you’re all key players.

They are realistic about the working day, having read somewhere, in a Zen capitalist rag, that if a team member (not worker, not staffer, not peasant) relaxes, listens to their personal music player perhaps, then more will be done in the long term, way more than a frazzled brain taking 9-5 too literally.

Want to wear shorts on a hot day? You got it! Want to drink coca cola between tasks, laughing and talking about big brother while the managing director is behind you doing the same? They’ll join you! Want to go for a beer after work, no can do, they’re off to Nobu with their buddies.

This isn’t capitalism, baby. This is capital 2.0 – but it’s virtually the same thing, and it amounts to smoke and mirrors.

Many new business managers of the ilk spelt out above, who can be found pretty much anywhere nowadays, but largely head up places where graduates make up a sizeable population, have woken up to the fact that needless bullying or workplace strictness might not have helped anybody – not the workforce who were unnecessarily unhappy, or the managers who were going the extra mile to be horrid, and not deriving any more production from the workforce that could be turned into profit.

Some production lines, whichever form that may take – shop floor, office, school, hospital – now take orders from people who are liberal minded (by no means not left wing, but certainly more tapped into compassion at the workplace) and not quite as keen to be hated any more.

They might wax hubristically about how elitism in the workplace is a thing of the past, that all employers are valued and equal, and if someone has a complaint, then the senior management will be only too happy to lend a friendly ear.

For this, I suppose, we shouldn’t be too ungrateful. If you ask generations previous about their management, and compare it to the above, they will at worst call him (or her) arrogant, but arrogance is far preferable to heartlessness or, worse, cruelty.

Sure, heartlessness and cruelty still exist, and in force, but the narrative that drives business degrees, leadership courses, and entrepreneurial start up packs, is not just to buy low and sell high, undercutting competition with ruthless aplomb, but happy teams makes a more productive teams.

Where people have bosses like this pity them, by all means, but remember that their compassion has never put the economic system that harnesses institutional inequality into jeopardy, so it is able to contain it.

What threatens the workforce today, which is thoroughly embedded into the logic of capital, is methods of labour saving.

Consider what Roy Mayall, the pseudonym for the postal worker/blogger and occasional comment is free writer, has said about his line of work, on the subject of new Royal Mail investment in multimillion-pound walk-sequencing machines “as part of their new modernisation and investment programme”:

What the new machines have done is to take away the last element of skill from our job. There’s no memory involved any more. We pull out a letter, and we stick it in a slot. We pull out the next letter and stick it into the same slot, depending on the address. Once all the letters from the first address are finished, we move on to the next address. We carry on and on like this until all the letters are sorted.

This does not necessarily speed up the process of throwing off the frame, as most postal workers know their frame so well they can sort it almost as fast without the walk-sequencing technology. Estimates are that it will save about six minutes a frame. Previously, it took about an hour and a half to throw off an entire frame, so six minutes doesn’t really make all that much difference. But what it does mean is that the Royal Mail can now use unskilled labour to do what was once a moderately skilled job.

The optimist may believe that Royal Mail is just buying into more efficient tools to save time in an ever-competitive world, particularly in their industry. But anyone can see, by what Roy Mayall describes, that this new programme has given licence to invest a lump sum into machinery that will undercut skilled work in that industry, saving money in the long term on wages and paying for unskilled workers where skilled ones were needed previously, reducing the need for employment overall.

People tend not to think of this in economic debates, but the supermarket self-service checkout; this machine allows sometimes up to 12 machines to be manned by one person. That is 11 jobs undercut in one shop alone. If a shift is on average eight hours, and the shop is open 24 hours a day, that is 33 less people needed to be employed on minimum wage for the single purchase of 12 machines.

Consider this by regional and then national figures – that’s many jobs, and a lot of money saved.

I could make examples ad nauseum, but I have designated these to show that for all the supposed change in managerial and organisational ethos, across all sectors, the main problem still remains – and always was – in the logic of capital itself, which at its heart sacrifices staff for illusory appeals to efficiency.


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