The Politics of Industrial/Business Management Theories

In a fairly predictable way, despite the proliferation of industrial & business management theories and associated gurus preaching them, a somewhat seldom discussed topic is the embedded political ideology.  Writers from Adolph Berle to Walter Benjamin, Alfred Chandler, Jr., Harry Braverman and David F. Noble — and beyond — have discussed the ways management theories tend to consolidate class power in the hands of management.  But beyond that, it is worth noting philosopher Slavoj Žižek‘s theory that it is impossible to escape ideology, that the very notion of deciding what is or is not a “fact” is governed by an ideological system, as well as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu‘s theory that all action is interested, which leads to the conclusion that most management gurus simply argue for their own self-importance.  So this is a rough-cut at assigning industrial & business management theories to a crude left/right political spectrum (sorted roughly chronologically).  This is obviously an incomplete list, and focuses mostly on Americans.

The Left

These gurus tend toward the philosophical, are the most explicitly political (usually with an explicit favoritism for the powerless), and are usually the least known or discussed as management theorists per se and their theories have seen the most limited real-world implementations (some offering only works of fiction); they favor communal or cooperative approaches and strict egalitarianism.  Many are opposed in principle to “great individual” approaches and collective anonymity dominates.  Examples of corresponding political economists: Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Thorstein Veblen, Rudolf Hilferding, Michael Hudson.

Henri de Saint-Simon

Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

Edward Bellamy

Thorstein Veblen

H.L Gantt

Aleksei Gastev

Platon Kerzhentsev

Technocracy movement

Ursula K. Le Guin

Murray Bookchin

The Center-Left

These gurus tend to emphasize psychology and morality (and even sometimes “new age” spirituality), assume that people are fundamentally good but are mistaken, confused or inept in acting on good intentions, and align with liberalism; they tend to advocate “flatter” organizational structures that are more inclusive for decision-making while drawing a line somewhere to regulate acceptable “flatness” (usually as a compromise to avoid the programs of the left). Examples of corresponding political economists: John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Polanyi, Joan Robinson

Mary Parker Follett

Walter A. Shewhart

Abraham Maslow

W. Edwards Deming

Douglas McGregor

Chris Argyris

Peter Senge

H. Thomas Johnson

J-C Spender

Daniel Pink

The Center-Right

These theorists are frequently benevolent aristocrats in a liberal mold, and often focus on restraining, containing or limiting excesses and bad actions and tend to use discussion and reporting schemes to deflect attention from (rather than to resolve) questions about the unequal distribution of power in organizations; appeals to “gradualism” are common; a key difference from the center-left is that the center-right tends to more explicitly restrict decision-making to specified groups and to more strongly preserve and reinforce hierarchies and castes, perhaps within some limits. Examples of corresponding political economists: Adam Smith, David Ricardo, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Joseph Schumpeter, Irving Fisher, Paul Samuelson

Melchiorre Gioia

Charles Babbage

Henri Fayol

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Joseph Juran

Peter Drucker

Tom Peters

Andrew Grove

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Phil Rosenzweig

The Right

These theorists tend to be dictatorial and authoritarian (though rarely acknowledging as much), and in recent times often premising their theories on anti-leftist grounds and market-theocractic principles if they even bother to offer justifications at all; hey tend to believe that some people are inherently better than others (to the point of relying on hero/savior motifs, if not “divine right of kings” argument) and usually seek to create or maintain steep hierarchies of power and privilege without clear limits; most business schools and working business executives overwhelmingly fall in this category.  Examples of corresponding political economists: Vilfredo Pareto, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman


Napoleon Bonaparte

Frederick W. Taylor

Elton Mayo

Chester Barnard

Stephen Covey

Jim Collins

Patrick Lencioni

Gino Wickman

…this is far right category is almost a catch-all for most modern management gurus, including almost anything from the Harvard Business School.

If you have ever been exposed to management theories and found them distasteful, perhaps it is because those theories come from a different political orientation than you normally endorse?  Often these gurus argue amongst each other more than they establish any sort of practical standards (arguments are most strident when they try to distinguish the theories of directly adjacent political segments), and some of the arguments ignore particular political segments — it is extremely common for the theorists of the left to be entirely ignored.