Platonov (born Andreĭ Platonovich Klimentov) has been hailed as one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century — an accolade not widely recognized, in part due to censorship and also its unavailability in many Western languages until more recently. He is grouped with Kafka and Beckett. McKenzie Wark has called The Foundation Pit “a critique of the Soviet project in its own rhetorical terms.” But Platonov’s work was mostly suppressed during his lifetime, with The Foundation Pit completed in 1930 but published only during the glasnost period in 1987, more than 35 years after his death. As described in the notes accompanying an English translation, Josef Stalin even wrote in the word “scum” in the margin of a copy of Platonov’s story “For Future Use.” Yet his writing survives and his recognition as a prose writer continues to grow. It also bears mentioning that after his censorship he did continue to write, often anonymously, and for that reason his writings for textbooks in the Soviet Union might even be considered widely read, in their own way.
The basic premise of the novel is the digging of — literally — a foundation pit, for the construction of a great house of the proletariat. The story unfolds with the workers on site, and in their dormitory, as well as state bureaucrats and other assorted passers-by. They dig and dig, yet no structure ever materializes in the pit. The pit just grows wider and deeper. The novel features nearly picaresque episodes, as the foundation pit provides no resolution or overall story arc (though it perhaps feigns to do so at the start).
Much like Samuel Beckett, or even Alejandro Jodorowsky, Platonov depicts strange symbolic characters and scenes but totally devoid of sentimentality or awe. In The Foundation Pit, some of the most memorable examples include the Bear, an anthropomorphic “hammerer”, and a caravan of coffins dragged away from the foundation pit worksite. These are ironic, satiric, and often metonyms. But unlike Beckett at least, Platonov is specific to his time, which is to say his writing speaks of a particular context.
Another writer who should perhaps be compared to Platonov more closely is William S. Burroughs. Each played with the language of dominant cultures, in a way sensitive to context, but tried to snip apart the knots that bound audiences to those cultures in a kind of stasis. For Burroughs, this appeared (literally) in his “cut-up” writing technique, in which he clipped passages from newspapers and other sources, and rearranged them to form new text, the “random” rearrangement seeking meaning outside the context that brought forth the words in their original form. Platonov used the slogans and symbols of the Soviet government, misappropriated to new ends. This is not unlike the bastardized pop culture anthropology of the contemporary musician Ariel Pink. Obviously, the techniques here vary considerably. Yet there is a revolutionary impulse common to them all.
People who deal with searching electronic databases sometimes suggest a “drunk walk” as a first stage of the process, in which the researcher stumbles about aimlessly gathering preliminary information before returning to the beginning and starting the “real” search, now armed with information from the “drunk walk” about how the desired information is actually structured in the database. This bears some resemblance to the ways teachers suggest grading papers, by first reading a small sample to gain an orientation of the level of performance of a class, and by reading part of a given paper before going back to the beginning and marking it for grading (and teaching) purposes. This is a process-oriented approach. The only abiding assumption is that the first steps will not succeed.
These concepts are found in their own unique forms in Platonov’s novel. He writes from a perspective that communism is something that everyone (even animals and the environment) desire, but details the flaws in understanding those desires and concomitant mistakes of actualization under dualistic bureaucratic managerialism (Slavoj Žižek in Living in the End Times calls it the pre-Stalinist “Gnostic-materialist utopia” period of the late 1920s) — a rigid discipline imposed to abandon the “wrong” ways of the past and instead adopt unequivocally “proper” collectivization. But what is unique about Platonov, unlike, say, the pessimistic essentialism found in the anti-revolutionary social democrat George Orwell‘s Animal Farm, is that it is possible to see in Platonov the failures and limitations of collectivization as part of kind of a “drunk walk”, a merely preliminary period of fruitless experimentation. It was a period of orienting to what was not recognized as the real character of the project at the outset, before the assumptions and presuppositions have been unpacked. Where Platonov elevates his work, though, is his refusal to consider his topic in terms of right or wrong, but rather suggests that even in the right and good choices there are elements of wrong or bad. Everything is muddled. There is no transcendence, no hidden golden path waiting to be discovered, and the very possibility of such things is rejected from the outset. Yet, at the same time, he suggests a kind of redemption of the past, unlocking communist desires inscribed on everyday circumstances already, rather than seeking to build them up in an uncertain future premised on opposition to the past. This is Platonov’s most revolutionary aspect. Orwell implies that people are terrible and revolutionary communism suffers from the same failings as capitalism, so why not just stick with a liberal democratic path towards social democracy and keep working toward a different political economy? The fact that even the CIA saw Animal Farm as useful for propaganda purposes suggests what little practical threat Orwell’s vision posed to the vested interests of capitalism. Platonov questions the very basis of what a real revolutionary outlook requires for success, applying every later failure as an opportunity for a continuous engagement with these questions, now robbed of any sort of finality. The so very socialist concept of dialectics the only uncertain, unsteady constant.
A recurring theme is the balance between the individual and the collective. Just as one might cringe at the neoliberal capitalist order subjecting people today to the brutalities of “the market” in a way that strips away the last remnants of private life, Platonov has concern for the way harsh “utopian” collectivization leaves no room for the individual in the bureaucratic machinery. Ostensibly the main character, Vaschev, is fired from a job early on for pausing to consider the future in these terms. There is an element of psychology at work, reflecting C.G. Jung‘s descriptions of “individuation”. The individual must be sort of protected from “total collectivization” (or “the market”) in order to be able to survive that sphere with any shred of humanity.
“I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I will be with the people”
Platonov is often described as supporting “widows and orphans” and such, in the same way. That is, he sided with society’s most vulnerable. He always has special concern for the weak, the powerless and the downtrodden. But mostly he recognized what could be found among ordinary people. So he shines a gleaming light on Nastya, the orphan cared for by the workers, and even the cantankerous Zhachev, the disabled veteran called “comrade cripple” at one point. Platonov subtly critiques the ploys to create or recreate power structures in the newly collectivized Soviet Union that eerily resemble imperial Russia, revealing how collectivization was changing society by reorganizing the control of means of production only to retain certain hierarchies of power, much like many of the great sociologists that came along in the same century described (including even Thorstein Veblen, to the extent his work had a sociological character). But, again, unlike Orwell, Platonov does not seem to suggest that any such actions are inevitable, but rather, that the original communist vision in its “drunk walk” merely failed to account for those possibilities sufficiently. There were presuppositions in the Soviet five-year plans that produced unwanted and unintended consequences. In “On the First Socialist Tragedy” (1934), Platonov concluded, “It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.”
In the Soviet Union, kulaks (rich peasants) were “liquidated” to eliminate them as an economic class. In Platonov’s novel, in a play on words typical of the novel, this means quite literally sending them down river on a raft! But here, we also encounter a kulak mending a bast sandal (a type of woven footwear known for cheapness and lack of durability, associated with poverty), which alludes to attempts by the Soviet regime to designate “sub-kulaks” and shade off the original “utopian” duality of peasants as kulaks (rich) or non-kulaks (poor) into a mire that undermines the original intent. So maybe most remarkably, Platonov tends to not denounce kulaks, or other characters that hide their past connections to privilege in order to avoid liquidation, and instead focuses on siding with the ordinary person. One of the most likeable (and unique) features of his writing is that it welcomes anyone willing to commit to the communist endeavor — anyone willing to promote equality from the standpoint of the ordinary person.
The Foundation Pit was translated to English twice by Robert Chandler, who has noted that the second (in 2009 for NYRB Classics, with Elizabeth Chandler) contains a more definitive Russian source text and is informed by intervening Platonov scholarship. Because of Platonov’s fondness for puns, Chandler’s efforts to capture those elements as faithfully in translation are laudable (even if this reviewer is in no position to judge his success in that regard).
Here are some links to reviews of the book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (2014) by Dean Starkman:
Tim McCreight, “To Woof or Not to Woof”
Jim Sleeper, “Reporting for the Republic”
Corporate Crime Reporter, “Dean Starkman and The Watchdog that Didn’t Bark”
Bonus link: Michael Hudson, “The Insider’s Economic Dictionary: U-V” (“Unexpected. Whenever bad economic news is announced in the United States, the media almost always attach the adjective ‘unexpected’ to it. This is because it is deemed politically incorrect to expect bad news — to expect unemployment to rise, or to expect retail sales to be down. To accurately expect bad news may be realistic, but to anticipate this reality is something like becoming a premature anti-fascist. So it has become almost obligatory for reporters to show that their heart is ‘in the right place’ by attaching the label ‘unexpected’ to bad news. The word is intended to work as a deadener on the brain, because ‘unexpected’ is taken by most listeners or readers to mean ‘there’s no reason for this folks. Don’t try to think about putting it into an explanatory system.’“)
James Hoopes – False Prophets: The Gurus Who Created Modern Management and Why Their Ideas Are Bad for Business Today (Perseus Publishing 2003)
James Hoopes is a historian who has written numerous books on business management. One of his best-known books is False Prophets, which covers the American phenomenon of “business management gurus” that started at the turn of the 20th Century and has continued to the present.
This is really two different projects merged into one. First and foremost, it is a series of biographical sketches of the key business management gurus of American history and their careers. This part of the book is much like George Soule‘s Ideas of the Great Economists (1952), etc. It provides a handy, very readable introduction to how the various business management gurus rose to prominence advocating particular theories, and the personal circumstances of the gurus themselves. On the other hand, this book also reads like a series of reviews (i.e., critiques) of the various business management theories advanced by those gurus. This is where Hoopes’ credibility wanes. He has a sharp, cynical wit, but he’s also prone to arrogant, unsupported generalizations and seems to really have an axe to grind, ultimately deploying a theory of the proper role of management that is both ill-defined and also outside the scope of his biographical treatments. He tries to come across as objective by adding in some form of praise and criticism for each guru chronicled in the book, but there are bigger problems with respect to the unsubstantiated foundations for this praise and criticism and in the haphazard selection of gurus addressed (or not) in the text.
Let’s first look at the real goldmine of the book: the biographical sketches. Hoopes does an admirable job discussing some historical details that are often overlooked by proponents of the management theories of the gurus he has selected for this history. What emerges, subtly, is a portrait of theorists who got ahead only when serving the interests of the powerful. So the privileged, upper-class background of Frederick Winslow Taylor — Hoopes cleverly nicknames him “the demon” — is drawn out, and it helps explain some of the tactical victories and errors in Taylor’s advocacy of his theories. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth make appearances, and Hoopes does well to explain how much of their work has been wrongly credited to Taylor. Then it is on to Mary Parker Follett. Along with Lillian Gilbreth, Follett represented a pioneering female voice in American business. Maybe more than any other business management guru she added new, substantive theories. She also had the fortune of working with liberal businessmen like Henry S. Dennison, who experimented with forms of employee stock ownership at his company. Then there is Elton Mayo. Hoopes describes him as a charlatan. That is perhaps too kind. His unscrupulous striving is portrayed well in Hoopes’ caustic narrative. The Mayo chapter is one of the best, in part because Mayo’s disciples gathered so much data that Hoopes can pick it apart and demonstrate with specificity how Mayo proffered theories that contradicted his own data. Hoopes relentlessly skewers the Harvard Business School and the gurus like Mayo who were attached to it early on. There is also an excellent chapter on Chester Barnard, where Hoopes actually digs in and debunks some of the guru’s writings and suppositions in a systematic manner. The rather desperate anti-communist views of many of the gurus comes out most strongly in the middle chapters on Mayo and Barnard, though it shows elsewhere too. Lastly we have the more modern figures, W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker. The history of Deming’s public service for the U.S. government before becoming a business guru presented here is welcomed, because many books about Deming omit or minimize that phase of his life. Hoopes sometimes gushes over Drucker, who, along with Follett, is clearly one of his favorites of the gurus (“on management technique, a CEO could scarcely do better than to listen to Drucker.”).
Looking across all the biographical sketches, we see that many of the gurus leveraged characteristics unrelated to management to push for adoption of their management theories. So Taylor and Frank Gilbreth each had inventions that helped give them success and notoriety that in turn allowed them to advocate what were separate management theories (often, not surprisingly, theories that they in turn used to promote adoption of their inventions, with all the associated personal gain that entailed). Taylor and Follett leverage their upper-class upbringings to insinuate themselves with business owners.
What seems lacking in the biographical sketches, though, are detailed treatments of more recent gurus: Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Douglas McGregor, etc. Hoopes limits himself only to the gurus of the past, not the ones workers today are subjected to directly. (For treatment of the more contemporary gurus, books like Matthew Stewart‘s The Management Myth might be consulted). There is little here about what business gurus are saying for or against modern practices of periodic layoffs, financialization, outsourcing/offshoring, or defense mechanisms against corporate raiders.
So, let us turn to the more problematic part of Hoopes’ book, the critiques of the management gurus’ theories. Most of Hoopes’ arguments (critiques) follow the “appeal to expert authority” model. Yet, in the introduction, he states that he is not really an expert in business, he is a historian. That makes this lack of evidence all the more troubling, and sets himself up for criticism by structuring his book around a tu quoque logical fallacy. This runs deeper than just his expertise in “business” pe se. For instance, when talking about Frederick Winslow Taylor, Hoopes is compelled to rely on his own theory — democracy doesn’t work in business but you can’t be a tyrant. Hoopes beats this message across again and again (and again), with pure tautology, though he never justifies it as a legitimate starting point. The problem seems to be that Taylor’s theories seem, superficially, the closest to what Hoopes is advocating, thus he needs to argue most vociferously for (slight) distinction over the next closest theory to his own.
It might help to break down the key theses that Hoopes advances, to better pinpoint where he goes wrong. He argues that (a) Americans believe in socio-political democracy, (b) that workplaces lack such democracy, (c) that top-down workplace hierarchies produce better results than democratic organization strategies, and concludes that (d) people need to accept that top-down management power is necessary to some degree, though it is outsized in the degree advocated by the management gurus. Basically, this book sets out these theses, but it never gets around to proving (or disproving) most of them. It would be possible to make evidence-based analyses of each of these points. Hoopes does not even attempt to do so. Instead, he merely draws conclusions based on the historical anecdotes contained in his biographical sketches. This has the frustrating tendency of taking an almost reductionist, deterministic view of the world.
Suffice it to say, he does put forward enough historical information to strongly suggest that (b) workplaces have generally lacked democracy — though his history stops in the 1980s so present conditions can only be inferred. However, setting aside a few exceptions for workplaces that may try to achieve industrial democracy, Hoopes’ contention on workplace democracy is unlikely to be challenged by anyone looking at the great bulk of American corporations today. Evidence of a lack of workplace democracy abounds. But even his assertion that (a) Americans believe in socio-political democracy outside the workplace is something for which he offers vague generalizations and isolated quotations from the Founding Fathers, rather than, say, survey or opinion results, or even anything that connects the Revolutionary War era to the early 20th Century period that coincides with the biographical sketches that open the book. The way “democracy” was defined in, say, ancient Athens, was not the same as what Jean-Jacques Rousseau put forward during the Enlightenment. And the American Founding Fathers mostly just adopted political philosophies from Europe. Anyway, might Americans’ views have changed since Thomas Jefferson‘s time? Certainly, they have, but this book does not really point to anything to contextualize or empirically support its assertions in this regard. Hoopes doesn’t come across very invested in democracy, revealing his rather aristocratic stripes as he avoids any contemporary context for his occasional references to democracy. Though on the other hand he could have merely overstepped his area of expertise, and made some inept characterizations purely by accident due to unfamiliarity with political philosophy.
If we turn to Hoopes’ other contentions, it becomes clear that he is actually covering ground that others have already traversed by scholars. For instance, the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote a book White Collar: The American Middle Classes (1951) that opened up discussions about how citizens accepted (or not) managerial control over their lives. Mills’ views have been summarized this way:
“For Mills, there are three forms of power. The first is coercion or physical force. Mills writes that such coercion is rarely needed in the modern democratic state. While such power underlies the other two, it is only used as a last resort. The second type of power Mills characterizes as ‘authority.’ This is power that is attached to positions and is justified by the beliefs of the obedient. The final form of power, Mills writes, is ‘manipulation.’ Manipulation is power that is wielded without the conscious knowledge of the powerless. While bureaucratic structures are based on authority, Mills saw such authority often shifting toward manipulation. *** As modern management becomes the reigning ethos of the age, the shift from explicit authority relationships to more subtle manipulation becomes the preferred form of power.” (The Sociology of C. Wright Mills) (internal citations omitted)
Hoopes concerns himself with similar topics. Moreover, the historian David F. Noble wrote various books about management control (America By Design, Forces of Production) that seem to vaguely fit Hoopes’ analysis, yet ultimately reject Hoopes’ conclusion that workplace democracy is inefficient and that top-down power must be accepted. It is here that the lack of evidence in Hoopes’ narrative becomes problematic — very problematic. For instance, Hoopes at one point argues that bottom-up democratic control of workplaces doesn’t work based on a dubious conclusion that Herbert Hoover tried that as president and it did not avert or overcome the Great Depression. Apart from the false analogy that presumes running a business and running a republic are interchangeable concepts (Machiavelli, whom Hoopes quotes early on, would be rolling in his grave), this seems to fall into the trap of deducing a general theory from a single anecdote. Or take a scene (rather misleadingly described by Hoopes) in which Frank Gilbreth supposedly upstages the anarchist activist Emma Goldman by turning a chart showing a workplace hierarchy upside down — misleading because Gilbreth’s wife Lillian actually whispered to him to pull the stunt, but also because this was so obviously a stupid stunt without rational credibility! Others have considered these questions before and reached different conclusions. They have done so with more detailed analyses, and with evidence. They don’t reach the same conclusions as Hoopes. And for that matter, aside from the condescending reference to Emma Goldman, Hoopes glosses past any leftist management thinkers out there. For instance, one of the best-selling novels of the 19th Century was Edward Bellamy‘s Looking Backward, which laid out in some detail a socialist utopian vision of industrial organization. Why does that not count as a significant business management theory? Sure, it was fiction and wasn’t actually implemented, but if it was so popular that “Bellamy societies” sprung up, why should it be preemptively dismissed? Or why not feature another guru, outside the realm of fiction, as far left as Bellamy? In the decade before the Great Depression the prominent economist Thorstein Veblen called for a Soviet of Engineers (The Engineers and the Price System). H.L. Gantt, along with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), advanced some of Veblen’s views, but Hoopes doesn’t really spend much time on this in his treatment of Gantt. Hoopes offers only the blunt dismissal that “clearly” a society run by engineers would be a hell. As a professor once said to me, whenever someone starts a sentence with “clearly”, everything that follows is unsupported. That professor’s advice holds in this case. Hoopes has nothing substantive to rebut the left perspectives he repeatedly derides, only platitudes.
By limiting his book to the discussion of only American management, Hoopes also misses an opportunity to add broader perspectives. This leads him, for instance, to tend to mention certain management practices that were adopted in the former Soviet Union and conclude that the mere adoption in the Soviet Union disproves their efficacy. Yet Hoopes’ critique of the sacrifices to power that individuals make in the name of corporate profits is like a mirror image those critiques of Soviet collectivization found in Sergei Platonov‘s novel The Foundation Pit (1987). While Platonov saw socialism as a desired goal that was bungled in the Soviet Union through descent into authoritarian Stalinism, Hoopes sees such aims as ridiculous from the outset, and instead focuses on the bungling of business objectives in the market economy (simply presumed to be the inevitable and best system) in the hands of business gurus. So don’t expect cultural reference points outside classic liberalism here. Hoopes repeatedly makes dismissive statements about the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, and the Cold War. He is somewhat a casualty of Cold War hysteria. His treatments of certain historical events reveals this, offering absurd nationalist chauvinist explanations for the arms race (blaming the Soviets, rather than the Americans!), mapping a bizarre history of advances in industry in the Baltics (crediting the Hapsburgs rather than, say, Tito’s greater achievements), etc. It is a sad facet of many writers of his generation.
In Confronting Managerialism, Robert Locke and J-C Spender compare American-style management (and business education) to that of Germany and Japan. With just these two other data points — still a limited sample — they demolish the idea that American management represents optimal efficiency. For instance, they recommend that the United States adopt the “codeterminancy” provisions of German law, whereby rank-and-file workers are legally entitled to place a representative on a supervisory board of their firm (i.e., the Board of Directors), and supervisory boards are separated from management boards (i.e., a CEO, from a management board, cannot sit on the Board of Directors or other supervisory board). While Hoopes’ narrative focuses on a “micro” level of management power, Locke and Spender discuss a kind of “macro” power equalization used in Germany that, at least in very modest ways, tends to counterbalance abuses of micro-level management authority. If workers feel disadvantaged by “top-down” micro-level power exercised by managers to control daily activities, they can (potentially) exert authority from a supervisory board to remove such managers and guide long-term strategy and working conditions in another direction. Hoopes perhaps rightly points out that efficiency in the workplace doesn’t lead to equality in distributive rewards — though he is too quick to pronounce that equality in distributions never leads to efficiency, without data to support that assertion.
One can read Hoopes’ book and wonder whether he’s really just critiquing the tactics of neoliberal business management from the standpoint of classical liberal values, by looking to the historical pillars of business management theory that led to and still support the predominant neoliberal outlook of today. Peter Frase wrote that “neoliberalism can be seen not just as a tool to smash the institutions of the working class, but also as a mystified and dishonest representation of the workers’ own frustrated desires for freedom and autonomy.” Frase is describing in many ways the same thesis that Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello advanced in their 1999 book Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme [The New Spirit of Capitalism], which has been summarized as saying that “capitalism usurped the left’s rhetoric of worker self-management, turning it from an anti-capitalist slogan to a capitalist one.” But Hoopes launches a fairly limp retort, not really coming from the left as such. So he critiques W. Edwards Deming for not making the role of management power explicit in his pronouncements, while also commending Deming for actually making strides in many areas (coincidentally, Deming came to prominence as a “guru” in the United States as the neoliberal era came to fully dominate the economy during the Reagan administration). He also endorses “free trade” regimes, a bedrock principle of liberalism, and criticizes alternatives. Yet his endorsements of free trade omit discussion of the inequality that is generally the hidden goal of such policies.
Ultimately, all this reveals a lot about where Hoopes is coming from, politically. He’s a sort of classical, conservative, paternalistic and aristocratic liberal, in line with Peter Drucker, believing in the need for benevolent dictators in workplace management to achieve conditions that are “good” because they maintain a “proper” balance of inequalities. He takes a dim view of human nature that most people are stupid, lazy and need to be controlled by their betters — even as he occasionally criticizes others for saying the same sorts of things. One is left thinking that Hoopes laments how Americans cling to democracy (“The story of the pioneer gurus matters today because they helped to create unrealistic hopes for democracy and moral legitimacy in the workplace that continue in our time.”), as an impediment to a liberal conception of economic progress (profit growth) that is driven and sustained by noble inequalities (“The best possible act of corporate ‘social responsibility’ would be to acknowledge the conflict, and therefore help maintain the balance, between the top-down management power that has bade us rich and the bottom-up political values that keep us free.”). He does not want deceptive, savage, blind and hypocritical assertions of consolidated power that render much of the population superfluous as with contemporary neoliberalism, or the thunderously brutal power of a ruthless dictator as was common in the more distant past, but he wants assertions of power nonetheless — benign or balanced power of some sort, attuned to an “optimum” value that is never adequately explained or justified in these pages but rather taken as a given. In Mills’ lexicon, he wants “authority” but not “coercion” or “manipulation”. Workers should just accept a subordinate role, apparently (“Most employees know the score and are capable of high morale in imperfect and unjust situations as long as they believe managers are honestly doing the best they can.”). Like all liberals, he pines for a capitalist world of unequal power without such inequalities causing conflict. And he calls socialists naïve! In Politische Theologie. Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (1922), Carl Schmitt said, “The essence of liberalism is negotiation, a cautious half measure, in the hope that the definitive dispute, the decisive bloody battle, can be transformed into a parliamentary debate and permit the decision to be suspended forever in an everlasting discussion.” This is precisely what False Prophets advances, the endless deferral of resolution to the question of who holds power in business firms, and perhaps by extension in society at large, while emphasizing that the question should be continuously (but pointlessly) debated. Questions of how certain people or groups obtained power originally, and how others were denied, are taken off the table. Those things are simply bracketed out of the discussion. The status quo is miraculously maintained as long as all attention is devoted to merely identifying and discussing its character, stopping short of considering its origins. This is worth pondering, when you read Hoopes’ repeated references to the Founding Fathers of the United States, considering that the historian Charles A. Beard wrote in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) that they really just tried to cement their pre-existing economic privileges in a reactionary and undemocratic way — George Washington being the richest person in the nation, the fugitive slave clause a conspicuous feature of the constitution put forward by those supposedly democratic legislators, women being denied the vote, and so forth.
The part of Hoopes’ argument that is most sorely lacking in evidence is the one that says that top-down workplace hierarchies produce better results than democratic organization strategies. He states repeatedly that non-democratic management makes us rich, but who is this “us” precisely? Some might say that unequal distributions make some rich and others poor. There is, for instance, a movement for “democracy at work” that advocates directly counter to Hoopes’ thesis. The most cited example this other contingent gives is the worker-directed cooperative Mondragon from Spain. While no doubt Mondragon is not necessarily the ultimate and perfect organization, it did survive being banned by the fascist Franco regime. There are also other examples of worker-managed enterprises. Advocates of “democracy at work” tend to draw distinctions between different types of worker involvement, which Hoopes does not address. But by leaving out the experiences of Spain or any other countries (e.g., Sweden) with alternate management structures, Hoopes avoids having to meaningfully confront evidence that might contradict his thesis on the (in)efficacy of democratic management. He merely dismisses these things out of hand as “idealistic” based on nothing more than a few aphorisms and snide comments. In this way he sets up false choices.
Where Hoopes does make a semi-convincing framing of his argument is that he tends to emphasize the sorts of factors that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu cataloged in The Social Structures of the Economy (2005). That is to say, he takes the view that business strategies are not immutable, but contingent upon certain social contexts that are usually omitted from the models that the management gurus advance. This comes close to the sociological approach that views a business firm as a field of struggle, just as there is a field of struggle between firms in the wider economy. But Hoopes is not systematic in adopting any sort of structured analysis, nor does he actually gather quantitative data like Bourdieu (or other power structure researchers, or even Phil Rosenzweig in The Halo Effect). This is the biggest disappointment of False Prophets. The idea of a critique of business management gurus is interesting, though the lack of any sort of evidence-based testing of Hoopes’ underlying theses makes the book’s claims paper thin. For what it’s worth, Hoopes seems right to emphasize how business management gurus increasingly tend to conceal the aspects of power that underlie most “management” programs (after all, the goal of ideology is to conceal its aims of domination), but he seems wrong in his conclusions that top-down management is either necessary or more efficient. It is unfortunately easy to summarily dismiss all of Hoopes’ claims in that regard, because he puts forth no evidence. That is doubly a shame because he’s also done admirable work painting short biographical sketches, from that of the egotistical tyrant Frederick W. Taylor, to the smart, indomitable Lillian Gilbreth, to the ingenious maverick H.L. Gantt, to the duplicitous strivers Elton Mayo and Chester Barnard, or to the studious civil servant W. Edwards Deming.
The chapters are ultimately uneven. The best are on Mary Parker Follett, Elton Mayo and Chester Barnard. The worst are the one on Frederick W. Taylor and the introduction, which get lost on judgmental diversions away from purely biographical material, as well as a bit of gushing hagiography in the chapter on Peter Drucker. A clear problem is that most of the weakest parts of the book are at the beginning. Hoopes doesn’t hit his stride until about mid-way through the book, before loosing his grip again at the end.
This is a book the publisher should have perhaps rejected, asking the author to remove the judgmental tone and focus on the biographical sketches alone in a more straightforward manner. Or at the least, those aspects should have been segregated out from the biographical material and minimally supported by some kind of research (preferably by the ample body of work sociologists have done on the subject). The introduction and conclusion should also have been reformulated, to bear closer resemblances to the body of the book, rather than being mostly unrelated digressions where Hoopes waxes on about his own management ideas in relation to contemporary gurus not given biographical treatments. But despite its flaws, False Prophets does pull together some useful information on a few historical figures whose ideas continue to be used to justify business practices that exert a tremendous influence on the daily lives of so many working people.
Isaac William Martin – Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press 2013)
A sociological history of the co-option of progressive protest tactics (originally developed to advance the interests of the poor) in support of tax policies that favor the rich. The title references the classic by Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977). The premise sounds almost ridiculous, but Isaac Martin makes an interesting case. His account seems fairly balanced, and for the most part seems reliably complete. If there is a weak spot, it falls on the more recent efforts. Martin doesn’t seem to provide enough context for why politicians suddenly capitulated to the same sorts of demands that had been made for decades, and he doesn’t necessarily treat all political parties equally. It is a small quibble in an otherwise interesting and well-researched book. This is a more thoroughly-researched and neutral academic treatment of a topic that has been addressed in other books like Thomas Frank‘s Pity the Billionaire (2012) and Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio‘s Crashing the Tea Party (2011).
Link to a review of Naomi Klein‘s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Sam Gindin:
Links to some recent book reviews:
Robert Pollin’s Back to Full Employment is a short book meant for general audiences (not just professional economists) advocating an economic policy shift in the United States towards one promoting “full employment”. He goes into some detail about what he means by “full employment”, referring to an abundance of “decent jobs”. The idea of decent jobs in turn relies on Lawrence Glickman‘s definition of paying “a wage level that offers workers the ability to support families, to maintain self-respect, and to have both the means and the leisure to participate in the civic life of the nation.” The basic thrust of Pollin’s argument is that neoliberal austerity policies must be abandoned. Instead, policies that benefit society at large should be pursued. As one reference point, he trumpets the success of pro-labor policies in Sweden since WWII, without really acknowledging how the Swedish labor coalition has largely fallen apart in recent decades and shifted toward the sort of austerity policies Pollin criticizes (though it staged a small comeback since the publication of Pollin’s book). Pollin glosses over explaining what neoliberal economic policies are really about — favoritism for financial interests over labor. But it remains clear that he favors employment policies that benefit the majority of the population, especially people unable to find any work or work that supports a dignified existence. This is sort of a counterpoint to Tyler Cowen‘s The Great Stagnation (2011), which advocated a kind of doubling-down on austerity measures.
After setting out why he believes full employment is possible, he lays out some discrete policy objectives to promote full employment. This is where the book falls a bit short. For instance, he argues that dollars spent on teaching and a green energy economy will provide more jobs per dollar than those currently spent on oil & gas or the military. However, jobs retrofitting existing infrastructure for “green energy” seem temporary — what happens when existing buildings are all retrofitted? The other problem is that the data is very, very limited. Only a handful of job sectors are discussed. What will the rest of the populace do? He also opposes trade protectionism (“trade nationalism”). While admitting that data on this is “mixed”, he alludes to looking only at the last 35 years. Because the neoliberal project has been around 40 years, he doesn’t seem to be looking at a relevant period. One would really need to compare the protectionist era. Michael Hudson did so in America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914 (2010), and Hudson has argued that protectionism has historically been a critical policy for all successful industrialized economies. Pollin may lack data for his conclusion, but he does make an interesting (albeit conclusory) moral argument that success in the United States shouldn’t come at the expense of the well-being of people in other countries — a rejection of beggar-thy-neighbor policies and national chauvinism.
Pollin says that there should be requirements to prevent banks from “hoarding” reserves, and a financial transactions tax should be implemented. In many ways, Pollin is pushing Keynesian measures. But, there are many people suggesting that such policy measures would have the opposite effects on employment than Pollin suggests. In other words, he seems to be making unwise policy recommendations, even if you agree with his goal of providing “full employment”. The first problem is the bank “hoarding” argument. In essence, he is saying that banks are holding too much reserves and should be more highly leveraged! People like Ole Bjerg, Nobert Häring & Niall Douglas, Michael Hudson, Martin Wolf and the UK Positive Money initiative have instead suggested implementing a 100% reserve requirement on banks. This is an old proposal. The Nobel prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy proposed it long ago, and the conservative economist Irving Fisher later picked it up (many economists credit the idea to Fisher, even though Soddy — not an economist — clearly articulated the proposal first). Pollin takes the view that a lack of aggregate demand is the problem the economy faces today. But what he overlooks is the problem that Bjerg states most clearly: an ideology that sees “being in the market” as the only legitimate economic policy, which naturally leads to excessive speculation. Any change in “aggregate demand” that leaves in place the ideology behind neoliberal austerity policies is bound to revert to the same problems at some point. A more effective half-measure would be to create public banking options alongside private ones, as advocated by people like Ellen Brown and already present in the state of North Dakota. Of course, speaking of full measures, it has been said before that “To talk about ‘regulating economic life’ and yet evade the question of the nationalisation of the banks means either betraying the most profound ignorance or deceiving the ‘common people’ by florid words and grandiloquent promises with the deliberate intention of not fulfilling these promises.” Left untouched, too, are proposals supported by people like Ralph Nader to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act and reinstate the Wagner Act. These sorts of things would throw real power behind labor, as a countervailing force to parasitic financial interests. Or instead of supporting the Dodd-Frank Act, and debating the effects of its loopholes and limitations as Pollin does here, which have since been subject to further repeals, why not fully restore the Glass-Steagall Act as Elizabeth Warren proposes?
Pollin also argues for a financial transaction tax. While superficially appealing, this doesn’t seem to solve all the underlying problems. For instance, real estate speculation could potentially survive such a tax without impact. A more robust solution is the one Michael Hudson advocates in The Bubble and Beyond (2012). Hudson states that capital gains taxes must be at least as high as income taxes on labor. This would seem to exactly fit Pollin’s goal of promoting “full employment” because it would take away tax incentives that promote absentee ownership over labor. Pollin claims credentials undoing damage from Jeffrey Sachs‘ austerity policies in Bolivia. Hudson has those credentials too, from work in Latvia. Hudson’s views on tax reform seem more wide-reaching though. Of course, it would be possible (and perhaps desirable) to enact both proposals.
Lastly, Pollin argues that decreases in healthcare and military spending will not undo the benefits of a “full employment” program. The military prong is the one that should raise eyebrows the most. Pollin perhaps underestimates how dollar hegemony as the world’s reserve currency is a policy enforced down the barrel of a gun, with a long history of the United States invading or sponsoring coups in countries whose governments fight that paradigm. Rob Urie, Michael Hudson and others have explored this. When Pollin argues that the United States can provide “full employment” while at the same time reducing military expenditures, his argument seems suspect. Hudson’s famous Super Imperialism book explores in much greater depth how U.S. financial dominance is always a veneer over a threat of military action. While it does seem that the United States should reduce its military belligerence, it does not seem that the nation can do so and provide “full employment” in the long term without eliminating its trade deficit, counter to Pollin’s suggestion. It is a question of changing a bunch of variables simultaneously that all prop up the shaky foundations of dollar hegemony, and, admittedly, isn’t an easy thing to assess definitively.
In the final analysis, Pollin’s ideas are meant to reform capitalism, putting a happier face on it. He sticks with a growth model, without much consideration for critiques of the growth imperative raised by ecological economics and anti-capitalist leftist commentators. Much of the problems he identifies could be eliminated by nationalization. This is most apparent in the healthcare area. He doesn’t advocate abandoning capitalism, even though many of his suggestions point in that direction. His ultimate policy object, promoting “full employment”, seems like an important one. Yet it’s hard to see how his program of trying to make political compromises leaves sufficient policies on the table. Pollin’s specific policy prescriptions seem to have too many limitations and loopholes to be effective. Some might even be counterproductive to the goal of full employment. Real questions of the adequacy of his suggestions remain, considering that versions of these suggestions were tried during the New Deal era and were ineptly handled or were simply too limited to be effective. And that’s just assuming that there really would be political will to implement Pollin’s recommendations! He is not willing to acknowledge the limits and limited applicability of Keynesian economic theory. But he’s at least raising many of the right questions. It is undoubtedly necessary that a critical mass of people start asking the sorts of questions Pollin has broached with Back to Full Employment. However, it seems absolutely necessary to ask deeper questions too, and demand much more.
The third bestselling book in the United States in the Nineteenth Century, Looking Backward is a novel about Julian West, a wealthy man living in Nineteenth Century Boston, falling into a trance for more than a century and waking up in a socialist utopian society in the year 2000. The book is mostly a series of monologues in which the characters describe the new society. There is a terrible romance subplot tacked on. Basically, the writing is dreadful, taken on its own. But this book captured the imagination of America as it industrialized. The economist Thorstein Veblen cited this book as a key influence, and you might say that most of Veblen’s academic career was focused on establishing genuine economic theories that would move real-life society toward the utopian one outlined in Looking Backward. Critiques of Bellamy’s vision are that while he presents a compelling economic utopia, he falls short of describing gender equality, for instance. Still, as a description of a democratic society that fulfills the sort of ideals Jean-Jacques Rousseau outlined during the Enlightenment, this is one of the most positive. This isn’t written as an attack on anybody, really, but as a description of how things could be so much better. It aims to convince by showing the benefits of a non-capitalist economic system. Bellamy also wrote a sequel Equality (1897).