Corporate nightmares

What is the connection between the following:

  1. Corporate greed
  2. ‘Toxic’ corporate cultures
  3. Corporate mindsets
  4. The erasure of subjectivity
  5. The spread of corporate culture into all walks of (organisational and working) life?

The first one, corporate greed, seems to be the topic that is guaranteed to raise peoples’ hackles, especially when it comes to the exorbitant salaries, and even more exorbitant bonuses, that are paid to bankers and other people in the financial sector.  This is something that I have highlighted in some recent postings and, of course, has been a running sore for many readers of Joris Luyendijk’s Banking Blog.1

However, I would argue that the other four topics in my list are also major causes of concern, even though they receive a lot less publicity, and appear to evoke a lot less anger, than the subject of corporate greed.  In fact, in many ways the issue of corporate greed is something of a smoke screen.

Yes, some bankers and other City people do earn a great deal of money (though some cynics might question the use of the word ‘earn’ in this context).  But there are several issues here.  The first is that this has been going on for decades, if not centuries.  Why wasn’t there a mass public outcry before?  The second point is that bankers are not the only people to earn shed loads of money: what about film stars, footballers, and the mass of other celebrities?  Why is there no outcry about them?  Is it perhaps because (i) we gain a great deal of enjoyment out of what they do2 and (ii) in some way we can identify with what they do, and aspire to be like them?

The point about people who work ‘in the City’ is that most people haven’t a clue what they do, and aren’t particularly interested anyway.   The world of derivatives, hedge funds, and the vast array of financial ‘instruments’ means nothing to most people: all they see is a lot of people in suits getting very rich while they are having to tighten their belts.  But, I would argue, this is still a smoke screen.  And, at the same time, perhaps the very different response that people have towards celebrity culture is also part of the same smoke screen.  Celebrity culture offers an escape from a world of austerity, of recession, of having to go to work (if you are lucky enough to still have a job of course) and spend your days doing something you never really wanted to do but have to in order to survive.  Of course, there is nothing new in this: the Romans knew the importance of circuses as well as bread.  ‘The Sixties’3 offered the dream that anyone could become a star overnight (and earn shed loads of money into the bargain), and before that Hollywood, and so on.

For some reason, though, few people (as far as I’m aware) dreamt of being a hedge-fund manager or of doing ‘something in the City’ as they used to say.  Of course, people did (and still do) have careers in finance, but I don’t remember there being any records or films made about this in ‘the Sixties’.  Yes, there were films like Wall Street and The Bonfire of the Vanities made later on, but these were essentially damning indictments of the world of finance, not a celebration of it.  The point I’m getting at here is that the world of corporate finance and globalised capital is the antithesis of what most people would aspire to, or would wish to celebrate (unless you work in world of corporate finance of course….).  At the same time, I suspect a lot more people would like to earn the kind of money that top bankers and other ‘City people’ earn.   And certainly, a lot of people want to buy their own home, be able to retire as soon as possible, to have cheap holidays and food, have nice clothes, have cheap food, and so on.   However, this relies upon a system of global capital and cheap money (in the form of loans and mortgages), not to mention cheap labour hidden away in the sweatshops of south east Asia (and in south east London?)

Of course, in the boom years when the banks were lending like there was no tomorrow and governments were raking in  tax receipts from the financers to fund ever expanding public sectors, few people questioned whether this was sustainable or were too bothered about the nature of the system that made this all possible.  When the bust came everyone turned on the bankers and politicians.   This is all very well, and to a certain extent understandable.  However, even now few people seem to be showing much interest in, or trying to understand, the system that led to this boom and bust.  And that’s understandable too: many politicians haven’t a clue how finance capitalism works and, I suspect, many people in the corporate world haven’t a clue either.  What’s more, it is so terribly boring and abstract.  The problem is, the ‘boring’ and the ‘abstract’ are what sustain reality – be it the world of theoretical physics or the world of finance capitalism.  And I mention both of these, because mathematicians and physicists are, it would appear, in great demand in the City, along with computer programmers.

This is not a defence of finance capitalism or to deny that a great deal of it is little more than a modern day form of usury.  Rather, it is simple to point out that until one can get to grips with the nature of (hyper) modern capitalism there is no chance of effectively challenging it or coming up with a better way of doing things.  And this brings me on to the four other topics that I listed at the beginning of this post:

  1. ‘Toxic’ corporate cultures
  2. Corporate mindsets
  3. The erasure of subjectivity
  4. The spread of corporate culture into all walks of (organisational and working) life

I would argue that finance capitalism and its corporate apparatus lies at the root of an increasingly toxic corporate culture which is rapidly spreading into all walks of organisational and working life – and quite possibly into wider society.  And this culture is based on a particular type of ‘mindset’ or ideology, which aims to eradicate, as far as possible, all vestiges of human subjectivity.  And if it can’t erase it then it tries to reshape it for its own ends.  But why finance capitalism in particular?  Isn’t all capitalism, in all of its corporate manifestations, aimed at eradicating subjectivity, in order to reduce the world to a set of abstract notions of profit and loss?  Isn’t money, as I have argued in previous posts, an abstraction of social relations, relations between real human beings?  This was one of Marx’s great discoveries.  However, in my view, in order to fully appreciate how capitalism, both industrial and financial, effects such a transformation of social relations, it is necessary to have a better understanding of human subjectivity in the first place – and this is the domain of psychoanalysis, and particularly psychoanalysis within the Lacanian tradition.  This is especially the case when it comes to the question of ideology and how it ‘interpellates’ the subject.  Psychoanalysis is also a useful ‘antidote’ against crude forms of reductionism that would reduce the human subject to an effect of language and discourse, however important these are in domain of subjectivity.

But again, why finance capitalism?  Because, in my view, it is capitalism in its ‘purest’, most distilled form.  It’s about money begetting (more) money, generating surplus value without the need for factories, production lines and all the other apparatus of industrial capitalism.   And it’s also the form of capitalism that preys most directly on the human psyche, because it promises money for nothing – and who wouldn’t want this?   It’s money without having to get your hands dirty, without having to produce anything tangible.  It’s also a massive confidence trick, it relies on the confidence of others – but as long as everyone is aware of this and plays along with it, it doesn’t matter.  Furthermore, it’s the form of capitalism that is most amenable to abstraction: because there are no factories, no production lines, no shops as such (if you discount high street banks and the like), and no tangible ‘product’ (in spite of the way financial services talk about ‘products’) it can easily be quantified, programmed into computer systems, mapped out using complex mathematical equations.  Marx assumed that industrial capitalism would harness finance capitalism for its own ends.  However, the reverse appears to have happened: finance capitalism now subsumes all other forms of capital.   And is this really surprising?  After all, the whole purpose of capitalism is to generate surplus value and to realise a profit.  If this can be done by buying and selling money itself, rather than producing something tangible and (possibly) useful then why not do it?

Of course, this is something of a caricature, but like all caricatures it contains some essential truths.  More to the point, perhaps, it is also the fantasy, one might almost, to paraphrase Lacan, describe it as the fundamental fantasy, of capitalism.  It’s the dream of the Master, who can sit back and enjoy, without having to work – while the Slave/Servant/Worker labours (but out of sight of course).   In this fantasy, other people are an embarrassment and potentially a threat, especially if they start to question such a fantasy, to oppose it even.  Of course, if they can be employed to help the Master realise his or her fantasy that’s fine – but even better if other people can be done away with completely and let the computers generate the profits.  In the meantime Capital can work to minimise the disruptive effects of other people, and to ensure they maximise their ‘output’, even if this is totally useless in any meaningful, socially productive terms.   There are various strategies for achieving this, and most of them revolve around either erasing or reshaping human subjectivity.  In fact, one of the more innovative approaches is based upon propagating the fantasy that each member of the organisation is able to fulfil their desires through the organisation, i.e. the organisation becomes a vehicle for self actualisation – as long as this equates with the aims of the organisation itself.  But the real subtly of this approach is that the organisation is presented as an obstacle from which the employee must break free, in order to fulfil his or her potential.  This is linked to the ideas of market rationalism and the ‘boundaryless career’.4

The problem is, the more abstract the notion of ‘the organisation’ becomes, the easier it is to forget that human beings are subjective beings, not just ‘resources’ to be used and exploited.  This is why senior managers in large corporations are often seen as being totally out of touch with the rest of the workforce.  For them, the organisation is a set of numbers on a spreadsheet and set of hierarchical diagrams, which bears little or no resemblance to the lived experience of the organisation by the majority of its members.  This is as much a problem in corporations that are far removed from the world of finance as it is in the heart of the City.  In fact, I think this is one of the most worrying developments in the corporate world in the last few years.  Organisations in the public and not-for-profit sector are increasingly adopting the ideologies of the private, corporate sector, even though they lack any meaningful ‘bottom line’, i.e. profit or loss.  Instead, they have to invent ‘outcomes’ which are often totally spurious and meaningless.  This reminds me of the worst excesses of Eastern bloc economies, with their arbitrary and impossible to reach production quotas.  But, of course, they were never meant to be achieved: they were simply invented to give people something to aim for and to maintain full employment.  Much of this looks depressingly familiar when one looks at the public and not-for-profit sectors in many Western economies.

But to return to finance capitalism for a moment.  In my view this offers the ‘template’ and ‘benchmark’ for all other forms of corporate enterprise, because it represents capitalism in its purest, most distilled, form.  It is a form which offers the greatest potential to make money, without actually having to produce anything – apart from profit.  In the process it allows a total abstraction of the human subject and of human relations, which become fully commodified and quantified.  Most worryingly of all, this ‘template’ now seems to be being adopted by a whole range of organisations because it offers the promise (the fantasy) of high rewards (for the few people at the top) with minimum effort, and without having to worry too much about the damage this does to everyone else in the organisation.  They are just numbers on a spreadsheet, boxes on organisational charts and diagrams.

References

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/joris-luyendijk-banking-blog?INTCMP=SRCH []
  2. Though of course there is also the question of the enjoyment that comes from being angry and resentful towards others. []
  3. As a mythological era, which in many ways is still haunting us, as opposed to the decade itself. []
  4. See Bloom and Cederstrom’s paper on this subject: Bloom, P. & Cederstrom, C. (2009) ‘The sky’s the limit’: fantasy in the age of market rationality. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 22 (2), p.pp.159–180. []