Barclays: a failure of culture?

In the aftermath of the revelations about Barclays and the rigging of interest rates (and the fact that many more banks are probably in the firing line), once again the subject of culture has become very topical.   Lord Myners, the former City minister, talked about a ‘complete cultural failure’.  Many other politicians and commentators are talking about the need to change the culture of banks.  Even Bob Diamond, the embattled CEO of Barclays, has made an interesting contribution to the debate by defining culture as ‘how people behave when no-one is looking’.

Why, though, is it that whenever this sort of corporate scandal comes to light, there is widespread talk and agreement about the need to ‘change the culture’ ?  Furthermore, why the assumption that culture is something that senior managers and leaders are responsible for?  And what exactly is a ‘cultural failure’?  The implication of this last term is that none of this would have happened if the culture in Barclays (and presumably in all the other banks) was ‘succeeding’ or operating properly.

What this all seems to add up to for me is that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of the nature of culture.  Or perhaps it might be fairer argue that there is a particular idea of culture that is being utilised by politicians and other commentators when talking about the need to change corporate culture.  The problem is, in my view, it’s precisely this particular idea of culture that is part of the problem.

Of course, there are many definitions of culture: some are fairly simplistic, whilst others are very sophisticated.  Some people define (organisational) culture as ‘the way we do things around here’.  Other define it in terms of the unspoken assumptions, the things that everyone in the organisation takes for granted and wouldn’t even dream of questioning.  Others attempt a more structured and systematic approach.  One now classic example of the latter is Edgar Schein’s three level model of culture: artefacts; espoused values; basic assumptions.

Artefacts are the tangible, concrete manifestations of culture, which can quite literally include buildings, office layouts, key organisational documents such as mission and vision statements, company logos, and so on.  Espoused values are those values held and disseminated by leaders and senior managers to the rest of the organisation.  Basic assumptions are ideas, behaviours, ways of relating to one another, that are taken as given and therefore unquestioned, and are often at the level of the unconscious.

Schein’s ideas, and their subsequent development, are now widely accepted in the management and organisational literature, if not in corporate practice.  However, although I think there is a lot going for his conceptualisation of corporate culture, I also think there are still some fundamental problems with it.  At the end of the day, Schein is still arguing that culture is something that can be made, or at least heavily influenced, by leaders and senior managers.  And in turn, this implies that culture is something that can be managed.  Undoubtedly there is some truth in this if we confine ourselves to Schein’s first two levels, i.e. artefacts and espoused values.

However, when it comes to the most fundamental level of all, i.e. basic assumptions, things get more complicated.  And yet, at the same time, this is where some of the more ‘simplistic’ notions of culture are hitting the nail on the head.   Anyone who has worked in any kind of organisational structure will know there are simply some things that you do not question, some things that are simply taken for granted.  If you, or anyone else, do start to question them the chances are you will not be in that organisation for very much longer.  There is a very simple reason for this: calling these basic assumptions about the organisation into question threatens its very foundations.

And this is because the organisation is constituted by these assumptions.  In other words, the organisation only exists because of these basic assumptions.   At this point I think it might be helpful to start thinking even more fundamentally.   What stands behind these basic assumptions, these unquestioned ways of thinking, feeling, acting, relating?  Or, rather, what structures these basic assumptions?

This is where the concept of ideology comes in, and, very closely linked to this, the concept of fantasy.  In ‘classical’ Marxist theory, ideology was associated with the idea of false consciousness.   The capitalist class, and to the extent they were duped by capitalist ideology, the proletariat, misrecognised the true nature of social relations under capitalism, i.e. the commodification of social relations and the exploitation of the proletariat.   It was down to the vanguard of the revolutionary party to (re)educate the proletariat as to the true nature of capitalism and capitalist relations.

Later theorists of ideology, beginning with Louis Althusser, moved away from this somewhat simplistic notion of ideology as false consciousness.   And many of them (including Althusser himself) started to draw upon the ideas of Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to develop a far more complex theory of ideology.  One of the problems with the false consciousness notion of ideology is that it implies the idea of a true consciousness.   In other words, the possibility exists, in theory at any rate, of being able to recognise the true nature of one’s existence, the true nature of social relations.   However, if we adopt a Lacanian position, then all consciousness is false, it is always based upon a misrecognition.  Interestingly enough, Althusser shied away from the full implications of this realisation, which is actually at the foundation of his theory of ideology, by contrasting ideology (misrecognition) with (Marxist) science (true recognition).  Needless to say, many advocates of science uphold this distinction to this very day.

Later theorists of ideology, such as Laclau and Žižek, developed Althusser’s ideas, though without resorting to a crude ideology-science dichotomy.  One of the critical points about Laclau and Žižek’s work is that they both incorporate the Real into their theories of ideology: the Real being that which is beyond representation and symbolisation.  Ideology becomes, essentially, a way of ‘dealing’ with the Real, a way of reconciling the irreconcilable, of overcoming the fundamental contradictions at the heart of reality.   And this is precisely one of the functions of fantasy.   In fact, in Žižek’s work in particular, it becomes hard to separate his ideas about ideology from those concerning fantasy.

In psychoanalysis, fantasy plays a pivotal role in human life and psychical development.  In Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular, fantasy is what structures human existence, and regulates the drive.  And although each person has many different fantasises, there is one particular, fundamental fantasy that stands ‘behind’ all the others: the fantasy of the lost object.  At this point I would like to argue that one way to look at ideology is to see it as the materialisation of fantasy.  In other words, ideology in the ‘bearer’ of fantasy, it ‘mobilises’ fantasy within the realm of political and social relations.

Some people might be wondering what on earth any of this has to do with Barclays and the rigging of interest rates, or even with the ‘failures’ of corporate culture.  My answer to this is simple: if we really want to understand culture, we need to start by looking at all those basic assumptions, those things that go unquestioned, all those things that are taken for granted.  However, in doing so we have to be careful.  It’s all too easy to argue that once we’ve ‘exposed’ all those basic assumptions then it’s a simply a question of ‘re-educating’ the organisation, i.e. its members, into a new set of assumptions.  After all, this is essentially Schein’s theory of cultural change.

It’s also a variation on the false consciousness argument, even if it doesn’t necessarily explicitly introduce the concept of ideology into the picture.  In other words, people at Barclays, and in the other big banks and financial institutions, simply do not realise what they are doing.  Therefore, someone (presumably management consultants or a similar group of people) are going to have to re-educate the members of these organisations so they realise what they are doing and learn to act in a more socially responsible manner.  And even if they do, at some level know exactly what they are doing, i.e. they are simply a bunch of corporate psychopaths, then they are still going to have to be re-educated – or, preferably, replaced by other people who have already been educated with a different set of basic assumptions regarding corporate responsibility.

However, if we take the ideas of people such as Althusser, Laclau and Žižek seriously then this idea of ‘re-education’ simply doesn’t stand up.  The problem with Barclays, with all the other banks, in fact with any corporate body, is at the level of fantasy.  And you can’t ‘remove’ fantasy, and hope everything will come right.  In fact, this would be catastrophic.   And neither is it simply a case of ‘remoulding’ fantasy into something more sociably acceptable.  Fantasy attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable, to make sense of what is essentially beyond sense.  And the ideas of what is socially acceptable, what constitutes social and moral responsibility, are themselves fraught with contradictions.

Looking at things this way, the whole notion of a socially acceptable, morally responsible capitalism is itself a fantasy, because it is based on a complete contradiction.  And to understand why this is the case, we need to enter into the heart of darkness that underlies the capitalist system itself…….