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Long before the microchip was invented, John Maynard Keynes, that rare beast, an optimistic economist, forecast that by the year 2000 we would all be working a 15-hour week in advanced economies. The rest of our time would be spent on art, hobbies, volunteer and community work.
Keynes would have taken the current recession in his stride. Deficit budgeting was his forte, and he believed direct government intervention in the economy was not evil or illegitimate, but a stabilising obligation. He advocated a managed market economy to soften the blow when consumer demand is low (in times of recession) and intervention when demand is high (during periods of inflation). But his 15-hour week never arrived, although we got close to universal joy in the 1960s.
That didn’t last long: in fact ‘they’ decided that we all needed to work, and to work longer.
Those that didn’t want to toe this line were derided as ‘dole-bludgers’. But for us all to work more, controllable jobs and manageable employees had to be found, an organisational context and credentials created. Universities invented ‘business schools’, or rather, copied them from the Ivy League universities in the north-east United States. In Australia, the business school soon became a marker, an indication that the host university was up with the times.
‘The Master of Business Studies (MBS) degree became the new secret handshake for managers, who share one characteristic with rabbits: left to their own devices, they proliferate. But unfortunately they don’t eat out the key nutrient and starve to death; witness the outrageous salaries of contemporary CEOs. MBS holders have propagated the myth of the universal manager, that management is sufficient unto itself. So you can run a hospital having never emptied a bedpan or without setting foot in your wards, or manage an airline without the experience of making an instrument approach in sticky weather, complete with clammy hands and moist armpits. Managers rely heavily on credentialism, on holding the right piece of paper. According to this theory, management can be learned, taught in a business school, but not intuitively or experientially understood.
I encountered another rarity recently, an anarchic economist. His name is David Graeber. He was a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement, a protest movement against economic inequality that began in Zuccotti Park in New York’s Wall Street financial district, in September 2011. It gave rise to the wider Occupy movement in the United States and other countries. The main issues raised by Occupy were social and
economic inequality, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government, particularly from the financial services sector. The Occupy slogan, “We are the 99%”, refers to income and wealth inequality in the US: between the wealthiest one per cent and the rest of the population.
Graeber too was critical of business schools. He said they invent job titles: ‘manager’, ‘assistant manager’, ‘executive’, ‘director’, ‘consultant’. I counted 450 such job titles in a guide to resume writing, another time-consuming and largely useless distraction for would-be employees. In a large organisation like a hospital, there might be many layers between policy formulation and execution. Each of these will be protective of their roles, and the net result will be chronic divagation, when all that is needed is clear policy and competent unit heads to execute it. Passing the policy parcel up and down wastes time and resources, multiple utterances confuse issues, and small authority is used to impede rather than advance.
We used to seek paid employment as a means to survive; we now do it largely to enable us to act as consumers in a materialist society, where your worth, especially your self-worth, is measured by what you wear, drive, or eat, or the sheer size of the residential shell you build. Much of this ostentation is built on the shifting sands of credit.
With the aid of technology, enormous numbers of employees are dragooned into jobs that in their hearts they know are worthless, and are based on process, not outcomes. They stay in them for the perks: the salary, the carpet on the floor, the corner office, or simply because in another context their uselessness would be revealed. Productive jobs – making shoes, baking bread, building motor cars – have been destroyed, outsourced to China, or mechanised. Some are returning to Australia piecemeal, via the artisan movement. Coronavirus may enhance this process as globalisation exhausts itself, and barricaded countries re-learn the art of making for themselves.
And not just countries. Individuals too.
John Fleming II
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