Review by Thomas Klikauer
Bibliographic information: Zero books, Winchester, 2021, xiv+220 pp.
Recently, American economist Michael Albert published Occupy Theory (2013) and Practical Utopia (2017). Albert’s latest book is titled “No Bosses”. Furnished with a preface by Noam Chomsky and by Yanis Varoufakis, the book has ten parts starting with “Values for a better world”. This is followed by “Who owns what?”, “Who decides what?”, “Who does what?”, “Who earns what?”, “Who likes markets and central planning?”, and “Who allocates what?”. The final three chapters are about “The participatory economy”, “Winning a new economy”, and “Origins, prospect, and history of participatory economics”. Yet, Albert’s book can be seen in three ways.
In Envisioning Real Utopias (2010, p. 57), American analytical Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright suggests that much of our writings on the political economy fall into three categories. The vast majority of books not only analyse the problems and pathologies of contemporary capitalism – they challenge capitalism. The second group of books deals with, as Wright says, ‘What is the alternative to capitalism?’; and, the third group of books is about ‘How do we get from here to there?’.
If one applies Wright’s framework, it becomes clear that the book is not about the problems of capitalism. Instead, it is about an alternative to capitalism. Albert calls this alternative “participatory economy”. Yet, Albert’s book does not fall into Wright’s third group – How do we get from here to there? Albert’s book is not a guide to rebellion and revolution.
The book starts with the ideology that neoliberalism appears as the only way. This is what the TINA (There Is No Alternative) doctrine (p. 4) promises. Ever since Thatcher introduced the term, TINA has mutated into one of the leading ideologies of neoliberalism, which Varoufakis argues, ‘have spread everywhere like a boisterous virus’ (p. 6).
Yet, neoliberal capitalism also means that people are forced to ‘live under the tyranny of market forces weaponised by cunning bosses’ (p. 7) those I have called “corporate apparatchiks”. Yet, this also includes line managers, supervisors, overseers, middle-management and CEOs. There are quite literally layers of bosses in a system that is entirely based on hierarchies. In management and business studies, the tyranny of cunning bosses and managerial hierarchies are camouflaged under the ideological motto of “flattening hierarchies” or, as the flagship publication of managerialism, the Harvard Business Review, says, Finding Innovation in the Flattened Organization (2011) and How to Successfully Scale a Flat Organization (2021).
To an overwhelming degree, No Bosses is not about ‘how [to] run a collectively operated firm or company [where] a workers’ assembly elect decision-makers’ (p. 9). Such elected decision-makers would only constitute another form of bosses. They would easily slip into a position of seeing and placing themselves as being above workers. This is not what Albert suggests.
Instead, the book goes to a considerable length in discussing the prevention of the emergence of a new class of self-appointed managers even when democratically elected. After all, democracy is not much more than moving from a club to a pen. In historical terms, democracy came from a time when men were hitting each other on the head until one remained standing – he was the leader. Today, the club has been replaced by a pen, the system is the same. Qualitatively, democracy has made no progress. Perhaps these bygone systems do indeed belong into ‘the Museum of Human Miseries’ (p. 12).
Albert is right when saying that much of what has been written about capitalism is about the misery of capitalism. He correctly says, ‘the resulting works are typically 90%, 95%, or even 99% about what we endure and barely at all about what we want’ (p. 17). On the question of what we want, Albert says ‘self-management becomes our first guiding value’ (p. 24). The term “management” is rather unfortunate, for four reasons: firstly, management originates form the French “manege” and the Italian “maneggiare” meaning the handling or training of a horse, horsemanship, and riding. In this context it also means to break in and domesticate a horse. In modern workplaces, it means to handle, train, break in, and domesticate workers. In terms of the history of factory work, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) has shown how this was done.
Secondly and not only because of the etymology of the word, management always implies top-down management. It implies managers and workers, underlings, and subordinates. It implies those who control and those who are controlled. It also implies hierarchy, authoritarianism, macho-management, despotism, and anti-democracy.
Thirdly, management is inextricably linked to profits. Management only comes into being when profits are made. Management is part of capitalism: no capitalism – no management. Management is a modern term linked to industrialism and capitalism. Yet, virtually all management textbooks like to make students believe that even the pyramids had management. This is nonsense. Pyramids had pharaohs, organisers, and administrators. Pyramids were not built for profits.
Ideologically and historically, management really took off with Frederic Taylor’s Scientific Management (1911) and with Henry Fayol’s Managerialism Industrielle et Generale (1916). For the more famous Scientific Management, Taylor, despite the title, conducted not a single scientific experiment. There simply is no science in scientific management. Yet, Taylor’s Scientific Management is part of every single management textbook. Much after Taylor, management got its second big push with the separation between ownership in the form of shareholders and those who manage companies and corporations on behalf of these owners, as outlined in Berle and Means’ Modern Corporation and Private Property (1933).
Fourthly and finally, using the term “management” even as “self-management” (as Albert does) buys into the ideology and propaganda of corporate capitalism and managerialism. Instead of using a term that cements the inhuman ideology of corporate capitalism, Albert would have been better off using a different term such as “organising”, as in “self-organising”, as suggested most recently, for example, by Marin Parker (2020).
In his chapter on “Who decides what?”, Albert returns to a time-honoured idea – ‘the workers council’ (p. 37). He argues strongly against the notion of, ‘let’s just let one person decide. It’s much less messy’ (p. 39). Set against this, Albert says ‘it appears less messy only if we don’t value the input that is excluded and don’t count the accruing damage’ (p. 39). Apart from the human and environmental damage that management causes globally, hierarchical companies and corporations are modelled on the army.
Set against militaristic management and deeply anti-democratic principles, Albert’s argument is that, ‘the workers council would … become the main repository of decision-making power within each workplace. Not an owner, not a boss. A collective of self-management’ (p. 40) – even though self-organisation would still be the better term. What this seeks is to prevent the re-emergence of a ‘professional managerial class’ (p. 47). Today, this class even sits separately from the rest of us – in the business class. On workers’ councils, Albert predicts, ‘five out of five employees … would be able to participate successfully in workplace decision-making’ (p. 54).
Albert also notes that, ‘the entire process would be collectively self-managed. There would be no elite eager or even able to bend everyone else to their will’ (p. 62). Nietzsche’s Will to Power (1880), that is deeply engraved into the ideology of Managerialism, would be replaced by what German contemporary philosopher Axel Honneth calls “recognition” (1995). It means that workers and managers will no longer recognise each other hierarchically and in a top-down relationship. Instead, producers and organisers would establish mutual and equal recognition. Mutual recognition would guide not only workers’ councils but also what Albert calls ‘participatory economy’ (p. 63).
This would, inevitably, also lead to a very different income structure – a structure in which the following would no longer be possible: ‘if Samantha, working for Jeff Bezos at a mid-level Amazon job, earns $50,000 a year, it will take her 1,000 years to earn what Bezos earns in one day’ (p. 70). It might also end the hallucinations that ‘we have to pay doctors vastly more than dishwashers because otherwise doctors would opt to wash dishes’ (p. 85).
In an economy, all of that also needs ‘participatory planning’ (p. 92) not Soviet Gosplan-like planning. Yet, top-down planning is part of every company and corporation. Management studies hide this behind the façade of strategic management. Strategic management is nothing but planning. Strategic management strongly believes in its very own dictum of ‘Planning can do no wrong!’. The ideology of a free market is a smokescreen for the fact that none of the Fortune 500 corporations makes a product, walks down to a romantic village market, and sees if it sells and for what price. These are fairy-tales from neoliberal economics textbooks. Incidentally, economics is great because it provides employment for economists. Beyond all that, the larger the corporation, the more planning that has to inevitably take place. Bezos’ Amazon is the ultimate planning machine. It has perfected planning using two things: big data and algorithms.
Despite, or better, because of the free market ideology, our so-called neoliberal free market economies and adjacent corporations show a very high degree of planning, at least when it comes to how actual corporations operate in the real world. A participatory planning economy would introduce the element of people and democracy into planning. In every large corporation, planning is happening on a daily basis. This sort of planning would then happen inside a ‘participatory economy’ (p. 185). With this, such a participatory economy would remove all class hierarchies from society. Albert closes his book by saying that the ‘participatory economic vision has just five core components’ (p. 209): commonly organised productive assets, ‘workers and consumer councils, balanced job complexes, equitable remuneration, and participatory planning’ (p. 209).
Overall, Albert’s book provides a sensible, well thought-out, richly illuminating, highly readable, and exquisitely structured argument for what he calls participatory economics. The book clearly and convincingly lays out what the values of a better world are. The arguments made in the last three chapters – often constructed as counterarguments against mainstream economists – are compelling, easy to comprehend, and plausible. Unlike the 99% of all books bemoaning the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism, Albert has succeeded in delivering a book that shows, in great detail and very successfully, what the alternative to capitalism is. Albert’s book is one of those very rare books that truly fulfill what E. O. Wright requested and Marx once outlined in his Thesis Eleven.
- 1933 The Modern Corporation and Private Property New York: Harcourt, Brace & World
- 1916 Managerialism Industrielle et Generale London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons.
- 1995 The Struggle for Recognition – The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts Cambridge: Polity Press
- 1880 The Will to Power New York: Random House
- 2020 Anarchism, Organization and Management: Critical Perspectives for Students London: Routledge
- 1911 The Principle of Scientific Management New York: Norton Press
- 1963 The Making of the English Working Class New York: Pantheon Books
- 2010 Envisioning Real Utopias London: Verso
This article was published on 27 September 2021 at the Marx & Philosophy Review of Books.
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Thomas Klikauer teaches MBA students at the Sydney Graduate School of Management at Western Sydney University in Australia. He was born in southern Germany about half way between Castle Frankenstein to the East, the birthplace of Johannes Gutenberg (the inventor of the printing press) to the West, and the garage where Carl Benz built the first motor-car even though Benz’s wife, Bertha, undertook the world’s first ever car ride.
Surrounded by cars, Thomas Klikauer undertook an engineering degree while working for a local car supplier. He joined Germany’s mighty metal workers trade union, the IGM, became a union representative and led a strike. Supported by a trade union scholarship, he graduated from Boston University (USA) and Bremen University (Germany) and completed a PhD at Warwick (UK).
Thomas Klikauer has more than 600 publications which include ten books. He writes on Managerialism, the sociology of work and right-wing extremism with a recent book on Germany’s right-wing populist party, the AfD. Thomas Klikauer lives in the beachside suburb of Coogee, a “must see” destination in Sydney, Australia.