avatar
Anarchism and Management – an Odd Couple


Too many words like “anarchy” and “management” are apparent contradictions. In fact, both are a bit like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the Odd Couple. Unlike Lemmon and Matthau, anarchism and management share a history that dates back to a time when anarchy and management put forward ideas on how to organise work in factories. For that, people use a particular language in both camps. 

While anarchy’s form of factory organisation is democratic, management is not democratic at all. Democracy is a world that is avoided like the plague in virtually all existing management journals, textbooks, and business schools. It is avoided by business school scholars who otherwise claim to be democratic. It is a form of Moral Attention Deficit Disorder that has hardly ever bothered any professor of management studies.

A second term on which management depends on is hierarchy. Anarchists are particularly interested in networks rather than hierarchies. Inside hierarchical business schools, the term network is used to divert attention away from the hierarchy. Almost without any exception, virtually all companies and corporations are hierarchically organised. In short, whoever says management, says hierarchy. A third, almost universally accepted, and never questioned issue in management is that of the importance of every organisation to have a leader.

By organisation, management writers mean business organisations that operate for profit. Ideologically, management writers prefer the term organisation when talking about profit-maximising companies and corporations because “organisation” carries connotations to soccer clubs, bird watcher’s organisation, etc. What one can see – democracy, hierarchies, and organisations – is that looking at management from the perspective of anarchism highlights many of managements’ core pathologies.

Perhaps one of managements key pathologies is its staunch authoritarianism. Set against this is what the theory of anarchism calls prefiguration, which means using organisational means…that do not contradict the ends or purpose of an organisation. Put simply; it is not okay to do something nasty now in the name of some bright future to come. If one carried this through, it would mean the closure of virtually all companies and corporations. To avoid such heretic, if not outright subversive and seditionist thoughts, management and its even more ideological bed-fellow, Managerialism, has invented business ethics, corporate social responsibility, stewardship and rafts of other terms to camouflages its pathologies and criminalities.

Managements pathologies are even stronger highlighted when one sees anarchism as a doctrine that aims at the liberation of people from political domination and economic exploitation. Management is a system that governs domination mostly through something it calls human resource management. In HRM, human beings are mere human resources or Menschenmaterial, a Nazi term meaning human material.

Perhaps it might be true that whoever denies authority and fights against it is an anarchist. This would mean that we live in a world of anarchist, albeit, for many, without even knowing it. Management enshrines the very opposite. Management is about control; the word derived from manus (hand) or maeggiare (to handle, especially horses). It is even worse because maeggiare is also about domesticating horses. Management is about domesticating workers – top-down, as Fayol would have said.

On the top of the managerial hierarchy sits the power elite (e.g. corporate board members, CEOs, managers with the goal of shaping peoples values and invoking a sense of loyalty and shared vision. For that, management employs experts in organisational behaviour while crypto-academic management writers talk of organisational culture defined as shared values even though managerial values are often implanted top-down through Fayol’s chain of command that still operates today. Inside companies and corporations, managers talk about corporate mission statements while business school academics legitimise them. Set against all this is the refusal of all hierarchical organisations by anarchism.

Virtually, every unethical step management has taken has been ideologically legitimised by business ethics, which has not only morphed into an ideology but also into a business ethics industry. This industry has been growing undeterred by the plenitude of mass killings, corporate crimes, and global environmental vandalism (Ford Pinto, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez, Enron, Volkswagen, the list goes on. Outside and inside companies and corporations, business ethics remains an oxymoron. According to Jackall, business ethics boils down to six simple rules:

  1. You never go around your boss. 
  2. You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. 
  3. If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. 
  4. You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as boss.
  5. Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want to be reported, but rather to cover it up. 
  6. You do what your job requires, and you keep your mouth shut.

Business ethics never had any qualms with power. The opposite is the case. Business ethics is here to legitimise power, particularly the power of management. The classic definition of power sees it as the ability to get others to do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise. This is the very foundation of management and its core legitimising agency of Managerialism. Given its structural power, management might be seen as a form of structural violence. This sort of violence can be understood as a form where some social structures (e.g. companies and corporations) or social institutions (management) harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

Management writers tend to avoid issues like structural violence. A large part of management and Managerialisms energies are spent convincing companies and corporations (management and society) as a whole (Managerialism) that authority, hierarchy, power, etc. are needed. This ideology is sold as TINA: there is no alternative. This is relentlessly carried forward even though Peter Gelderloos’ Anarchy Works lists almost 100 real-life examples of anarchist organisations.

Furthermore, there are cooperatives where ownership and control rest with members rather than outside owners, and there are three million cooperatives on earth, providing jobs or work opportunities to 10% of the employed population. The 300 top cooperatives generate $2.1 trillion US dollars. Of course, these cooperatives are not all anarchist organisations, but many operate without leadership and authority. Meanwhile, management carries on with enunciative authority (wise man) and institutional authority (police officer).

While many CEOs are reasonably competent in pretending to be wise man, management, as a whole, lives from the authority that comes with an office and, of course, with workers made to accept the authority, the power of the managerial office, and managerial leaders. It is not at all surprising that business schools want their students to believe in leaders. They do so by trying desperately to divert attention away from the fact that leaders always mean followers, and that this is yet another relationship that excludes democracy.

Two other ideological tools in the apparatus of Managerialism that also avoid democracy and cement the role of management are finance and accounting. Management has long noticed the convincing power of numbers to strengthen their power. Numbers are even helpful when, for example, ideologically justifying the fact that markets are unfair, undermine solidarity, are undemocratic, and are inefficient. The goal is to make Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism look impossible.

Meanwhile, management lives on techno-optimism believing that the development of technology is ultimately a good thing that it can solve almost any problem like, for example, global warming. Many of the business school demagogues genuinely believe global warming can be controlled within the confinements of capitalism. Anarcho-environmentalists like Bookchin arguing against that by emphasising the fact that not-for-profit collaboration is our biggest resource building on diversity, spontaneity, mutualism, and horizontalism.

Much of what anarchism does is to demonstrate the irrelevance of government and other centralised powers. Some anarchists seem to prefer anarcho-capitalist entrepreneurs who do exist. Unlike managements entrepreneurship that takes place within a capitalist system, anarcho-entrepreneurs would be outside of capitalism. Such an alternative, entrepreneurship would be based on mutual aid, voluntary associations, direct action, and self-management.

Perhaps the most dangerous argument in mainstream textbooks, the one that is most insidious because it is rarely stated explicitly, that anarchist ideals can never become common practice in business and management. What management textbook need to do and have been done splendidly over many decades is to infuse business school graduates with the ideological that another world is not possible even though many people suspect that another world is indeed possible. Given what we are facing, it has to be made possible very soon. 

Martin Parker’s Anarchism & Management in published by Routledge.

Leave a comment