Managing bullshit

April 25, 2019

Bullshit Business
By Andre Spicer
Routledge Press, 2018
200 pages, $22.95

Bullshit Business is about the meaningless language conjured up in schools, in banks, in consultancy firms, in politics, and in the media. This language drives thousands of business schools. It is this language that is handed down to MBAs, who then work to spread the managerial buzzword language of business bullshit.

The key argument in Andre Spicer’s Bullshit Business is that pro-business management academics, management writers, CEOs, and others have invented bullshit language. They fabricated something that gets in the way of businesses.

The book argues that historical origins of business bullshit and its pathological language came with a management guru hired by US telecommunications corporation AT&T. Management expert Peter Drucker once said a management guru is someone named by people who can’t spell charlatan. Management charlatans have global impact contributing to managerial bullshit.

This is part of an ideology that is used to legitimise capitalism. Ideologies aren’t concerned with the truth. Instead, they eliminate contradictions and stabilise domination.

Much of this relates what anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs”. In his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Graeber discusses jobs in which people experience their work as utterly meaningless, contributing nothing to the world.

Those in managerial bullshit jobs use image enhancement that has had one economic impact: the CEO’s pay went up. Even the otherwise extremely business friendly Fortune magazine had to admit recently that the pay gap between average workers and CEOs stands at a whopping 271%.

As macro-level neoliberalism and micro-level managerialism took hold, universities became marketing/PR institutions with presidents not yet called CEOs. Undeterred, they created “PR universities”. It marks the conversion of universities based on research and teaching into PR-driven marketing institutions.

Those on the receiving end of the managerialism-speak merchants are coerced into what ultimately results in silence as the best policy. Meanwhile, workers are forced to adhere to an old feudal policy: when the great lord passes by, the wise peasant bows deeply and farts silently. Today, it is: when the great CEO passes by, the wise worker does the same.

Along with bullshit management comes an explosion of management mutating into managerialism. When seeking to stabilise managerialism, their next task is to infuse new MBAs with the latest managerial buzzwords. Set apart from corporate reality, it is not at all surprising to uncover that many management ideas are cooked up far away from the day-to-day realities of a workplace.

Many management ideas are not designed to have much to do with the day-to-day realities of management. Meanwhile, rafts of business school professors are ready to be the PR agents of corporations.

Pulitzer Prize-winning US writer Upton Sinclair hit the nail on the head last century when noting: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

Creating business bullshit and its language has never been the job of workers. It remains entirely the job of upper-level managers. Spicer shows that office workers are managerially controlled, supervised, monitored, watched, assessed and measured by KPIs — the infamous key performance indicators. It is not workers, but managers who are responsible for complex rules and regulations.

These govern those of us who need to work — almost all of us. And indeed, corporations, companies, business and even business schools love deregulation as it takes the state out of the equation. Taking out the regulative capacity of the state means opening up an unregulated space. This allows managers to re-regulate such spaces.

As a consequence, we find incidents of macho-management. Just as the old saying goes: power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Spicer argues that more and more workers spend time answering emails, sitting in meetings and updating LinkedIn profiles. They are also required to spend time trying to optimise the way workers process this bullshit. This acts as a double-edged sword for the workers in the form of bullshit time —time wasted satisfying the upper echelons of managerialism — which must be managed alongside real working time, i.e. doing your job.

Beyond that, many workers complain about the stratospheric rise of sitting in often useless meetings. The sheer endless number of internet-transmitted jokes about meetings tells one as much.

Worse, some workers are annually forced into applying for their own jobs. In those cases, human resources management’s internal labour market is driven to extremes by upper-managers. Being hooked on managerialism often means being hooked on the systemic and structural casualisation of the workforce, often camouflaged as being part of strategic management and being flexible.

Beyond that, it legitimises upper management as they organise the entire recruitment and selection process from analysing jobs, positioning job descriptions and advertising the position to creating short-lists and holding actual job interviews. More often than not, many of these activities are done to feed the management machine.

Many at the top of the managerial pyramid see those at the bottom of the chain of command as just an item on a sheet of paper. Management likes to condense workers’ contributions and working lives to a sheet of paper called a balanced scorecard.

On a slightly more philosophical note, what this means might be reflective of French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s concept of “Simulacra”. Many workers no longer really partake in management bullshit. Instead, they merely simulate signing up. Working in today’s companies becomes mere simulation. This remains so regardless of working with the corporate psychopath or not. Of course, it is not only ordinary office workers who are drowning in shit. Overloading people with work remains the key theme of Managerialism. As Australian writer Don Watson once said: “Managerialism came to universities as the German army came to Poland.”

In any university apparatus inflated by managerialism, the number of administrators has risen rapidly, while the number of academics has stayed relatively flat. This is detailed in Richard Hil’s 2015 book, Selling Students Short: Why You Won't Get the Education You Deserve.

Meanwhile, the real work is no longer doing research or teaching, or any of the other things a university is supposed to do. Rather, the real work has become dealing with bullshit to make universities appear more business-like.

Today, university management will performance manage you out of the place if you do not measure up. This is shown by the case of London’s Imperial College and Stefan Grimm, who died not long after facing the sack for failing to carry out enough expensive research, despite having a good publication record.

Business bullshit in the form of managerialism has serious consequences, reaching far beyond mere lip service. Much of this has been so exquisitely described in Josep Schrijvers’ 2004 book The Way of the Rat. Interestingly, business bullshit terms such as “corporate social responsibility” and business ethics are part management bullshit.

Business bullshit has to do with power, capitalism, managerialism and the ideology that legitimises them. Overall, Spicer shows how and why bullshit business came into being, but his book is rather short on solutions. Trade unions, for example — as a force to keep managerial pathologies at bay — are never mentioned.

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