Vile Bodies

Flying Off the Handle

October 10, 2015

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Flying Off the Handle

I am no great admirer of management as a science or of managers as people. The latter tend to speak a strange language, a jargon neither elegant nor poetic; they buy very dull books at airports, they are often shifty and ruthless, and they seem to me to live in a constant condition of bad faith. They are bureaucrats pretending to be entrepreneurs even when they work for the state, an organization that secures its solvency by the simple expediency of printing more money—in fact, not even by printing it anymore, simply by adding a few naughts on computer screens. We live in a regime of paper money without the paper.

Presumably most managers want to be managers; it is their ambition to become such, though some, I think, are sucked into management from other activities without a full realization of what is happening to them. At any rate, they soon come to have a sense of importance and entitlement by comparison with everyone else in society, even the nominal owners of the enterprise in which they work, for they believe themselves to be doing the world’s real work, as it were. James Burnham, in his book The Managerial Revolution, pointed this out as long ago as 1941:

The managers’ training as administrators of modern production naturally makes them think in terms of co-ordination, integration, efficiency, planning; and to extend such terms from the realm of production under their immediate direction to the economic process as a whole. When the managers think about it, the old-line capitalists, sunning themselves in Miami and Hawaii or dabbling in finance, appear to them as parasites, having no justifiable function in society….

“If the 2,900 employees of Air France were to get their jobs back tomorrow, it would not assuage the underlying fury, not in the slightest, not for a moment.”

They therefore appropriate shareholders’ funds (or public money) with a good conscience, reasoning that without them there would be no such funds in the first place.

Here I should just like to mention the curious journey of my own copy of Burnham’s book. A little sticker on the inside cover says that it was sold by Vanguard Booksellers of Joubert Street, Johannesburg. That bookshop, as the name suggests, was a purveyor of left-wing literature to the (small) South African intelligentsia, but the book somehow made its way to the Marx Memorial Library in London. Over the library’s neat little stamp of ownership is another in a darker, firmer, more emphatic ink: Disposed of by M.M.L. I think the words Disposed of are significant; most libraries in this situation discard their books. Disposed of seems somehow a little more aggressive, as if the book itself had blasphemed against the doctrines of the church of dialectical materialism and got what it deserved: ownership by a bourgeois reactionary.

That, however, is an aside, however interesting the trajectories of individual copies of books may be. I merely wanted to establish that I have no particular fondness for managers as a class, though I recognize that in the modern world they are like the poor: always with you, and therefore necessarily to be tolerated.

Moreover they are human beings as well as managers, so that when I saw pictures of some managers of Air France being pursued violently by angry employees, scrambling desperately and having their clothes ripped from their backs, I immediately felt sympathy for them, not as managers but as fellow men. This is not the way human beings should be treated in a civilized society.

I will not go into the rights and wrongs of the managers’ decision to make 2,900 employees of Air France redundant, and whether such a decision was in effect forced on the managers by the financial situation of the company, by the intransigence of the staff who militated against any kind of change in their very comfortable billets, by the excessive social charges that the French state imposes upon all employers in France, or by the subsidies received by some its main competitors. I have a weakness for Air France: I find its service agreeable by comparison with, say, that of British Airways, which is as lumpen as the nation of which it is the principal carrier, even though Air France is strike-prone and such a strike once left me stranded in Port-au-Prince in Haiti. I did not mind even this very much, for it allowed me to make the acquaintance of the eminent German author of books about Haiti, among others, Hans-Christoph Buch.