I would like to apologise for not making updates to the blog in the recent days – I’m currently in the process of writing a broad literature overview of the topic, which requires a more focused attention to some aspects rather than highlighting merely philisophical/social theory perspectives. In particularly, I would like to make a distinction with regard to financial and non-financial/social elements of ownership/business practices. I promise to come back with some new posts as soon as I manage to come up with some results.
How to be ‘useless’/render oneself ’useless’ in the business environment in the age of triumphant rationality and bureaucratisation? More precesely, how one could commit oneself to acts that would not be immediately translated/made intelligible via the processes of productivity (e.g. ‘you don’t need to write because everything has already been written and you don’t need to work as everything really necessary has already been produced’).
The French symbolists had a special term to express collection of objects that had lost their objective significance and utility, ‘spleen’. The arbitrariness in the choice of objects, its ‘absurdity’ and ‘perverseness’, discloses the irrationality of utilitarian logic and its inadequacy with regard to human experience. Objects would not be required to posess any aesthetic value, the main purpose for them is to be disfunctional, broken, lacking any value, useless in short.
The main enemy of usefulness would be the production cycle. Against the principle that ‘you come with an idea, you milk it and you make sure you can do it again’, the main objective is to turn functionality into unproductive reflexivity.
A truly ‘useless object’ serving this objective would thus be a de-commodified object, that is, the one which can no more satisfy human needs. It could not be purchased or exchanged because it does not have a value, sense of purpose or an aesthetic meaning (e.g. trash, waste material).
Horkheimer in his book ‘The Eclipse of Reason’ (1947), where ‘reason’ would be synonymous to ‘madness’ of the 20th century societies that he observed, points out how the political constitution expressed in the concrete principles of objective reason (justice, equality, happiness, democracy and property), was reduced to an instrument of increasing productivity. In particular, language, meaning and thinking have been reduced to the level of industrial processes: ‘every sentence that is not equivalent to an operation in that apparatus appears to the layman just as meaningless as it is held to be by contemporary semanticists who imply that the purely symbolic and operational, that is, the purely senseless sentence, makes sense’. The concepts emptied of substance could be used synonymously to advocate oppression.
Horkheimer further examines ‘the tendency of liberalism to tilt over into fascism’ – while the later operate via anti-semitism, analysed by Adorno and Horkheimer in ‘The Dialectic of Enlightenment’ (1944), the first relies on consumerism and productivity.
What about the ‘right to be lazy’? Under Communism, this is the most forbidden act – ‘those who won’t work, won’t eat’. Horkheimer did not explicitly deal with Marxism and did not write about Stalinism, however conclusion that can be drawn based on his work is that an aftermath of a revolution or an accomplishment of social dislocatory practices would be expected to bring an even further acceleration of relations of production embedded in technology.
Critical Theory, originated in the works of Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Benjamin and Habermas can provide an important methodological tool for analysis of the social aspects of business practices. Importantly, the tradition of critical theory distances itself from the ‘political’ questions of power and domination that are central topics for Marxism and poststructuralism. Rather, critical theorists focus their analyses on the wide range of social issues and problematics. These have been, in particular, mass culture and consumerism, fascism and anti-semitism, market and economy, social institutions and technology, reason and morality.
In his recent book ‘The Wisdom of Psychopaths’ (2012) Kevin Dutton argues that psychopaths similarly to business leaders are the ultimate optimists; they always think things will work in their favour. Dutton’s book supports the idea that to thrive a society needs its share of psychopaths – about 10%. It not only shows the value of the emotionally detached mind in bomb disposal but also the uses of the psychopath’s ability to intuit anxiety as demonstrated by, for example, customs officials. Duton’s analysis tends to reinforce the idea that the chemistry of megalomania which characterises the psychopatic criminal mind is a close cousin to the set of traits often best rewarded by capitalism.
A 2005 study compared the profiles of business leaders and hospitalised criminals and found that a number of psychopathic attributes were more common in companies boardrooms than in psychiatric hospitals, namely superficial charm, egocentricity, independence and restricted focus.
Weber famously challenges the Marxist stagist view of human history. He, in particular, affirmed that Antiquity had a capitalist economy ‘to a degree relevant for cultural history’. Against Marx, for whom capitalism is synonymous with the large-scale enterprise with free and differentiated labour, Weber applied a narrow definition of capital: private acquisitive capital used for profit in an exchange economy – the causality between technology and the economy is not necessary and technology is not a single factor in world history. Bureaucratization and state control, rather than a solution to dominance of private capital, embodied decadence of societies. He, for example, writes:
‘Let us imagine coal, iron and mining products, metallurgy, distilleries, sugar, tobacco, matches – in short, all mass products that are already highly cartellized – taken over by state-owned or state-controlled enterprises; let the crown domains, entailed estates, and state-controlled resettlement holdings proliferate and let the ‘Kanitz motion’ be passed and executed with all its consequences; let all military and civilian needs of the state administration be met by state-operated workshops and cooperatives; let shipping operations on inland waterways be compelled to use state tugs, put the merchant marine under state supervision, have all railroads etc. nationalized, and perhaps subject cotton imports to international agreements; let all these enterprises be managed in bureauctatic ‘order’, introduce state-supervised syndicates, and let the rest of the economy be regulated on the guild principle with innumerable certificates of competency, academic or otherwise; let the citizenry in general be of the rentier paisible type – then, under a militarist-dynastic regime, the condition of the late Roman Empire will have been reached, albeit on a technologically more eleborate basis’ (from ‘Economy and Society’ published posthumously in 1922).
In his ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ (1962) Kuhn describes a model of science that is based on cognitive consensus and, at the same time, is subject to an ‘overabundance of paradigms’. Finance teaches us how to place investments with minimal risks and maximal returns and there is a diversity ways to do this. However there is also a ‘consensus’ over its key principles are that 1) companies will not generally take risks unless they are compensated with higher returns; 2) time and money relationship is important – any given amount today will not be same tomorrow; 3) cash flows are key for businesses not profits; 4) business decisions are evaluated according to impact on cash flow change; 5) profitable business ideas are very hard to find and they erode very quickly; 6) markets are quick and prices are adjusted instantaneously – e.g. it’s impossible to beat the market because it will adjust to any kind of information; 7) firm ownership and mangement are to be separated; 8) taxes provide strong disincentives to business decisions; 9) risks are not equal – some are diversifiable some are not; 10) ethical dilemmas are present everywhere in finance. While economics is a social science that could be modelled using the Kuhnian ‘paradigm shift’ perspective, finance could be hardly seen as a ‘disciplinary matrix’. As some say, financial management is an art, not a science.
Social finance has been proposed as an approach that delivers both economic and non-financial returns. For example, Kramer and Porter from Harvard University in their work advocate a business perspective that would blur profit and non-profit boundary and prioritising ‘societal needs’ not just narrow economic needs. This is to be achieved via pursuing business models based on a concept of ‘shared value’, where solving social problems would be a key criteria for firms in advancing their activities (http://hbr.org/2011/01/the-big-idea-creating-shared-value).