Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Grenfell tower fire

The Grenfell tower fire, with its still rising death toll, not to mention the injuries and homelessness it has caused, is one of the most shocking disasters in Britain for many years. It is a stark and tragic illustration of many of the themes I have written about on this blog and in my book. Although more precise details and explanations of what led to it will emerge in due course, it is already clear that these will include the nexus of organizational and political issues around de-regulation and sub-contracting.

As with many other disasters – from the flooding of houses due to the removal of planning restrictions right through the banking crisis that grew from financial deregulation – the roots go right back to the 1980s, in this case with the relaxation of building and fire regulations. Layered on this was the shift from local authority management of social housing to outsourced companies, itself layered upon numerous further sub-contracting. At each stage costs are cut to the bone and with each stage the chain of accountability becomes more and more elongated.

This situation, which would anyway be precarious, has been stretched to breaking point by the policy of austerity which has hit local government especially hard. In other words, it’s the coming together of two different but related things – de-regulation and austerity – each dangerous in themselves which multiplies the risks of disastrous events. We are not talking here about the inevitable and never fully avoidable issue of ‘human error’, but systemic issues of how we organize and fund the public realm in particular. Which is why those who have argued that the Grenfell tragedy should not be ‘politicised’ are, whether knowingly or not, missing the point. The way we organize and fund the public realm can’t be anything other than political.

As with other cases I have discussed on this blog, such as cuts to legal aid and in the prison system, all of this bears most heavily on the poor and the socially marginal, especially – as can be seen from what we already know about the Grenfell tower casualties – immigrants and asylum seekers. But the consequences are happening right across the piece. Sometimes these consequences are direct: roads fall into disrepair, libraries close, the court system clogs up or the armed forces can’t fulfil the basic requirement of protecting the nation. Other times the consequences are indirect: social care provision disappears creating ‘bed-blocking’ in hospitals. As for outsourcing, this has been at the heart of every case of failure public sector that I can recall for many years now.

The issue of building regulations and their enforcement also goes to the heart of the problems of the all-out assault on ‘bureaucracy’ that has characterised organization theory and practice in both the public and private sectors. The former Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in 2012 of his desire to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” is typical, but very similar sentiments have been expressed by many politicians and journalists for many years.

Bureaucracy is important both as a preventative measure but also in the way that we respond to disasters, as I have discussed on this blog before. This has also emerged from Grenfell. Whilst it is generally recognized that the emergency services did a fantastic job in dealing with the immediate crisis of the fire, the follow up in terms of looking after those made homeless (both from the tower itself, but also from surrounding buildings that have been evacuated) has been weak. In large part, local residents and volunteers have had to fend for themselves without much official support or coordination. It’s exactly at times of crisis that much maligned ‘command and control’ organization is most needed.

The shock of Grenfell comes from the fact that it is, mercifully, highly unusual (although it is by no means the first tower fire in London, even if it is the worst), but that should not disguise the way that it is an extreme consequence of a much wider set of longstanding problems – organizational, economic, social. The now blackened and hideous hulk of the tower is a symbol of these and, it can only be hoped, will be a catalyst to begin to address them. At the very, very least, I hope that we no longer hear the lazy cliché, much beloved by journalists, bemoaning ‘health and safety gone mad’. Grenfell is the very harshest and most heart breaking of reminders that red tape saves lives.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Manchester

Waking up today to the news of the despicable bomb attack in Manchester I felt, like all but a tiny few degenerates, a sense of sorrow and disgust which has grown throughout the day as the particular pathos of the killing of young people at a pop concert has emerged.

I don’t want to talk about the motivation for, or the ways of dealing with, such attacks, and in any case I am not qualified to do so. Instead I want to talk about Manchester, a city I know well and have a great love for because I was an undergraduate and, then, PhD student there between 1984 and 1992, something I talk about in my book. When I arrived, I knew almost nothing about it and found it quite alien, almost frightening. I had grown up in the far suburbs of South London and knew nothing about the North – I mean North London, let alone the North of England. Very soon I loved it.

What did I love? A kind of harsh but laid-back humour. A sense of by then fading but still visible industry. Grand redbrick Victorian buildings like the Refuge Assurance, alongside humble redbrick housing terraces, alongside the glorious neo-classical, Tuscan and Corinthian melange of the City Library, alongside the brutalism of the Mancunian Way. Still, a sense of swagger: ‘what Manchester thinks today, the world does tomorrow’ had been said in its nineteenth century heyday, but didn’t seem outlandish in the 1980s. The place associated with the discovery of the atom by Dalton and its splitting by Rutherford; the place where the fly shuttle that transformed the cotton industry was invented and the site of the Peterloo massacre; the place that gave name to the Manchester Doctrine of free trade that at the time was being re-invented as something called Thatcherism, but which was abuzz with anarchist, feminist and alternative bookshops and where the miners’ strike was the dominant issue of the day.

A cultural life where the Free Trade Hall hosted both the Halle Orchestra and The Smiths. Futuristic nightclubs in post-industrial settings, most famously the Hacienda (though I did not like that much), but also lineal descendants of the Palais de Danse like the Ritz, and virtual speakeasys like the PSV in Hulme. Sleek bars, the names of which I don’t now remember, alongside street locals like The Peveril on the Peak. The legacy of the great intellectual societies of nineteenth century Manchester, like the Natural History Society and Geological Society, still visible in the Manchester Museum, alongside the latest art house films in the Cornerhouse Cinema.

Multi-cultural, too, and that does not just mean races and religions although it does mean that. Most visible, I suppose, in Rusholme’s curry mile and in Chinatown, it was also a mingling – often uneasy, sometimes violent – of students and Mancunians. The curry mile itself overlaid on an earlier generation of Irish immigrants. Strange contrasts of, say, the prosperous, bourgeois food hall of Kendall’s department store, the freakish counter culture of, say, Affleck’s Palace, the packs of semi-savage dogs on, say, Claremont Road, the grand but fading parks like, say, Platt Fields; the exuberance of the emergent gay village cheek-by-jowl with the seediness of the well-established red light area around Chorlton Street coach station. Chorlton Street coach station, itself; the concrete monstrosity where you arrived in horror, yet which later became the place you met or left your boyfriend or girlfriend or just friend and so it became - more often than its architecture deserved - infused with joy, despair, indifference or relief.

It’s worth thinking about multi-culturalism today when some seek to blame that for what has happened. Because if this attack is motivated by anything other than the personal inadequacy of the perpetrator it will be the now familiar reasons of those who stand, like those who make the most intemperate responses to what they do, for a resentful, sullen, hate-filled and ultimately murderous mono-culturalism. It is the same ‘logic’ that animated those Islamists who have slaughtered in the bars of Paris and beaches in Tunisia, the ‘Christian conservative’ who committed mass murder in Norway or Jo Cox’s ‘Britain First’ killer in this country. They are all part of the same mono-cultural ideology and all draw support from and grow out of those who espouse that ideology.

As for Manchester, it has been the victim of a terrorist attack before, the IRA bombing of 1996. I had left the city by then, but I remember well a comment made on the news by a Mancunian at the time. I can’t recall the exact words but he said, laconically (referring to the Nazi bombings of Britain during the Second World War), something like: “Won’t bother us. We’ve been bombed by professionals, and that didn’t bother us overly”.

I don’t think there is necessarily a particular ‘Manchester’ spirit in that – people in Newcastle, Cardiff or Glasgow would probably respond much the same – but, still, I think that something like that is at work in Manchester today. It’s low-key, defiant and, like so much in Manchester, aware of and attentive to history. But I know that it will be of no comfort at all to those families who this evening are creased in mourning for someone who – perhaps young and excited about the concert they were about to go to – yesterday sat at the tea table but will never do so again.  

Update (24 May 2017): See Tony Walsh read his poem This is the Place at a vigil held on Albert Square on 23 May 2017. Stunning.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Books

In my previous post I mentioned the ‘mysteries’ of writing, and this week I have been reading a book about writing’s conjoined twin: reading. It is Daniel Gray’s Scribbles in the Margins. 50 Eternal Delights of Books (Bloomsbury, 2017) and it is a kind of homage to books and to reading. It actually says very little about particular books or authors and is much more concerned with the generic experience of reading, and such things as the smell and texture of books themselves. I suppose that any kind of reader will relate to this, but perhaps academics in particular, for whom reading is so central to their lives, will do so.

Throughout, I felt little pings of recognition with the emotions and experiences described as well as, occasionally, not being able to relate to it at all. So, for example, I identified very strongly with the first ‘chapter’ (they are really mini-essays) on the experience of finding handwritten dedications in old books. I had thought that taking pleasure in that was unique to me; apparently not, and that connection of one’s experience to that of others is in itself one of the joys of reading. On the other hand, I could not identify at all with ‘reading in a tent’, having neither done so nor wanted to. Re-reading an old favourite I could very strongly relate to, but wasn’t surprised to find discussed; the pleasure of the books you find in a holiday cottage was again something that resonated but which again I thought of as my own idiosyncrasy rather than being a shared pleasure.

I can’t recall a time when I didn’t read, and can’t, therefore, recall learning to read. I certainly learned before I went to school having been taught, I imagine, by one of my older sisters. One of my greatest childhood pleasures was to go to the local public library – so many of which have now disappeared or are under threat of closure – which in memory was vast, hushed, wooden but I suppose was really quite small. There’s a romance, it seems to me, in finding books in libraries and bookshops which is quite different to buying online, and certainly the physicality of a book is quite different to that of an e-reader. It has recently been reported that book sales are increasing and e-book sales declining, quite contrary to the expectations of a few years ago, so perhaps I am not alone in that.

In adult life I have published several books, including that on which this blog is based, and it has a particular pleasure which is not at all like publishing academic journal articles. That may be because I have not published nearly as many books as articles, so they have more novelty. It is also because, nowadays, journal articles appear on line long before they appear in print and, in fact, often I never even handle the paper journal itself. With books, by contrast, there is something quite special in receiving the first copies.

That pleasure is, indeed, to do with the physicality of the book: its look, its feel, its smell. The book of this blog has a particularly distinctive appearance because of its cover design, at least in the paperback version (the hardback is very dull, but hardly anyone buys that, anyway). When I was first shown the design for the first edition I thought how clever the designer (whose name I do not know) had been. It was a kind of pastiche of a student notebook and seemed to fit perfectly with the ‘ethos’ of the book (if there is such a thing).

Subsequent editions (and, now, the design of this blog) expanded on that theme, including picking up on one of the reader endorsements by featuring the rings of a coffee mug. I tried to persuade the publishers to also include some image of an overflowing ashtray, to (look away now, kids) reflect the prodigious cigarette consumption that had accompanied its writing. But, alas, that suggestion was rejected as inappropriate in this day and age. Never mind, my own copies, like most of my books, have ingested the tobacco smoke that they live in and have become suitably yellow and odorous – another of the delights of books that Daniel Gray identifies.

In On Being at Work (Routledge, 2013: 38), Nancy Harding describes being in a bookshop and picking up a book (by Judith Butler), reading the first paragraph and being enthralled, captivated and confused. Picking up Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in a bookshop, over thirty years ago, was like that for me. It’s chancy and contingent. Just like picking up a thriller or a romance, the purchase of an academic book is often to do with the feel and look, the back cover blurb, a few sentences read at random. Yet such encounters can be life-changing.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Social Science Bites ... on organization studies

Just a short post today, to draw attention to my podcast on Social Science Bites. Social Science Bites features interviews with leading social scientists and covers a wide array of topics and disciplines, but this is the first time that anyone from organization studies, or for that matter any management studies area, has been interviewed. The previous nearest to the field was the interview with the sociologist Michael Burawoy, talking about sociology and the workplace (it is well worth a listen). Burawoy, of course, has been very influential in organization studies, especially within the labour process tradition.

The interview with me is edited from a longer interview conducted by David Edmonds, which was great fun to do. It was quite broad in focus, trying to tackle the entirety of organization studies as a discipline, although with forays into some of the specific research projects I have done. Of course, I wouldn’t claim to be a spokesperson for organization studies in toto, but I hope I managed to convey something of its scope as well as indicating some of the more critical approaches to which my book is dedicated. I particularly like the inclusion in the final version of comments about the falsity of thinking that critical approaches to organization studies are political whereas mainstream approaches are apolitical.

Whilst I am blowing my own trumpet, I’ll also mention a book just out by Helen Sword, entitled Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press, 2017) which features me as one example (although of course there is much more of interest in the book than that). Writing is a ubiquitous but in some ways mysterious part of academic life in that its consequences are overt and public but its processes hidden and private. Sword's book is fascinating in bringing those processes to light.

On the topic of writing, regular readers of this blog – and I know there are some – may have noticed that I am posting less frequently than in the past. This is because I am putting a lot of effort into my other blog, on the consequences of Brexit, and rapidly unfolding events make that a big task. I hope some readers of the blog find some interest in the other one and see, as I do, some connection between the underlying themes of both blogs.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

French elections: the new politics in its starkest form

In June 2014 I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that a new political landscape was emerging in which the primary cleavage was between ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘locals’. These were the terms coined in the context of organizational sociology by Alvin Gouldner. Adapted to the wider context cosmopolitans are educated and skilled, comfortable with different cultures, relaxed about immigration and liberal about sexuality and gender, travel widely and have a global frame of reference. Locals are poorly educated, uncomfortable with cultural difference, hostile to immigration and illiberal about sexuality and gender, travel little and have a national frame of reference. There is also often an overlay of age and regional distinctions, with cosmopolitans likely to be younger and more urban, and locals older and more rural or provincial.

Since successful predictions are rare in social science I want to take some credit for that one, especially as it has now become almost a cliché, albeit usually expressed in terms of ‘establishment and populists’, ‘globalists and nativists’ or ‘open and closed’ distinctions. At all events, in the three years since I wrote that post there have been many examples – most obviously the Trump election and the Brexit vote – but also in Turkey, Poland and Hungary. The point is not, though, that localism is triumphant; it is that the global-local axis is what defines the terms of contestation. In other cases – the Dutch and Austrian elections, for example, or, as I have written about before, the Rumanian anti-corruption protests - it has been the cosmopolitans who have held sway.

In France right now we see the most stark face-off between cosmopolitans and locals, which is perhaps fitting given that it was in France that the old right-left axis had its origins (supposedly in the seating in the 1789 National Assembly, with supporters of the King on the right side and those of the revolution on the left). So the second round of the presidential election will pit Marine Le Pen, the epitome of localism, against Emmanuel Macron, an equally paradigmatic cosmopolitan. And here another boast of prediction: I have been saying since last October that Macron would win the presidency, which now seems highly likely to be proved true. That said, I suspect that there is something else in play apart from cosmopolitanism and localism. Perhaps because of the boredom and search for novelty engendered by social media there is a premium placed on new faces. From that point of view Le Pen has just been around for too long to be able to play the ‘outsider’ card.

That aside, I have been thinking a lot recently about what this new politics means for critical management studies (CMS), especially in the UK. On the one hand, much has been oppositional to globalization. On the other hand, it aligns on most criteria with cosmopolitanism. In that sense it is on the same side as not just mainstream management studies but also with big business and finance. Perhaps, just as British CMS grew out of the market-managerialist politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, it will be swept away by the localist populism of today. Those localists typically lump together the corporate elite and the liberal intellectual elite, within which CMS undoubtedly sits. Perhaps they are right to do so.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Coincidences, punctuation, and originality

There is story told by the writer Bill Bryson which has always appealed to me. He recounts how, when working as a journalist, he was commissioned to write an article about strange coincidences. Moments later, he stumbled by chance on a book on the desk of a colleague. Its subject was ‘strange coincidences’.

I recalled this story because last week during a meeting I made a joke about the ‘Oxford comma’ (I know that sounds strange: you had to be there). The joke fell flat because no one else in the room knew what an Oxford comma is. The answer to that is that it is a comma (also known as a ‘serial comma’) inserted in a list of nouns before the final ‘and’ (and/or, sometimes, the final ‘or’). For example: ‘John, Jane, and Jill’. Sometimes, this can make a significant difference to the meaning of a sentence. For example: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green and white’ might be taken to mean that a green and white shirt is an option, whereas the insertion of the Oxford comma avoids this ambiguity. Thus: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green, and white’. It is called an Oxford comma because it is the house style of Oxford University Press (but by no means all publishers) always to use such a comma even if its exclusion would not create ambiguity or change the meaning.

So now for the coincidence. Immediately after the meeting, I logged on to twitter (my new addiction) and almost the first thing I saw was a link to a news story about how the absence of an Oxford comma had, that very day, proved decisive in a legal dispute about overtime payments between dairy drivers and their employer in the State of Maine in the USA. The State’s law says that the following activities do not count for overtime pay:The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods”. (By the way, unless I am wrong, that last semi-colon is an Oxford semi-colon, if there is such a thing).

The case hinged on the ambiguity created by the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or”. The drivers distribute but they do not pack and the lack of the Oxford comma means that the law implies that it is “packing for distribution” that is exempt from overtime payments, not distribution itself. The court agreed; the drivers are entitled to overtime payments, and this may cost the company some $10 million. That, by the way, is the tangential and only link between this post and the ostensible organization studies focus of this blog.

This is not the first time a comma has featured in a legal case (in fact, I am sure there are many examples). Famously, Roger Casement was ‘hanged for a comma’ in 1916 having sought unsuccessfully to defend himself from the charge of treason on the basis of an ambiguity created by a missing comma in the 1351 Treason Act. This case is discussed by Lynne Truss in her estimable book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003: 99-101). It is a bit much to be hanged for a comma - it is not as if he had used the word 'disinterested' as if it meant 'uninterested'. That really is a hanging offence.

In my book (p.14) I refer to the saying ‘words are loaded pistols, we use them at our peril’ (I refer to it is an anonymous saying, but I’ve since learned that the ‘words are loaded pistols’ part, at least, is attributable to Jean-Paul Sartre). If so, punctuation is the firing mechanism. One should be wary, though, about pedantry as all too often it is liable to backfire as other pedants correct one’s own pedantry. So, like Yiannis Gabriel, who recently wrote about the use and misuse of the apostrophe, I see little point in being too fussy about punctuation. On the subject of apostrophes, though, I do like one arcane point which is that adjectival nouns do not take apostrophes. For example, there is no apostrophe after ‘boys’ in ‘boys night out’ (although Word spellcheck does not like it) in those cases when it is used to describe the nature of the night rather than the participants. Thus, pleasingly, one can write: ‘John went to the opera; the boy’s night out was enjoyable. Jim and Bill went to the pub; the boys’ night out was a great success. Meanwhile, the girls had a boys night out’. This knowledge, even if it is correct, has never been the slightest use to me.

However, as the Oxford comma court case shows, you can never tell when knowing about punctuation may come in handy. It may even provide material for an unusual blog post. Or so I thought. But, in a final coincidence, having written this post with the idea that it would relate to an obscure news story that very few would be aware of I discovered that it has featured in numerous articles in all the main national newspapers in the UK, USA and, no doubt, further afield. It was only when I searched for a link to the definition of an Oxford comma that I realised this. Attempts at originality, like linguistic pedantry, are fraught with risk. Perhaps the best way to put the lesson learned is in future to think, google, and write.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

In praise of universities

This week the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), a hard right free market think tank, produced a report entitled ‘Lackademia: why do academics lean left?’ It claims – and treats as a problem – that “left-liberals” are “over-represented” in British academia. The methodology used to establish the political views of academics was risible, being based on a self-selecting survey (what survey methodologists call a ‘voodoo poll’) and this and other flaws were pointed out by John Morgan in the Times Higher Education.

Even if the data were more robust, it is a bizarre notion that academics’ political views should be ‘representative’ of the general population and that, if they are not, they are, to use the report’s word “skewed”. Academics are not appointed for their political views, or to represent anyone under some kind of proportional representation system – and it would be disastrous if they were appointed in this way, rather than on the basis of their academic expertise. But the choice of the term ‘over-representation’ is deliberate, as signalled in the closing line of the full report – it tries to take the language of diversity (in relation to gender, class and ethnicity) in order to imply, although there is absolutely no evidence of this, that those on the political right are victims of discrimination so that whilst being qualified for academic posts they are excluded from them.

The word ‘victims’ is significant in understanding what is going on here, which is a species of the populist politics sweeping Western societies. That populism has at its heart a victim narrative in which the ‘liberal elite’ (sometimes the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’) has a fiendish power to do down the common sense of ‘the people’. It is a nonsensical reading of where power lies, since the intellectual apparatchiks of recent decades are more obviously the ASI and similar neo-liberal bodies than anyone else, but after the events of the last year no one can doubt its traction. Another part of the populist wave is its anti-intellectualism, with ‘experts’ being denounced and even compared to Nazis. So the ASI report channels that strand of populism, too.

The populist implications of the ASI report were quite apparent in the way it got picked up in the media. Especially grotesque was a spiteful piece by Tom Utley in, inevitably, the Daily Mail. It started with a long whine about having been put down by his ‘left-wing’ tutor at Cambridge (like so many of the populist Right – Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg - Utley is a product of ‘elite’ universities) some forty years ago.  The ‘put down’ was, in fact, a correction of his misunderstanding about the subject under discussion – as it happens John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ concept, discussed on p. 146 of my book - although Utley clearly doesn’t realise this and it apparently still rankles.

The rest of the article is a series of tendentious assertions (e.g. cherry picked examples of Oxbridge college heads) and smears (e.g. the ‘endless holidays’ of ‘dons’) exhibiting such a degree of intellectual dishonesty and disregard for evidence that one can at least agree that he was not very well-taught when at university. These are then explicitly linked to populist politics by pointing out that most academics opposed Brexit. That is hardly surprising: most people with a degree and even more with a higher degree did.

The irony is that British universities are extraordinarily successful in any terms they might be judged. They perform far better proportionate to either the size of the UK or the funding they receive than those of any other country in the world in terms of placement in world rankings, where the UK has 34 of the top 200 universities, and quality of research. They are intimately linked with medical and industrial innovation and the communication of culture. Moreover, they earn billions of pounds for the UK in student fee income (though this is under threat from government immigration policies). To jeopardise this in pursuit of ‘politically representative’ staffing would be, to coin a populist phrase, political correctness gone mad. Would we want, say, biologists, to be selected on the grounds of political representativeness rather than scientific ability? Is that the Lysenkoist dream of Tom Utley and the ASI? I fear that it might be.

But universities should be defended on wider grounds than this. To the extent that it is the case that they are bulwarks against populism then that is a good thing in itself. The hallmark of populism is what we are learning to call post-truth. The hallmark of universities is still that of a liberal Enlightenment commitment to truth, evidence and reason (that is so even when academics interrogate and critique the liberal Enlightenment). So it is small wonder that they are under attack from populists, and that is all the more reason to hold on tight to what they embody and represent.